The 63rd Berlin International Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, offering dozens (and dozens) of world premieres across mutliple sections. By the time the festival's Golden and Silver Bears are handed out next weekend, we'll have a good idea as to some of the best world cinema coming to theaters near you (eventually, that is — some of last year's program is just coming out Stateside now).
In the past few years, the festival has proven itself — perhaps more than it has in some time — as an excellent platform for emerging and proven talent in world cinema to debut their work.
The past two years have collectively offered the likes of Miguel Gomes' "Tabu," Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation," Wim Wenders' "Pina," Christian Petzold's "Barbara," Paolo & Vittorio Taviani's "Caesar Must Die," Michael R. Roskham's "Bullhead," Benoit Jacquot's "Farewell My Queen," Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse," Ursala Meier's "Sister," Kim Ngyuen's "War Witch," Ulrich Kohler's "Sleeping Sickness," Ralph Fiennes' "Coriolanus," and Celine Sciamma's "Tomboy." Not bad for a festival that many felt had found itself in a threatening slump a few years prior.
So what's likely to follow in those films' collective footsteps this year? Hard to say. Berlin has become a festival of unexpected discovery. Few would have ever foreseen going into 2011's event that "A Separation" would end up an Oscar winner. Nonetheless, as we board our flights, here's 10 of our best bets (and note they only include world premieres, even though we're also excited to give "Before Midnight" a second spin):
Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont, France)
It was suspected Bruno Dumont would turn up in Cannes for his follow-up to "Hors Satan" (itself a Cannes title), but instead he opted for the Berlinale with his "Camille Claudel 1915." The film stars Juliette Binoche as the titular sculptor and schizophrenic, at a time in her life where she is confined by her family to an asylum in the south of France, where she is to never sculpt again. Here she hopes more than anything for a visit from her beloved brother, the writer Paul Claudel (the film was inspired by the correspondence between the Camille and Paul). It should be interesting to see how Dumont and Binoche mix together. The film marks the first time the director has teamed up with a famous actor or actress (he's mostly worked with non-professionals or somewhat unknown actors — which he does so again here in many of the roles, though clearly not Binoche). [Peter Knegt]
Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Kamboziya Partovi; Iran)
When Jafar Panahi's first-person documentary "This Is Not a Film" surfaced at Cannes in 2011, many thought it was a miracle. Allegedly smuggled into the festival hidden inside a cake, the movie was the ultimate case of an artist risking his neck for the sake of his art, since the Iranian government outlawed the director from making movies for 20 years and placed him under house arrest. Now it appears Panahi has achieved the impossible once more with "Closed Curtain," a quasi-narrative about a secluded man on the run with his trusty dog. Brechtian devices apparently prevail in the story, which promises something more than a cameo by the director himself. How did Panahi pull it off and what will come off his involvement? The answer is almost as tantalizing as whether Panahi (working with co-director Kamboziya Partovi) can pull off aesthetic mastery on par with the finesse of the production, but we have high hopes. [Eric Kohn]
Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, Chile/Spain)
Chilean director Sebastián Lelio's last feature, "The Year of the Tiger," was a fascinating documentary-fiction hybrid about a prisoner on the lam after the real-life devastation of a massive earthquake. For "Gloria," Lelio returns to a more conventional narrative format with this small tale of a lonely, middle-aged divorcée who falls in love with a mysterious ex-naval officer. Described in the festival catalog as "a tragicomedy of fragile hopes and painful truths," the movie also promises to connect its contained plot to larger themes associated with the country history. On paper it sounds like a somber, provocative character study, and Lelio's track record suggests he might be able to pull that off. [Eric Kohn]
Gold (Thomas Arslan, Germany)
Nina Hoss — who gave one of the best performances of last year's Berlinale in "Barbara" — stars in one of the festival's best homegrown bets again this year. Berlin native Thomas Arslan puts the actress in late 1800s Canada, where a group of German settlers hoping to find their fortune in the recently discovered goldfields of the Yukon. Their 2,500 kilometer journey is not met without serious issues, however, giving us a very rare German-made, Canada-set modern western. It's in line with Arslan's previous work (almost all of which has screened at the Berlinale), which often features protagonists constantly on the move (Trojan in "Im Schatten"; Deniz in "Der schöne Tag). [Peter Knegt]
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong)
Opening night films are always a mixed proposition at festivals, but word on the street is that Wong Kar Wai's "The Grandmaster" might be an exception. The Hong Kong auteur's movies never lack for supreme visual inspiration and it sounds like he brought out the big guns for this hyper-stylized account of Bruce Lee trainer Ip Man (Tony Leung). Those expecting a large scale action achievement will probably find themselves looking in the wrong place. But fans of Wong are almost certain to appreciate yet another lyrical collection of intimate moments culled from the more contemplative side of martial arts. [Eric Kohn]
Maladies (Carter, USA)
After making various cinematic appearances at Sundance last month, James Franco somehow also has a new film lined up for Berlin with Carter's "Maladies" (alongside Sundance alum "Interior. Leather Bar," which makes its international debut here). Working as a sort of play off the Franco's appearance on "General Hospital," he stars here — alongside Catherine Keener, David Straithairn and Alan Cumming, no less — as a successful soap opera actor who's retired because of his schizophrenia. Described by the Berlinale as "a sensitive exploration of perception which takes creativity and fine art, the voices we hear inside and out, impressions, and the world of the imagination just as seriously as do its protagonists," it could be far from accessible. But certainly should be interesting. [Peter Knegt]
Paradise: Hope (Ulrich Seidl, Austria/France/Germany)
Possibly the creepiest study of the relationship between sexual desire and physical discomfort outside the oeuvre of Catherine Breillat, Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise" trilogy (initially planned as a single film) follows a series of relatives on misadventures around the planet: "Paradise: Love" revolved around the family's matriarch exploring Kenya's sex industry, while "Paradise Faith" found the woman's sister exploring her religious urges. The trilogy concludes here by focusing on the overweight daughter of the family, who heads to a diet camp and falls for the middle-aged doctor. Seidl's films are thoroughly engrossing statements on societal alienation, and the consistency between these three films since they were made at the same time is unquestionable, so "Paradise: Hope" is certain to satisfy those already hooked by the earlier entries. [Eric Kohn]
A Single Shot (David M. Rosenthal, USA/UK/Canada )
Director David M. Rosenthal's "Janie Jones" was the rare sad musician/single dad drama that didn't fall back on a sea of clichés, favoring strong performances and tender exchanges that carried the movie along. "A Single Shot" sounds like another ambitious take on formula. The story of a hunting accident gone wrong, it co-stars Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy and Jeffrey Wright, actors who always deliver when provided with solid material. The synopsis suggests a dark, unsettling noir defined by mood — which is true of the best of them. [Eric Kohn]
Vic and Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté, Canada)
Canada made a notable appearance in the Berlinale competition last year with the sole film from the 2012 fest to get an Oscar nomination: "War Witch." The country is back with another offering from a Quebec filmmaker, Denis Côté's lesbian love story "Vic and Flo Saw a Bear." Following up Côté's 2010 film "Curling," the flm tells the story of Vic, a woman just released from prison hoping for a peaceful new existence. She heads to the Canadian forest to live at a relative's house, which is where she recieves a visit from her lover, Flo. The two womens' relationship evolves from there, offering us what the festival calls "an artificial world with its own completely unpredictable reality." [Peter Knegt]
Yesterday Never Ends (Isabel Coixet, Spain)
Isabel Coixet ("My Life Without Me," "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo") heads to Berlin with a film set in the very near future: 2017 Barcelona. It follows a couple (Javier Cámara and Candela Peña) who reunite after five years of not seeing each other (he moved to Germany in light of the economic crisis, she stayed in Spain), and after going through some seriously tragic incidents. Coixet said in an interview that the film "is a kind of return to the world of 'My Life Without Me,' mixed with aspects of the here and now of the situation we are facing as a country." Sounds promising to us. [Peter Knegt]
Indiewire will be offering full coverage from the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival beginning tomorrow.