Berlinale 2016: From Hansen-Løve to Gibney - Recapping My 16 Films
by Alex Billington
February 21, 2016
What a year so far. I had an amazing time at Berlinale this year. Not because all of the films were amazing, but because I met incredible people in Germany. I even met a very nice guy who works in film distribution while riding the train from Berlin down to Prague on my way out, and we talked for hours about films and distribution in the Czech Republic (where he works). Over the last week, I've encountered and talked with so many wonderful people - discussing films and the world. This is what festivals are all about, bringing people together, encouraging discussion. And yes - there are films to see. Plenty of them. I saw a grand total of 16 feature films at the Berlin Film Festival this year - here's my final recap with thoughts on each one below.
This was my 3rd year back to Berlinale, which has become one of my favorite festivals. It runs so smoothly, the quality of cinema is off the charts, they program unique films of all kinds, and I always have a great time in the city. 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 or ask questions. Listed below are the 16 films in order in which I saw them during the festival:
Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols) - I saw this only a few hours after I landed in Germany, but I still loved it anyway. So far (in his career) Jeff Nichols can do no wrong - he makes consistently superb films that never pointlessly explain what should be subtle, never give away big moments, instead they rely mostly on ambiguity and ingenuity to be engaging. Worth seeing. From my review: "This film relies heavily on the mystery, the ambiguity of the world we live in, and how we don't/won't understand everything. But we can be awe-struck by it. We can appreciate the beauty of it. This is what Nichols excels at - making us think about big ideas, the possibility of what's real, without ever spelling things out.
Things to Come (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve) - This isn't my favorite from the very talented Mia Hansen-Løve (I prefer Eden or Father of My Children), but I still found it very compelling and the filmmaking is, once again, masterful. Isabelle Huppert gives an excellent performance (how could she be anything but?) as an intelligent woman struggling with various aspects of her life as she gets older - her husband decides to leave for another woman, her daughter has a baby, and she reconnects with an old student of hers that is now living a bohemian lifestyle up in the mountains. The film involves philosophical ideas and big thinking (and concepts like anarchy) clashing with the practicalities of real, everyday life.
The Patriarch (dir. Lee Tamahori) - The most entertaining film I saw, that left me in such a good mood by the time it was over. Maybe I love stories about the one dissenter who rises up against prejudice and power, and this is the story of one boy in a patriarchal family in New Zealand who pushes back. From my review: "Simeon is such a delightful, charming kid that speaks up when he needs to and does what he knows is right, despite what the others might say. I connected very deeply with him, and it was genuinely exciting to watch him bring down this patriarch and misogyny."
24 Weeks (dir. Anne Zohra Berrached) - Very powerful film, one of the best of the festival. Julia Jentsch plays a professional comedian on German TV who gets pregnant, but is informed that her baby will have Down's Syndrome. She and her husband struggle to decide what to do, and ultimately it comes down to her realizing that this is her decision to make alone. It's a remarkably beautiful and empowering film. Almost everyone in the theater was crying by the end. This is a film that would never be made in America, and I admire it greatly, as it must've been challenging to make and the result is something special.
Being 17 (dir. André Téchiné) - Wow. Very impressed by this film that deals with homosexuality and the challenges of being young. Set in a very small French mountain town, the film focuses on two boys - played by Kacey Mottet Klein and Corentin Fila - who at first get into fights in school, but soon learn they have an attraction to each other, but are afraid to show it or do anything about it. Maybe I enjoyed this so much because I had no expectations going in, and was caught up in the very engaging story and the way it all plays out. It also has a happy ending, which is a nice change of pace from all the tragedy out there. This may be a hard sell for most people, but I loved it and hopefully others take a chance on it.
Alone in Berlin (dir. Vincent Perez) - A big let down, unfortunately. Not only is the film in English when it should be in German, but it just doesn't live up to the real-life story it's based on. The filmmaking is just so bad and it's hard to look past that. From my review: "If only they could've captured the spirit of this in a more inspiring and impressive way, but alas, this film is going to be forgotten quickly once critics have their way with it. At the very least, now I am familiar with the story of Otto and Elise Hampel and I am inspired by the way they decided to take on the fascist society they were living in."
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (dirs. Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato) - Utterly inspiring doc about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. As someone who wasn't that familiar with Mapplethorpe before this, I have to say I am beyond impressed by his work, he's a true master of photography. And the best part was listening to him explain (via archived interviews), rather casually, that he never studied photography and didn't really care about the artistic value of his photos. He just loved taking photos, and would wake up every day and shoot, shoot, shoot. If you're into photography, this is a must watch doc.
The Lovers and the Despot (dirs. Ross Adam & Robert Cannan) - Don't have much to say about this doc except that it was a boring take on a very interesting story. A South Korean actress, and a filmmaker, who were once a couple, are kidnapped by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and brought to that country in order to make films for him. The doc is overstuffed with details and clips and tries to cover too much for its own good, and the film suffers greatly because of it.
Genius (dir. Michael Grandage) - Had a wonderful time watching this. Beautiful story about two friends, with an over-the-top performance from Jude Law balanced out by a reserved and heartfelt performance by Colin Firth. Focuses on the relationship between author Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins, who is considered one of the the most iconic literary editors. Love the score, dug the performances, recommend this one. From my review: "The film is packed with all kinds of nice touches that add quite a bit of substance to the story: steam trains galore, a beautiful view of New York City from a rooftop, a rather lovely score by Adam Cork that is never overpowering, as well as a deep appreciation for the power of literature."
Shepherds & Butchers (dir. Oliver Schmitz) - Very heavy, emotionally taxing film. Deals with the topic of the death penalty, specifically in South Africa, and one intriguing case where a young boy who worked as prison guard ended up shooting people just near the prison. The film is about his trial and the question of whether he should be sent to the very same, despicable place where he had been working. Thankfully it ends with a card that says "the death penalty was abolished in South Africa" years ago, but man does it throw your emotions around, making you think intensely about the justice system, and what's right (and wrong).
Zero Days (dir. Alex Gibney) - As I already discussed in my review of this film, it's a frightening look at the era of cyber warfare and the political deception going on in this world. I'm impressed that Alex Gibney went after a topic as big and as dangerous as this one, and that's what makes it so damn good. From my review: "There's always excellent production work in Gibney's documentaries, and that makes them stronger in the end. With Zero Days, the doc actually explains in detail, without shying away for the sake of addressing those not versed in computing, how Stuxnet works and how viruses can actually destroy physical objects… Gibney is at the top of his game with this one, and it shows."
The Commune (dir. Thomas Vinterberg) - The more I think about this one, the less I like it. It's a solid film - with outstanding performances that make it feel very real and raw, which is what filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg excels at (lead actress Trine Dyrholm won a Silver Bear). The plot is about a commune of about eight or nine people living together in Copenhagen, Denmark in the 70s. However, it's less about the art of living in a commune and more of a story of a love affair and how much damage that does to relationships. It doesn't cover much else except for the typical love affair themes and the troubles of a broken heart, and upon reflecting on it now I wish there was more to it.
Uncle Howard (dir. Aaron Brookner) - A very interesting film that begins as an investigation into the making of a William S. Burroughs documentary, and turns into a story about how much a young filmmaker is inspired by his filmmaker uncle, who unfortunately passed away of AIDS years ago. The doc is almost too personal at times, since it is very much a story his Uncle Howard - examining who he was, why he is worthy of this kind of legacy, and how his life played out (he worked closely with Jim Jarmusch, William S. Boroughs and many others). Not bad.
Kiki (dir. Sara Jordenö) - This doc rules! I missed seeing this at Sundance and finally caught up with it here and it's outstanding. Full of so much genuine compassion, appreciation and hope. The film profiles the LGBT community in New York City known as the "Kiki" community, a large group of people (including many trans individuals) who host dance events and shows to support each other. The access filmmaker Sara Jordenö gets is impressive, and it's a very well-made doc that challenges all of us to throw out prejudices and appreciate every last person. It also successfully introduces the Kiki movement to the general public.
Miles Ahead (dir. Don Cheadle) - This was good, but not great, I feel like it never amounted to much. I really dug the jazzy editing, skipping around to different scenes and beats, changing it up right when things are getting interesting. The oddest part is that it plays like a caper - Miles Davis and the search for the missing recording session tape, which made it feel like a thriller half of the time, not a biopic or anything like that. But Don Cheadle is fantastic as Miles Davis, and it's always enjoyable to see Ewan McGregor in a good role. Anyone who likes jazz shouldn't miss this film.
War on Everyone (dir. John Michael McDonagh) - Harmless fun. It's dumb, but very easy to enjoy, with hilarious scenes that some will laugh at more than most other comedy out there. Actors Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård play two debaucherous cops in New Mexico, and the plot is wacky involving drugs and all kinds of crime, with a British Lord as the villain, but I had fun with it. Sometimes some light-hearted, innocuous humor is a good break from all the depressing, frightening, heavy films out there (at least at film festivals). Seek this one out if you want to discover an little-known comedy gem.
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 2016. 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 2016 coverage + reviews, click here.