Berlinale 2018: My 8 Favorite Films from the 68th Berlin Film Festival
by Alex Billington
March 1, 2018
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.
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.
At Berlinale this year, I saw a total of 35 films during the festival. And 3 other films before/after (The Silk and the Flame, Yardie, Whatever Happens Next). Most of the time during the festival, I'm out seeing films, watching as many as I can in the cinema while it's underway and I have the chance to see them. Berlinale makes it easy to get tickets and attend public screenings in addition to the plentiful press screenings. I'm always glad to see as many as I can, even if I know I won't write about all of them, so I can at least see them and get a sense of what they're like. It's hard to write about all of them, but I do have thoughts. At the end, I'm happy to discuss my favorites of the fest, those that connected with me the most. From 2018, they are:
Isle of Dogs
Directed by Wes Anderson
It's no surprise that this ended up being one of my favorites at the Berlin Film Festival. This film has some of my favorite things in it - dogs and Japan, with remarkably creative Wes Anderson stop-motion animation. The story is a bit funky, and the storytelling is a bit offbeat, but it has such an endearingly great amount of charm. Plus, this story is actually about dog lovers fighting back against cat lovers, and bringing dogs back into Japan after they were outlawed be an evil cat fanatic. How could I not love this? Dog rules, cats drool. The Japanese drummer score in this by Alexandre Desplat is incredible, I don't know how he came up with it, but it's perfect. The whole film is so much fun and features some remarkably stunning stop-motion sets with creative cinematography to make it all feel real. I need to watch it again, a couple of times, but it's hands down one of my favorites that I won't be forgetting soon. Anderson has made another instant winner.
Shut Up and Play the Piano
Directed by Philipp Jedicke
Oh my goodness, I LOVED this documentary. So much. It's one of the few films that I gave a perfect score to at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Shut Up and Play the Piano is an all-encompassing documentary biopic about a musician called Chilly Gonzales, though his real name is Jason Charles Beck, from Canada. Chilly is one of the most creative, insane, talented, amusing musicians I've ever seen - and honestly I didn't know who he was before watching this. It's such an intelligent, fun, very clever documentary that gives us a small taste of the mind of Chilly and his boundless ingenuity. There's some excellent footage of his early days in the Berlin underground music scene, where he flips out and challenges the audience, and plays crazy shows. Even if you have no idea who Chilly is, seek out this documentary and watch - it might just change your life.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
This is one of the two groundbreaking films in 2018 that is told entirely through computer screens, and it's damn good. I'm still partial to Search, from Sundance, which I think is a little bit better (both of them are produced by Timur Bekmambetov). In this one, Timur Bekmambetov tells an entirely different story very unique to the internet - a journalist from London contacts an ISIS recruiter, who tricks her into falling in love with him through Skype calls and Facebook messages. We follow her story over a few months, as she becomes more and more caught up in her own emotions. I cannot stop thinking about this film, there's so much it has to say, and it's so scary yet so real yet so exhilarating, in a way that makes me want to talk about it with everyone else who sees it. Valene Kane is fantastic as the journalist, who originally tries to contact recruiters to do a story on them and explain how young women fall prey to their whims. She ends up sucked in herself, which says so much about their strategy and about how men can manipulate and coerce women.
U: July 22
Directed by Erik Poppe
It's impossible to say that I "like" or "enjoy" this film, because it's so utterly horrifying. It doesn't deserve to be criticized as "spectacle" or dismissed as manipulative or exploitative, because it's not. Directed by Erik Poppe, U: July 22 takes us to the island in Norway known as Utøya, where in 2011 a shooting took place. A deranged right-wing extremist shot and killed 68 people, many of them teenagers who were there for a youth summer camp. The film brings viewers into the harrowing experience by presenting it as one long-take, running over 70 minutes, the complete duration of the attack. The point of this is to make people feel the emotions, the intensity, the disgust and fear, of what it's like to be in the middle of a mass shooting. Words alone cannot describe this, it's impossible to imagine, and this film does its best to make us feel it - and it's truly terrifying. You'll pretty much hold your breath the entire time, and only breathe again when it cuts to black. I recommend this film because I think it's important for people to see - even if it is horrifying.
Directed by Christian Petzold
This is such an intriguing film, and I found myself fascinated by it, even though it's a bit odd. The story is set during WWII, introducing us to various refugees and people trying to escape from Germany and get transit papers in order to take boats to America or Mexico or Canada. That's where the title comes from and that's what it's actually about - figuring out how to safely escape and get the papers necessary to travel. But the film is set in modern times, right now, taking place mostly in Marseille in France. That's what makes it so fascinating - it's a contemporary commentary on refugees and immigration and safe passage. It allows us to both understand how challenging and scary it was during WWII, but also how challenging and scary it is today as well. Prominent German actor Franz Rogowski stars, and he's very easy to watch in the lead role, interacting with other Germans and Jews and foreigners also trying to quietly make their way out of Europe.
In the Realm of Perfection
Directed by Julien Faraut
This film was recommended to me late in the festival, as one of the best films no one has seen yet, and it is indeed one of the best discoveries at Berlinale this year. In the Realm of Perfection (in French: L’empire de la perfection) is an entrancing documentary made entirely of footage from the 80s that was shot at Roland Garros Stadium in France. French filmmaker Gil De Kermadec was obsessed with American tennis player John McEnroe, and trained his cameras to focus on McEnroe and his body/technique, not the matches he was playing in. Director Julien Faraut then takes this footage and examines it in close detail, discussing all the cinematic techniques and Gil's filmmaking goals, while also discussing how unique and fascinating McEnroe is as a tennis player. It's a totally mesmerizing combination of cinema and tennis, and such a joy to watch, with many humorous moments throughout. I loved every last second and could've kept watching. I'm so happy I took a chance to discover this film, and I now hope others will take a chance to discover it as well.
Directed by Katharina Mückstein
Another late in the festival discovery that I caught thanks to a recommendation. L'Animale is a film from Austria about a young woman in high school coming into her own, learning about her sexuality, and figuring out how to be herself. Austrian actress Sophie Stockinger is exceptional in the lead role as Mati, and she falls for another woman in town and realizes the boys she's hanging out with aren't a good influence on her. What I love the most about this film is that it's a calling card for director Katharina Mückstein. She has such a fresh, vibrant, engaging style and it works so well with this story. I am very impressed by what she chooses what to show, and how she balances the story, and the shots we do get to see, and the emotions her characters express. I think she's one of the most promising filmmakers I've encountered this year, and I'm looking forward to seeing her next few films. In the meantime, L'Animale is a superb film worth seeking out.
Directed by Wolfgang Fischer
Another breathtakingly beautiful film that is phenomenal as an exercise in dialogue-less, visual storytelling. Styx is about a woman who decides to take a solo sailboat voyage down the Atlantic. Off the coast of Africa, she encounters an overloaded, sinking boat of refugees. It's not only a film about the refugee crisis, and not in a way that feels heavy-handed, but it's about the personal journeys we go on and how we are all connected even when we don't want to be. The film has only a few lines of dialogue, and is mostly silent, letting her actions and the visuals tell the story. This has some gorgeous cinematography by DP Benedict Neuenfels. I'm amazed by what director Wolfgang Fischer pulled off with this, because it's so utterly gripping and realistic, yet also an invigorating and emotional film. I love seeing films that have minimal dialogue, because they can be even more deeply affecting because the visuals are so powerful, and cinema is a visual medium.
To find all of Alex's Berlinale 2018 reviews and updates: Follow @firstshowing
There are a few other films I want to mention from the line-up this year. Guy Maddin's The Green Fog is a crazy experimental cinematic creation, a 60-minute noir film made entirely from existing footage from other films set in San Francisco. If you love cinema, you have to see this one whenever it shows up at another film festival near you. The Golden Bear winner Touch Me Not directed by Romanian filmmaker Adina Pintilie is a peculiar film, more of an art installation that a full feature film, but it's still an interesting exploration of intimacy. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it either, and I find it curious and creative more than anything. Two other documentaries I loved: Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., about the controversial musician (read my full review); and Lauren Greenfield's Generation Wealth, which played at the Sundance Film Festival as well. Generation Wealth is a frightening look at America's obsession with money and greed, and how this might be its downfall. I highly recommend seeing both of these docs. And most of the films from Berlinale anyway.
You can find all our Berlinale 2018 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, my 5th year in a row attending this wunderbar festival. I'll be back next year.
Here's my final list of all the films I saw at the 2018 festival with quick reaction. Links go to reviews/tweets.
Alex's Berlinale 2018 Films:
1. Isle of Dogs (dir. Wes Anderson) - Loved It
2. The Silent Revolution (dir. Lars Kraume) - Liked It
3. The Bookshop (dir. Isabel Coixet) - Just Okay
4. Black 47 (dir. Lance Daly) - Hated It
5. The Happy Prince (dir. Rupert Everett) - Hated It
6. Eva (dir. Benoît Jacquot) - Hated It
7. Dovlatov (dir. Aleksey German) - Just Okay
8. Transit (dir. Christian Petzold) - Loved It
9. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (dir. Stephen Loveridge) - Loved It
10. Profile (dir. Timur Bekmambetov) - Loved It
11. Daughter of Mine (dir. Laura Bispuri) - Liked It
12. The Real Estate (dirs. Måns Månsson & Axel Petersén) - Hated It
13. Becoming Astrid (dir. Pernille Fischer Christensen) - Liked It
14. 7 Days in Entebbe (dir. José Padilha) - Liked It
15. Utøya: 22 July (dir. Erik Poppe) - Loved It
16. 3 Days in Quiberon (dir. Emily Atef) - Just Okay
17. Die Tomorrow (dir. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit) - Loved It
18. Generation Wealth (dir. Lauren Greenfield) - Loved It
19. Shut Up and Play the Piano (dir. Philipp Jedicke) - LOVED It
20. Khook (Pig) (dir. Mani Haghighi) - Liked It
21. Unsane (dir. Steven Soderbergh) - Liked It
22. My Brother's Name is Robert and He is an Idiot (dir. Philip Gröning) - HATED It
23. Madeline's Madeline (dir. Josephine Decker) - Just Okay
24. The Interpreter (dir. Martin Sulík) - Liked It
25. Touch Me Not (dir. Adina Pintilie) - Liked It
26. Museo (dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios) - Loved It
27. Fake Tattoos (dir. Pascal Plante) - Liked It
28. Hard Paint (dirs. Filipe Matzembacher & Marcio Reolon) - Liked It
29. Twarz (Mug) (dir. Malgorzata Szumowska) - Loved It
30. In the Aisles (dir. Thomas Stuber) - Loved It
31. Garbage (dir. Qaushiq Mukherjee) - Hated It
32. In the Realm of Perfection (dir. Julien Faraut) - Loved It
33. L'Animale (dir. Katharina Mückstein) - Loved It
34. The Green Fog (dirs. Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, Guy Maddin) - Loved It
35. Styx (dir. Wolfgang Fischer) - Loved It