Berlinale 2020: My 6 Favorite Films at This Year's Fest - Docs & More
by Alex Billington
March 4, 2020
Cinema lives on! "This is a very special tribe of people. Workers? Yes. But also believers: in the magic & the power of storytelling." -Helen Mirren. The 70th Berlin Film Festival (aka Berlinale) has wrapped up in Berlin, offering a bevy of fine films for cinephiles to enjoy and analyze. To recap the festival this year, I've put together a quick list of my six favorite films at Berlinale 2020 - a mix of documentaries and features. Last year, I only wrote about my favorite docs because everything else wasn't good, but this year I was happy to come across some marvelous narrative films that left a strong impression on me. And I have to mention these, along with my favorite docs, because I hope these films will break out of the festival circuit and reach audiences worldwide. They deserve that chance, and they deserve to be seen, give them a look when you can.
While I saw many films that I enjoyed (my full list of everything on Letterboxd here), there were quite a few I missed even though I heard good things about them. But these are my favorites from this year's festival that I did get to see. At Berlinale 2020, I watched a total of 30 films at festival showings, and also caught another 3 before it began at pre-screenings in Berlin. Crazy enough, I missed seeing the Golden Bear winner There Is No Evil, which was the very last press screening of the entire festival. But I'm looking forward to catching up with it soon (perhaps at another fest?). In the meantime, keep an eye out for these films below. And if you haven't read it yet, this editorial about the future of cinema from Michael Koresky is a must read.
Directed by Bassam Tariq
This is one of the best discoveries at this year's Berlin Film Festival. I had no idea this film existed until the day before the screening. Now I'm a big fan, telling everyone about it, hoping my raving will convince more people to go see it. And hopefully it will get distribution worldwide. Mogul Mowgli is an outstanding gem of a film, made authentically by genuine artists giving it their all. Riz Ahmed, who has dabbled in rap before, stars as Zed in a seriously unforgettable performance that shows just how capable and skillful he is. He plays a British Pakistani rapper who struggles with a debilitating illness that breaks him down right as he's about to break out big. The rap performances Zed gives are exhilarating (and not just at a concert). The lyrics are legitimately brilliant combined with jaw-dropping perfect delivery. It's also a very sincere and introspective film, somber and sad at times, but with an edge to it that is immensely inspiring. Any artist can connect with Zed and his desire to succeed, to end up where you want to be without sacrificing your integrity to get there.
Last and First Men
Directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson
Film festivals are not only about seeing films, it's also about the experience of sitting in a cinema with an audience and being treated to a work of visual art projected on the screen in front of us. This is one of the most entrancing cinematic experiences I have ever had at a festival. I feel like I stopped caring about time and was completely lost in the screen and the music and the words. My mind is melted. I loved every second of Last and First Men, which is the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's first and only film. It's my kind of mind-expanding existential cinema. A perfect harmony of awe-inspiring philosophical narration, mesmerizing grainy B&W abstract cinematography, and Jóhannsson's profoundly stunning, chilling music. When that ethereal score comes sweeping in at big moments, its an adrenaline rush. Watching this film gave me the chills. I want to sit through it all over again right away, and lose myself in the wonder and awe of it. Get wrapped up in the fascination of contemplating the cosmos and humanity and our place in the universe.
Directed by Burhan Qurbani
This film is a masterpiece. It's phenomenal. Maybe I am alone in thinking this, but honestly I don't care. It left me floored. The best comparison I can make is to say that it's as extraordinary as City of God (a film which changed my life and opened my mind to the glory of indie cinema). It's an epic saga in the life of one man, and one of the best examinations of modern Berlin and the way the city treats immigrants. There is not a single frame or a single scene in this I would change. Every scene has a purpose, and a point. All power to writer / director Burhan Qurbani, a German filmmaker whose family immigrated from Afghanistan, who put everything into this and delivered (what I think is) a masterpiece. The depths it reaches are profound; a masterfully conceived, and confidently crafted cinematic commentary on racism and the eternal struggle for goodness in modern society. The story of a decent man who tries so hard to be good in an indecent world that chews up & spits out decent men. Watch out for Welket Bungué as Francis in a stellar performance.
Little Girl (Petite Fille)
Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz
This is one of the most beautiful documentaries I have ever seen. It is the epitome of empathetic, sensitive, compassionate filmmaking that actually has the power to change society. Really, truly. I believe this film is that moving. Little Girl is about a young French girl-in-a-boys-body named Sasha, and how her family lets her be her. So wonderfully touching and such a powerful example of how parents should be – learning and growing. This film is really as exceptional as something like Dear Zachary, in the way it's such a beautifully told story about parenting (though not as tragic as that). And it will definitely earn that kind of legendary status. I can see this going all the way to the Oscars, and then becoming a prominent example used to teach people how to be more open-minded. Hands down one of the best doc films of this year. The music they use throughout, and the scenes they decide to show after filming so much of the family, makes it unforgettable.
Anne at 13,000 Ft
Directed by Kazik Radwanski
I first heard about this film when critics raved about it playing at the Toronto Film Festival last fall. I finally caught up with it at Berlinale and wowwww. Director Kazik Radwanski's film Anne at 13,000 Ft is the total breath of fresh air I was hoping it would be. The opening title shot is so creatively edited, it sets the stage and establishes what this film is and can be in one specific shot. Perfection. The whole film is concise and enthralling. A shot of adrenaline of cinema if you embrace the jump with her. Strap in, and take a deep breath, go for it. I think the experience of getting lost in the film is what makes it a true experience to watch. Go see it in a cinema. I enjoyed it so much and I love how artistic & creative everything is. A unique coming-of-age about a 30-something woman figuring things out, played ferociously by Deragh Campbell. The way it's shot, and the intimacy of the film, and how it ends at the right moment after 75 minutes is exceptional.
Directed by Susanne Regina Meures
One of the best documentaries in 2020 so far – as amazing as For Sama or The Cave from last year (both of which ended up with Oscar nominations). Produced by Christian Frei, of the acclaimed docs Raving Iran, Genesis 2.0, and Space Tourists previously. Saudi Runaway is a compelling, beautiful documentary about a young Saudi woman secretly filming her escape from the horrifying clutches of her own dangerous family / oppressive life in an extremely religious anti-woman society. The story itself is gripping but the film also has so many gorgeous shots. This is what impressed me so much - it's not just a story about this woman, she's also a fantastic cinematographer / filmmaker and the way she captures different moments is breathtaking. All the shots of the birds in the film are the best. It's yet another documentary made in the Middle East that will make you utter "wow" out loud while watching. It may be scary at times, but it's a must watch doc film.
I also recommend from Berlinale: Kelly Reichardt's First Cow, Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Gil Baroni's Alice Júnior, Agnieszka Holland's Charlatan, Zoé Wittock's Jumbo, Andrew Levitas' Minamata, Stéphanie Chuat & Véronique Reymond's My Little Sister, and Yoon Sung-hyun's Time to Hunt.
To find all of Alex's Berlinale 2020 reviews and updates: Follow @firstshowing
You can find all our Berlinale 2020 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, my 6th year in a row at this festival. We'll be back again next year, as always. You can also find my thoughts on every film I saw during the festival posted on my Letterboxd account here. For more info on the festival and all of the films that have played there, visit Berlinale.de. I'm excited about attending every festival, and always hope for the best. There's always good films to discover in the line-up, incredibly unique cinema, and as long as you keep watching more you'll come across them. I hope these six films (and others) will reach audiences all over the world. They deserve to be seen by audiences of all kinds.