Recap of My First Berlin Film Festival Experiences - 10 Films Later
by Alex Billington
February 11, 2014
Guten Tag aus Deutschland! I've wrapped up five days at the Berlin Film Festival, my first time attending Berlinale—as it's better known—looking back on another stellar fest. One of the oldest festivals (currently in its 64th year) along with Cannes, I've always wanted to attend but haven't had the opportunity or funds or extra time, since it's right after Sundance, until now. Thank you to Fox Searchlight, who brought out a handful of film journalists to see the world premiere of Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel (my review), I've been able to experience first hand one of the world's other prominent film festivals. And it was a delight.
Berlinale is also the home of the European Film Market where projects are bought/sold, and the festival brings in films, filmmakers, distributors, producers and cinephiles from all over the world. It's also centered right in the middle of Europe, right smack in the middle of Berlin, headquartered at the historic Potsdamer Platz. It has a very European feel, but as someone who loves Europe, this means I loved being there. It's the perfect follow-up to Sundance and they usually program a handful of the films that premiered there first. In total I saw 10 films at this festival, not a record by any means especially compared to the 32 I caught at Sundance this year, but a solid amount for five days in Germany. Surprisingly, the quality of the films was exceptional, and give or take one dud (That Demon Within) I thoroughly enjoyed everything I watched here.
Overall my experiences in Berlin have been particularly enjoyable across the board. There are organization problems at this festival (no queues, no crowd control, no signs, it's confusing where/when/how to line-up) but it's otherwise an excellent film fest. It's not as packed-to-the-brim crowded as Cannes, it's not as small-resort-town compact as Sundance, but it has a feeling more like the former, with a German spin. Yes, it's all about the celebrities and red carpets and big premieres, but it's also about the films. With that said, in lieu of more reviews or updates, here is one final quick recap of my thoughts on the 10 films I saw at Berlinale.
It all began with Wes Anderson's latest film, Grand Budapest Hotel, which is an amusing and impressive work of art. I stopped by the world premiere of that film first and groaned at the obnoxiously long Berlinale opening ceremony before, but still enjoyed the deeply layered historical hotel caper with a cast that studios dream of. From Adrien Brody to Willem Dafoe to Ralph Fiennes to Tilda Swinton to Bill Murray, who were all in attendance. It was the perfect film to kick off Berlinale and a great reminder that cinematic technique is as important as actors and story. Another impressive original creation from the mind of Wes Anderson.
Jack (dir. Edward Berger) - A very moving, well-made German film about a young 10-year-old boy and his brother struggling to live problem-free with his careless single mother. I was impressed by the filmmaking and blown away by the young lead performance from Ivo Pietzcker. It approaches the challenging subject of irresponsible parents raising kids wrapped around the context of growing up in a contemporary world in a thoroughly engaging and powerful way. Nice work all around. I'm glad I decided to see this one.
'71 (dir. Yann Demange) - Whoa, where did this come from. Such a great film that I hope breaks out of the festival circuit. Featuring yet another incredible performance from breakout British actor Jack O'Connell (also seen in one of my festival favorites Starred Up), it follows a young soldier as he's caught in the crossfire during Ireland's violent political battles in the early 1970s. It's a thoughtful character-based drama that ramps up into an action thriller, with a narrative that moves fast and kept me on the edge of my seat. I'm impressed by the neutrality and the way it touches upon both factions without taking sides.
Snowpiercer (dir. Joon-ho Bong) - I have been waiting four years to see this one, and this was finally my opportunity to watch it. Loved it. Loved every last second. Chris Evans delivers one of the best performances of his life in this, and that's only just the beginning. For all my thoughts, read my full review, where I call it a masterpiece and a "sci-fi for the ages."
Last Hijack (dirs. Tommy Pallotta & Femke Wolting) - Not bad. My third film about Somali pirates in six months time (first was Captain Phillips, second was Fishing Without Nets at Sundance) this time a documentary about an actual pirate and his life in Somalia. I initially saw this to get a look at what the directors, who were just hired for Linklater's Incredible Mr. Limpet remake, have come up with on their own. It's an interesting doc that features a few beautifully animated sequences to enhance the story, with plenty of captivating footage showing what the real lives of these Somali hijackers are like.
That Demon Within (dir. Dante Lam) - Horrible. Came very close to walking out. One of the worst Hong Kong action movies I have ever seen. Bad sound effects, bad visual effects, bad music, cheesy in every way, not enjoyable in any way. Stay far away from this one. Then again, the only time anyone will ever see it is in the $0.99 bargain bin a few years from now. If even there.
Things People Do (dir. Saar Klein) - A very beautiful feature directing debut from the Oscar nominated editor of The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous, The Bourne Identity. As much as I enjoyed this, one of Wes Bentley's best performances, I really hate to say this feels like one of those films that is doomed to never be seen. It has its moments, it tells a very earnest story about living in America today, but no one wants to see this. It will be the film that, 10 or 15 years from now after Klein has established himself as a well-known director, will be the one in his filmography that everyone says "oh yea, that one… I never saw it."
Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh) - One of the Sundance films that I missed, but boy is it fantastic. Gorgeous, and I mean truly wonderful cinematography of Ireland telling a very poignant and moving story of a priest. One of the best takes on addressing the bigger issues with Catholicism and society's growing disconnect with contemporary religion that I've seen. Brendan Gleeson is incredible (above and beyond his usual), so is Chris O'Dowd, and the score is tremendous. Now I know why it was getting raves at Sundance.
Blind (dir. Eskil Vogt) - Floored. This is a brilliant story told in an innovative way by a filmmaker that I will be closely following from now on. If you're a die hard cinephile, if you love seeing someone challenge the conventions of cinematic storytelling, then SEE THIS FILM. I was blown away, it may end up staying in my Top 10 of this year all the way to the end. Read more in my full review of Eskil Vogt's Blind.
In Order of Disappearance (dir. Hans Petter Moland) - So badass! Way better than I was expecting, which wasn't much for some odd reason. Stellan Skarsgård goes all revenge on suit-wearing drug gangsters up in the cold, snowy towns of Norway. It's actually a dark comedy, even though Skarsgård plays a pensive and caring character it's very dark, brutally dark, but so much fun and entertaining as all hell. Had a blast watching this one, and expect it to show up at other festivals like Fantastic Fest before the year is out.
After attending Sundance for eight years, Cannes for five, Toronto for seven, I'm happy I can now say I've attended Berlin. And it wasn't anywhere close to as bad as I'd heard. In fact, I found it to be the opposite - it's a first class festival and I'm actually a bit sad I'm not sticking around longer. By the end I just wanted to stay and watch more films because I found myself consistently impressed by what I was seeing. Aside from the queuing, I never ran into problems getting into films, securing tickets, or finding my way around to the venues. It never seemed overrun by eager locals or overshadowed by celebrities, which are big problems at other festivals around the world. I'll gladly come back to Berlinale again anytime, as long as I can afford it.
Thank you again to Fox Searchlight. And I must give one final shoutout to the friends and folks that made the festival experience especially unforgettable: Ed Douglas from ComingSoon, Steven Weintraub from Collider, Dave Ehrlich, Jeff Wells, Aseem Chhabra, Cindi Rowell, Mimi Brody and of course Sarah, Amanda, Michelle from Fox Searchlight. I look forward to returning to Berlinale one day soon. Until then, add some of these films to your must see list, and catch them at other film festivals or in theaters eventually.