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.
"'She is an enchantress!' cried Bertalda; 'a witch, that has intercourse with evil spirits. She acknowledges it herself.'" We can always trust in German filmmaker Christian Petzold to make an interesting film no matter what. Undine is his latest feature film, following his acclaimed film Transit from two years ago. It is indeed based on the classic fairy tale of the same name, originally a German novella written by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué in the early 1800s. The story is about a water spirit named Undine, who marries a knight named Huldebrand in order to gain a soul. The classic romance has been updated in modern times (see: Colin Farrell in Ondine) about a water spirit who must return to the water at some point in her life, usually related to being in love. And in Christian Petzold's Undine, her story also involves a great deal of romance.
Doesn't matter if it's man or machine, you can fall in love with anything. And that's okay. Jumbo has one of those crazy weird concepts that either shouldn't work at all, or seemingly fits right in with the rest of The Asylum's ridiculous filmography. But, somehow, it works. Which ultimately is a testament to writer/director Zoé Wittock and her skills as a filmmaker. Jumbo originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and also played at the Berlin Film Festival. And it damn well deserves to be in both of the fests because it's a uniquely original, surprisingly serious, and impressive feature about a French woman who falls in love with a theme park ride she calls "Jumbo". It's yet another new fresh twist on the classic 80s coming-of-age romance, with a few cliche moments that end up being fun because it's not any human partner she's chasing.
As another film festival comes to an end, it's time to celebrate and commemorate with the announcement of the awards. The 70th 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 There Is No Evil, directed by Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who was not allowed to leave his country to attend the festival. Hence the cell phone photo of him with the award seen above. The film explores themes of moral strength and the death penalty that ask to what extent individual freedom can be expressed under a despotic regime. It was the very last film to screen after everything else. Full list below.
This is one of the most beautiful documentaries I have ever seen. Without a doubt. I need to start with that statement. Everyone's personal definition of what is "beautiful" is different, but I think this is one time we can all agree that this film is objectively beautiful. Little Girl is yet another festival film that I can't get out of my head, and will likely never forget, for a number of beguiling reasons. The way the filmmakers tell this story so sensitively, with so much care and with so much integrity and so much reassurance, is part of it. But it's also just a staggering film about one young girl who is beautiful inside and out. And the filmmakers are telling her story so that we can learn from her, so that we can push society forward by learning to evolve our compassion. And push us to step away from toxic stereotypes that have plagued this planet for far too long.
"It's a sad and stupid thing to have to proclaim yourself a revolutionary just to be a decent man." What kind of world do we live in where being decent is an impossibility? That's the question this film answers. I had a good feeling about this beforehand, but it still exceeded my expectations in every possible way. I will never forget watching this at a packed press screening at 8 o'clock in the morning at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. Burhan Qurbani's Berlin Alexanderplatz is an utterly phenomenal film, an astonishing work of profound cinema and empathetic storytelling that hit me deep in my gut. It is 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. It may be three hours long, but all of it is vital. There is not a single frame or any specific scene in this I would change.
The iconic Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson passed away with a few years ago, but he has left us with something timeless and extraordinary – an awe-inspiring work of cinematic brilliance, both aurally and visually. Last and First Men is a 70-minute documentary feature that Jóhannsson originally created as a visual piece to accompany his live concerts. The finished "documentary" film was put together by Icelandic producer Thor Sigurjonsson and Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, and it has just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival – two years after his death. Maybe it helped that I was deliriously tired (film fest exhaustion) when I watched this but… This is one of the most entrancing cinematic experiences I have ever had. I feel like I stopped caring about time and was completely lost in the footage and the music and the words. My mind melded with the screen on this journey. I loved every last second of this experience.
This film is one of the finest discoveries at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. Mogul Mowgli is an outstanding gem of a film, made authentically by genuine artists giving it their all. It's a remarkable relief to come across a film so surprising yet so entirely refreshing and engaging, that's an unforgettable experience to watch, and I can't help but rave about it when this happens. Mogul Mowgli is one of my favorite surprises at Berlinale this year. A few of my colleagues mentioned it as a film on their schedule and I looked it up, saw that it stars Riz Ahmed as a rapper, and decided to give it a look. I have high hopes that the film will find an audience outside of the film festival circuit, and connect with many people. It doesn't matter where you come from or what religion you follow, this film is about an artist wanting it all struggling with the painful realities of life.
I would really, really like an oily biscuit with honey and a touch of cinnamon after finishing this film. Please. First Cow is the latest feature made by American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (of Old Joy, Meek's Cutoff, Night Moves). After initially premiering at the Telluride & New York Film Festivals last fall, it has made an appearance at the Berlin Film Festival this year showing as a European premiere in the main competition section. Set at the beginning of the 19th century in the rural Northwest (mainly in Oregon), the film is about a friendship and successful local business started by two lonely misfits. It's not just a film about a cow, it's not just a film about friends, and it's not just a film about the Northwest frontier. It has so much depth and heart and humility, an entirely wonderful film. I think I loved it, to be fully honest, which even surprises me.
It is always important to shine a light on stories that remind us of the power of journalism. Not only about all the hard-working, courageous people committed to reporting the stories, but also about the impact it can have on the world. It also goes without saying that photojournalism is just as powerful, if not even moreso sometimes. One image can change the world. This is the ultimate value of this particular film, and the true story it tells. Minamata tells the story of renowned American photographer W. Eugene Smith, who went to Japan in the early 1970s to photograph the inhabitants of a small town being poisoned by a careless, greedy chemical corporation that had a dangerous factory there. It's a very moving, earnest film about the power of photography and the tenacity of journalists. And it won me over big time, unleashing all kinds of emotions.
Willkommen in Berlin! The 70th Berlin Film Festival, also known as Berlinale, has kicked off this week in Berlin, Germany in the center of the city at Potsdamer Platz. This year's festival takes place a few weeks later than usual (instead of back-to-back with Sundance), so they can put some distance between the festival and the Academy Awards yet still sneak in before February ends. This is my seventh year in a row covering this festival, and now that I live in Berlin, it's my "hometown" festival that I get to attend while going home to my own apartment every evening. It's also a pivotal year for Berlinale - not only is it the 70th edition, it's the first festival with a brand new set of co-directors running things - Mariette Rissenbeek & Carlo Chatrian.
"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.