This year’s Berlin International Film Festival bows in Germany later this week and with it, one of Europe’s most exciting and singular film festivals. As ever, the annual fest is playing home to dozens of feature films and short offerings, with picks aplenty from both modern masters and fresh faces. The Berlinale often breeds some of indie film’s most unexpected and unique standouts, so if it’s at the fest, it’s likely worth a look.
Ahead, check out the 8 titles we are most excited to check out at this year’s festival.
“Have a Nice Day”
Expectations are high for this Chinese animated feature that marks the sophomore effort from director Liu Jian, whose surreal debut “Piercing” offered an inventive look at modern day city life in China’s capital. If the gorgeous stills from the new movie are any indication, “Have a Nice Day” offers another mesmerizing dive into contemporary urbanity through an intoxicating visual style. Described as a noir-like dark comedy involving gangsters, hitmen and other desperate souls, the movie sets its sights on a bustling metropolis enslaved by the forces of capitalism — a resolutely modern theme that the animated format is certain to give an original spin. –Eric Kohn
Premiering as part of the Berlin Critics’ Week (which is a completely independent festival that operates in tandem with the Berlinale, but is not affiliated with it), Mike Ott’s follow-up to “Actor Martinez” is a lighthearted documentary about five people from the dusty suburbs of Southern California who have always harbored aspirations of making it big in showbiz. Using an eclectic group of personalities — interviewees range from a celebrity impersonator to a former Red Cross nurse — “California Dreams” nudges its starry-eyed subjects towards their lifelong fantasies by staging auditions for them in their own backyards. Contrasting these diverse wannabes against one another, Ott offers an unusual but characteristically mesmeric portrait of Hollywood, and how it touches and tangles around the lives of people who haven’t even dared to try their luck in Los Angeles. –David Ehrlich
“On the Beach at Night Alone”
It’s almost too easy to predict the contents of South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s films: They usually involve neurotic creative types who drink a lot of soju and complain about their boring lives. And yet somehow Hong manages to embed surprises in this reliable approach anyway. One of his better recent efforts was his 2015 film, “Right Now, Wrong Then” a clever look at the same story twice over with subtle differences between the two versions. “On the Beach at Night Alone” is sure to stir up interest for a difference reason: Its plot, about an actress who leaves Korea after having an affair with a married man, sounds markedly similar to a scandal involving Hong’s own reported extramarital affair with one of his collaborators. For years, people have compared his talky movies to Woody Allen, whose work has also sometimes reflected his complicated relationship history. It’s quite possible that “On the Beach at Night Alone” will allow Hong to address the gossip surrounding his personal life the only way he can — through the movies. And it’s unlikely that any Hong fans will be disappointed by the result. -EK
You had us at “Isabelle Huppert.” After the year that the legendary French actress had in 2016, anything that she did next was going to at the very top of our list. Given how prolific she is — “Elle” and “Things to Come” were only two of the four films she’s appeared in over the last 12 months — it isn’t surprising that we didn’t have to wait long. In Laura Schroeder’s “Barrage,” Huppert plays Elisabeth, an aging woman who’s forced to compete for the affections of her young granddaughter when the girl’s absent mother returns to Luxembourg after 10 years abroad. Billed as a gentle story that cleaves far closer to the gauzy introspection Sofia Coppola than it does the acidic familial squabbles of Noah Baumbach, “Barrage” promises to give Huppert yet another golden opportunity to prove that she’s one of the best actresses on the planet, and us another glorious chance to enjoy that fact. -DE
Trudie Styler has packed the cast of her feature directorial debut — she’s already got one short and one doc under her belt, along with a slew of acting turns — with a cast list that goes far beyond the concept of “enviable.” The feature stars Alex Lawther, Abigail Breslin, AnnaSophia Robb, Ian Nelson, Celia Weston, Willa Fitzgerald, Laverne Cox, John McEnroe, Charlotte Ubben, Mickey Sumner, Michael Park and, yes, Bette Midler in a film about the power of being yourself in a world that is resistant to any sort of originality. Billed as being “somewhere in-between David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Freddy Mercury and Oscar Wilde, in the transgressive space of pop culture and dressed up as a high school comedy with wit, heart and a dazzling cast,” “Freak Show” at least promises to be one of Berlin’s most original and daring entries. We can’t wait to see it in all of its freaky glory. -Kate Erbland
Martin Provost’s out of competition drama stars two of the world’s best Catherines — Frot and Deneuve — in what sounds like a compelling look at the unexpected bond between two very different women. Frot stars as Claire, the eponymous midwife, who is in the midst of both professional and familial upheaval when she receives a call from Béatrice (Deneuve), her later father’s ex-mistress. Messy? Sure, but Claire and Béatrice may have more in common than they initially expect, and the film promises to deliver a warm-hearted look at late-in-life bonds and friendships that come without warning. -KE
Based on the popular Herman Koch novel of the same name, Oren Moverman’s latest stretches the idea of fraught family dinner to wild extremes. Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan and Chloe Sevigny, the drama follows a pair of related couples (Gere and Coogan play brothers) who go out for a fancy dinner that ripples with bizarre undercurrents and hidden secrets. Koch’s novel — which Moverman himself adapted — makes it clear from the start that something is very, very wrong between the family, then slowly metes out the reasons as to why that’s true (with lots of criminal mischief to boot), a neat twist that the filmmaker has likely kept intact. Any film featuring these kind of talents is worthy of a watch, but “The Dinner” is a story so dependent on big time acting and well-timed theatrical fireworks that we can barely wait to see what pops off the screen. -KE
“The Other Side of Hope”
Six years have elapsed since the last time the world was blessed with a new film by the peerlessly droll Aki Kaurismäki, and it was starting to seem as though the unofficial ambassador of Finnish cinema might have called it a wrap — after all, “Le Havre” is one of life’s few perfect things, and continues to feel like the immaculate summation of a brilliant career. But Kaurismäki doesn’t see things that way. On the contrary, he considers “Le Havre” to be the first chapter of a trilogy about the port cities of Europe, and he’s ready to reveal the second part. Revisiting a familiar premise that has only grown more timely since 2011, “The Other Side of Hope” follows a Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) as he seeks asylum in Helsinki and befriends a smattering of dry-witted locals. This may sound like heavy going, but we’ve learned never to doubt the wry perseverance of Kaurismäki’s light touch. With its Berlin premiere tied to the film’s February 3 release in Finland, “The Other Side of Hope” is sure to be one of the safest bets at the festival. -DE
The Berlin International Film Festival runs from January 9 – 19, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.