In a past life, I wrote log lines. What that means is that I used to read movie scripts and then distill them into one or two-line synopses. “After a young librarian finds a mysterious scroll, she embarks on an arduous quest that will reunite her with both her long-lost father and her missing poodle.” Things like that. If anything, it’s instilled in me a great admiration for the movie pitch and made me a great, if ambivalent, reader of film festival programs.
Like, who isn’t intrigued by this line from the synopsis of Estonian film Free Range? “He loses his job at a newspaper because his review of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is peppered with monosyllabic expletives.” Or who could not be charmed by this progression of lines? “Johan, a little hare, wants his mother back. Every day he sends her wistful messages in a bottle. He lives with his father on a cutter on the high seas”. What’s that bunny doing on a boat?! You can find out if you score a ticket for Beyond Beyond, a Danish 3D animation with a bit of buzz behind it.
Now, you’ll be able to catch The Monuments Men, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and even Snowpiercer soon enough, so skip those for now. We’ll make an exception for the uncut first part of Nymphomaniac, as it’s yet unclear where you’ll be able to see it with all those digitally pieced-in genitalia intact. (Having seen the full two parts in their ‘censored’ state over Christmas, I’m not sure what a few extra cocks could add to an already very smart and funny filmic essay on gender and cinema.) Below you’ll find seven more low-profile Berlinale films or events that caught my eye for one reason or another. Some come with the requisite ‘buzz’ from festivals like Sundance, others involve filmmakers I’ve come to trust implicitly over years of filmestivalling for fun.
The buoyant music and lyrical genius of Belle & Sebastian is translated to the silver screen in the directorial debut of the band’s Stuart Murdoch. Some might derisively describe this as Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The Musical, while people of a less cynical disposition should be eager to sit down and bask in a modern musical about the healing powers of pop. Advance word from Sundance was almost uniformly positive.
While volunteering at the Rotterdam Film Festival back in 1998, I saw Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong, a low-budget but intensely colorful film that struck a chord, though it was anything but perfect. A few years later, he made the delightful Dumplings, a horror film that might very possibly put you off dim sum for life. This year, he’s here with a apocalyptic tale set in a stunningly deserted Hong Kong.
It’s every flea-market fan’s dream, buying a mysterious box and finding a treasure. This one came in the form of 100.000 negatives and slides made by Vivian Maier, an unknown nanny whose witty street shots has made her a Tumblr favorite and a sudden star in the world of photography. This film covers that discovery and tries to uncover who Maier was.
From the director of the terrifying Darwin’s Nightmare, which explored the effects of globalization on impoverished Tanzania, comes a new documentary set in Africa. This time he helped design a tiny airplane that took him all over troubled Sudan, where he studies the thin line between the humanitarian efforts and corporate investment. The most intriguing line of the synopsis? “He visits Chinese crude oil workers in their barracks as they watch the German science fiction series Raumpatrouille Orion”. The film’s gorgeous images and haunting music reportedly only underscore its terrifying message.
The Berlinale stands out in the way it always includes LGBT content in all the main programs, never segregating films about gay or trans subject to the festival’s ‘midnight movie’ or gay ghetto. Of the many interesting such films this year, the one that stood out for me was this poolside love triangle of Brazilian teens set to indie pop (Belle & Sebastian, again).
In another past life, I got to write about film in the 1950s, which prompted endless trips to the Amerika Gedenkbibliothek to take out DVDs and immerse myself in Cold War-era cinema. One of my favorite finds was the work of Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, whose Apu Trilogy was so fresh, so modern, and so unexpected that this newly restored digital print of Nayak (The Hero), which first played here in 1966, is at the top of my list this year. Depicting 24 hours in the life of the matinee idol pictured above, the film is set on a train and should provide a unique glimpse of celebrity and fame in 1960s India.
with Greta Gerwig, Michel Gondry, James Schamus
A less familiar part of the Berlinale is its Talent Campus, where young filmmakers from around the world get the chance to network and come face to face with film professionals for the necessary dose of real talk. Though not all their masterclasses are open to the public, in past years I’ve gotten the opportunity to bask in the presence of Jane Campion (The Piano, Top of the Lake) and Isabella Rossellini (ISABELLA ROSSELLINI). This year, through some telepathic twist of fate, the Talent Campus has brought together three geniuses behind three of my favorite films of all time: James Schamus (The Ice Storm!), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind!) and Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha!). They’ll be discussing the importance of getting your beginnings right.