The 66th of the Berlin International Film Festival — aka the Berlinale — which runs February 11-21, kicks off with an out-of-competition screening of the Coen brothers’ "Hail, Caesar!" The Coens have come a long way since their debut feature "Blood Simple" in 1984. That same year, the Berlinale celebrated its 34th edition. The German capital was divided. John Cassavetes’ "Love Streams" won the Golden Bear. The lineup began with "Le Bal" by Ettore Scola, the Italian director who died aged 84 just last month, nine days after David Bowie, who had famously adopted this city as his home in the seventies, also passed away aged 69. This year, the festival pays tribute to both artists, along with the recently deceased Alan Rickman, with special screenings.
Here’s a look at some of the other anticipated titles in the 2016 selection.
Perhaps the closest American cinema has to the Coens’ distinctive indie spirit today — other than the oddball body of work the brothers are still themselves making — is Jeff Nichols, whose "Midnight Special" is one of the main draws of this year’s Official Competition. Following the Matthew McConaughey-starring "Mud" (2012), Nichols’ fourth feature reunites him with Michael Shannon, whose striking, eccentric screen presence drove the director’s first two films, "Shotgun Stories" (2007) and "Take Shelter" (2011).
In "Midnight Special," Nichols reinterprets the road movie — that most familiar of cinematic and literary tropes — into a sci-fi thriller. Shannon plays a father embarking on a road trip with his son across America’s small-town backwaters. His earthly mission: to evade the clutches of local police and high-ranking government officials, who take chase in desperate want of the son’s mysterious, otherworldly forces.
"Boris Without Beatrice"
Returning to the Berlinale for the first time since "Shotgun Stories" screened out-of-competition, Nichols finds himself competing against some of the festival’s more recurrent names. One such name is Denis Côté, whose "Vic + Flo Saw a Bear" won the Silver Bear three years ago and whose hour-long delight "Joy of Man’s Desiring" premiered in a sidebar in 2014.
Côté returns to competition with "Boris Without Béatrice." Described as a "new foray into the genre of the idiosyncratic psychological thriller," the film joins "satirical precision with puzzling tableaux" as it tells the story of a man whose life unravels when his wife, a minister in the Canadian government, is confined to her bed with depression. Côté, a Quebecois master of tonal shifts and deadpan comedy, is meticulous in his attention to form. Expect this one to carry its experimentation with style and vigor.
"Things to Come"
The fifth feature by Mia Hansen-Løve pairs the young Parisian with one of French cinema’s most enduring names: Isabelle Huppert. Huppert plays Nathalie, a high-school philosophy teacher who divides her time between her husband, their two children and her mother. But when hubby suddenly leaves for another woman, Nathalie is left to ponder — and explore — the meaning of freedom, happiness, and what constitutes a successful life. For now, we can only imagine the extent to which this kind of role and subject matter are tailor-made for Huppert, one of the greatest artists in her field.
"A Quiet Passion"
Likewise Terence Davies, whose latest feature film "A Quiet Passion" appears to have all the trimmings of a pet project for the director of "Distant Voices, Still Lives" (1988) and "The Deep Blue Sea" (2011). Davies’ seventh fictional feature, which premieres as a Berlinale Special Gala, promises to be an imaginative and heartfelt biopic of Emily Dickinson, the nineteenth century poet born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830 (and who died there in 1886). Boasting Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle and Keith Carradine among his cast, Davies is well-suited to the key themes and details that emerge in recounting Dickinson’s life: trauma, loneliness, emotional endurance.
"Ta’ang" is the latest from China’s non-fiction maestro Wang Bing. A proponent of observational intimacy, Wang is noted for his epic documents of life and labor on his country’s industrial frontlines: "Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks" (2003) is a nine-hour study of a declining quarter in Shenyang, while "Crude Oil" (2008) is a 14-hour account of a week in the lives of oil drillers working in the Inner Mongolian portion of the Gobi Desert. For his latest outing — a breezy 148 minutes — Wang turns his camera to the various communities from Myanmar’s Kokang region, whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by a raging civil war. "Ta’ang" screens in the Forum section.
The first feature-length film by Serbian director Ognjen Glavonić employs the narrative mechanisms of a thriller to probe the present-day ramifications of genocide on former Yugoslavian territory. It’s a change in focus for Glavonić, whose previous film, "Zivan Makes a Punk Festival" (2014), was an invigoratingly charming docu-fiction based around a good-time music devotee determined to compensate for his threadbare budget with infectious chutzpah.
"The Illinois Parables"
In Forum Expanded, a sidebar dedicated to more experimental cinema, Deborah Stratman’s 60-minute essay film "The Illinois Parables" riffs on stories (and histories) of resettlement and removal, of violence and resistance, of technological advancement and the enduring nature of faith. Stratman, a Chicago-based artist, employs reenactment, archive footage, observational documentary and melds screen-based and text-based techniques to explore everything from "the eviction of the Cherokee to the establishment of a French Icarians, the invention of the nuclear reactor, and the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton."
"Strike a Pose"
For 30 years now, the Berlinale has honored cinema with an LGBTQ slant in the form of the Teddy Award — the only official queer film prize at an "A-festival." In the Panorama and Panorama Documentary sections, we find plenty of films that are fitting for this year’s Teddy30 anniversary retrospective. Chief among these is documentary "Strike a Pose," a Dutch-Belgian co-production by Ester Gould and Reijner Zwaan, which documents the background and fallout of Madonna’s 1990 "Blond Ambition" tour, for which the pop star hired six gay dancers — who became pivotal to the tour’s success in campaigning for gay rights and AIDS awareness, but who also suffered from being involuntarily outed.
Gould and Zwaan aren’t the only Europeans turning their eye or harkening back to nineties-era America. In "Kiki" (which premiered last month at Sundance) Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö focuses on the young black LGBT communities that compete for ballroom trophies, some 25 years after the phenomenon was brought to wider attention with "Paris is Burning." Today, those participating in such competitions speak with an openness and politicized parlance that only further marginalized their forebears. But this is an update, not a debriefing. Program notes quote the film’s co-writer, Twiggy Pucci Garçon: "There is so much left to fight for."