Berlinale 2015: Recap of 14 Films + Another Fun Festival Experience
by Alex Billington
February 13, 2015
My second year attending the Berlin Film Festival has come to an end. I caught another 14 films, which combined with the 32 I saw at Sundance, puts my tally at 46 brand new 2015 films screened in three weeks (yea I'm a bit exhausted, suffice it to say). But I saw some great films in the last week, including Terrence Malick's latest and Pablo Larraín's latest. Berlinale has been stepping up their game these last two years, bringing in a robust selection of top notch features to see and hosting an exciting festival for movie fans of all ages. I'm glad I could make it back, and I hope to keep returning (even with Sundance in January). So which films did I see and which were the best? Here's my final breakdown of all 14 films I saw at Berlinale.
With screenings taking place every day it's very hard to review everything I see, so the best way to recap this festival is with my brief thoughts on each one, as seen below. I'm always up for discussing any particular film in further depth, whether it's via email, Twitter or in the comments, so please don't be afraid to inquire. I've grown very fond of Berlinale and I've had a very lovely time seeing films at the festival. If you can make the trip, it's another film festival that I highly recommend attending. They seem to be focused on showing better/stronger films, and this year is quite iconic between Malick and Panahi and Herzog. So let's begin:
Queen of Earth (dir. Alex Ross Perry) - Not for me. It's a horror about depression and loneliness, with an extremely unlikeable lead character. Elisabeth Moss is fine but she's such a detestable, crazy bitch that it detracts from any possible enjoyment. Some may find this is a film for them to revel in, but it wasn't for me. That's really the most I can say. If you're into Alex Ross Perry, you can read other positive reviews of this.
Taxi (dir. Jafar Panahi) - Loved it. Jafar Panahi stars as a taxi driver in Iran, picking up all kinds of different people who get into fun conversations with him, some who even recognize him, and it's a delight. Amusing to watch, it's laugh out loud funny at times. Another eye-opening unfiltered look inside Iran, this is a film that is worth your time and one I will definitely be recommending to any and everyone. There's an incomparable charm to it that should connect with any audience.
Queen of the Desert (dir. Werner Herzog) - A forgettable mess. I don't have much to say about this one because I forgot about it as soon as it was over. Nicole Kidman is actually quite good as Gertrude Bell, but the film is bad, not even worth seeing for yourself bad. Just (re)watch Lawrence of Arabia instead.
Life (dir. Anton Corbijn) - One of my least favorite films, a complete disaster and waste of talent between Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson. I wrote a scathing review I was so upset by this film. There's no life to it, Life is unfortunately dead on arrival, and not even worth seeing for any reason. Even if you are a James Dean fan, skip it. Just (re)watch James Dean's actual films instead.
Mr. Holmes (dir. Bill Condon) - One of my favorites of the festival. Loved everything about it, still on my mind days later. Ian McKellen is truly wonderful as an aging Sherlock Holmes. The film comes with an exceptional screenplay that touches upon everything from memory loss and aging, to love and compassion, to how amazing honey bees are, to Japan's recovery after WWII. Even though that may sound a bit tacky, it's not, this is a fantastic film on all accounts. Read my glowing review here.
Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick) - Malick! I really need to see this again (and almost went twice in one day) but my first impressions - I loved it. This one really got to me. Vastly better than To the Wonder, perhaps even better than The Tree of Life (though this will be argued endlessly), with big ideas and Lubezki's wild cinematography. There's much to consider and it deals primarily with the hedonism of Hollywood, but eventually gets back to Malick's never-ending wonder with our existence and spirituality.
Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad) - Starts out quite interesting, turns into a mess by the end. An intriguing attempt at telling the story of the tortured life of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, but doesn't live up to its potential. Paul Dano is exceptional as a young Brian Wilson, but John Cusack doesn't match as an older Wilson. Only worth seeing if you're a big fan of The Beach Boys, as it's fun to see him coming up with so many of the classics songs that you'll be whistling on your way out.
Counting (dir. Jem Cohen) - Awful, awful, awful. Hated this film. A random smattering of low quality footage that amounts to absolutely nothing. It's as if the filmmaker had no idea what he has filming, like a kid chasing a butterfly then suddenly stopping for no reason and picking up a rock instead. Ooh, a rock, ooh look at this box, ooh how about this sign, ooh a plane in the sky! Ugh. It's his own home footage from 15 different "segments" crammed into one horrible film. Avoid at all costs.
Under Electric Clouds (dir. Aleksey German) - What a trippy film. Seven different segments set in some kind of weird near-future Russia. If Charlie Kaufman were Russian, this is a film he'd make. Very cerebral, kind of a dreamy, depressing mind-fuck of sorts. I honestly couldn't make much sense of it but I do at least admire it. Not sure who I would recommend this to but it's not bad, not that good either.
Every Thing Will Be Fine (dir. Wim Wenders) - This film contains my favorite score of the festival – enchanting new work by Alexandre Desplat. It's a chilling thriller about dealing with grief with a refreshing ending (that is definitely earned) and strong performance from James Franco, who is a bit better than he usually is. It's in 3D, which isn't necessary, but it's beautifully composed and engaging to watch.
The Club (dir. Pablo Larraín) - A terrifying, unsettling, brilliant film from masterful Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. If you've never seen anything of his yet, now's the time to get into his work (start with No starring Gael García Bernal). It's a shockingly captivating look at a group of Catholic priests that abuse their power and beliefs. It's a bold, subversive, restrained work that will earn accolades all year long. See this film.
Petting Zoo (dir. Micah Magee) - The best discovery of this year's festival. A surprisingly honest and intimate film about a teenage girl in Texas being pulled in every direction by those around her. The talented filmmaker behind this – Micah Magee – is now on my radar, and hopefully she'll get her big break with this film, because she deserves it. Same for the lead actress Devon Keller. Seek this film out, you won't regret it. It's a gem. (Though the title is terrible, it has nothing to do with the story, and needs to be changed.)
Gone With the Bullets (dir. Jiang Wen) - This was my big "WTF did I just watch?!" of Berlin 2015. It can only be described as: Baz Luhrmann meets Sion Sono… in China. It's too wacky, too choppy in its editing, too weird and way too incoherent to be entertaining. As fun as the description sounds, it's a film I kind of wish I didn't waste my time seeing. But oh well, at least it was something.
13 Minutes (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel) - Solid thriller, with a really powerful feeling of hope in a story where everything and everyone is surrounded by evil. About carpenter who needed 13 more minutes and he could've killed Hitler in 1939 with a homemade bomb. It's actually a bit better than Valkyrie (another Hitler bombing film) lead by an astonishing performance from German actor Christian Friedel. Read my review.
That's it for now. If anything, I hope that I'm able to provide an early look at some of the finest that cinema has to offer in 2015. Whether it's films from Sundance or Berlin, there are definitely some gems and some duds, and plenty inbetween. I always encourage cinephiles to seek out good films and make up their own mind, discover whatever it is that makes you happy, or makes you think, or makes you feel passionate, or encouraged, or infuriated, or inspired. No matter what it is, if it has an emotional effect on you or you can't stop thinking about it, that's a film worth talking about. Spread the word on the best of the best, and keep watching movies always, even at home. For the rest of my Berlinale 2015 coverage + reviews, click here.