Docs on dead beauty queens, a vegan investigating animal revenge and a breakout role for Timothée Chalamet: this year's festival has everything – here are the absolute must-sees
“Just how cold is cold?” is the question in the air as February hits and the world’s film industry pack their suitcases, ready to descend on mid-winter Berlin for its annual festival. In town with wool-layer to weather ratio sorted, the talk immediately turns to the films. And there are a lot of them, showing over ten days around the hub of Potsdamer Platz and other venues around the city, such as the stunning Kino International. Set on a street named after Karl Marx, it was the premiere cinema of Germany’s former East and has maintained its modernist 60s style and huge crystal light fixtures – a reminder that going to the movies can be a real event. And real events were numerous this year, in terms of films to be remembered. As the festival winds down to an end this weekend, here are our picks.
GREATEST LOVE STORY: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
It doesn’t happen often. But sometimes a film comes out that’s so damn hard to hate that – well, nobody does. The buzz around Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s arthouse coming-of-age (and coming out) romance after Sundance proved justified in Berlin, where it was raved about as not just one of the best films of the festival, but of recent years. (Any detractors I haven’t met – stay dead to me).
It’s 1983 in Northern Italy and 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet in an astonishing, breakout performance) is spending a lazy summer of swimming and casual hook-ups at his parents’ villa. His days take on an unexpectedly intense and viscerally memorable turn when his father’s American research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer), a brashly confident and buff 24-year-old, turns up on the scene. The bond between Elio and Oliver grows tentatively, but unleashes forceful emotions that reverberate through all the relationships in a film both hilarious and gorgeously sad, that crackles with sexual tension.
BEST ANTI-ROMANCE: GOLDEN EXITS
While Call Me By Your Name left hearts bursting, Golden Exits, in which a work posting is again the precursor for new romantic options, is the cynic’s flipside. Emily Browning has her best role in years as Naomi, an Australian arrived in springtime New York to start a job assisting an archivist. Her new boss Nick (Adam Horovitz of Beastie Boys fame) is a chronic compartmentaliser who has cheated before on his now distrustful wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny). Tensions rise both in the cramped workspace and out, as Naomi starts meeting for beers with a distant family friend (Jason Schwartzman), who runs a music studio – and is also married.
Director Alex Ross Perry gives us a film of simmering power dynamics and bracingly complex roles: nobody is completely innocent, nor can we write anyone off from our sympathies entirely. The grass-is-greener syndrome of roving desire is a constant dissatisfaction to this class of creative professionals suffering from that vague modern-day disease: they all want more from life, but can’t choose what.
HOT AWARD FAVOURITE: THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE
While Call Me By Your Name and Golden Exits screened in the sidebar sections, the latest from Aki Kaurismäki emerged as the hot audience favourite to snag the main competition’s Golden Bear award (the ceremony, when a jury headed by Elle director Paul Verhoeven will announce its winners, is still to come at the time of writing). Kaurismäki is a sort of Finnish national treasure, though his bent for biting self-deprecation and absurdist, deadpan comedy means he’d probably abhor such a title.
The Other Side of Hope was embraced as classic Kaurismäki in its droll humour, laconically smoking underdogs and visual nostalgia of time-forgotten bars and cars (he’s said in the past he’ll only film vehicles made before 1962 because modern cars are “ugly and have no personality”). His characteristic warm humanism is also there in spades. The second in his “port city trilogy”, it’s about a Syrian asylum seeker (Sherwan Haji) who arrives in Helsinki as a stowaway and lands a job from the grouchy owner of failing restaurant The Golden Pint, while trying to dodge deportation.
WILDEST PREMISE: SPOOR
There were other impressive films in competition more than worth getting up for (the Berlinale means watching a week of 9am screenings on party hangovers take its toll on even the staunchest of cinefiles). Sebastián Lelio’s emotionally rich transgender drama A Fantastic Woman was one. And another was Spoor, the latest from famed Polish director Agnieszka Holland, which was also perhaps the oddest.
In the year 846, a swarm of bees was sentenced to death by a court for harming some humans. It really happened, and it’s just one example mentioned by Olga Tokarczuk in her novel Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, on which the film is based, of the power people assume over other creatures. But what if animals took revenge? Holland lights up this idiosyncratic “metaphysical thriller” set in the Polish mountains with a playful, anarchic spirit and taste for the absurd. After vegetarian and eccentric Janina stumbles across the body of a deer poacher one night and more hunters turn up dead with animal tracks at the crime scenes, the police make her a suspect. Derided by the authorities, she decides to launch her own investigation.
MOST OUT-THERE DOCUMENTARY: CASTING JONBENET
From Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (a riff on the writings of James Baldwin) to Camila José Donoso’s Casa Roshell, about a transgender club and its community in Mexico City, quality docs were not lacking. Nor were ones set on exploring some quite bizarre terrain. Filmmakers Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (who also made visceral, disorienting fishing-boat experience Leviathan) have come up with somniloquies, which takes us into the blurred and hypnotic dream state of a famed sleep-talker. Then there was Casting JonBenet, set for a Netflix release in April.
Director Kitty Green already made a documentary that teeters on the line between revelation and exploitation with 2013’s Ukraine is Not A Brothel, a rather scathing look at radical activists Femen, and she again seeks provocative territory with a portrait of the community in which six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was murdered, in a case that’s been endlessly speculated on but is still unsolved. Taking a page from the methods of many “casting for actor” docs of late (such as Robert Greene’s masterly Kate Plays Christine), Green stages auditions for locals who actually knew the family to play them. It’s a fascinating if queasily invasive insight into a sleepy township that seems to hide as many weird, subterranean secrets as Lynch’s Twin Peaks.