The climate in the film industry has shifted over the last few years as industry heavyweights and the public demand progressive ideology from the movies they watch. And if the films and awards from this year’s Berlin Film Festival are anything to go by, that cultural shift isn't slowing down any time soon.
Focusing on marginalized stories with a political slant, this year’s Berlinale tackled everything from animal welfare and abortion to gay rights and the death penalty. That’s nothing out of the ordinary for the festival, which prides itself on strong social and political commentary, but a few unexpected wins suggests that the tide is only getting stronger and real change will be rolling out in theaters nationwide soon. Mixed in with contenders that champion these ideas are a number of slick thrillers, proving that even movies as pure aesthetic treat still have their place at the festival.
Here are the 10 best films to watch out for from this year’s Berlinale.
Director: Victor Kossakovsky Release date: TBC
Executive produced by Joaquin Phoenix, Gunda is a stunning black-and-white documentary about a pig (the titular Gunda) and her life on a farm, as she takes care of her piglets. Two cows and a one-legged chicken also feature in supporting roles. Gunda is not a typical film advocating against meat consumption, but the strength of its simple and beautifully shot message is clear and powerful.
The documentary made waves at this year’s Berlinale and has even received an enthusiastic co-sign from the director Paul Thomas Anderson, who said: “Gunda is pure cinema…It’s what we should all aspire to as filmmakers and audiences – pictures and sound put together to tell a powerful and profound story without rush. It’s jaw dropping images and sound put together with the best ensemble cast and you have something more like a potion than a movie.”
Si c’était de l’amour (If It Were Love)
Director: Patric Chiha Release date: TBC
A documentary about choreographer Gisèle Vienne’s lauded dance performance "Crowd," If It Were Love catches up-close moments from the piece while delving into the characters’ backstories. Set at a rave, 15 dancers pulse to Detroit techno classics from the likes of Jeff Mills and Drexciya, among others, as stories between them emerge.
An ode to Berlin’s techno culture – which Vienne experienced while living there in the early ‘90s, post-reunification – If It Were Love captures the ecstasy and spirituality of the dance floor in a raw and dynamic film. At the Berlinale’s queer-themed Teddy Awards If It Were Love won Best Documentary.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Director: Eliza Hittman Release date: March 13
One of the most buzzed about films from the festival even before it started, Never Rarely Sometimes Always offers an intimate look at a topic more pressing than ever. Two teenage girls from rural Pennsylvania travel to New York City in search of help for an unintended pregnancy. Despite its singular premise, the film is nuanced in its portrayals of female friendship, the U.S.’ complicated healthcare system, and a woman’s right to body autonomy.
Director Eliza Hittman has garnered praise for her previous two features, both of which deal with youth-in-crisis in affecting ways. Having had its world premiere at Sundance, where it took home the Special Jury Award for Neorealism, it equally impressed the Berlinale crowd and won the runner-up prize in the competition, the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is sure to be one of 2020’s most poignant films, while Hittman and both actresses Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are definitely ones to watch.
Director: Burhan Qurbani Release date: April 16 (Germany)
A modern adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s seminal novel of the same name, Berlin Alexanderplatz centers on Francis, a West African refugee who comes to Germany seeking a better life. Adamant to stay on the right side of the law, Francis makes new friends whose intentions are not so honorable, eventually bringing him into Berlin’s underworld.
Arriving 40 years after German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s acclaimed television adaptation, the Berlin that’s presented in Burhan Qurbani’s film is vastly different. For anyone who’s visited the booming capital in the last decade, however, the film’s gloomy, atmospheric cinematography will appear familiar.
There Is No Evil
Director: Mohammad Rasoulof Release date: TBC
Despite a government-imposed lifetime filmmaking ban on Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, the filmmaker premiered a new film exploring his country’s relationship with the death penalty. Divided into four vignettes, There Is No Evil examines how Iran’s use of the death penalty, the second highest in the world after China, according to Amnesty International, deeply affects everyone including civilians, soldiers, and even executioners.
Winning the Berlinale’s top prize, the Golden Bear for Best Film, There Is No Evil’s message has been heard loud and clear. Unfortunately, due to a travel ban, Rasoulof was unable to attend the festival and in speaking with Variety he stated: “the right to choose between being present or absent at the festival is simply not mine. Imposing such restrictions very clearly exposes the intolerant and despotic nature of the Iranian government.”
Director: Kitty Green Release date: In cinemas now
After playing at Sundance and receiving a limited U.S. release last month, The Assistant premiered outside of North America at the Berlinale to high acclaim. Julia Garner plays a young female graduate who begins working at a film production company as an executive assistant. Soon after, she begins to witness the myriad shady practices that go on in the industry and grows aware that her knowledge threatens her position.
Said to be the first film directly inspired by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, The Assistant is a tense thriller that suddenly feels all too familiar now that #MeToo and Time’s Up are regular aspects of film culture. Julia Garner’s performance has been singled out, with the young actress an upcoming face to watch this decade.
Last and First Men
Director: Jóhan Jóhannsson Release date: TBC
Originally released as a live multimedia performance, Last and First Men is an avant-garde science fiction film that tells the future history of humanity. Taking its concept from Olaf Stapleton’s 1930 novel, in which two billion years into the future, a human species distinct from our own narrates the history of humanity from our current moment in time. Visually, the film’s black-and-white 16mm cinematography zeroes in on former Yugoslavia’s Brutalist spomenik structures – futuristic and ominous-looking monuments that remain from the country’s Tito era. Tilda Swinton’s cold narration only adds to the unease.
With Last and First Men, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who is behind the film scores of Arrival, Sicario, and Mandy, as well as this film, had both his directorial debut and final film, due to his untimely death in 2018. Before he passed away he was able to direct a few live performances of the multimedia piece, of which this film is now a lasting relic.
Sa-nyang-eui-si-gan (Time to hunt)
Director: Yoon Sung-hyun Release date: TBC
Set in South Korea in a dystopian near future, a financial crisis has plunged the country into a post-capitalist desert, where slums arise and crime is the norm. After leaving jail, Jun-seok regroups with his friends Ki-hoon and Jang-ho, before they plan a major heist that’ll set them up for the future. Time to Hunt eschews the usual pre-heist tension that’s typical in crime films and instead focuses on what happens after the job is done.
With the world obsessed with Parasite, audiences are eager to see new cinema from South Korea, but the similarities with Time to Hunt end at actor Woo-sik Choi’s involvement in both films (he played the son in the former). A fast-paced thriller that leans into genre filmmaking, Time to Hunt stays fresh thanks to impressive visuals and an off-kilter storyline.
Director: Josephine Decker Release date: TBC
Adapted from Shirley: A Novel, a semi-fictional book about horror writer Shirley Jackson’s life, Shirley is unlike traditional literary biopics in that its source material isn’t exactly factual, yet includes known details about Jackson’s life. Set in 1950s Vermont, Shirley focuses on the writer’s life as she grapples with the success and scorn of her most noted work, The Lottery. When her and her husband take in a young couple, they become fodder for a psycho-drama that inspires Jackson’s next work.
Elisabeth Moss plays the troubled author and succeeds in bringing a darkness to the role while director Josephine Decker has been praised for her unconventional portrayal of Jackson’s life. Shirley’s heady mix of dark drama is not always a pleasant watch, but it captures the turmoil of one of America’s most tortured writers.
Futur Drei (No Hard Feelings)
Director: Faraz Shariat Release date: May 28 (Germany)
A coming-of-age film set in a small German city, No Hard Feelings is about a young, gay German-Iranian man named Parvis, and the two Iranian siblings he befriends at a refugee shelter. Weaving themes of political exile and freedom with youth and queer identity, No Hard Feelings is a modern story about an increasing number of displaced youths today.
Winning the festival’s Teddy Award for Best Feature Film, No Hard Feelings is Faraz Shariat’s directorial debut. At just 26 years of age, Shariat has a big career ahead of him, but his moving portrayal of immigrant youth suggests wisdom behind his years.