"Good cinema is good cinema." -Agnes Varda. Looking back at the 69th Berlin Film Festival this year, there honestly weren't that many great films. A few really stood out (like Golden Bear winner Synonyms), but in general the line-up was pretty dismal. Even the competition selection was mostly awful. I saw a total of 24 films over 10 days at Berlinale 2019, and looking back over them, my favorites were all documentaries. So to recap Berlinale this year, I put together a list of my 5 favorite docs which also happen to be 5 excellent films that are very much worth watching. It's always hard to convince people (anyone, really) to watch a documentary. So the least I can do is highlight my favorites and try to explain why they're good. If you have time, watch all five, but if not, at least watch one of them - I guarantee you'll be enriched by these fine films.
There's something strange in the neighborhood, someone new and just a bit weird. Synonyms is the latest film from Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid (Emile's Girlfriend, Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher), co-produced by German filmmaker Maren Ade, and it premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival (where it also won the Golden Bear top prize). I caught this film during the festival and I must say - I have never seen anything like it before, which is always impressive. Synonyms is a very weird, wild, funny, odd, satirical French-Israeli dark comedy of sorts. It's hard to describe, and even harder to understand after an initial viewing, but the more I talk about it and play scenes back in my mind, the more I admire its boldness.
As another film festival comes to an end, it's time to celebrate and commemorate with the announcement of the awards. The 69th 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 Synonyms, directed by Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid (seen above), regarded by most critics as the best of the fest anyway. It's a French-Israeli dramatic satire set in Paris that's about the difficulties of immigration and integration. Other big winners include François Ozon's By the Grace of God about abusive priests, and the documentary Talking About Trees covering Sudanese cinema. Full list of the winners below.
One of the most fascinating discoveries of the Berlin Film Festival this year is a German dark comedy titled O Beautiful Night, which is the feature directorial debut of a German animator and/or filmmaker named Xaver Böhm. This stylish, neon-drench indie is about a lonely, nihilistic kid named Juri who is greeted by a guy who identifies himself as Death - a spiny, chain-smoking, crack-head with a tiny scythe necklace who first encounters Juri inside one of those smoky automated casino joints (which are all around Germany). He takes him on a late night adventure around town, stopping to get drugs, win money, and finally to get drinks at a bar. It's actually a cool concept for a film - not necessarily that original, but nicely refreshed this time.
Lord Almighty this film is magic, just pure musical magic. Aretha Franklin is a goddess. But we all know that already, right? She is truly one of the greatest singers of all time. The moment she opens her mouth and begins to sing, everything else in the world suddenly goes quiet, there's peace and harmony, you can feel this great power of calm and goodness. Amazing Grace is a long lost film from 1972, finally fully restored and released for us to bask in glory and brilliance. I had the pleasure of watching this documentary film at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, and it's just wonderful. Watching this joyful performance filled me with so much goodness and happiness and all I wanted to do after is dance around the streets all day. Can I get an Amen?
"If we opened people up, we'd find landscapes." Agnès Varda is a genuine master. She is unquestionably of the greatest filmmakers, storytellers, and artists to ever live - there's really no debating this. It may have taken decades for everyone to catch up with and learn about her (and discover her work), but now we all know the truth, and gosh darnity she's still making more films (even at age 90). Varda by Agnès is a new documentary made by Agnès Varda looking back at her entire life as a filmmaker and artist. It's a beautiful examination of the inspiration and explanations behind some of her work (in cinema & in art) she created throughout her life. She has an immaculate understanding of cinema, and shares some of her insights here (but not all of them, of course) and it's an utter joy to watch her talk for nearly two hours. Varda is the best.
Norwegian filmmaker Hans Petter Moland continues to impress me with every new film he makes. Even if it's not the best film, even if it has some issues or falls apart with a story that doesn't amount to much, his work is still remarkably compelling and gorgeous to watch. He's a true master of cinematic visuals and gives us such evocative imagery in every film, making it seem like it's so easy to capture such stunning beauty to accentuate his storytelling. Out Stealing Horses, originally titled Ut og stjæle hester in Norwegian, is the latest film by Hans Petter Moland who reteams with Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård (they last made the film In Order of Disappearance together, which also premiered at Berlinale in 2014). There are some good ideas in this, but alas it doesn't amount to much despite intriguing layered storytelling. Which is a let down.
One of the international highlights at both the Berlin and Sundance Film Festivals this year is a Colombian thriller titled Monos, the second feature film from director Alejandro Landes (born in Brazil, raised in Ecuador and Colombia; his first feature was Porfirio in 2011). The strength of this fantastic film lies in its simplicity, and its stunning dream-like feel that makes it a rush to watch. The official description is just as vague as the film: On a faraway mountaintop, eight kids with guns watch over a hostage and a conscripted milk cow. We follow as they progress deeper and deeper, yet nothing is revealed (in an obvious way) about the context of what they're doing or why they're doing it. And that vagueness works well when the film itself is as vigorous and compelling as this one, making it all the more enthralling to experience on the big screen.
There's only so much screaming one can deal with before they go crazy, too. And this film seriously comes close to crossing that line. System Crasher, also known as Systemsprenger, is a very intense German drama about a young girl with serious anger issues who often blows up and gets really, really crazy. It's a meaningful, well-made feature film that attempts to examine the challenges of working with a child known as a "system crasher" but unfortunately it's a one-note story that never turns the page. There's no character arc or story development or anything beyond the basics, beyond the initial introduction and then two hours of screaming and yelling and temper tantrums. There are numerous attempts at making some progress, but nothing works. And after a while it gets a bit tiring and frustrating - which is the point of it the film, I guess.
"I don't know anything about life, but everything about cinema." From one film festival this January, right into another. The 69th Berlin Film Festival, also known as Berlinale, has kicked off this week in Berlin, Germany. Due to a change in the timing of the Sundance Film Festival, that festival ended and then only a few days later the Berlin Film Festival started up. Meaning for those of who go to both festivals (which isn't many people but there's a few of us out there) we didn't have any time to rest or recover. I hopped on the plane Monday afternoon in Salt Lake City and flew right over to Berlin, spending a few nights trying to get properly adjusted to this time zone (it didn't really work) while also figuring out and preparing my schedule for Berlinale. What is there to see? Well, not much. The line-up this year honestly isn't that exciting (to me).
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 strives to be different.