The 2018 edition of the Berlin Film Festival was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a superior vintage; like myself, most critics I spoke with agreed that there were few if any truly outstanding films, though a couple whose opinions I respect did tell me they had discovered a masterpiece in the Forum strand entitled An Elephant Sitting Still. It was the feature debut of Chinese novelist Hu Bo, who committed suicide, aged just 29, shortly after completing the film; sadly, I didn’t catch it myself.
As in my round-up of last year’s Berlinale, here listed below are the ten films I liked best of the thirty I did manage to see. Inevitably, I did tussle with myself over the inclusion or omission of a few titles. I found Alonso Ruizpalacios’ Museo, for example, highly watchable (it boasts a typically fine performance from Gael García Bernal, and did win the Best Screenplay prize), but in the end I didn’t really feel it added up to very much. Erik Poppe’s U – July 22, meanwhile, which recreates the murderous attack on a summer camp that took place on the Norwegian island of Utøya in 2011, is extremely well made, but I confess I am a little queasy about the film’s very existence. Moreover, I never for a moment felt like including the Golden Bear-winner, Adina Pintilie’s well-intentioned but stilted and not very interestingly ‘experimental’ Touch Me Not, on my list. I imagine that many may have been as surprised as I was by the support of Tom Tykwer’s jury for that particular title.
Anyway, what you get below, listed alphabetically and arranged by the programme strands they screened in, are simply ten fine films (well, eleven if we count my Maddin listing, as we really should, as a feature and a short) which I personally recommend you might look out for.
In Competition (in alphabetical order):
Eldorado Markus Imhoof
Swiss documentarist Imhoof, whose parents took in a young Italian refugee during World War Two, intercuts reminiscences of his friendship with the girl with an exploration of the plight of refugees trying to find a new life in today’s Europe. An astute (and inevitably moving) analysis of an overall systemic failure to cope with the phenomenon of widespread migration and inequality.
Eva Benoît Jacquot
Already filmed in 1962 by Joseph Losey, James Hadley Chase’s novel becomes, in Jacquot’s reworking, an intriguing reflection on pretence, performance and different kinds of prostitution as a successful playwright (Gaspard Ulliel) with a secret begins to deceive his fiancée by pursuing the titular high-class call girl (Isabelle Huppert). Refreshingly divested of its misogynist elements, the story still makes sense today. You can read more about the film here.
The Heiresses (Las Herederas) Marcelo Martinessi
Paraguayan director Martinessi has created a pleasingly gentle tale of emotional rebirth with this tale of a lesbian couple of a certain age who are now in financial difficulties; when one of them is imprisoned for debt, the other, less outgoing one has to learn to make ends meet, and in so doing discovers an unfamiliar world – and long unfamiliar feelings. A slight story told with subtlety and sensitivity, it won the Best Actress prize and the Alfred Bauer prize (generally seen as a sort of third prize after the Golden Bear and the Grand Jury awards).
Isle of Dogs Wes Anderson
Not as good as The Grand Budapest Hotel, for sure, but considerably better than Fantastic Mr Fox, Anderson’s second animated film – an intriguingly imaginative allegorical fable about dogs being persecuted in a dystopian Japan of the future – is smart, allusive and witty enough to succeed as entertainment even for those of us not especially enamoured of canine pets. It looks great (the influence of Japanese cinema is clear), and the script keeps the gags coming along. It won Anderson the Best Director prize.
Mug (Twarz) Malgorzata Szumowska
Now arguably Poland’s leading filmmaker, Szumowska revisits themes from her earlier work – the interaction between the body and the mind, the relationship between trauma and transformation, the constraining influence of the Church – in an imaginative variation on the traditional facial-disfigurement movie that eschews sentimentality and melodrama, and replaces them with dark comedy and acerbic social analysis. Crucially, Szumowska handles the tricky tonal shifts with skill and aplomb. The film won her the Grand Jury prize. You can read more about it here.
Transit Christian Petzold
In adapting Anna Seghers’ novel about refugees trying to escape the Nazis during World War Two, Petzold rewardingly sets the action in present-day Marseille (though the costumes generally feel more vintage than contemporary). With the protagonist adopting the identity of a dead man, and finding himself drawn to a mysterious woman searching for her husband, the film is at once reminiscent of, say, the writings of Graham Greene and wholly modern in the way the two different periods are combined to reflect on today’s troubled world.
Out of Competition:
Unsane Steven Soderbergh
Shot on a cellphone by the great Peter Andrews (the director’s customary name for himself as cinematographer), Soderbergh’s foray into psychological horror sees a successful young woman, who is haunted by her experiences at the hands of a stalker, being involuntarily held at a psychiatric clinic on the grounds that she might harm herself. Things get darker when her very sanity is questioned. Great fun, with a fine lead performance by Claire Foy (pictured at top), and some pertinent swipes at the pernicious role played by money in the US health system.
Forum (in alphabetical order):
The Green Fog / Accidence Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson
The first, an hour-long feature assembled entirely from clips from films and TV series set and/or shot in San Francisco, more or less retells the story of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak each replaced/represented by a wondrous array of actors. It’s a marvellous meta-narrative, in other words, rich with digressions, bizarre resonances and unexpected erotic overtones, and very often extremely funny. The complementary short Accidence is a single-take ten-minute short, extraordinarily complex in its staging of a multiplicity of incidents visible on one side of a tenement building, which does something different (but similar!) to complicate/expand upon Hitchcock’s Rear Window. You can read more about the films here.
Infinite Football (Fotbal infinit) Corneliu Porumboiu
A characteristically eccentric documentary from Romanian auteur Porumboiu, who here centres on an old family friend who, for reasons of his own, has some pretty unusual ideas about how to change the rules of soccer in order to speed the game up. Letting interviews go wherever they will, Porumboiu creates a kind of discursive essay (albeit without any commentary as such) which in its own idiosyncratic, generous and very amusing way constitutes a properly philosophical film.
Victory Day (Den’ Pobedy) Sergei Loznitsa
As in his previous documentarues, Loznitsa here uses a static camera to observe the movements of crowds of people: in this case, the celebrants attending the annual gathering to mark the defeat of the Nazis by Soviet forces, held at the war memorial in a park in what used to be East Berlin. No commentary is offered; we simply see the attendees walking around, singing patriotic songs, shouting slogans, arguing, drinking, dancing, visiting the memorial itself, and inevitably filming and taking photographs endlessly on their phones. This reticent approach pays dividends galore in what it reveals both about Russian nationalism and about the world today.
Finally, even when caught up in the bubble of a film festival I like to remind myself that movies are not everything. In Berlin, that’s not too hard; two hours spent at the city’s Philharmonie can revive the spirits even when the last couple of days’ movies have been disappointing. So it was this year, with: Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Janacek’s Sinfonietta and Bartok’s Piano Concerto No 1, the latter with Daniel Barenboim (below) as the soloist. I know it’s not about film, but I’m afraid I couldn’t resist including the picture here, given that the performances of both pieces were completely exciting and magically enthralling.
All film images courtesy of the Berlin Film Festival. Photo of Daniel Barenboim by Geoff Andrew.