The Berlin International Film Festival — aka the Berlinale — concluded its 65th year on Sunday, but many of the best movies from the program still don’t have a home. It’s no surprise that Berlin’s lineup, which largely focused on edgier international titles, didn’t attract a ton of big distribution offers from U.S. companies. But that doesn’t change the sheer enthusiasm that greeted them, and by extension, the possibility that it could continue if some audacious buyers were willing to take the risk. For the time being, these nine titles remain without release plans. It’s certainly possible that a few of them are already sifting through several offers in some hectic negotiation room. But until we can see the results of the bargaining session, all we can do is insist that something happens, because the audiences for these movies exists far beyond the 10 days of the Berlinale.
Romanian director Radu Jude won best director at Berlinale this year for this remarkably sophisticated followup to 2012’s “Everybody in Our Family.” Shot in gorgeous black-and-white with dialogue drawn from historical documents, “Aferim!” follows a boorish Romanian lawman and his obedient son in the late 19th century as they track down an escaped Gypsy slave. The movie foregrounds the ugly sentiments of the feudal era that define its quest-driven characters while steadily humanizing them. The resulting journey is both an unsettling and bittersweet father-son bonding story. Buyers may want to consider that lure before passing on Jude’s provocative tale.
Chilean director Pablo Larraín last made waves with “No,” his distinctive look at the propaganda campaign designed to overthrew the Pinochet dictatorship. That movie landed an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film, and according to critic Neil Young in Indiewire’s review, “The Club” has a shot at it as well. A dark comedy — not unlike Larraín’s earlier Chilean satires “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” — the movie focuses on a group of priests in a remote fishing village whose situation is complicated by the arrival of another man accusing them of pedophilia. “This tart, smart and consistently surprising blend of ultra-serious material and darkly comic execution looks set to catapult director and co-writer Larraín…into the front rank of international arthouse filmmakers,” wrote Young. A great work of art with a savvy critique of the Catholic Church to boot? Larraín has quite the conversation-starter available for anyone willing to embrace the challenge.
Portuguese filmmaker Joaquim Pinto’s “What Now? Remind Me” was a gorgeous, life-affirming diary film about the director’s experiences with experimental HIV medication. “Fish Tail,” co-directed with his partner Nuno Leonel, casts a much wider net: Cobbling together footage from over a decade ago, the story follows the pair over the course of several years as they develop a profound relationship to the titular island and its close-knit community of fishermen. Originally, this footage was edited into a TV documentary, but Pinto and Leonel (who appears only as a supporting player in Pinto’s previous film) have now turned it into a poignant travelogue that builds to greater revelations. Enamored of the content lifestyle on the island, the men stay there as much as possible — and begin to ruminate on why it appeals to them so much more than the world they’ve left behind. By the end of the movie, many viewers may be wondering the same thing.
The remarkable debut from Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante revolves around a 17-year old resident of a coffee plantation whose family arranges for her to marry another local — even as she secretly harbors different plans: Catching the eye of a lowly coffee harvester, she makes arrangements with him to make her way to the other side of the volcano on the cusp of their village, through Mexico, and get to the United States. Shot in the Kaqchikel Maya region of Guatemala with amateur performers, the movie has a stamp of cultural authenticity even as its lush visuals and tight narrative keep the immersive story in constant focus. It’s a mesmerizing immigration drama through the lens of its subjects.
“The Pearl Button”
Director Patricio Guzman won the best screenplay prize at Berlinale for this acclaimed followup to 2010’s “Nostalgia for the Light,” a documentary about Chile’s dark history buried beneath its desert. “The Pearl Button” shifts the focus from sand to a feature-length rumination on the country’s longtime relationship to water. “Guzman’s unique gift lies in his ability to weave together multiple modes of documentary: the picturesque, the political and the poetic,” wrote Kevin B. Lee in his Indiewire review. “Using state of the art HD lensing, he can dazzle the viewer with the sheer spectacle of a drop of water quivering in slow motion, as a small universe of particles swirls within its transparent body.”
The Golden Bear winner at this year’s Berlinale was a filmmaker unable to make it to the ceremony no matter how badly he may have wanted to be there: Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi remains stuck in his country due to a governmental ban that also prohibits him from filmmaking for 20 years. But that hasn’t stopped Panahi from quietly making movies about his newly restricted life and sneaking them out to film festivals. “Taxi” marks his third successful effort at doing — following “This is Not a Film” and “Closed Curtain” — and it might be his most ambitious, shot exclusively within the confines of cab with the director behind the wheel. “Moment by moment, the viewer is in a constant state of negotiation with what they are to believe as real,” Lee wrote in his Indiewire review. “This aligns perfectly with Panahi’s position as a cinematic taxi driver navigating his way through the film, both spatially and dramatically.” While the 12-year production story behind “Boyhood” may have generated a lot of headlines, Panahi’s ongoing ability to make innovative and powerfully engaging works under his present conditions deserve just as much attention — assuming someone picks up his latest.
Writer-director Alex Ross Perry follows up last year’s acerbic New York comedy “Listen Up Philip” with a very different kind of story: “Queen of Earth” stars Elisabeth Moss as a haunted young woman reeling from her father’s recent death who attempts to find solace at the remote cabin owned by her friend (Katherine Waterson). Needless to say, it’s not much comfort, as Olsen’s character struggles to confront her past and grows increasingly out of sync with the present. The haunting movie, which relies on tense closeups and an eerie sound design, gives both actresses some of their most effective roles to date. A “janglingly unsettling, darkly comic psychological drama” — per Young’s Indiewire review — the movie niftily channels the likes of Roman Polanski and Robert Altman’s “Images,” even as it develops a haunting atmosphere of its own making. With “Mad Men” winding down, “Queen of Earth” could be just the ticket for fans of the show eager to see what else Olsen can do.
It’s certainly not an original concept to shoot a movie in one take, especially at a time when memories of “Birdman” are fresher than ever, but German director Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” still manages to make the gimmick feel free. The tense drama involves the eponymous cafe worker (Laia Costa) over the course of an increasingly fraught series of experiences: After meeting a group of seemingly free-spirited men at a nightclub, she follows them back to an apartment for late night drinks; when the suave Sonne (Frederick Lau) walks her back to the café, the movie turns into an immersive romance. But the tone undergoes a radical shift once Sonne and his group are forced to confront a criminal debt and agree to rob a local bank with Victoria’s help. As the mood constantly shifts, from blithe character study to thrilling heist, Schipper camera constantly swirls around its characters with acrobatic finesse — but takes its cues from the carefully modulated performances, particularly Costa’s, whose carefree energy meshes with the movie’s audacious formalism. Cinephiles may salivate over the sophisticated camerawork, but the familiar genres in play suggest “Victoria” could reach a much larger audience.