This year’s Berlin International Film Festival, aka the 66th Berlinale, is poised to kick off this coming Thursday. With around 500,000 admissions each year, Berlin is considered the largest publicly attended festival in the world. It has the massive European Film Market happening in tandem, as well as the Talent Campus for up-and-coming filmmaking and critical stars. And this year’s iteration features Meryl Streep as President of the Jury and will showcase hundreds of feature films across its many sidebars, subsections and segments.
Despite all that, Berlin’s profile remains somewhat lower than the glamor-puss Euro festivals of Cannes and Venice, which is refreshing for attendees who rarely have to negotiate awkward Red Carpet traffic systems, and probably won’t get turned away from screenings based on footwear. But it can make it feel a little like the dowdy sibling of the family, an impression not ameliorated by this year’s lineup boasting fewer big-name auteurs than last year (Malick! Herzog! Wenders!) and having an opener that has already opened (the Coen Brothers‘ "Hail, Caesar!").
All that said, it pays to remind ourselves that while the program last year was starrier, almost all of the big auteurist films fell some way short of expectations ("Knight of Cups," "Queen Of The Desert," "Every Thing Will Be Fine" respectively) and the true stars emerged elsewhere — in Andrew Haigh‘s now Oscar-nominated "45 Years," in Jafar Panahi‘s Golden Bear-winner "Taxi," Pablo Larraín‘s Grand Prix winner "The Club," and elsewhere. Which means that this year, the anticipation may be a little more muted, but we’re willing to bet we’re in for as much depth and breadth from the lineup as ever. Here are the 10 films we’re most looking forward to right now.
A banner year for fans of Jeff Nichols ("Shotgun Stories," "Mud," "Take Shelter") kicks off soon when the first of two 2016 Nichols features (the other being historical true-life story "Loving," about the landmark interracial-marriage case) bows in Berlin. If anything, we’re even more excited for "Midnight Special," with its familial-drama-meets-sci-fi vibe reminiscent of territory he skirted in "Take Shelter" and which reteams him with constant (brilliant) collaborator Michael Shannon. Also starring Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Sam Shepard, it’s the story of a father who will stop at nothing to protect his preternaturally "gifted" son from governmental and religious groups who want to use his powers for their own ends.
"A Quiet Passion"
A master of the kind of reserve that conceals and evokes volcanic feelings beneath, Terence Davies has been unusually prolific in the first half of this decade. "A Quiet Passion" will be his third movie of the 2010s after the gorgeous "The Deep Blue Sea" and last year’s "Sunset Song," which we loved. This time out, the always brilliant Jennifer Ehle (who is also in Berlin in Ira Sachs‘ wonderful Sundance title "Little Men") and a renaissance-ing Cynthia Nixon star in a period biopic of poet Emily Dickinson. Ordinarily, the words "period biopic" give us the mumps, but we have faith that Davies’ quiet, intensely felt style will deliver a film that does Dickinson’s unconventional life and work some justice.
"Alone in Berlin"
The story of Hans Fallada‘s novel, and how it became a phenomenon over 60 years after it was first published when its English translation became a bestseller, is almost good enough for a film in its own right. But as the many of us who have now read it can attest, the story in the book is also peculiarly cinematic, as an ordinary German man and his wife (played by Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson, respectively) are motivated to acts of quiet but resolute and extremely dangerous resistance to Nazi power during WWII. Directed by actor/director Vincent Perez, and starring such respected (non-German) actors, it could be so much period-prestige-picture formula, but we hope that Perez, who claims a personal connection to the material, can turn in a film worthy of the novel
"Things To Come" ("L’Avenir")
Hopefully by now you’ve noticed just what big fans we are of Mia Hansen-Løve‘s last film, "Eden" which made Jessica and Rodrigo‘s Best Films of 2015 lists, and was Oli’s number 1 film of 2014. The melancholic but wise-beyond-its-years sensitivity of that film means we’d be first in line for whatever she had coming next, even if it didn’t star Isabelle Huppert. Also starring "Eden" actor Roman Kolinka, along with Edith Scob ("Eyes Without a Face," "Holy Motors"), "Things to Come" details the later-life crisis of a married philosophy teacher after her husband leaves her and her grown children fly the coop. It also sees Hansen-Løve reunite with "Eden" DP Denis Lenoir, so it’s bound to look amazing too.
There’ve been bumps along the way, but we’ve remained fairly steadfast fans of Danish director Thomas Vinterberg ever since "Festen," especially for those films on which he’s collaborated with screenwriter Tobias Lindholm. After their last project together, "The Hunt," and following Vinterberg’s solid if slightly inessential detour with "Far From The Madding Crowd," we couldn’t be more excited for "The Commune." A story that is highly personal to the director, who himself grew up in a collective-living environment, we’re certain that the unusual backdrop will prove fertile ground for the kind of ideological, social and interpersonal drama (with lighter moments too) that Vinterberg excels in. Certainly, the trailer suggests as much.
"The Night Manager"
Outside the normal run of things, and reflecting an industry-wide shift in perspective, Berlin has of late taken to expanding its TV preview section. In previous years, they’ve shown "Top of the Lake" and "House of Cards" in preview, and this year that mouthwatering prestige TV slot is filled several times over, most notably by this BBC/AMC co-production. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman, Hugh Laurie and Elizabeth Debicki, directed by Susanne Bier and based on the espionage novel by John Le Carré ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," "A Most Wanted Man," etc. etc.), the Berlinale may only be showing the first two of six episodes, but even so, it’s one of the events we’re most looking forward to, being a fan of pretty much everyone involved.
We were not fans of Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s last film, Cannes 2015 title "Journey to the Shore," but Kurosawa’s earlier films engendered enough goodwill for us to be happy to saddle up again — especially considering, after the pallid, echoey venture last time, "Creepy" sounds like it could well be a return to a denser, though no less enigmatic, approach. An adaptation of an award-winning Japanese suspense novel, the film follows a police detective-turned-university lecturer who is lured back to his old profession after an appeal from a friend, but who soon finds past and present intermingling and this new cold case landing closer to home than he had envisaged. It sounds a little similar to the director’s great "Cure," which is promising indeed.
"War On Everyone"
Having loved both John Michael McDonagh features to date ("The Guard" and "Calvary"), we’re very intrigued to see him step away from the familiar territory of Ireland and Brendan Gleeson for this energetic tragicomedy about two extremely corrupt, frequently tripping New Mexico cops who come unstuck amid a massive blackmail/murder/extortion crime spree. Starring the ever-more-impressive Alexander Skarsgård and the wonderful Michael Peña in a much deserved lead role after so much sterling support in 2015, the specter of his brother Martin‘s wobbly "Seven Psychopaths," which came after the brilliant "In Bruges," may loom large, but here’s hoping the elder McDonagh weathers the transatlantic trip better.
"A Serious Game"
Pernilla August may not be known to many internationally as a director, but you probably know her face, either as Shmi Skywalker in the ‘Star Wars‘ prequels, or the nanny in Ingmar Bergman’s "Fanny and Alexander," or as star of Bille August‘s Bergman-penned "The Best Intentions." Here, she is behind the camera for an adaptation of a famous Swedish love story, adapted for screen by "An Education" director Lone Scherfig. Set in 1900 and detailing an affair between two married people whom social circumstances prevented from marrying 10 years earlier, if the wind is in its favor, the Swedish/Danish co-production could cross over to arthouses internationally.
There may be a slightly tweedy aura surrounding Michael Grandage‘s directorial debut, the story of famous 1920s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) and his friendship and professional relationship with writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). But any film that boasts this cast — Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney and Guy Pearce also appear, the latter as F. Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway — is hard not to get just a bit excited for. Promising a moving tale of friendship and mentorship in the 1920s New York literary scene, it also comes from the pen of "Gladiator" and "Skyfall" screenwriter John Logan, so we’re justified in hoping for something bolder than the average period biopic.
With these titles mostly culled from the Competition and Berlinale Special sections of the program, there are a wealth of films that are perhaps less eye-catching but have piqued our interest from other areas. They include Rachid Bouchareb‘s "Road To Istanbul," with its timely story of a young girl running away to join ISIS; "Once Were Warriors" and "Die Another Day" director Lee Tamahori‘s return to New Zealand for "The Patriarch"; "The Diary of Anne Frank," which will be of much interest because it’s a German telling of this famous story; the eight-hour-long Lav Diaz title "A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery," which is definitely the most film in this year’s lineup; American-born French director Eugène Green‘s new title "Le Fils De Joseph," with Mathieu Amalric; the two-episode preview of "Better Call Saul" Season 2; James Schamus’ "Indignation," based on a Philip Roth novel, which we missed at Sundance; "Shepherds and Butchers," starring Steve Coogan and Andrea Riseborough; and sidebar entries "The Yard" and "Paris 05:59," both of which we’ve heard good things about.
On the documentary front, there is as ever simply too much for us to be able to cover, but a few potential standouts are "Uncle Howard," about a New York filmmaker who died of AIDS which features footage of William S. Burroughs, Jim Jarmusch, Tom DiCillo and more; "Zero Days," Alex Gibney‘s investigation of malware used for international espionage; two docs on famous photographers in "Don’t Blink – Robert Frank" and "Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures"; and finally "Strike a Pose," a film catching up with the original dancers from Madonna‘s "Vogue" video, which sparked a craze and defined an era in pop.
Please join us, albeit virtually, as we explore all these titles and hopefully many more over the next fortnight in Berlin, starting on Thursday the 11th and running through to Sunday the 22nd.