Another year at the Berlin Film Festival, another set of invigorating discoveries. Every time I attend fests in Europe, I discover exceptional films and documentaries that have barely been mentioned in America yet. I feel like this is a chance for me to bring attention to these films, in hopes others will discover them and be moved, or influenced, or inspired. Great films are deeply emotional and affecting for good reason, because cinema is more than just entertainment. And these films prove that. This year, I fell for a doc about tennis, and a doc about a musician. I also flipped for an Austrian coming-of-age drama, and I can't stop thinking about two very upsetting films - one about a terrible shooting in Norway, the other about a journalist falling in love with an ISIS recruiter over the internet. These are my 8 favorite films from Berlinale 2018 below.
This is the story of Astrid Lindgren, a Swedish woman who went on to write the massively popular series of books about Pippi Longstocking. Becoming Astrid is a feature film about the teenage years of Astrid's life in Sweden. She was born in 1907, and in her youth struggled to find her independence and place in the small town of Näs where she was raised. From the moment the film started, I had a good feeling about it, with the score and the opening scene of an elderly Lindgren reading cards that children have sent her at her home. The rest of the film takes place in the 1920s in Sweden, telling the true story of a young Astrid and her love for an older newspaper man. It's a lovely, engaging tale of an intelligent woman who strived to be different.
Sometimes you don't need to actually say anything to tell a powerful story. Styx is a remarkable film that uses minimal dialogue to tell a very powerful story. We've seen these kind of films before, but they're still effective, and if the filmmaking is up to par, they can leave a lasting impression. Styx is a drama directed by German filmmaker Wolfgang Fischer that's about a woman who embarks upon a solo sailing voyage from Gibraltar to an island in the middle of the South Atlantic. She's interrupted when she encounters a boat full of refugees. To be curt, Styx is essentially a mix of All is Lost (the Robert Redford silent sailing film) meets Fuocoammare (the Berlinale Golden Bear-winning documentary film about rescuing refugees from boats).
It's exciting to stumble across a film late in the festival that turns out to be one of my favorites. L'Animale is an Austrian film playing at the Berlin Film Festival, the second feature film written & directed by Austrian filmmaker Katharina Mückstein. The film focuses on a teenage girl named Mati, who is wrapping up her last few weeks at high school just before taking the final exam and figuring out what's next. L'Animale is mostly a coming-of-age story about this young woman recognizing her sexuality and accepting it, while also realizing she needs to grow up. In addition, it's a much more deeper, meaningful film about honesty and fear and passion, and how so many struggle to speak their mind. Fresh filmmaking makes this really stand out.
As another film festival comes to an end, it's time to celebrate and commemorate with the announcement of the awards. The 68th Berlin Film Festival is finishing up, and the winners were revealed at the Closing Ceremony, including the winner of the coveted Golden Bear for Best Film. That top prize was given to a film called Touch Me Not, an experimental feature about intimacy and touch, directed by Romanian filmmaker Adina Pintilie (seen above). This is an odd pick, not because it's bad, just because it's so experimental and more of an art installation than a film. Other big winners include Isle of Dogs' Wes Anderson winning Best Director, and the Russian film Dovlatov picking up quite a few awards as well. Read on for all the winners.
"Cinema lies. Sport does not." That's the quote, from Godard, that bookends this film and it encapsulates the entire concept of this marvelous documentary. In the Realm of Perfection is a worth-discovering film made by French filmmaker Julien Faraut, and is made up entirely of footage filmed in the 1980s by Gil De Kermadec. Faraut explores the connection between cinema and tennis by examining the reels of footage that were shot in the 1980s by this die-hard French tennis lover, who was filming John McEnroe to make at-the-time modern instructional / educational cinema focused on sports. It's an entrancing film, that lulls you into its rhythm and discussion about sport and the unique mind of John McEnroe and the art of tennis.
There's nothing like an entertaining romantic comedy to instill some warmth and hope in the hearts of all those hopeless romantics out there. In the Aisles, also titled In den Gängen, is a German romantic comedy that was one of the final films to premiere at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival. Set mostly at one of those big box, bulk items stores like Costco, the film is about a quiet, hard-working new employee who falls for one of the other employees. It's a simple romance, but oh so sweet, as sweet as a bar of delicious dark chocolate - meaning there's a tiny bit of bitterness to it, but it's still satisfying. I kind of loved this film, it wanders a bit, but there's something nice about it that made me feel enticed and entranced by its awkward German charm.
Step into the mind of this musical genius for just a moment, and be inspired by his ingenuity and originality. Shut Up and Play the Piano is a documentary about the musician known as "Chilly Gonzales", who is actually a Canadian man named Jason Beck. Beck is a virtuoso, a one-of-a-kind musician and this film is a befittingly unique profile of him and his life. It's a massively creative, clever film about a massively creative, clever musician and will inspire anyone to stop caring about judgment and let your deeply honest creativity express itself. I loved this film so much. I didn't even know who Chilly Gonzales was before this, and now I'm a huge fan. I've already bought a few of his albums. The title is a reference to fans who often tell Chilly to just shut up and play the piano, and he does. Oh, does he ever play, and it's sumptuous. Discover this film.
There's another new film this year telling a thrilling story told entirely through computer screens. This one is titled Profile, and it's directed by Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted, Ben-Hur), who also produced the other computer screen film Search (which first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and I wrote a glowing review of here). Profile tells a completely different story than Search - it's about a journalist from London who tries to connect with an ISIS recruiter online for a story about how ISIS recruiters use the internet to lure women. Surprise, surprise, she ends up getting in way too deep and essentially falls for the same tricks and traps that the other women did. It's a captivating thriller about technology, for sure, but it's still a bit gimmicky and a bit manipulative, and not as good as it really could be.
One of the darkest days in Norway's modern history is July 22nd, 2011. On this day, a lone-wolf, ring-wing extremist terrorist attacked government buildings in Oslo with bombs and then went to an island near the city and shot over 200 children and teens camping there, killing 68 of them. The film Utøya 22 July, also titled simply U: July 22, is a cinematic recreation of this day on the island and it's utterly harrowing. I sat through the film's first press screening in the morning at the Berlin Film Festival and it's so intense at times, I was literally sick to my stomach. It's an immersive, exhausting experience that follows one young woman in one 72-minute long-take shot as she scurries around the island, desperately trying to stay alive and find her sister. It stays focused entirely on her and puts viewers right there in the middle of it as it's happening.
One of the best documentaries I've seen playing at film festivals this year is titled Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., a subversive profile of the controversial, badass, outspoken musician/activist known as "M.I.A." In real life, her full name is Maya Arulpragasam, and she's originally from Sri Lanka, an island off the southern coast of India. At first glance, this seems like a film that is another music documentary about a pop star and her rise to fame and fortune and glory. But it's anything but that. It's actually a much more personal, intimate story of a young woman who wants to bring attention to and raise awareness about very dire problems in the world, and injustices, and do so using the power of the microphone. But what if no one took her seriously? That's what this film is really about. And it's an eye-opening, alarming, invigorating documentary to watch.
We take for granted how easy it is to travel between countries nowadays. But it wasn't always so easy. And it might not be so easy in the future. The latest film from German filmmaker Christian Petzold (Jerichow, Barbara, Phoenix) is a feature titled Transit, which is premiering at the Berlin Film Festival. The film feels similar to something Aki Kaurismäki would make, specifically his most recent film The Other Side of Hope, and even feels like it would play nice with Ai Weiwei's documentary Human Flow. Transit is about refugees and transit papers, and the lives of people who are just trying to find a way out, a way to somewhere else. They're just trying to move on. It's the kind of film you need to sit on and think about for days or weeks, and not instantly process, because there's so much more going on beyond just what's presented on the surface.