Berlinale 2017: Recap of My Favorite Films & Performances of the Fest
by Alex Billington
February 26, 2017
The lesson I've learned covering film festivals is that sometimes the best films aren't always the one you loved at first sight, sometimes they're the ones that you remember. There's something about them. It could be the performance, it could be the story, it could be something else about it that gets into your mind and still lingers there. Something about it that you keep thinking back to, even if it isn't a perfect film, there's something you can't shake. That is usually the sign of a great film, and film festivals (which are exhausting to cover) help us figure out which ones leave a lasting impression because there's so many to see in so little time. To wrap up my 4th year attending the Berlin Film Festival (aka Berlinale), I want to recap a few of my favorite films and favorite performances of the 2017 festival. I hope all these films end up on your radar.
I really adore the Berlin Film Festival. It's an easy festival to attend (at least as press) - the screenings are always on time, there's never any issues getting in, everything runs smoothly. The various venues are lovely (see my photo feature on the different movie palaces here). The city of Berlin really comes alive during the festival, since it takes place all over Berlin. The festival's color is red, so each venue has red lights along the outside, indicating it's one of the Berlinale locations. There's advertisements all over the place, and the TVs in the subway even show clips from various films playing at the festival. You never know what kind of films you'll discover at each fest, but I'm always happy to be back to Berlinale in hopes of discovering some gems.
I've been raving about a film titled Call Me By Your Name ever since first seeing it at the Sundance Film Festival. I was lucky enough to catch it a second time at Berlinale, and it's still my favorite film of 2017 so far. Nothing comes close, but a few films at Berlinale definitely left me feeling the same way. I was blown away by James Mangold's Wolverine Western, Logan, which premiered at the very end of the festival (read my full review). Logan doesn't seem like the kind of film that belongs at a festival, but it definitely does. It's emotional, it's bold, it's ultra violent, and it's a one-of-a-kind superhero film made by a very smart, talented filmmaker. I also caught retrospective sci-fi screenings of The Fifth Element (one of my all-time favorites) and the original Ghost in the Shell anime - a treat to see them on the big screen. The rest of my favorites:
Favorite Film: Spoor (Pokot)
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
I was going to choose Call Me By Your Name as my favorite (again), but that was already my favorite film of Sundance 2017, so this Polish film is my second choice. Spoor is a film from Poland directed by Agnieszka Holland about a retired teacher who gets pissed at the hunters in her village killing so many animals. I love this film for so many reasons, there's so much to appreciate beyond just the script, which is the sign of an outstanding film. The performances are fantastic, but also: the cinematography is jaw-dropping stunning, the score is wonderful, the whole film has this joyous cathartic feel to it that goes beyond the story at hand. Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka stars as the local woman who decides it's time to speak up. It's not an easy sell, but I can assure you this film is worth watching - read my review. One of the best discoveries of the fest.
Favorite Documentary: Beuys
Directed by Andres Veiel
Beuys! (Pronounced like "boys".) Beuys is a documentary about the famous German artist Joseph Beuys. It's not the best documentary I've seen this year, but the reason it has stuck with me (and is my favorite of Berlinale) is because it was my primary introduction to this artist. And I love getting to know more about someone by actually seeing real footage of them, hearing directly from them, and learning about someone's work from that person themselves. Beuys passed away in 1986, so this doc is made up entirely of archival footage and old photos and audio recordings. I wished there was even more insight into his process and his evolution, but I was still engaged and intrigued by this documentary anyway. Beuys is such a fascinating guy, and now that I've learned some history about him, I'm even more interested in his work, and his mind.
The other documentary from Berlinale that I almost named as my favorite is For Ahkeem, a powerful story about a school in Missouri trying to help troubled African-American teens succeed. It reminded me of the documentary Step (also from Sundance), which I like just a bit more, which is why I didn't choose this one.
Favorite Male Lead: Geoffrey Rush in Final Portrait
Directed by Stanley Tucci
"All I can do will only ever be a faint image of what I see and my success will always be less than my failure or perhaps equal to the failure." One of my favorite performances from Berlinale is Geoffrey Rush in the film Final Portrait, directed by Stanley Tucci. Rush plays the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, a very talented and successful sculptor, living in Paris when this story takes place. Like most artists, he was rather eccentric, with an iconic fluffy hairstyle and a restlessness with his work. Rush does a extraordinary job playing Giacometti, making us forget he's performing. It feels like the kind of perfectly real performance that fully embodies all the nuances and quirks that made Giacometti unique. All of this makes the film not only enthralling to watch, but amusing too, with humor that enhances the story. Read my review for more.
My other favorite performance is Reda Kateb playing the musician Django Reinhardt in the film Django.
Favorite Female Lead: Ella Rumpf in Tiger Girl
Directed by Jakob Lass
Yes! Tiger Girl! She's so badass. Ella Rumpf is a young French-Swiss actress who plays the "Tiger Girl" in Jakob Lass' Tiger Girl, a super smart and totally awesome film about sticking it to the man. This film is also one of my favorite films from the festival, thanks in large part to Ella Rumpf and her performance. The story is actually about another girl, Vanilla, played by Maria-Victoria Dragus, who is trying to be tough enough to get into the Police Academy but she fails to get in. She meets "Tiger" on the streets and quickly becomes her friend/sidekick. Although she is technically the main character, the film really is all about the "Tiger Girl" - who has many more layers and complexities than it seems at first. I think that's what makes me appreciate Rumpf's performance so much - she's not "badass" for the sake of being badass, she has reasons for acting the way she does, she has rules she won't break, and it's all believable. Another great discovery at the fest.
To find all of Alex's Berlinale 2017 reviews and updates: Follow @firstshowing
There are a few other films I want to mention. Django is an intriguing portrait of a musician, with a stellar lead performance by Reda Kateb as the musician Django Reinhardt. A Fantastic Woman also features a remarkable lead performance by Daniela Vega, a trans woman who has to deal with discrimination when her older lover dies. Sally Potter's The Party is a fun film that's very short (71 minutes!) with a few stand out performances. I also really enjoyed Volker Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk, about looking back on our past and the regrets that come to define us (read my review for more). I also recommend My Happy Family, a film from the country of Georgia about a family's domestic struggles and the mother at the center of it all. All of these films (especially my favorites mentioned above) are worth seeing whenever they come your way.
On the flip-side, I totally hated a few films. The Dinner from Oren Moverman is terrible. Its over-stylized, messy, convoluted, and (despite the premise) it doesn't actually have any interesting conversations to offer. The Bar (or El Bar), a thriller from Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia is also horrible. Extremely cheesy, borderline sexist, utterly boring, and totally derivative - avoid at all costs. Joaquim, a biopic film from Brazil mad by director Marcelo Gomes, has good intentions but is so lackluster and so boring. It's instantly forgettable, not worth anyone's time. Viceroy's House, made by director Gurinder Chadha, also has good intentions but never lives up to that potential. It becomes so excruciatingly campy that you'll literally cringe watching scenes near the end. There's always a few duds at every fest. They can't all be winners, as they say.
You can find all our Berlinale 2017 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2017 Berlin Film Festival, Alex's 4th year in a row attending this superb festival. See you again next year.
Here's my final list of all the films I saw at the 2017 festival with quick reaction. Links go to reviews/tweets.
Alex's Berlinale 2017 Films:
1. Django (dir. Etienne Comar) - Liked It
2. The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (dir. Yûya Ishii) - Just Okay
3. Menashe (dir. Joshua Z. Weinstein) - Liked It
4. The Dinner (dir. Oren Moverman) - Hated It
5. T2: Trainspotting (dir. Danny Boyle) - Loved It
6. The Wound (dir. John Trengove) - Liked It
7. Tiger Girl (dir. Jakob Lass) - LOVED It
8. Final Portrait (dir. Stanley Tucci) - Loved It
9. The Fifth Element (dir. Luc Besson) - LOVED It
10. Spoor (dir. Agnieszka Holland) - LOVED It
11. Viceroy's House (dir. Gurinder Chadha) - Just Okay
12. A Fantastic Woman (dir. Sebastián Lelio) - Liked It
13. Call Me By Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino) - LOVED It
14. Wilde Maus (dir. Josef Hader) - Loved It
15. The Party (dir. Sally Potter) - Liked It
16. Strong Island (dir. Yance Ford) - Just Okay
17. The Other Side of Hope (dir. Aki Kaurismäki) - Just Okay
18. El Mar La Mar (dirs. Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki) - Liked It
19. The Lost City of Z (dir. James Gray) - Liked It
20. Beuys (dir. Andres Veiel) - Loved It
21. Return to Montauk (dir. Volker Schlöndorff) - Loved It
22. The Bar (dir. Álex de la Iglesia) - Hated It
23. Casting JonBenet (dir. Kitty Green) - Liked It
24. On the Beach at Night Alone (dir. Hong Sang-soo) - Liked It
25. Joaquim (dir. Marcelo Gomes) - Hated It
26. Ghost in the Shell (dir. Mamoru Oshii) - Loved It
27. Have a Nice Day (dir. Jian Liu) - Liked It
28. Logan (dir. James Mangold) - Loved It
29. My Happy Family (dirs. Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Groß) - Liked It
30. For Ahkeem (dirs. Jeremy S. Levine & Landon Van Soest) - Liked It