Whether because it feels more workhorse-y, having the enormous European Film Market run alongside it, or because it takes place just when the Sundance Film Festival has already exhausted the hell out of everyone, or because slushy, grey Berlin in February just doesn’t yield the same Red Carpet photo ops as the South of France in May or the Floating City in early September, the Berlin Film Festival (aka Berlinale) historically seems like the least glamorous of the major European film festivals. But its relative lack of pretense belies just how much its profile has risen in the last few years, with last year’s lineup featuring the World Premiere of "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and the international bow of "Boyhood," delivering probably the biggest-ever boost to the festival’s cachet. Until this year, that is, when this festival can boast maybe its most mouthwatering slate ever for devoted cinephiles. And "Fifty Shades of Grey."
Snaffling the new films from Terrence Malick, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, along with a host of auteur titles that might have previously been rumored for Venice or Cannes, Berlin 2015 is a pretty exciting prospect, featuring many of our most anticipated titles of the year. And "Fifty Shades of Grey." So here are the ten titles we’re most eager for, along with a long list in the outro of others that have caught our eye and that we’ll be hoping to catch up with over the next few treat-filled weeks. The Berlinale runs from this Thursday, February 5th, to Sunday February 15th, so stay tuned for coverage of these ten anticipated titles and lots more.
"Knight of Cups"
Synopsis: Rick is adrift in a Hollywood predicated on fame and hedonism. As he searches for meaning, his father, various acquaintances he meets along the way, and the women in his life who symbolize polar opposite desires, all become entwined in an existentialist modern-day moral fable.
What You Need To Know: It’s our no 1. Most Anticipated film of 2015. It stars Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Antonio Banderas, Brian Dennehy, Imogen Poots and who knows who else. It is shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, with production design by the great Jack Fisk. But all you really need to know is it’s directed by Terrence Malick, and the trailer is among the most beautiful 2m 16s of film footage we’ve seen recently. Alternating punchy and dreamy imagery, the film looks to show Malick bringing his familiar concerns into a different milieu and environment, scooping up the vapidity and excess of Hollywood and taking it in his grand philosophical stride. If it yields a work that even partially combines his themes of longing, fulfillment, faith and faithfulness with the urban, punkish edge we see a little of here, the results are bound to be spectacular. It’s surely destined to be derided as pretentious by a certain segment as well. We can’t wait.
"Queen of the Desert"
Synopsis: A chronicle of the fascinating life and tempestuous loves of Gertrude Bell, a novelist, historian, explorer, archaeologist and political attache with the British Secret Service who helped redraw the map of the Middle East in the wake of the First World War.
What You Need To Know: For the last few years, Werner Herzog has been more occupied with documentary than narrative features (outside of gamely hamming it up as the "Jack Reacher" villain), and we can’t urge you enough to check out his "On Death Row" series if you haven’t already. Still, any return to fiction would be big news for diehard, follow-him-to-the-ends-of-the-earth fans like us, even if it did not feature the biggest, starriest cast Herzog has ever worked with (Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damien Lewis and Jenny Agutter) animating an irresistible story of the pioneer spirit that unusually for Herzog this time resides in a female protagonist. Which could provide the kind of dramatic real-life heroine role for Kidman that will expunge the the awful "Grace of Monaco" from our memories.
"Every Thing Will Be Fine"
Synopsis: In the aftermath of a tragic car accident that claims the life of a young boy, the driver, the brother of the dead boy and his mother attempt to deal with blame and guilt. For twelve years following the event, the driver Tomas tests his relationships, attempts to build a sort of family and disappears into his work trying to expiate his guilt, before the boy’s brother engineers a meeting again.
What You Need To Know: Once Berlin ends, barely a fortnight into February, we will already have seen five James Franco films debut in 2015: his two high-profile Sundance titles, one in Slamdance plus "Queen of the Desert" and this Wim Wenders film bowing in Berlin. But if Franco is everywhere, the reverse is true for narrative features from Wenders (this is his first since 2008’s misfire "Palermo Shooting") with the revered director of "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire" working more in documentary format recently, studying dance ("Pina"), architecture ("Cathedrals of Culture") and photography ("The Salt of the Earth"). These often very beautiful docs have us anticipating his return to narrative, with this 3D (!) drama, as does the team he’s assembled around Franco, including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rachel McAdams and Peter Stormare, with Benoit Debie as DP and Alexandre Desplat scoring.
Synopsis: The story of ambitious Hollywood photographer Dennis Stock, who pitches a series of photographs for LIFE magazine featuring then rising star James Dean, resulting in some of the most iconic and endlessly reproduced images of all time.
What You Need To Know: The second big Berlin title after "Queen of the Desert" to feature Robert Pattinson, in a bigger role here as the photographer Stock alongside Dane DeHaan as Dean, Anton Corbijn’s fourth film is his most ambitious. The director has steadily and quietly become a favorite of ours with his meticulous, unshowy but elegant style of filmmaking, but this feels like a broader canvas than he’s worked with before —it’s a period piece (though admittedly so was his debut, "Control") and one that will find him tackling one of the great icons of the 20th century, all set to a score by Owen Pallett who did such great work with Arcade Fire on Spike Jonze‘s "Her." But it may also be very personal —Corbijn is responsible for some potent image-building in the famous photographs he used to take of rock bands, as anyone who’s seen "Anton Corbijn Inside Out" can attest, and surely has a very specific perspective on this story.
"Queen of Earth"
Synopsis: Two women travel together to a lakeside cabin for a weekend of bonding. But once there, the tensions in their relationship bubble to the surface, and the idyllic surroundings take on a menacing aspect.
What You Need To Know: Even casual Playlist readers must know what cheerleaders we were for Alex Ross Perry‘s last film "Listen Up, Philip," which was made with DP Sean Price Williams and with the great Elisabeth Moss, one of the leads here. ‘Queen’ sees him move into thrillerish territory, though it’s the dynamic between two female friends that he is exploring here. And the key thing that has happened since this film was announced and immediately landed on our Most Anticipated 2015 list? More of us have seen "Inherent Vice" and fallen completely under the spell of co-lead Katherine Waterston, making this a white-hot two-hander even before you factor in supporting players like Patrick Fugit and Kate Lyn Sheil.
"Nobody Wants the Night"
Synopsis: Based on a real-life story, Josephine Peary is determined to accompany her famous explorer husband Robert as he seeks a route to the North Pole. Refusing to go home as winter sets in, Josephine forms a relationship with a young Inuit woman.
What You Need To Know: Spanish director Isabel Coixet has carved out a modest niche for herself with gently insightful human dramas that almost always feature at least one interesting lead female role via films like "Elegy," "The Secret Life of Words," "My Life Without Me" and most recently "Learning to Drive" which we reviewed just last week. "Nobody Wants the Night" still possesses that female perspective, but unfolds against the dramatic period backdrop of Greenland in the early 1900s, marking a leap in ambition for Coixet and brought to life by Juliette Binoche and Rinko Kikuchi with Gabriel Byrne in support.
Synopsis: In the midst of preparing a party to celebrate their 45th anniversary, Kate and Geoff’s relationship is tested by the revelation that the body of Geoff’s first, long-dead love has been found perfectly preserved in the Alpine ice where she fell.
What You Need To Know: Writer/director Andrew Haigh burst onto the scene with his extremely moving sophomore feature "Weekend," which detailed a one night stand that turns into something more. Here he casts the same sharp but lyrical eye at a couple in the late stages of a long marriage, which like the gay romance of "Weekend" is of a kind less frequently seen on the big screen. With a set-up this peculiar and fertile (potential themes of aging, memory and the difficulty of real life to live up to a, well, frozen ideal) and a wonderful cast in Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, we’re hopeful that this could be another title to add to the hearteningly excellent recent canon of late-life relationship films, including "Le Weekend" and "Love is Strange."
Synopsis: A street-level view of modern-day Tehran as seen through the eyes of a taxi driver, played by the director Jafar Panahi, and the people he gives lifts to throughout the day, building to a colorful mosaic life in the Iranian capital.
What You Need To Know: The circumstances of Cannes-, Berlin- and Venice-awarded Iranian director Panahi’s arrests and the resulting ban on him leaving the country or directing a film make his every new film a small miracle and a testament to the enduring power of dissident resistance. But his recent films are also fascinating filmic responses to those curtailments —"This Is Not A Film" was famously smuggled out of the country on a flash drive concealed in a cake, while "Closed Curtain," a direct comment on house arrest, was filmed in secret in Panahi’s own home. "Taxi" is his latest act of resistance, filmed largely from a dashboard camera in a cab he drives himself and in which he interviews his passengers. It also sounds like the film participates in the conversations-in-cars tradition utilized by contemporary Abbas Kiarostami and is a hallmark of Iranian New Wave cinema.
Synopsis: In a house on the Chilean coast where a group of priests and a nun live and train their greyhound, the peace is shattered when a newcomer arrives, accusations are made and a suicide occurs. When the Church sends an investigator and secrets are revealed, it’s unclear if he is seeking the truth or concealment on the Church’s behalf.
What You Need To Know: As a last-minute (pleasant) surprise addition, details remain sketchy about Pablo Larraín‘s fifth feature, but it seems safe to say that he will continue his interrogation of the institutions that characterize/bedevil modern Chile, this time taking aim at the Catholic Church. The film may lack the hooky concepts of "Tony Manero" or "Post Mortem," and may feature no internationally-known names among its cast, but we are huge fans of the director’s singular, uncompromising take on the Chilean political and social scene. This could be his most incisive critique yet.
Synopsis: In Normandy at the turn of the 20th Century, a young chambermaid becomes embroiled in games of jealousy, lust and shame in the household in which she works. But she is far from naive, using the knowledge of her own desirability to manipulate those around her and to climb the social ladder in class-riven France.
What You Need To Know: Benoit Jacquot has an evident fondness for films about women, and if his previous two film as such "3 Hearts" and "Farewell My Queen" underwhelmed us, there’s enough here to make us hopeful that this will be the film that really connects. Certainly you cannot fault his ambition, taking on material such as Octave Mirbeau‘s famous novel that has been adapted previously by Jean Renoir (with Paulette Goddard) and Luis Bunuel (with Jeanne Moreau) among others. Reuniting Jacquot with his ‘Farewell’ star Lea Seydoux (in a role that was once earmarked for Marion Cotillard) is also a reason for high hopes: in contrast to the colorless character she played for him last time out, the manipulative, cunning nature of the maid here suggests something the "Blue is the Warmest Color" actress might really be able to sink her teeth into.
The program is wide and deep this year, did we mention? And so these 10 are just the tip of a terrific slate including "Woman in Gold" starring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons in the Simon Curtis-directed true story of a Jewish refugee who fought for the return of art taken from her family by the Nazis, which could live up to that cast or end up in europudding; "Mr. Holmes" featuring Ian McKellen perfectly cast as an aging Sherlock and directed by Bill Condon; period ghost story "Angelica" starring Jena Malone and Janet McTeer from "Teeth" director Mitchell Lichtenstein; and Disney‘s live-action, Kenneth Branagh-directed "Cinderella" which we’re hoping will be better than the suffocatingly Princess-Barbie-ish trailer, and even if it’s not, Cate Blanchett (also appearing in Malick’s "Knight of Cups") will probably be awesome.
Less mainstream titles that are on our radar then include Walter Salles‘ documentary on the Chinese filmmaker "Jia Zhang-ke, A Guy From Fenyang"; "600 Miles" from debut director Gabriel Ripstein, starring Tim Roth; "13 Minutes" which will see Oliver Hirschbiegel attempt to atone for the sins of "The Invasion" and the indefensibly awful "Diana" by returning to the subject of his "Downfall" triumph through the story of the unsuccessful 1939 Hitler assassination attempt by Georg Elser; competition title "Aferim!" from Romanian director Radu Jude whose "Everybody in our Family" we liked a great deal; Christian Braad Thomsen‘s documentary on the legendary German filmmaker "Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands"; "The Pearl Button," the new doc from"Nostalgia for the Light"’s Patricio Guzman; Jiang Wen‘s comedy/action genre mashup "Gone with the Bullets," sequel to the giddily overstuffed "Let the Bullets Fly" (which we’re surprised to see play In Competition); Aleksey German Jr‘s "Under Electric Clouds"; Peter Greenaway’s latest mind-and-eye-fuck "Eisenstein in Guanajuato"; in the Generations sidebar, "One & Two" which is the debut narrative feature from Andrew Droz Palermo, co-director of Sundance 2014-winning doc "Rich Hill"and starring Kiernan Shipka and Elizabeth Reaser; and from the Forum section "Museum Hours" director Jem Cohen returns with "Counting," an essayistic montage of images from around the world, many of them featuring cats. And we like cats.
As ever, the festival will boast a plethora of titles making their European or international debut, or simply popping up again on the festival circuit that we have already seen elsewhere. Of those we wildly recommend Joshua Oppenheimer‘s followup to "The Act of Killing," the Venice (and now Göteborg)-winning "The Look of Silence" (review here); Ava DuVernay‘s "Selma," of course (review here); and Brian Wilson biopic "Love & Mercy" (review here), and we can also endorse doc "The Yes Men Are Revolting" (review) and Hal Hartley‘s "Ned Rifle" (review). But we weren’t so hot on Matthew Weiner‘s "Are You Here" (review), and remain to be convinced by the surprising addition of "54 – The Director’s Cut."
As usual, there’ll be a few Sundance 2015 titles making their way over to Berlin, like "Diary of a Teenage Girl" (review here); "Nasty Baby" (review here); "Cobain: Montage of Heck" (review here); "I Am Michael" (review here); and "The Forbidden Room." And, finally, not to make it too much of a whipping boy (I CAN’T HELP THE PUNS! THEY JUST HAPPEN), we will also be reviewing "Fifty Shades of Grey." It is directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, is based on the E.L. James novel and is going to make a gajillion dollars. And to be fair, it simply cannot be worse than the book.
If you’re not already taking to the comments section to express your outrage over our unprofessional and cruel mistreatment of critically bulletproof worldwide phenomenon "Fifty Shades Of Grey," feel free to tell us which Berlin title you’re most excited for and what you think of this year’s lineup. See you in the slush on Potsdamer Platz!