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The Best And Worst Of The 2015 Berlin Film Festival

The Best And Worst Of The 2015 Berlin Film Festival

So it’s wrap-up time for the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, which came to a close on Sunday after ten days of high drama, low temperatures and middling pizza slices from the food court in the Potsdamer Platz mall. What is the general word? Looking back on our Most Anticipated piece from two weeks ago, it seems the 2015 Berlinale has made good on some of its promises, but overall fell a bit short regarding widespread expectations. Boasting a name-brand auteur list that the Cannes main competition would find enviable — Malick! Herzog! Wenders! — and a jury headed by Darren Aronofsky, featuring Bong Joon-hoMatthew Weiner and Claudia Llosa, it felt like Berlin might be poised this year to nose forward in the European festival prestige race where it has traditionally lagged behind Cannes and Venice both.

But what was most impressive this year was not the latest films from those big names, which it can safely be said turned out not to be the finest works of any of their careers. Instead, the quieter but more satisfying news for attendees was that this year’s competition felt stronger overall than last year’s. Even if the big names underperformed against expectations, the filmmakers of slightly lower profile (Pablo Larrain, Jafar Panahi, Patricio Guzman) turned in magnificent entries, while rising stars like Andrew Haigh, Alex Ross Perry and Radu Jude consolidated their respective positions at the forefront of the next generation of international auteurs.

As for the awards: I’m unusually content with the selection that Aronofsky and co. picked on Saturday night, which is down to the fact that I’ve seen most of them, when I usually manage to miss or be totally lukewarm on the one film that sweeps the boards (hello, 2014’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice“). While I might quibble with exactly who got what, I would not begrudge any of the winners their Bears and think the jury did a pretty good job of making sure that all the truly deserving films took away at least one major award.

Not that anyone even cares about the silly old Berlin Bears anyway — the only list that holds any sway in the world is obviously this one, so let’s get on with it! Here are our Best and Worst films of Berlin 2015, along with the biggest surprises and the biggest disappointments, after which feel free to browse through all 25 of our Berlin 2015 reviews here:

Best Films

6. “Taxi
Jafar Panahi’s niece, who appears in the film, picked up the Golden Bear for her uncle on Saturday night  — he’s not allowed to travel out of Iran, and one imagines especially not to pick up a major award for a film he is legally banned in his country from ever having made. It was an adorable scene — she cried, bless her heart — and while it was not my absolute favorite of the films in competition, there is absolutely no way I could possibly complain about “Taxi” winning the big gong. By far Panahi’s most outright enjoyable film and testament to an indomitable storytelling imagination, it’s a small miracle that “Taxi” exists in the first place — miracles deserve to be recognized. [Our review]

5. “Aferim!”

The very last film at the festival I saw (indeed, as I went to the last catch-up screening at 9.30pm on Sunday, one of the very last films to be shown at all), Radu Jude’s black-and-white troubadour tale of 19th century Romanian racism was also unexpectedly the funniest film I saw in Berlin. Mercilessly profane, delighting in an archaic, almost Shakespearean argot (or so it seems from the subtitles, my Romanian not being up to scratch), it also manages the difficult trick of directing the barbs of its bawdy wit at a very important and provocative target: the systemic culture of anti-Roma bigotry in Romania. Demonstrating Jude’s dexterity in wrapping up his serious intent in lively period detail and some terrifically characterful performances, the gorgeous, starkly-monochromatic photography somehow makes the film feel all the more colorful, and it deservedly brought Jude a Best Director award. [Our review]

4. “Queen of Earth
A distinct left turn from the misanthropic, hangdog anti-comedy of his last film “Listen Up Philip,” Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” occupies a much twangier register, occasionally even verging on the strident. I loved that, as well as its distinctly Fassbinder-ish dalliance with melodrama and histrionics that border on bad taste. But it’s also a stylistic evolution, with DP Sean Price Williams returning to render the film in similar grainy, close-up photography to ‘Philip’ which makes it feel even more unique, and overpowering in its merciless tight shots of Elisabeth Moss‘ unhinged performance, that it proved too much for quite a few people at my screening. Each subsequent walkout only made me love it more, though — look out for our interview with Perry coming soon. [Our review]

Best Films (cont’d)
3. “The Pearl Button
The only documentary I can think of to have won a major best screenplay award, Patricio Guzman‘s follow up to “Nostalgia for the Light” may be the better film in every way. Profound and curious, poetic and political, it relates Guzman’s abiding anger over Chile’s “disappeared” to colonialism, the Pacific Ocean, the music of water, supernovae and the lost languages of the original native tribes of Patagonia. It’s a dizzying feat of connection and interrelation, but Guzman makes it feel seamless, with one thought taking up immediately where another ends. With so much ground covered in time and in space, in the end you feel like you’ve been presented with an impossibly high resolution picture of the universe, one in which you can zoom in from a wide shot of a galaxy and end up on a drowned button, or a single drop of water, with no loss of clarity. [Our review]

=1 “The Club
If “Post Mortem” announced Pablo Larrain as one of the most exciting directors to hail from the fertile filmmaking ground of South America recently, the ebullient “No” confirmed him as a highly singular talent, one particularly attuned to recreating the recent history of his native Chile. “The Club,” which arrived in Berlin, seemingly out of nowhere, went on to pick up the Grand Jury Prize. It feels broader and more allegorical than his previous films, yet no less focused, and in many ways quite a bit angrier. A scathing indictment of the Catholic Church’s culture of concealment and silence, “The Club” is a grimly ironic, twisted imagining of a dull house in a run down coastal town in Chile as the brick-and-mortar incarnation of Purgatory, and the provocative, chilling work of a director growing more audacious with every new film.  [Our review]

=1 “45 Years

In a move I’m choosing to interpret as “look, we’d like to give you more awards but we have to let some other films get a look in,” Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” only picked up the Best Actor and Best Actress gongs for Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling. But when you consider that the film is built as more or less of a two-hander, one that intimately deals with the minutely fraying relationship between a long-married couple, awarding the performances pretty much is also awarding the direction and the writing. Or that’s how I’d console writer/director Haigh anyway, if consolation were needed, which it’s not. “45 Years” is an incredible, beautiful, achingly sad achievement whatever the silverware on its mantel, and it is impossible to imagine it will not continue making waves throughout 2015, even though it’s only February. [Our review]

Biggest Surprises
Having seen and been impressed by prior films from all of the above filmmakers, I can’t say that any of them really fall into the category of “surprise.” But of the films I knew nothing about prior to Berlin, Laura Bispuri‘s competition entry “Sworn Virgin” was a very impressive debut from a talented newcomer, and features another terrific performance from Alba Rohrwacher, who after her Venice Best Actress win for “Hungry Hearts,” is fast becoming a byword for quality on the international arthouse circuit. [Our review]

Bill Condon‘s “Mr Holmes,” was a different sort of surprise; one that saw a clear “quality” BBC-ish package avoid the threat of stuffiness or stodginess to become a touching, elegiac story of kindness at the close of day, featuring a vanity-less Ian McKellen as an aging Sherlock Holmes. [Our review]

At the opposite end of the scale, the distinctly un-elegiac “Victoria,” the 140-minute long action-packed single-take film from Sebastian Schipper was a blast of energy that left me gasping for air. As a one-take wonder, it is a bravura filmmaking exercise, but its length, while its major selling point, is also its biggest flaw. [Our review]

And finally I have to slot in Kenneth Branagh‘s “Cinderella” for Disney here, too. I was very wary after the trailers, but found myself wholly won over by its guileless sincerity. I’m not quite sure if it deserves the “feminist take” angle that was being pitched about at a press conference, but as a straight-up retelling of one of the most familiar stories in the world, it’s surprisingly engaging, with an awesome turn from Cate Blanchett. And it marginally shifts the tale’s moral compass, so that Cinderella gets her reward due to kindness and courage and love, and not mere patience and the possession of peculiarly shaped feet, which I guess is a dainty, glass-slippered step in the right direction. [Our review]

Worst Films
3. “Nobody Wants The Night”
Exactly the type of opening film that, um, Nobody Wants. This turgid and self-important period drama from Isabel Coixet is sadly not even funny-bad enough to fall into the “Grace of Monaco” category of perversely enjoyable festival openers. Amateurishly made and indulging the worst excesses of Juliette Binoche worship via abject fawning rather than giving her a character to play, the sole redeeming feature is Rinko Kikuchi‘s oddly affecting performance as the native eskimo girl with whom Binoche’s character reluctantly bonds. The Japanese actress is so fresh and unmannered in a role that could seem unplayable on paper that she highlights the theatricality elsewhere and the stiffness of Coixet’s filmmaking. [Our review]

2. “Fifty Shades of Grey

I did not review the cultural phenom that is “Fifty Shades of Grey” — that dubious honor went to Playlist E.I.C. Rodrigo Perez, who utterly loathed it. But I did see it, purely because in the bubble of a film festival you simply have to have some sort of opinion on the latest chatter-worthy title, or you risk being frozen out, dully looking in through the window at everyone else enjoying the warmth of a riotous bunfight. So I attended the already-notorious “5 o’clock IMAX press screening,” the queue for which was full of weeping journalists and tinderbox line-jumping confrontations, only to be spectacularly underwhelmed by the end product. I probably wouldn’t have gone with Rod’s F, but I wouldn’t have been far off, and my marginally kinder take would have been 100% down to the fact that I foolishly tried to read the book prior to watching the film. And God, the film is so much better than the book, and Dakota Johnson is so much better than that character deserves, you could almost mistake it for nearly ok. But it’s not nearly ok. It’s rubbish. [Our review]

1. “Woman in Gold

Yup, I’m doubling down on this utterly insipid “Inspirational True Story” starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds as the worst film I saw in Berlin, mainly because it’s the sort of willfully formulaic and bland thing that slips through the festival net without raising any particular ire. A triumph of by-the-numbers craftsmanship over storytelling (music cues slathered all over the place that remind you how to feel, often in direct contradiction to the actual inference of the events depicted), it’s a film that simpers and panders to our worst instincts for maudlin historical tourism. Flattening out any of the case’s complexities and shearing away any potentially troublesome context, this is reconstituted history, disrespectfully mashed down to a smooth paste and refashioned into the intellectual equivalent of chicken nuggets. [Our review]

Biggest Disappointments
They don’t deserve the ignominy of “Worst,” but there were a few films that fell very far short of expectations. The biggest disparity between expectation and experience for me was with Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert,” as Herzog is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers — I have always enjoyed his propensity for injecting a little madness into almost everything he’s ever done. But that Herzog was not anywhere in evidence behind the camera of the extraordinarily ordinary “Queen of the Desert,” which also does Nicole Kidman no favors, except in terms of making her look very pretty. [Our review]

Hopes for Wim Wenders’ “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” an intimate drama shot and delivered in theoretically interesting 3D, were never quite as high as with the Herzog film, but I was first confounded and then numbed by how very, very dull it is. Not just in theme but in actual luminosity, as the 3D glasses made the picture muddy and drab, ironically flattening out the image despite the added dimension. The cast was decent, Charlotte Gainsbourg in particular, but as an addition to the overstuffed genre of “white people staring out of windows” it sinks like a stone under weight of its own self-importance. [Our review]

As a fan of Anton Corbijn‘s previous work, I expected to like “Life” a great deal more, but found myself in the awkward position of accusing it of the very same things from which I’d defended previous Corbijn films “The American” and “A Most Wanted Man.” But there were magnetic central performances to enjoy in those films, even when the pacing lagged. Here though, Robert Pattinson has little to work with in a peculiarly blank role, while Dane DeHaan as James Dean pulls off a more impressive impersonation than he does a characterization. It all looks very good, and the scenes in which Corbijn recreates the famous photographs we already know are impressively accurate, but there seems to be very little going on below the surface.

And finally, “Knight of Cups,” jointly our number one Most Anticipated title of 2015 (alongside Terrence Malick’s other, presumably as yet unfinished rock-scene film). Sadly, I did not hate “Knight of Cups,” as it would have been a lot easier to write about. But nor did I like it very much — even the grade I went with was more a reflection of a certain admiration for the stellar shotmaking (perhaps it’s more for Lubezki than Malick), and for the flashes of inspiration that pepper the collage, than because any of it really connected. Try as I might, I could not get rid of the feeling of Malick, a filmmaker I mostly adored up to and including “The Tree of Life,” in the throes of a kind of existential panic, flinging everything at the wall to see what stuck without any of the guiding sense of purpose and intent that we should expect of our auteurs. Also, as Stephanie Zacharek of the Village Voice reminded me: what the hell was up with Teresa Palmer‘s shoes in the strip club scene? [Our review]

So, to sum up this year’s learnings: If there’s a director big enough to chair the Cannes Jury and they’re in Berlin, beware. If it’s a starry film with a prestigey cast, but it’s playing Out Of Competition or as a Special Gala, stay frosty. If it’s the launch of a trashy billion-dollar BDSM franchise, get there two hours early. And if it’s a lower-profile film that has snuck in more or less under the radar from a director with one or two strong, low-key titles under their belt beforehand, be first in the queue, because they’re the ones that might just make your year.

There are a couple more pieces still pending, and you can check out all the Berlinale reviews here, but mostly, it’s auf wiedersehn for now. Thank you for reading.

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