By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 19, 2014 at 10:01AM
While the Berlin Film Festival — aka the Berlinale — is one of the largest movie-related gatherings in the world, it doesn't generate nearly the same volume of interest in the United States as Sundance, its closest neighbor on the festival calendar. However, the Berlinale features plenty of cinema that deserves an audience beyond the crowds hustling around Potsdamer Platz in early February. While the European press has assailed the lineup as one of its weaker years, there's no doubting a few bright spots throughout the program that have yet to land stateside distribution deals. Of course, many of the high profile Berlinale films have already found homes: Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" (IFC Films), Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (Fox Searchlight), the Jennifer Connelly-Cillian Murphy vehicle "Aloft" (Sony Pictures Classics) — and, of course, Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" (Magnolia Pictures). But there's more to the story than those surefire bets. Here are a few other memorable new works that deserve greater exposure in the coming months. Audiences intrigued by them should track their potential appearances at upcoming festivals — unless buyers can figure out a faster route.
German director Edward Berger has worked in television for years but remains a relative unknown quantity in world cinema. That should change with this tense and moving portrait of a 10-year-old boy (Ivo Pietzcker) who undergoes a discomfiting adventure after escaping from his foster home to track down his single mother. Capably borrowing from the Dardenne brothers' playbook of depicting individualistic kids in peril, the movie derives its strength from Pietzcker's ferocious performance, while Berger constantly keeps his camera trained on the boy from his height and places him in every scene as the drama unfolds exclusively from the young man's limited point of view. The remarkably contained adventure finds the somber young hero living on the streets and tragically fighting for the luxury of hugging his mother against irrational odds, with no one except his naive younger brother to share his troubles. Echoing the great bittersweet 1953 tale "Little Fugitive," in which a young boy wanders on his own throughout Coney Island, "Jack" turns the adult world in a confounding, dangerous place just beyond the comprehension of its troubled lead, who's so credible that he makes the experience universal.
Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s previous collaboration with Stellan Skarsgard, “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” was an enjoyable black comedy involving the offbeat exploits of a newly released criminal. For his followup, “In Order of Disappearance,” Moland flips the equation, casting Skarsgard as a grief-stricken father hot on the trail of the criminals responsible for murdering his son. But like the duo’s previous team-up, the particularities of the circumstance matter less than the irreverent dark humor under which circumstances play out. As the character, Nils, launches on a warpath that keeps building to chaotic extremes, the morbid finality of his destructive journey strikes an amusing juxtaposition with the befuddled reactions of his numerous victims — mostly thugs who would never expect a middle-aged, working class guy to suddenly take them down. Skarsgard’s deadpan expression underscores the impression that Nils can’t entirely believe it himself. The contrast between his blunt maneuverings and quiet demeanor are the movie’s chief appeal, followed close by the director's decision to follow each death with a title card announcing the name of the deceased. “In Order of Disappearance” cleverly magnifies the way each of its characters is trapped in the mazes of their own problems — all of which magically evaporate with the immediacy of their sudden deaths.
In 2011, French writer Michel Houellebecq promptly disappeared in the midst of a book tour. Guillaume Nicloux's insightful comedy explains where he went. Well, kinda. Actually, "The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq" is a brilliantly fictionalized take on authorship and cult of personality starring the cantankerous writer himself. Kidnapped by a group of clueless thugs with no apparent plan in place, Houellebecq winds up enjoying his stay at the country house where he's imprisoned. Over the course of several days, he engages in wine-enhanced dinner conversations about art, education and politics with his increasingly affable captors, who even throw him a birthday party. Houellebecq's monotonous delivery and elitism forms a hilarious contrast with the eager men around him, who come to represent the irony of modern fandom. The surprise isn't just that Houellebecq enjoys his captivity, but that he takes it for granted, suggesting that the entire movie takes place in his mind. Houellebecq is such an enjoyably moody screen presence that Nicloux's movie leaves you wishing he'd get abducted again for a sequel.
Hong Kong's densely populated metropolitan society is the on the verge of sliding into chaos, or at least that's the tantalizing possibility explored in wry allegorical terms by director Fruit Chan in his erratic but entertaining post-apocalyptic satire "The Midnight After." The Chinese director's first feature since 2009's ghost story "Don't Look Up" adopts a familiar scenario involving the aftermath of a mysterious event — leaving only a handful of survivors thrust together to sort things out — but fires off in innumerable tonal directions, resulting in a mesmerizing genre hybrid that renders modern China in deliriously cartoonish terms with a dark undertone. We've seen a lot of movies about the end of days that put society under the microscope, but "The Midnight After" shows more interest in the behavior and personalities than with the cause of their conundrum. Fruit's movie exists in the grander tradition of Luis Buñuel's "The Exterminating Angel," where upper class socialites find themselves psychologically unable to leave the house party where the action takes place. In "The Midnight After," it's the ongoing sense of confusion that seems to doom the survivors rather than the forces that put them there.
From the opening minutes of "She's Lost Control," it's clear that Anja Marquardt's portrait of a sex surrogate in New York City will take its subject matter seriously, using a studied manner that gives the material fresh context. With Brooke Bloom's central performance giving the movie its dramatic anchor, "She's Lost Control" strikes a fascinating mood between slow-building angst and cold remove not unlike the Joy Division song that provides its title. As single Manhattanite Ronah, Bloom (last year's "Swim Little Fish Swim") initially projects an unsettling degree of confidence about her profession, going through the motions with various clients while Marquardt frames her topic with startling matter-of-factness. With time, however, it becomes evident that this unorthodox way of life can't possibly sustain the settled quality that Ronah brings to it. Bit by bit, the problems add up: Glimmers of her family issues in upstate New York, her concerns about her future, and a client for whom she might be developing feelings all slowly bear down on her, setting the stage for an alarming climax. The cryptic atmosphere yields an alluring look at the intersection of physical and psychological intimacy.