This Thursday, just a few scant weeks after Sundance has rolled up its red carpet, we’ll be plunging into Europe’s first major festival. The Berlin Film Festival, aka the Berlinale, has (like everything else) a lower profile than Cannes and perhaps a less glamorous aura than Venice. But, in a way, that counts toward its specific identity: with the European Film Market (which is one of the three biggest in the world) and the Talent Campus, a major program of workshops and masterclasses attended by students and professionals alike, from all disciplines, from all over the world, the Berlinale feels more businesslike and no-nonsense, less seduced by the glitz of the industry than by the actual films, and by fostering the talents that make them. And this reputation in turn has lured quite a few high-profile films and guests in recent years, meaning that, as always, we find ourselves looking forward to an eclectic mix of new movies from auteurs we already admire, totally left-field and obscure choices that have caught our eye for one reason or another, as well as a couple of bona-fide glitzy, massive films that have figured highly on our previous Most Anticipated lists.
Berlin does tend to feature the European premieres of a lot of the films we’ve seen and reviewed at Sundance, like “Boyhood,” “Calvary” and “20000 Days on Earth” among many others, so we’re not going to include any of those on our list, and additionally, a big one for those of us attending will be a showing of “Snowpiercer,” for which we’ll be gnawing our own arms off for a ticket if necessary. However, again, we’ve already reviewed that, so won’t list it here. Those titles aside, here, in no particular order, are our 10 most anticipated films of the 2014 Berlinale, heavily slanted toward those we believe have at least a chance of seeing a stateside release.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Synopsis: In a legendary hotel in a fictional European country between the wars, a young lobby boy falls under the spell of a famous concierge, amid plots of murder, art theft and squabbling families.
Why it’s anticipated: So, yep, after what seems like a forever of running trailers, clips, posters, news and other tidbits, Wes Anderson’s latest film is finally available for our eyes the day after tomorrow. As the opening film of the 2014 Berlinale, it offers a mix of indie/arthouse credibility, commercial crossover appeal, and a ridiculously stacked cast, all of whom will be in attendance—so in many ways it’s the perfect film to kick off a festival. We ourselves rated it our third most anticipated film of the year, not least citing the cast, saying, “the Anderson all-stars have been assembled, with Ralph Fiennes leading a cast that includes veterans like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Owen Wilson, and newcomers Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric and F. Murray Abraham, among many others.” But mainly, our tongues are hanging out for this one because we love Anderson, thought his last film, “Moonrise Kingdom” was an absolute treat, and completely dig the manic yet as-ever-meticulous energy that the early promotional materials have shown. In fact, just come on, let it be Thursday already.
“Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1”
Synopsis: A self-diagnosed nymphomaniac recounts her entire sexual life to the kindly bachelor who finds her beaten in an alleyway and tends to her wounds.
Why It’s Anticipated: Any new film from ex-enfant terrible and current provocateur extraordinaire Lars Von Trier is always going to pique our interest. But here he seems to be giving full rein to his most sensationalist tendencies, which makes us very intrigued to see how much his intelligence (a quality he’s rarely given enough credit for) will enable him to avoid the obvious pitfalls of such a potentially exploitative subject—if at all. And certainly the eclectic, interesting ensemble cast is also a draw, featuring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgård, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Shia LaBoeuf, Udo Kier, Connie Nielsen and newcomer Stacy Martin. Adding to the rather confusing buzz surrounding the picture is that it’s broken into two parts, and each of those two parts also have two different versions, the uncut, longer “director’s cut” and a shortened theatrical version. While the shorter theatrical cut of Volume 1 has been out in some territories in Europe since Christmas, and recently screened as the secret film at Sundance, this will be the premiere of the longer cut of Volume 1, and so we’re glad we’ve kept our powder dry for it.
“The Two Faces of January”
Synopsis: A con artist, his wife, and a stranger try to flee a foreign country after one of them is caught up in the murder of a police officer.
Why It’s Anticipated: Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote the books that inspired “Strangers On a Train,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and Wim Wenders‘ “The American Friend“) we had this one pegged as a possible TIFF release on our Most Anticipated of 2014 list (on which it nestles at no. 83). But that was really a shot in the dark as this has been a kind of unknown quantity since it reportedly wrapped back in 2012. That fact does give us some pause, but as the directorial debut of screenwriter Hossein Amini, whose writing career encompasses highs and potential highs like “Drive,” and the slated John Le Carre adaptation “Our Kind of Traitor,” but also dross like “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “47 Ronin,” we’re at the very least curious. And curiosity is nudged up to anticipation by the cast: Viggo Mortensen, who was absent from our screens in 2013, our beloved Llewyn Davis himself Oscar Isaac, and Kirsten Dunst all conspire to make this an appealing package, especially if any justice at all has been done to the chilly psychological thrillerishness of Highsmith’s book.
“A Long Way Down”
Synopsis: Four suicidal strangers meet on a rooftop on New Year’s Eve, each with the intention of killing themselves. Instead they form a pact and an unlikely friendship.
Why It’s Anticipated: Okay, so this one could definitely go either way, and the initial trailer looks kinda cheesy, but historically, adaptations of Nick Hornby novels have often beaten the odds on delivering something better, and less sentimental than their high-concept loglines might suggest: we’re thinking “High Fidelity,” “About a Boy” and the British “Fever Pitch” in particular. The cast is appealing too, featuring Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots, Aaron Paul and Rosamund Pike, and while French director Pascal Chaumeil is not particularly well known to us, and seems to have specialized in straight-up romantic comedies since graduated from French TV, we’re hopeful he’ll bring something of a valuable outsider’s eye to his English-language debut. We don’t expect this one will tax our brains too much, but as one of the more mainstream offerings the Berlinale has selected, it the has potential to be an amiable good time.
Synopsis: A young man sets off into a frozen wilderness with a journalist to try and find his mother who abandoned him long before. During the journey, the tragic story of that rift is gradually revealed in flashback.
Why It’s Anticipated: Peruvian director Claudia Llosa (one of four female directors featured in the main competition this year) comes to the Berlinale as a returning hero, having won the Golden Bear in 2009 for “The Milk Of Sorrow.” “Aloft” marks her English-language debut and she’s attracted a great cast in Cillian Murphy, Jennifer Connolly, Melanie Laurent and William Shimmell (who was such a great discovery in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy”). Judging by the clip we debuted a few days ago, the film has the dramatic and emotional depth we’ve come to expect from Llosa, and also it simply looks gorgeous. We’ve been keeping an eye on Llosa’s development since her debut “Madeinusa” and this looks like it could be in that same vein of contemplative, restrained but beautiful filmmaking that has won us over so far.
Synopsis: A young British soldier is accidentally abandoned by his unit following a bloody riot on the streets of 1970s Belfast. Disoriented, he embarks on an odyssey through hostile territory to get back to the base.
Why It’s Anticipated: The debut film from TV director Yann Demange would probably have caught our attention for its incendiary subject matter anyway: the Northern Irish “troubles” are a topic close to this (Irish) writer’s heart. But we’d be lying if we said that a great part of the reason this features so high on our radar is because we’re extremely eager to see some more from “Starred Up” breakout Jack O’Connell, who, with his extraordinary performance in David Mackenzie’s film, and a leading role in Angelina Jolie’s bestseller adaptation “Unbroken” coming up, seems to pretty much fit the mould of Next Big Thing. Also, our press notes tell us that the competition film actually becomes “an existentialist nocturne about hidden identities, creeping paranoia and those forced to take a stand.” And, dammit, we love ourselves a nocturne.
Synopsis: A biopic of the titular Latino-American workers’ rights activist that follows Chavez’ crusade against the racism and exploitation endemic in the Mexican migrant worker community in California in the 1960s.
Why It’s Anticipated: Diego Luna, may be better known as an actor based on his breakout in “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and subsequent performances in everything from “Dirty Dancing 2” to “Elysium,” but we also caught, and were impressed by, his feature directorial debut, “Abel,” which came out in 2010. His sophomore outing sees him work with much grander ambition, but retain the social consciousness that marked his first film, while also recruiting a pretty fantastic cast, including Michael Pena in the lead, Rosario Dawson, John Malkovich, Gabriel Mann and America Ferrera. It’s a story we’re not as familiar with as we should be, and Luna had access to and the full cooperation and encouragement of Chavez’ family (he died in 1993), so we’re hopeful that this will be a rich and illuminating portrait of the charismatic labor leader.
“Beauty And The Beast”
Synopsis: A retelling of the classic fairytale that follows Belle as she condemns herself to a life of incarceration in a castle ruled by a monster in order to save her father. But as time goes on, she begins to dream the sad story behind the Beast’s current form and learns to look beyond it.
Why It’s Anticipated: Well, no one’s going to argue with Lea Seydoux being cast as the “Beauty” part of this equation, and with the ever watchable and charismatic Vincent Cassel taking on The Beast, it certainly has got its casting right. And the trailers and images suggest that this may in fact be the exact film for which the word “sumptuous” was coined, with what look like incredible sets and costume designs creating something almost impossibly lush and decadent to look at. Director Christophe Gans is back in his French-language “Brotherhood of the Wolf” milieu (reteaming with Cassel) after a disappointing, but undeniably stylish foray to Hollywood with “Silent Hill,” and this fable has lent itself to superior adaptations in the past, from Jean Cocteau’s glorious black and white version to Disney’s adorable Best Picture nominee. Not to mention inspiring the amazing Linda Hamilton TV show. One cause for hesitation may be the Beast makeup, which, as ever, is a hard balance to strike between laughable and repulsive, and early looks at the film have largely avoided too many close ups, so we’ll see about that. But otherwise this looks like it could be a ravishing, if hardly overtaxing treat for those with more gluttonous, maximalist visual tastes.
“Black Coal, Thin Ice”
Synopsis: An ex-police officer in a small town in China is haunted by a case in his past which left colleagues dead and allowed a murderer to escape. When a new set of murders occurs years later, although now merely a security guard, he decides to investigate leading to some disquieting discoveries about the nature of guilt and innocence.
Why It’s Anticipated: As one of an unprecedented three Chinese films in the Berlinale main competition (though Berlin has always been a great discovery point for Asian cinema, and has a rich vein running through all its sidebars too), it’s the irresistible (to us) descriptor of this one as a film noir thriller set in ordinary small-town China that has it edging up our list. Also the recipient of quite a bit of pre-festival buzz, it’s kind of a shot in the dark, but director Diao Yinan’s murder mystery could, if it walks that genre/arthouse line as well as we hope, make a big splash on the festival circuit and beyond.
“Thou Wast Mild And Lovely”
Synopsis: On a farm in rural Kentucky, an attraction springs up between the farmer’s daughter and a laborer, which shifts from the erotic to the violent when the laborer’s wife comes to visit.
Why It’s Anticipated: We’ll file this in the “unknown quantity” slot for now, but we have to say the story behind it, as one of two films playing in Berlin from neophyte feature director, artist and actress Josephine Decker has got us interested. Decker, who starred in Joe Swanberg’s “Art History” which played in Berlin back in 2011, here returns the compliment, casting him in “Thou Was Mild And Lovely.” Early peeks at the film suggest something atmospheric and beautifully shot, and both it and her other Forum sidebar film “Butter on the Latch” seem to flirt with a kind of enigmatic, spooky tone that is intriguing. It could of course all be terribly self-indulgent, but we’re enjoying the potential Brit Marling vibe we’re getting here, so we’re looking forward to finding out.
And More: Perhaps a little further out of our wheelhouse, but also registering on the radar are several other films in and out of competition. Of the other Chinese movies the one we’ve heard some positive advance word on is “Tui Na” about a blind masseuse who experiences the world through touch alone. Also in competition, Norway’s “In Order of Disappearance” has us interested primarily because we love both Stellan Skarsgård and Bruno Ganz and the action/comedy vibe might be just the ticket after some of the festival’s heavier entries. And if we thought that our chances for dystopian Asian sci-fi lived and died on getting into “Snowpiercer,” the Vietnamese “Nuoc” puts the lie on that. “The Turning” is a portmanteau film based on Australian novelist Tim Winton’s short stories which sees 18 Australian filmmakers, some of them actors, like Mia Wasikowska and David Wenham, create segments of the film, which features an Antipodean all-star cast of Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Miranda Otto, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving. “The Dark Valley,” with Sam Riley looks to be an intriguing mix of Alpine Western and period revenge movie, while U.S. indie “Things People Do” boasts a strong cast in Wes Bentley, Jason Isaacs, Vinessa Shaw and Haley Bennett, while in no doubt much more enigmatic, uncategorizable form “Stray Dogs” director Tsai Ming Liang teams with arthouse megastar Denis Lavant for a 56-minute entry to the “Journey to the West” series. In documentary land we’re interested in “The Decent One” which tells the story of Hitler’s second-in-command Heinrich Himmler, and also “The Dog,” which tells the real-life tale of the events that inspired “Dog Day Afternoon.” And finally a film we missed at Sundance but heard great things about and will definitely be catching up with–Eskil Vogt’s Norwegian/Dutch co-production “Blind.” We’ll also be thrilled if we can get into Bong Joon-Ho‘s “Snowpiercer” which we already gave a glowing A-grade review last year out of Paris.
Look out for our thoughts on all of these, and hopefully many more (as usual there are fantastic sidebars we’ve hardly touched on, like the Generations competitions for younger-skewing films–which have debuted movies like “The Rocket” and “Electrick Children” in recent years), over the next couple of weeks.