Film festival season might have already begun with January’s Sundance, but the Berlinale is where things get serious. Opening the festival was Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion outing, Isle of Dogs, which provided some lighthearted fun for a lineup that’s usually thematically very heavy.
That combination of quirk and solemnity could well be the theme of this year’s festival, with Gus Van Sant’s biopic of cartoonist John Callahan, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, and Filipino director Lav Diaz’s rock opera Season of the Devil – a nearly four-hour epic about the country’s dark period under Marcos’ dictatorship – setting the tone.
Notable mentions include Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane – a technically bold film shot entirely on an iPhone – which unfortunately failed to move past the usual thriller tropes; and the Golden Bear-winning Touch Me Not which tells the quasi-fictional story of lack of sexual intimacy. A seemingly very Berlinale choice for the top gong.
Here are Highsnobiety’s top 10 picks to watch from the 2018 Berlin Film Festival.
Isle of Dogs
Director: Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s newest film was the talk of the festival. Set in a dystopian, Andersonian version of Japan, Isle of Dogs is a film about oppression in society as well as an ode to Japanese filmmaking and man’s best friend. Painstakingly created in stop-motion animation, the film is surprisingly layered with deeper meaning (for a Wes Anderson film) while technically it’s two steps ahead of the rest.
Opening the Berlinale, it provided a fun and childlike excitement that also delivered a low-key political message. I would go so far as to say it’s the film we needed to open 2018 – a reminder that while things seem to only be getting hairier politically, it’s important to maintain hope (while also actualizing positive change) but that we all need to laugh once in a while.
Directors: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Damsel is not your typical Western. The deadpan comedy utilizes every trope from the genre while simultaneously rebuffing clichés. Robert Pattinson plays the lovestruck hero who’s on a mission to rescue his beloved (Mia Wasikowska as the titular damsel), however things of course don’t go to plan.
As someone who isn’t a particular fan of Westerns, I thoroughly enjoyed Damsel. It’s offbeat and unexpected, clever in its play on the genre, delivers a surprisingly feminist narrative (or rather, strips back typical gender roles resulting in authentically real characters) and is quietly funny – less laugh out loud and more internal chuckle. The Zellner brothers are definitely one to keep on the radar.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is known for his work in the J-Horror genre and the film’s co-writer, Hiroshi Takahashi, is the filmmaker behind The Ring series, if that’s any indication of where Yocho is headed. The less you know going into the film the better, but for the purpose of giving you something: strange things start happening surrounding Etsuko. Her co-worker appears to have lost her mind, her husband has been distant and there has been torrential rain worldwide causing mayhem to transport systems. As Etsuko says in the beginning of the film, “It all began with a sense of foreboding.”
Toeing the line between horror and science fiction, Yocho is much more than a genre film (for the record, it’s actually based on a play). Only in a narrative that’s so detached from our own reality can a film inadvertently comment on society, politics and the human condition all at once. It’s a slow burner at 140-minutes with a structure that makes sense when you consider it was originally a five-part TV series in Japan that has been edited into a movie. A follow-up to Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish, it’s surely just a matter of time before Hollywood wants their own remake of this sure-to-be cult classic.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot
Director: Gus Van Sant
A biopic about controversial cartoonist John Callahan, the film’s narrative is taken from his autobiography, focusing mostly on his alcohol addiction and recovery. Joaquin Phoenix plays the quadriplegic illustrator and Jonah Hill his AA counselor – both roles that break the seriousness of the film with superb comedic relief and will likely earn both actors awards season nods next year. Supporting roles include a who’s who of indie cool featuring Beth Ditto, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein.
Gus Van Sant’s latest film is as feel good as it is funny, with plenty of pensiveness thrown in for good measure. The structure loosely follows AA’s 12 step program, providing an arc for Callahan’s story. There are some questionable elements, namely Rooney Mara’s Swedish-accented Annu character, but overall it’s Van Sant doing a meaningful Hollywood inspiration story in the vain of Milk and that’s what he (now) does best.
Director: Idris Elba
Idris Elba’s directorial debut is nowhere near perfect, in fact critically the response has been lukewarm. But don’t let that deter you from this aesthetically gorgeous, musically rich film which earnestly tells an immigrant story with real flair. The first half of the movie is set in 1970s Kingston, Jamaica, where we’re introduced to the protagonist D, a young boy who personally experiences the local gang culture when his brother, a peace-making DJ by the name of Jerry Dread, is killed. Fast forward 10 years to ‘80s London, D is now part of the gang culture as a young Jamaican immigrant trying to make a life for his young family.
Based on the book of the same name by Victor Headley, the movie attempts to personalize Jamaican gang culture through D, with Elba citing City of God as a strong reference. Visually it’s polished to perfection – from the technicolor cinematography to the meticulous costume, hair, makeup and set design – while musically the film features an infectious lineup of reggae with a mostly convincing music-related subplot. It’s not going to rewrite history, but it’s a riveting watch that portrays a migrant community usually left out of Hollywood narratives.
Director: Erik Poppe
A retelling of Norway’s deadliest mass-shooting that took place on the island of Utøya at a children’s summer camp in 2011, the movie plays out in real time with the horrific massacre staged in one single take.
Tragically topical as the film’s world premiere at the festival coincided with the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, there was much debate about whether dramatizing the horror that took place (in an aesthetically stunning single take, no less) was justified. Director Erik Poppe handles the material with care, explaining it was necessary to make this film in order to “help the healing process.” This was reiterated by survivor Ingrid Endredud, who was 17 when the attack took place. Having advised on the film she explained: “For me the reason for helping with this film is because it tells the story which for so many of us has been impossible to tell. I’ve only been able to tell my experience with a great deal of distance and that’s where film can offer another way of preserving an important part of Norway’s history.”
Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.
Director: Stephen Loveridge
This documentary about antagonistic rapper-cum-pop star M.I.A. is more than just a celebrity’s vanity attempt at tracking their body of work. Spanning footage recorded over the last 22 years, with much of it filmed by Maya herself, it begins with her upbringing in Sri Lanka before her family moved to London as refugees from the civil war, eventually arriving at the musician’s rise to fame. Infamously Maya’s father was a founding member of the Tamil Tigers terrorist organization and this is also discussed in the film; no topic is left untouched.
Directed by Stephen Loveridge, who Maya met while they were both studying at Central Saint Martins (before her music career took off), the documentary has an authentic air thanks to the exhaustive footage she recorded herself in the last two decades. It’s unpolished and certainly unlike other music documentaries but that only echoes the artist herself. Ultimately it serves to uncover a little bit more about what drives the musician and political activist.
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Taking out the top prize in the festival’s audience-voted Panorama section, Profile is based on French journalist Anna Erelle’s actual account of going undercover to investigate the recruitment of young European women by ISIS. Echoing real life, our protagonist poses as a newly converted Muslim woman named Melody Nelson, who contacts ISIS fighter Bilel in Syria. As the pair’s interactions progress through Skype calls and social media, Melody finds it harder to keep her undercover role separated from reality.
Depicted entirely through a computer screen (a growing sub-genre), the film utilizes all forms of digital interfaces and apps – Skype, FaceTime, YouTube, iTunes – to tell its story. Attracting a lot of attention due to its base in reality, the film is topical in more ways than one. Director Timur Bekmambetov has revealed that after an initial theatrical release, Profile will be available in a “click screen reality” version, where the viewer can interactively click through the film’s desktop while watching, allowing them to read the character’s emails, look at photos and more. The future of filmmaking is here.
The Green Fog
Directors: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson
One of the more original films at the festival is The Green Fog, which incidentally is not made from original footage at all, rather it’s comprised of shots from various other films and TV shows filmed in San Francisco. A homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, The Green Fog retells the famous story through a cut-and-paste mashup of Hollywood footage and features everyone from Joan Crawford and Chuck Norris to N*Sync. If that sounds confusing then just wait until you watch the movie.
Commissioned by the San Francisco International Film Festival for their 60th Anniversary, filmmaker Guy Maddin worked with regular collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson on this surprising and genuinely hilarious visual collage. Following the film’s screening the brothers announced they’d love to work again in this style, transplanting the idea to another city with a rich cinematic history. We’re here for it.
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Part of director Lauren Greenfield’s long-running multi-platform project Generation Wealth, this documentary examines society’s obsession – particularly that of the United States – with wealth and youth. Featured among the film’s interviewees are a hedge-fund manager wanted by the FBI, who when asked the question “Does Harvard Business School teach you how to be a good person?,” lets out a deep belly laugh before answering seriously, “No, we’re fine tuned to rule the world. That’s it.”
What began as a study in visual anthropology through her famed photographs of American youths has evolved into a body of work spanning 25 years. Alongside her previous films The Queen of Versailles, The Bling Dynasty and even a short film on Atlanta’s Magic City, Greenfield is tackling the subject of turbo-capitalism with a very experienced eye. The decade-long Generation Wealth project also entails a museum exhibition and photographic monograph.
For a more in-depth analysis of ‘Isle of Dogs,’ check out our review.
- Feature/Main Image: STUDIOCANAL / Alex Bailey