It’s Berlinale again! The time when we stock up on movie snacks and fill our thermoses with extra strong green tea so we can survive entire days spent watching artsy 3-hour epics, gut-wrenching documentaries, and delightfully baffling shorts. Though this year is rather short on star power (we do get jury president Juliette Binoche and honorary Golden Bear recipient Charlotte Rampling) or buzzy titles, this just means we get to dive a little deeper. Looking at the very long program, the obvious highlights are Amazing Grace, a very-long-awaited document of Aretha Franklin’s legendary live gospel album from 1972, new films by French masters François Ozon and Agnès Varda, plus beautifully restored versions of Marlene Dietrich’s nazi-bashing western comedy Destry Rides Again and Gregory Nava’s painfully topical migration epic El Norte from 1984.
Rushing back and forth between screening rooms, anxiously calculating the time needed to get across town to the Zoo Palast (where seats are comfiest) and whether or not there’s time to grab the sandwich with the best value for money, Berlinale becomes a way of life that’s hard to shake in the days afterwards. Suddenly I get sleepy after watching just one movie, feel the urge to check my phone. Not so at the festival, where I feel fully immersed for 90 to 180 minutes at a time, and in the end feel confident enough about my notes and memories that I can recommend at least ten great films which I hope make it to Berlin’s screens (whether small or silver) very soon.
I’ll be honest and admit that, to me, Glühwein and snow are way overrated. Winter as a whole I could do without, tbh. But there’s one reason I don’t skip Berlin for all of its winter months and that’s Berlinale. For ten glorious days, at any time of day, we have our pick of dozens of different films. Most are from corners of the world I’ve not yet explored (Burma! Paraguay! the Democratic Republic of the Congo!), though there’s also Perspektive, an entire program of homegrown German titles (with English subtitles, of course, like all non-English films in the festival).
One of the best things to do in Berlin in summer is to enjoy a great film en plain air. Luckily, we don’t only have a great variety of open air cinemas that screen original versions, but the locations are pretty amazing as well. Try the Freiluftkino Kreuzberg at Mariannenplatz for example, or enjoy a movie night in the park, surrounded by nature at Freiluftkino Hasenheide. The cutest and most urban of them all is the backyard cinema at the not-yet-gentrified Schwarzenberg Höfe in the middle of the posh Hackesche Höfe area. Here, Stil in Berlin‘s godchild, the Berlin Art Film Festival, launches its summer open air program with a pretty rad selection of daring Berlin films with English subtitles for five Fridays in a row. Plus, many of the filmmakers will come by for talks after the screenings.
What a luxury it is to immerse yourself fully into a festival as expansive as the Berlinale, or what a wicked recipe for daytime hallucinations. Over the past two weeks, I have seen over 30 films, each of them different enough from the others, bless, that I was in no real danger of starting to mix up the storylines. Only two of them were absolutely dreadful — both in Competition: the hysterically self-important The Dinner and the interminably stoic father-son borefest Bright Nights, which ended up winning an award, shows what I know.
Yet one big theme did emerge from my epic viewings: the importance of getting to be who you are, openly — permitting of course, that you know just who that might be. This theme most obviously surfaced in the two films tracking trans stories below, and of course in the gay stories too, but it also applies to the films about acting, race, and even politics.
Below I list my 10-ish favorite films of the festival, in no particular order, all of which I encourage you to seek out when they finally make their way to Berlin’s cinemas and beyond. I will also of course update this post with all the trailers as they become available, giving you a taste of the intoxicating immersion in images and stories that is the true highlight of my Berlin year (barring those *proper* weeks of summer, of course). [UPDATED: All trailers have been added.]
Casting, Dir. Nicolas Wackerbarth
No one was more surprised than me that the film that most delighted me at this year’s Berlinale was a German comedy. I saw it early on my very first day, and was immediately on board with its sharp satire of the world of acting. Ostensibly, it is the story of a “difficult” director (a sharp Judith Engel) who spends the entire film casting the title role in a TV remake of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and torturing the actresses with a director’s artistic caprice (usually the prerogative of men). Yet the film centers around a former actor (Andreas Lust), who gets roped into being the actresses’ scene partner. Though he’s convinced himself that his acting days are past him, not to mention the poisonous environment of casting calls, the director slowly seduces him back into the thespian fold. And while it’s a cliché that all actors are just blank slates looking for a personality, the way Wackerbarth depicts his crisis of masculinity was affecting and original. By the film’s pitch-perfect ending, I might have even shed a tear!
I Am Not Your Negro, Dir. Raoul Peck
This documentary based on an unfinished book project by the great James Baldwin landed in Berlin with tons of buzz from other festivals (and the director’s Young Marx biopic), delivering on all counts with its incisive intelligence. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film is an sharply drawn portrait of the civil rights era, and of the race divide that still characterizes US society and politics. In a year as fraught with political horror as this one is shaping up to be, Peck marshals all of Baldwin’s fiery rhetoric and powerful black-and-white footage to take a powerful stand against the hate and prejudice still tearing this world apart.
Call Me By Your Name, Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Another film that arrived here in Berlin all a-buzzing was this sun-kissed André Aciman adaptation about a summer romance between a teenager (newcomer Timothée Chalamet) and his father’s grad student (Armie Hammer). While some may criticize it for the age difference between its protagonists (or the fact that they are played by straight actors) or for the rather privileged existence they seem to lead, I found myself helplessly enchanted. Perhaps this is me being conditioned by screenwriter James Ivory’s earlier work like the E.M. Forster adaptations Maurice and A Room with a View, which I was bit obsessed with as a teenager, so sumptuous romantic dramas in gorgeously appointed Italian villas and lots of male pining might just be my jam. Add to that some choice new Sufjan Stevens tunes and I was basically a swooning mess by the time the moving final act unfolded (until deep into the credits).
The Wound, Dir. John Trengove
With an ending that fairly chilled even an audience of mostly critics, Trengove’s film about the clash between tribal tradition and urban modernity was the surprise of the festival for me. Set during a multi-day Xhosa initiation (and circumcision) ceremony in the South African mountains, the film juxtaposes not just the different approaches to masculinity that one would expect in a film about the making of men in contemporary Africa, but also the different ways that same-sex desire is (or is not) acted upon. Nakhane Touré, who plays the caretaker of the most spoiled and vulnerable of the boys (Niza Jay Ncoyini) undergoing the ritual, does so in such an understated way that he cannot help but draw the viewer in deep as the film draws closer and closer to its tense ending.
God’s Own Country, Dir. Francis Lee
This is the Brexit Brokeback Mountain we’ve been waiting for. Set in a forbidding version of Yorkshire, the film follows a frustrated young farmer (Josh O’Connor) as he cannot help but fall under the spell of a gorgeous (and furry) Romanian migrant worker (Alec Secareanu). One can only hope that, just as the farmer eventually overcomes his resentment (and daddy issues) and embraces his continental co-worker, the UK also comes to its senses and grovels its way back into the EU’s hairy arms
City of the Sun, Dir: Rati Oneli
Perhaps the odd one out in this list of films about identity (politics), City of the Sun is a comprehensive and warm-hearted portrait of a city that survives despite decades of deprivation. Set in Chiatura, Georgia, it drops in on the lives of the people still living in this otherwise mostly abandoned mining town (which once supplied 50% of the world’s supply of the metal manganese). From one of the last few miners (who doubles as theatre actor) and the town’s music teacher (who doubles as a wedding singer), to the two young athletes who are training at the local running track (and winning prizes) despite the fact that they are consistently undernourished, Onelli captures that “poor people” resilience that is so often praised in festival/arthouse reviews. Yet what sticks with me after watching this beautifully composed and observed film (no gritty poverty porn this) is mostly a sadness for the many communities that got lost in the great European reshuffle after the Wall came down.
Close-Knit, Dir. Naoko Ogigami
As the 11-year-old Tomo (Rin Kakihara) is left home alone once again by her unreliable mother, she makes her way to her uncle’s house, where she is introduced to his girlfriend, Rinko, who just happens to be trans. Played by cis-gendered heartthrob Tôma Ikuta, Rinko quickly wins Tomo’s affections with hugs and adorable lunch boxes, yet the character does not completely shift into some kind of trans saint, as her struggles with her own body, emotions, and family are tackled head on. This heartwarming study on what makes a mother was the cuddliest I saw at the festival. Not only in the huggy sense, but in the way that it showed just how hale and hearty families can emerge in the most variegated constellations.
Politics, Instructions Manual, Dir. Fernando León de Aranoa
You might not think you want to see a two-hour fly-on-the-wall documentary about a Spanish political party, but I can honestly think of no better way to learn about the struggles that face all of us in Western Europe as we prepare to face off the undeniable (and unpardonable) forces of right-wing populism in elections all over the continent this year. A portrait of Podemos, the political party (and social movement) that emerged in austerity-troubled Spain in 2015 only to quickly become the third-biggest party in the country, this film doesn’t shy away from the divisive (and potentially dull) discussions that are involved in building up a political platform (and agenda) out of an improvised collection of charismatic voices (in this case Íñigo Errejón, Pablo Iglesias, and Pablo Echenique). Cut down from 500 hours of raw footage, the director may show just how much harder it is to say “yes, we can” than to actually do it, but in its depiction of pure idealism and gung-ho activism, the result is certainly inspiring.
Una Mujer Fantastica, Dir: Sebastián Lelio
With a star-making performance by trans actress Daniela Vega at its throbbing heart, this colorful film is not quite the trans revenge film we have been praying for. Instead it’s more than that, a portrait of grace and will under fire. Vega plays Marina, a nightclub singer who finds herself kicked out of her her home when her older boyfriend suddenly dies and his family refuses to acknowledge her existence (or her gender). Though she is at first subjected to humiliation, director Lelio is no Von Trier, and his heroine will not sacrifice herself as some tragic proof of society’s indignities. Instead, she takes a powerful stand, making for a transformative cinematic experience that was the absolute highlight of the Competition.
Small Talk, Dir. Hui-Chen Huang
As noted above, I saw some wonderful documentaries at the festival, and I would be remiss if I didn’t also flag Strong Island, Yance Ford’s devastating tribute to her gunned-down brother (UPDATE: Now on German Netflix!), Chavela (Dirs. Catherine Gund & Daresha Kyi), the fabulous portrait of the powerful (and gloriously butch) singer, and Adriana’s Pact, Lissette Orozco’s exploration of her aunt’s role in Pinochet’s bloody regime, as being more than worthy of your attention, should you get a chance to see them. Yet the last film on this list has to be this insistent study of the director’s reticent mother. In a series of mostly aborted interviews, Huang tries to get at the heart of why her mother left her father and how she ended up working as a mourner-for-hire. With great patience and no end of frustration, the story that emerges is all too human, and entirely of a piece with some of the other stories I so enjoyed at the Berlinale this year.