For the subset of movie viewers for whom the process of discovering movies takes place at major film festivals around the world, there is no greater question mark than the Berlinale. Otherwise known as the Berlin International Film Festival, this hefty gathering commands plenty of attention for its scale and automatic prestige that has much to do with its longevity. This was the 63rd edition and one of the most crowded in its history — according to the festival, approximately 300,000 tickets were sold over the course of the 11 day affair, which ends Sunday.
And yet despite the size of the event, Berlinale lacks the obvious distinguishing qualities one might attribute to, say, Sundance or Cannes. Seemingly everyone at Berlinale has a different opinion on the quality of the program, an inconsistent but impressively far-reaching survey of international cinema: It's a good year, it's a bad, it's a so-so year, and I'm not sure are all valid reactions depending on which movies you saw and where your sensibilities lie. Because few have the luxury of viewing enough of the program to reach a reasonable conclusion, any attempt to deduce the big picture is a lost cause. But I've come up with a few ideas anyway.
Don't Dismiss the Competition…
Berlinale's main competition has been assailed over the years for containing some less-than-reputable entries, and yet it still manages to feature at least a handful of moviegoing experiences bound to garner acclaim both at the festival and beyond it: Last year, "Tabu," "Barbara" and "Caesar Must Die" filled these slots for many attendees. This time around, there were plenty of middling entries, from the reductive western "Gold" to the underwhelming South African noir "Layla Fourie" and Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo's autopilot tale of romantic frustration "Nobody's Daughter Haewon" (Hong is fast approach Woody Allen as the master of the quirky quickie). But these movies were still largely watchable and impressive in individual moments, and hardly overshadowed many of the stronger achievements. These included the sad, aging female protagonists of the Chilean "Gloria" and Bruno Dumont's "Camille Claudel 1915," the bittersweet finale of Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise" trilogy with the unique coming-of-age tale "Paradise: Hope" and the contemplative act of defiance that defined Jafar Panahi's "Closed Curtain."
…But Forum and Panorama Are Really Where It's At
These two accompanying sections contain a much more advanced overview of world cinema just as qualified for the greater exposure that competition selection can bring. Unlike Cannes' Un Certain Regard, Forum and Panorama don't generate nearly enough attention within the larger context of the festival, but they have plenty to offer. Among the ones I was able to see, one of the standouts was "It's All So Quiet," a tender, visually lush story from the Netherlands about an elder man caring for his dying father. The documentary "The Pirate Bay: Away From Keyboard" provided a competent addition to the continuing discourse around digital copyright laws, and the atmospheric noir "A Single Shot" provided a firm reminder that Sam Rockwell remains one of the more versatile American actors of his generation, equally capable of his recent comedic range as he is comfortable with the dark, brooding role he takes on here. Ambitious festivalgoers may consider ignoring the main competition in favor of exploring the curiosities in these lineups.
The Older Movies Are the Best Bets…
While new movies attract the most attention, Berlinale makes plenty of room for the European premieres of titles that have already been circulating for some time. The competition contained two movies from this year's Sundance program, "Prince Avalanche" and "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, " neither of which provided strong representations of that festival's caliber. But Berlinale programmers also culled from Sundance in its other sections to showcase Andrew Bujalski's delightfully irreverence period comedy "Computer Chess," the sexuality treatise "Interior. Leather Bar" and, in an out of competition slot, Richard Linklater's masterful "Before Midnight." One could also find hits from last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, including the phenomenally unsettling documentary "The Act of Killing," Noah Baumbach's cheery "Frances Ha" and the mind-blowing visual overload of "Leviathan." In short, Europeans who follow the news from the festival circuit had plenty of opportunities to play catch-up.
…But the Discoveries Don't Get Discovered
One of the true joys of watching movies in a festival environment as opposed to waiting until they become available elsewhere is the possibility of stumbling onto a hidden gem (and then spreading the word about it). For me last year, that experience arrived when I happened upon the Romanian dark comedy "Everybody in Our Family," a truly energizing experience that sadly never gained much traction beyond Berlinale. This year I was not so lucky. Among the apparent discoveries, some buzz was allotted to the German slapstick whatsit "The Strange Little Cat," but by the time I caught wind of it from a few trustworthy sources I was already heading out of town. Local Berlin press get the chance to screen some parts of the lineup ahead of the festival, putting them at an advantage, but many of us are left wondering whether it's worth committing time to unknown quantities buried throughout this festival.
Anyway, What Festival? It's All About the Marketplace
The massive European Film Market taking place around the corner from most Berlinale activities is a kind of black hole for the industry in attendance. Turning a blind eye to most of the program, distributors and sales agents flock to EFM in the hopes of pushing their product ahead of the dense chaos that defines Cannes, where both the market and the program demand attention from buyers. At Berlinale this year, one of the most significant U.S. deals involved a movie that wasn't even there: Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac," which the Danish provocateur hasn't finished yet. Buyers were shown a handful of scenes at EFM before Magnolia Pictures snatched it up.
The industry should do what it has to do to keep the business alive, but in this year many of them missed the chance to pick through a lineup still largely unsold: Of the 20 films in competition at Berlinale, 14 remain without North American distribution, and a good number deserve better. The program was a lot stronger than many bitter-minded people have been willing to give it credit for. But it will take some time before those unable to attend can determine that for themselves.