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10 Must-See Films at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival

With new films from major auteurs like Agnès Varda and Fatih Akin, the 69th Berlinale could set the stage for a strong year of world cinema.

“Varda by Agnes”

With more than 300 films in its program and 500,000 attendees coming to watch them, the Berlinale is the world’s largest film festival. The 69th edition — the last under the guidance of festival director Dieter Kosslick, who’s overseen the launch of major recent movies like Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come,” Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” and Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” — is set to kick off this Thursday with the world premiere of Lone Scherfig’s star-studded “The Kindness of Strangers,” and will continue until the following weekend, when Juliette Binoche’s jury awards the prestigious Golden Bear to the film that emerges victorious from the festival’s Competition section.

While the Berlinale has become one of the most eclectic events of its kind, and an unparalleled opportunity to discover fresh and exciting work from all corners of the globe, this year’s program also includes new work from many of the preeminent names in contemporary world cinema. IndieWire will be on the ground in Germany with the latest from Potsdamer Platz. Here are the 10 films that we’re most excited to see at the 2019 Berlinale. The festival runs February 7 – 17.

“By the Grace of God” (François Ozon)

“By the Grace of God”

Best known for erotic thrillers like “Swimming Pool” and “The Double Lover,” the prolific François Ozon returns with an unexpected change of pace: A melodrama, inspired by recent events, about the aftermath of sexual abuse. “Laurence Anyways” star Melvil Poupaud plays Alexandre, a Lyon man who learns that the priest who abused him as a young boy is still working with children. Wracked by his own trauma and desperate to prevent other men from experiencing the same pain, Alexandre connects with two of the priests’ other adult victims, and together they create an organization to fight back against the silence and complicity of the church. It remains to be seen how close “By the Grace of God” cleaves to its story’s real-world origins, but Ozon appears to be taking direct aim at those culpable for these crimes: He’s cast “Love in the Afternoon” actor Bernard Verley as Father Preynat, a man who in 2016 was accused of sexually assaulting 70 boys in the Lyon area. If Ozon is able to channel his anger towards the church with the same power as he’s previously been able to convey other facets of human psychology, his latest could be a bold addition to a long body of work. —DE

“Driveways” (Andrew Ahn)

“Driveways”

For his sophomore feature, “Spa Night” filmmaker Andrew Ahn worked from a screenplay by New York experimental playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. In what is sure to be one of sweetest premises on view in Berlin, the film follows the unexpected friendship of an anxious nine-year-old boy and a widowed veteran who has lost his zest for life. 

Ahn has certainly upped his profile in the short time since “Spa Night” earned him the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2017, drawing an impressive cast that includes Brian Dennehy, Hong Chau, Christine Ebersole, and Jerry Adler. Ahn wrote the script for “Spa Night,” which followed a Korean-American teenager who slowly comes to terms with his attraction to men while working at a Korean spa. It will be intriguing to see what new notes Ahn finds in “Driveways,” working from a script that hews slightly outside the personal themes on view in his last feature. —JD

“The Golden Glove” (Fatih Akin)

“The Golden Glove”

One of Germany’s best (and Europe’s most idiosyncratic) directors, Fatih Akin has become a hard man to predict. His career runs the gamut from passionate romantic dramas like “Head-On,” to explosive thrillers like his recent “In the Fade,” and even food comedies, like 2009’s semi-regrettable “Soul Kitchen.” Despite enjoying plenty of success at Cannes, Akin is appropriately returning to his home country for the premiere of “The Golden Glove,” a bleak portrait of a real-life serial killer who stalked the saddest women of Hamburg in the 1970s. A dark and despairing look at the relationship between national economics and personal actions, Akin’s latest may lack the star wattage of his most famous work, but hopefully earns its nihilistic streak with another of his sobering and urgent screenplays. —DE

“Goldie” (Sam de Jong)

“Goldie”

Sam de Jong — who wowed the Berlinale in 2015 with “Prince” — may hail from Amsterdam, but his latest film is nothing if not a bonafide New York story. Instagram model Slick Woods stars as Goldie, a struggling dancer who’s one rap video spot away from becoming the star that her two little sisters already think she is. But with her mom in prison and child welfare services getting involved with her siblings, Goldie doesn’t have much time to translate her dreams into reality. Social realism that’s shot with the ambition of someone dying to make it in the Naked City, “Goldie” is poised to build on the success of “Prince” and lead its young director to the international attention he deserves. —DE

“The Kindness of Strangers” (Lone Scherfig)

“The Kindness of Strangers”

Lone Scherfig (“An Education,” “Their Finest”) has a knack for making elegant and bittersweet romantic dramas about the human underbelly of harsh circumstances, and her latest film — an ode to the heartbeat of New York City — is an ensemble story that should play to her strengths. Zoe Kazan stars as a mother of two who flees to the Big Apple with her sons in order to escape from their abusive father. Alone and desperate for mercy, they meet a nurse (Andrea Riseborough) who cares for them, an ex-con (Tahar Rahim) who feeds them, and an eclectic cast of wayward souls (including Bill Nighy, Caleb Landry Jones, and Jay Baruchel) who gather at a rundown restaurant in the hopes of finding any kind of way forward. Expect another refined and even painful life-affirming work from a director who always taps in to a strong emotional truth.  —DE

“Mr. Jones” (Agnieskzka Holland)

“Mr. Jones”

It’s no surprise that one of Poland’s greatest filmmakers feels loyalty to Berlin. Not only is the festival in Agnieszka Holland’s neighborhood, but she has a long and fruitful history with the Berlinale. An early work, “Gorączka,” played in competition in 1981, and her most recent feature, “Spoor,” took home the Silver Bear in 2017. Best known for 1990’s “Europa, Europa,” and the Oscar-nominated 2011 film “In Darkness,” Holland maintains a high profile TV career in the U.S., stepping behind the camera for episodes of “The Wire,” “The Killing,” and “House of Cards.” In 2013, Holland directed “The Burning Bush” for HBO, a haunting and finely-crafted mini-series about Jan Palach, the Czech student who lit himself on fire in 1969 in protest of the Soviet occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia. 

Holland’s latest film also draws on real events, albeit a lesser known story of a Welsh journalist who travelled to the Soviet Union in 1933, and discovered the appalling reality behind the “utopian” communist myth. Speaking to Variety about the new film, Holland painted a positively Kafkaesque picture, describing the character’s journey as “entering consecutive circles of hell.” “Mr. Jones” stars James Norton, Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard, and plays in Official Competition. —JD

“Out Stealing Horses” (Hans Petter Moland)

“Out Stealing Horses”

Hans Petter Moland has been a very busy man. As “Cold Pursuit” — Moland’s his dark comedic remake of his own “In Order of Disappearance” —  opens in American theaters, the Norwegian filmmaker will be in Berlin with his next feature, a tender drama that addresses everything from the soft pangs of first love, to the enduring guilt of Nazi collaboration. Based on Per Petterson’s novel of the same name, “Out Stealing Horses” tells the story of an aging retiree who starts reflecting on his youth after a chance encounter with an old friend. The man’s reveries start out sun-kissed and bucolic, but the more he reflects on the past, the more he realizes that it wasn’t quite as peaceful as he remembers. If this film is told with the same unflinching honesty as his recent work, it could prove to be a standout in this year’s Competition lineup. —DE

“The Plagiarists” (Peter Parlow)

“The Plagiarists”

Peter Parlow’s sophomore feature apparently owns a debt to none other than Karl Ove Knausgård, as the self-reflexive feature draws inspiration from at least one volume of his popular and expansive “My Struggle” series. In Parlow’s feature, the intimacy of those novels seems to be taking on a funny twist: Instead of gabbing about just one person’s life and the trials of his profession, “The Plagiarists” is about a wannabe director and a wannabe writer who get drunk, hash out their lives, and then wonder what the hell happened. The big question — what is actually better, film or literature — sounds like the kind of talky subject that should make for an amusing, verbose film. Thankfully, it’s not as long as any of Knausgård books. —KE

“Synonyms” (Nadav Lapid)

“Synonyms”

One of the most virtuosic and exciting of modern Israeli filmmakers, Nadav Lapid (“Policeman,” “The Kindergarten Teacher”), has used his agile camera to plunge into the dark heart of his country’s political and moral dilemmas. While his previous work has been shaped by allusion and metaphor, “Synonyms” doesn’t beat around the bush. Swapping Tel Aviv for Paris, the somewhat autobiographical film centers on a self-loathing Israeli who arrives in the City of Lights eager to shed his past and — if possible — become a born-again French citizen. But even with a French dictionary and some friends to aid him in his efforts, Lapid’s proxy finds that it’s not so easy to leave one’s home behind. Described by the Berlinale as “a tragicomic puzzle,” “Synonyms” promises to be a film that’s every bit as dynamic and complex as the concept of national identity itself. —DE

“Varda by Agnès” (Agnès Varda)

“Varda by Agnès”

Every new film by bonafide cinematic icon Agnès Varda deserves to be celebrated, especially ones that are already being billed as “unpredictable.” Her first film since 2017’s lauded “Faces Places” — and her very first Oscar nomination — the out-of-competition entry reportedly follows the legendary filmmaker as she unpacks her own work as a creator who has never been content to do just one thing. A country-spanning jaunt with the irrepressible Varda chatting about her own legacy with her signature style? It’s an early entry for the most darling film of the festival. —KE

 

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