It’s been a year since we were discussing whether Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is high-art epiphany or pretentious trash, and what to make of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s take on Fifty Shades.
Yep, the Berlin International Film Festival has rolled around again, and as Potsdamer Platz becomes a hub for international film fans, we’ve hand-picked 20 of the Berlinale flicks that should have us talking this February.
From the whimsical to the downright political, the Berlinale is certainly known to premiere some thought-provoking films, and this year is no exception. Be it a feature directed by eight children living in refugee camps on the Syria-Iraq border, a look at the psychological impact of drone warfare, or a modern tale of Chicago crime, this year’s selection reflects the current global climate.
Without further ado, here are the 20 films we’re looking forward to from this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
Director: Spike Lee
While Lee’s new flick has already seen a U.S. release, Chi-Raq saw its international premiere at the Berlinale. Based on the classical Greek comedy Lysistrata, it depicts a Chicago so messed up by gun crime that the wives and girlfriends of South Side gangsters embark on a sex strike in a bid to halt the violence.
Chance the Rapper has labelled Chi-Raq an exploitative venture put together by outsiders who have no experience of life in the city. “You don’t do any work with the children of Chicago, you don’t live here, you’ve never watched someone die here,” the rapper tweeted. Yet, Lee’s new film has still been hailed as his best in years.
Starve Your Dog
Director: Hicham Lavri
Exploding with saturated color and hallucinogenic imagery, the low-budget docudrama from Moroccan director Hicham Lasri follows a journalist’s attempt to interview Driss Basri, a former minister, about that regime’s dicey underbelly.
Set in the streets of Casablanca, the surreal flick quotes Shakespeare and Daft Punk and – even if the political messages for non-Moroccans are hard to get – it’s mad pretentiousness at its best.
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
In the works for nearly 10 years, the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (initially intended as the final leg of their “Numbskull Trilogy”) has finally surfaced. It’s about a fixer in Hollywood circa 1950 who works for the studios to protect the stars of the day.
We all know Clooney, Swinton and Fiennes have the chops for serving up a Joel and Ethan special, but we’re finding ourselves strangely excited at the prospect of the bros directing Channing Tatum. And yet here we are: After C-Tates’ 21 Jump Street gig and his work with Steven Soderbergh, we can’t wait to see what the Coens do with him…
Director: Michael Grandage
Grandage makes his first foray behind the camera for this study of author Thomas Wolfe’s relationship with his editor (also editor for Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald), starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth and based on A. Scott Berg’s biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.
With Grandage directing a script from Golden Globe winner John Logan (whose credits include Gladiator and Skyfall) it’s looking like a pretty solid win.
Director: Sonia Kennebeck
Kennebeck’s documentary, which offers the rare perspective of female veterans, tells the story of three people whose first job was to kill, and who are struggling to continue living with this haunting experience.
At the same time, the film explores how combat drones have altered modern warfare, the moral challenges of automated assassination, and the whistleblowing that is born out of military cover-ups.
Director: Lewis Klahr
Fresh off its sold-out world premiere at MoMA, Sixty Six is the latest entry in master collagist Lewis Klahr’s “Prolix Satori” digital series. Using material from his own huge archive, the film blends cutout animation, crazy sound, Greek mythology, superheroes, film noir, and the pulp novels of the 1960s.
Created over 13 years, a dozen episodes make up this trippy, down-the-rabbit-hole moment in film, blurring the boundaries between cinema and video art.
Director: Jeff Nichols
In the sci-fi thriller, writer-director Nichols proves again that he is one of the most compelling storytellers of our time, as a father played by Michael Shannon (who played a man haunted by apocalyptic visions in Nichols’ Take Shelter) goes on the run with his son, whose special powers make him a target of government agents.
Now with a bigger budget and canvas, Nichols is stepping up to the big leagues in a major way. The effects look kind of cheap, but Nichols is yet to disappoint…
Alone in Berlin
Director: Vincent Perez
Adapted from Hans Fallada’s novel, which was described by Primo Levi as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis,” Otto and Anna are a working-class couple living in a shabby Berlin apartment trying to stay out of trouble under Nazi rule. But when their only child is killed fighting at the front, they start to drop anonymous postcards all over the city attacking Hitler and his regime. The cast is headed by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson.
Director: Don Cheadle
Miles Ahead probably isn’t an epic for the ages but it is undeniably pretty cool. Cheadle nails the swagger and his admiration for Miles is evident.
Those who know Davis’ music well will be able to pick important collaborators out of the background: Hey, that’s Bill Evans. Hey, that’s Wayne Shorter. But if your goal in watching is to come away with a comprehensive understanding of Miles Davis’ life, you’ll be disappointed.
Shepherds and Butchers
Director: Steeve Coogan
Worlds apart from his Alan Partridge days, Coogan, who starred in, co-wrote and produced the Oscar-nominated Philomena, now plays hot-shot lawyer John Weber who faces his biggest test when he agrees to defend a South African prison guard who has killed seven men. What ensues is a compelling look at racial injustice and a charge against the death penalty itself.
Director: Daniil Zinchenko
As a Russian video artist, Zinchenko has already gained recognition for work imbued with the legacy of Soviet-era cosmism. Full of striking imagery, the wryly humorous Elixir is set in a forest where guerrillas roam about in a kind of swampland for lost souls, while a scientist working on an elixir seeks out their DNA as a vital ingredient.
Boris Without Beatrice
Director: Denis Côté
After winning Best Director at Locarno for All That She Wants and again for Curling, Côté went to Sundance with the 2012 documentary Bestiaire and then scooped up the Berlin Alfred Bauer Award in 2013 for Vic+Flo Saw a Bear.
His latest flick concerns businessman Boris Malinovsky, whose depressed, bedridden wife prompts him into a string of affairs, before beautiful, ugly Denis Lavant turns up to show him what’s what.
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
With a career resurgence following The Hunt, Vinterberg’s latest follows a 1970s academic couple who join a commune in Hellerup with their daughter. Things get interesting when the patriarch’s girlfriend also moves in.
The Danish filmmaker has often dabbled in despair; now he’s looking at a wife and mother’s world falling out from under her and her teenage daughter’s sexual coming of age at the same time.
Death In Sarajevo
Director: Danis Tanovic
Tanovic – best known for No Man’s Land, which won best screenplay at Cannes, and a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best foreign-language film – is back at the Berlinale three years after winning two Silver Bears with An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker.
His latest is based on the play “Hotel Europe” by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. Shot entirely in Tanovic’s hometown of Sarajevo – it’s at least worth checking out if only for the aesthetics.
A Quiet Passion
Director: Terence Davies
Who was Emily Dickinson? What kind of a person lurked behind the introverted poet who spent her life on her parents’ estate in Massachusetts?
A lot has been written about Dickinson’s life and following his massively romantic Sunset Song, Terence Davies is now presenting his biopic with Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon in the lead role. With an eye for misfit melancholy, his vision is one to anticipate.
Strike a Pose
Directors: Ester Gould, Reijer Zwaan
As a self-proclaimed “mother” to her gay dancers during the ’90s, Madonna made a stand on gay rights, freedom of expression, and the acknowledgement of AIDS. 25 years later, the six dancers from the Blond Ambition tour are reunited for this documentary, sharing their own stories and airing some long-buried secrets.
United States of Love
Director: Tomasz Wasilewski
Set in Poland in 1990, the Communist regime has fallen and the winds of change are blowing. Four apparently happy women of different ages decide it’s time to turn things around in their lives. Wasilewski made a huge splash with the beautiful cinematography and exciting narrative of Floating Skyscrapers; his new flick is definitely one to have on the radar.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Kurosawa’s signature aesthetic appeals more than your average horror trope. He utilizes unsettling atmosphere and an eerie sense of dread to take command of the audience as opposed to the outright shock scares the genre is accustomed to. If Creepy is crafted with the same precision Kurosawa displayed in his haunting serial killer film Cure, we’re in for a (really terrifying) treat.
Life on the Border
Directors: Mahmod Ahmad, Ronahi Ezaddin, Sami Hossein, Delovan Kekha, Hazem Khodeideh, Diar Omar, Zohour Saeid, Basmeh Soleiman
The Berlinale doesn’t usually screen films made by children, but Life on the Border – shot by eight children from the refugee camps in Syria and Iraq – is an exception.
A project of Kurdish producer Bahman Ghobadi, the film is a unique invitation to see the lives of these children through their own eyes, under the tarpaulins of the camps in Kobanê and in Shingal… Sometimes poetic, sometimes wholly political.
Things to Come
Director: Mia Hansen-Love
After creating one of the finest films of last year, it’s safe to say expectations are high for Mia Hansen-Love‘s Things to Come, particularly considering she’s teaming with one of the finest actresses in cinema, Isabelle Huppert (Amour).
Shifting away from capturing youth in Eden, her latest drama follows a philosophy teacher who must figure out life after her husband leaves their tired marriage.
- Words: Sarah Gibson