While the Berlinale is simply too big for anyone to know if this 2019 was a “good” or “bad” year for the annual über-festival, this edition was highlighted by several of the best and most exciting films that have premiered in Potsdamer Platz in recent memory. The Competition section boasted a career-best offering from Nadav Lapid, a career-topping retrospective from Agnès Varda, and a career-redefining journalistic drama from François Ozon. But the cream of the crop wasn’t contained to a single portion of the lineup, as the Panorama and Forum sections also played host to a handful of films that will continue to make waves on the festival circuit for the rest of the year. As is often the case at the Berlinale, many of the standout films were still without American distribution by the time the festival came to an end. From the masterful Golden Bear winner to a micro-budget drama from a New York icon, here are 10 features that domestic buyers would be smart to snap up before it’s too late.
“By the Grace of God” (François Ozon)
However reductive it might be to frame “By the Grace of God” as a French riff on “Spotlight,” that’s exactly what writer-director François Ozon was hoping to make when he decided to make a film about the ongoing trial of Lyon-based Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who stands accused of covering up the fact that a charismatic priest in his dioceses has been sexually abusing children for more than 30 years. More to the point, that’s also exactly what Bernard Preynat’s victims asked Ozon to make for them.
A sober but compelling drama that rewarded its real subjects by casting famous movie stars to play them on the big screen, this is a sharp pivot from Ozon’s usual kink. “By the Grace of God” is a thoughtful, fast-paced, and immaculately acted procedural that unfolds with the urgency of a newspaper deadline. It zips through the facts of this horrid case, while also shaping them into a lens through which to examine the uneasy relationships between mercy and justice — between faith and the flawed institution that exists to preserve it. It was a deserving winner of the Grand Prix at the Berlinale, and could do well with the muscle of a respected purveyor of art house cinema behind it. —DE
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“Driveways” (Andrew Ahn)
For his sophomore feature, “Spa Night” filmmaker Andrew Ahn turned his practiced lens on an even younger protagonist: a nine-year-old boy. Written by New York playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, “Driveways” follows Kathy (Hong Chau) and her son Cody (Lucas Jaye) after they show up in a small town to pack up her dead sister’s house. Distracted by her grief, or the monumental cleaning job that helps her ignore it, Kathy leaves Cody to find his own fun, which comes by way of a retired veteran who lives next door. In between bingo nights and diners alone, Del (Brian Dennehy) is dealing with widower life and the slow dissolution of his best friend’s wits. The shy boy and the lonely old guy are the perfect match, and soon the two are peas in a pod.
Like a Norman Rockwell painting, the characters in “Driveways” live plain American lives. Each person who drops into Kathy and Cody’s orbit carries their own little drama, and Ahn does a good job of painting a whole neighborhood teeming with life just out of frame. He has surrounded himself with excellent actors who each bring something special to the table — Christine Ebersole and Jerry Adler are welcome sights, and the young and sensitive Lucas Jaye is an excellent discovery. But it’s Dennehy and Chau who will draw audiences to this one, and with good reason: they’re two of the best, and doing some of their best work. —JD
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“Fourteen” (Dan Sallitt)
The fifth feature by revered critic, compulsive cinephile, and occasional filmmaker Dan Sallitt, “Fourteen” is a modest but gradually — and, in the end, greatly — affecting sketch of how even the closest of friendships can shift and wither over the years. Lo-fi and even lower budget, as per the writer-director-editor’s usual custom (he reveres the deceptively absent visual aesthetics of Eric Rohmer, Hong Sang-soo, and the other grandmasters of casual suffering), Sallitt’s elliptical new film isn’t always pretty, nor is it certain that “Fourteen” would have suffered for having a more robust color palette or a compositional design that was less afraid of calling attention to itself.
But even those viewers who don’t tend to fetishize the consumer-grade stylings of the digital age might find them to be more of a feature than a bug in this instance, as Sallitt effectively uses the DIY veneer to flatten time until you can feel the cracks start to show between its two major characters. Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling are phenomenal as the leads. —DE
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“Goldie” (Sam de Jong)
“Yo it’s your girl Goldie I’m about to kill shit today.” Goldie (played by fashion model Slick Woods in her first movie role) is a lot like the film that bears her name: full of attitude, bursting with scrappy New York style, and stuck under the thumb of a merciless system that won’t let her shine like she knows she can. At least this movie believes in her, because no one else will — except maybe pint-sized fans Sherrie and Supreme, both of whom worship their 18-year-old half-sister like Goldie is already the world famous hip-hop dance star she fantasizes about becoming. But when their mom gets arrested and Goldie tries to keep her little siblings away from the long arm of child welfare services, it isn’t long before the urgency of her real life begins to chip away at the possibility of her dreams.
Written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Sam de Jong (“Prince”), “Goldie” explodes with energy and hope. Much of the film’s vitality and ride-or-die sparkle comes from Goldie herself, and the fact that Woods has already made it (and with an incarcerated mother of her own) only adds to the perfection of her casting. Her performance is beautifully expressive and open to the world. —DE
“Ghost Town Anthology” (Denis Côté)
A pointedly modern portrait of a place that’s come unstuck in time, Denis Côté’s “Ghost Town Anthology” is every bit as bleak and fragmented as its title implies. This loose collection of stories is set in the fictional hamlet of Irénée-les-Neiges, a (very) small town that’s rocked by the death of a 21-year-old hockey player. His departure sends a destabilizing shiver through everyone who knew him.
His body isn’t even buried in the ground before the world turns upside down, and traces from “The Twilight Zone” seep into the surroundings. Mischievous, Jawa-like kids in strange masks can be seen running down the streets. People begin to see human silhouettes in their living rooms. Jimmy (Robert Naylor), Simon’s older brother, is visited by his late sibling at the rink one night. Irénée-les-Neiges has been a ghost town since God knows when, but only now is it starting to feel haunted. Adapted from Laurence Olivier’s 2015 novel of the the same name, Côté’s lethargic but gradually arresting film is about cryogenically frozen people who are waiting for the past to come back; about how they get their wish in the most literal of ways, and then can’t bear to admit that the dead are really no different than they are. —DE
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“Piranhas” (Claudio Giavanessi)
As tempting as it might be to write off “Piranhas” as a kid-friendly version of “Gomorrah,” this smart and unrelenting story about the “baby gangs” who terrorize the streets of Naples is as gripping as it is precocious. A worthy (if surprising) winner of the Berlinale prize for Best Screenplay, “Piranhas” is more of a visceral experience than anything else. Charting the rise and fall of a young go-getter named Nicola (the fittingly named Francesco di Napoli) and his ride-or-die friends, Claudio Giavanessi’s follow-up to “Fiore” is told from a teen’s-eye-level as it kinetically depicts a full churn of the ageless cycle that feeds on young men and spits out their bones. “Piranhas” offsets its somewhat predictable beats with a bevy of raw and hyper-believable performance from a cast of actors who were found on the streets where the film was shot, and it mutes the glamorization of mafia violence with an inescapable sense of preordained doom. It’s a vivid and exciting portrait of a generation that has grown up watching gangster movies — and learned how to fire guns from YouTube tutorials — but still can’t seem to realize how this story ends. —DE
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“Serendipity” (Prune Nourry)
Part art film, part non-fiction testimonial, Prune Nourry’s feature directorial debut “Serendipity” stems from the artist’s previous work (the project was inspired by her book of the same name, published in 2017 as part of a solo show). Nourry pushes the simple idea into unique spaces. As the title hints, the film is indeed about serendipity and unexpected connections, but it’s told in a wholly unexpected manner, because it’s both a film about Nourry’s personal battle with cancer and how her own work prepared her for what was to come.
The doc functions as a startling intimate look inside a terrible experience, but it’s also an often quite fun and bouncy survey of Nourry’s own career. It’s a tricky combination, and one she pulls off with style and substance. It’s the kind of interdisciplinary offering that could be a crossover treat. —KE
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“Synonyms” (Nadav Lapid)
Winner of the Golden Bear and an early contender for the surprise hit of the year, Nadav Lapid’s astonishing, maddening, brilliant, hilarious, obstinate, and altogether unmissable “Synonyms” is a strange and singular misadventure about the violence of trying to replace one identity with another. Co-produced by “Toni Erdmann” director Maren Ade, and loosely based on Lapid’s own experience as a young man who fled to Paris because he believed that he was born in the Middle East by mistake, the Israeli filmmaker’s disorienting third feature continues his forensic, career-long fascination with the impossible knot that ties a person to their country.
Extraordinary newcomer Tom Mercier plays Yoav, a twentysomething who swears that he’ll never speak another word of Hebrew as soon as he arrives in France. He meets a rich young couple who take him under their wing, and… well, things get strange from there. It’s genuinely hard to describe. In broad strokes, “Synonyms” translates Yoav’s dilemma into an unshakable portrait of a man whose passport only gets him so far, who’s grown tired of carrying the baggage that comes with being an Israeli, and who’s driven to the brink of madness by a world that forcibly identifies people by the place they were born. Lapid’s film is too fresh and intransigent to know how well it will age over time or hold up to repeat viewings, but on first blush it feels like a powerful howl that’s hard to hear clearly, and harder still to get out of your head. This one will get people talking. —DE
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“Tremors” (Jayro Bustamante)
There are any number of movies about gay men trying to liberate themselves from the long shadow of heteronormative oppression, but few have been told with the extraordinary nuance or compassion of Jayro Bustamante’s “Tremors.” From its rain-drenched prologue to its pensive final shot, “Tremors” explores whether self-identity is more legibly defined by what people are, or what they are not. Must we shed our sins in order to inch closer to the impossible divine, or can the pursuit of purity be an additive process? Is the fear of loss more profound than the search for love?
Bustamente’s film grapples with these questions in the most wrenching of ways; even in its stillest moments, “Tremors” shudders with the full weight of its spiritual uncertainty. —DE
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“Varda by Agnès” (Agnès Varda)
Agnès Varda insists there are several different films in each of her features, but never has that been more literally true than it is here. Mostly set in a French opera house where Varda sits on stage in a director’s chair and orates to a room full of bright-eyed young film students (some other stops from her speaking tour are excerpted along the way, but Varda wears the same maroon shirt for continuity’s sake), the legendary auteur’s final feature is peppered with footage of her previous work.
At first, it seems like a chronological tour through her IMDB page. But Varda isn’t free-associating or going off the cuff; this is a well-honed show that zigs and zags through the decades — from the personal to the political, documentary to fiction, film to photography — with every bit of her usual purpose. If it sometimes feels like a Varda-ized version of a TED Talk, well, she gave one of those, and she loves to see things get recycled. Watching the 90-year-old filmmaker pick through the scrapheap of her own memories and fashion the bits into a fresh perspective on the relationship between reality and representation, stillness and movement, life and art, it seems that Varda has become something of a gleaner, herself. —DE
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