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Berlinale's best films

The top nine flicks premiering in the city of bears (and Hitchcock's finest now in 3D)

The 63rd Berlinale saw Wong Kar Wai as president of the jury and opened the diverse, extensive programme with his stunning new film, The Grandmaster. The crowds bulged at the barriers at Potsdamer Platz, snapping glimpses of the stars, tourists posed by the remaining slices of the Berlin wall, while audiences hurtled across the city on U-Bahns to assorted districts for screenings at tremendous old cinemas. Highlights included spectacular restorations of classic films, including the European premiere of Hitchcock’s deconstruction of the perfect crime, Dial M for Murder –  restored and aligned to the original 3D visuals in which Hitchcock had filmed – and a retrospective of Scorsese at the Filmmuseum.  

The Grandmaster (Dir. Wong Kar Wai)

Set in 1930s Foshan, Southern China, Kung Fu master Ip Man (Tony Leung), a descendent of nobility who dedicated his life to the Kung Fu style of Wing Chun, and was Bruce Lee’s teacher, takes up the challenge set by the Grandmaster for his retirement ceremony. The Japanese invasion shatters Ip Man’s world and he is forced into exile. Wong Kar Wai’s film is a love-letter to the golden age of Kung Fu, a fading art of many styles, and magnifies the philosophy of Kung Fu with its deeply disciplined precision and beauty. Emerging through extraordinarily choreographed battle scenes is an explosion of heightened perception and a poetry of movement. The film amplifies the speed of perception and anticipation as rich beautiful colours express the changing seasons and surround the intimate gestures and the intimacy of these fights; the acute physical awareness of self, opponent and environment and absorption in combat. With operatic grandeur and vibrating imagery, the wind whips around them, rain fractures the light and the power of timing grips the characters with a force that haunts Wong Kar Wai’s visions. 

The Act of Killing (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

Joshua Oppenheimer’s astounding documentary is chilling, horrific and bold. In a fascinating study on self-perception in acts of abhorrent monstrosity, Oppenheimer reunites a group of former executioners in the Indonesian dictatorship and encourages them to reconstruct their acts. They happily cooperate, regarding it an opportunity to document the history they are proud of creating. Disturbing layers of reality and fiction melt together as the public perform the role of the terrorized oppressed and the executioners get suited and booted as slick gangsters, celebrating their twisted notions of freedom and identifying with the American culture of their screen idols. Anwar Congo dances on the roof terrace where he took thousands of lives, a wire loosely dangling over his shoulders, a remnant of his strangling reenactment. A corrupt news editor joyfully recalls how he gathered information and manipulated the answers to serve up death sentences. However, through the process of filming, and watching himself, Anwar’s fragile persona begins to crumble and the real horror of his involvement begins to seep through the cracks of his consciousness. 

Upstream Color (Dir. Shane Carruth)

Nine years since his low budget sci-fi cult classic Primer, writer/director Shane Carruth returns with this bombardment upon the senses. Drowned in an original soundscape that magnifies and warps banal noise into atmospheric waves of emotion, Upstream Color encourages a surrender to a non-conventional narrative, with a stream of conscious logic that unfolds through a story of experience transference. Kris (Amy Seimetz) wakes from in a nightmarish trail of events to a cold grey world, and finds a degree of solace in her new friend Jeff (Shane Carruth), both grasping to make sense of their damaged lives. Beautifully shot, acted and soundtracked, Thoreau’s transcendentalist text Walden serves as a thread through this journey, alongside the life cycle of a powerful organic matter. Under the raw light of the city and mutations of nature, perception is stretched and put under a microscope, and life is subverted into deeply peculiar experiences. The fractured confusion illuminates the arbitrary reality of nature and existence, and suggests that the experience of life is not itself far from a weird science fiction. 

Computer Chess (Dir. Andrew Bujalski)

The analog Sony AVC-3260 camera and an even older Bolex camera that Computer Chess was filmed on lends a true sense of time travel to this brilliant mockumentary, following a convention in the early 80s of chess players and computer programmers attempting to create a cutting edge artificial intelligence that could beat the human mind. Comprising of a predominantly amateur cast of genuine computer professors and videogame software designers, the sense of authenticity is deepened. With unflattering angles and crummy outmoded video features, the understated humour of writer/director Andrew Bujalski emerges here in the tension between these technical enthusiasts, and the stark contrast of their equipment and drab environment to the sophistication of technology today. Their introverted fortress echoes the suffocating confinement of The Shining’s Outlook Hotel, with a Room 237esque mystery lady to boot. Laced with social awkwardness, the intense gravity surrounding the conference is disturbed by a spiritual relationship therapy convention sharing the hotel space. Cabin fever mounts in the hotel, and with great humour Computer Chess delves into the sinister depths of artificial intelligence, and the competitive passion of those involved. 

Paradise: Hope (Dir. Ulrich Seidl)

Ulrich Seidl completes his Paradise trilogy in an isolated weight loss camp for teenagers, with improvised dialogue and a naturalistic film language. Deposited in the camp by stern Anna Maria, the subject of Seidl’s previous film Paradise: Faith, Melanie is roomed with a group of teenage girls of her age, where they gossip about boys and kissing. The white walls and sterile halls of the lonely, half-empty building shine brightly as if in some spiritual holy place, in sequences immaculately framed with clean symmetry. Developing a crush on the institution’s doctor, a deeply uncomfortable ‘Lolita’ situation emerges, but Melanie’s pursuit is an innocent affection. The dull environment is ridiculed by their occasional mischief and the solemn enforcement of their strict and often ludicrous fitness regimes, chanting “if you’re happy and you know it, clap your fat…” Surrounded by a lush green forest under oppressive grey clouds, Seidl expresses the threat of corruption that seethes beneath the natural naiveté of the adolescent group. 

Before Midnight (Dir. Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater’s highly anticipated third installment in the ‘Before…’ films returns to the nature of the relationship between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) 8 years since their Paris meeting in Before Sunset. Set on a holiday in Greece, the conversation flows between Celine, Jesse and their friends as they share and debate their experiences of relationships and love. The conversations explore profound universal truths and endless discontents that encircle the human condition, the way we perceive ourselves and one another, and the process of making connections. As the camera meanders, memories, dreams and hypothetical dilemmas weave through the fluid conversations, scripted by Hawke, Delpy and Linklater in remarkably personal developments of these characters. Before Midnight is very funny, self-aware and painful in terms of the transience of life, and the decisions that define our experience of it. 

Portrait of Jason (Dir. Shirley Clarke)

The premiere of this restored classic documentary by Shirley Clarke was held at the beautiful Delphi cinema in Berlin. Clarke’s experimental film tells the story of Jason Holliday in his own words. A houseboy for the rich elite in New York with plans to have a stage act, he impersonates his employers, friends and screen goddesses and shares anecdotes of his own experiences and impulsively drifting existence. Shot in 1967 during 12 hours in a hotel room, his narration oscillates from excitement to slow rumination and eventual inebriation. Clarke’s heavy editing diffuses the intensity, and the camera slowly focuses on his face or fades to black, allowing space for contemplation. His roaring laughter threads the anecdotes together and his quips are a hoot, but a more tragic story of rejection and pain materialises through his humour. Coming from a family with a violent father into a hostile time for homosexuals, a deep sadness haunts this fantastically charismatic, smart man. Originally premiering with high acclaim to the New York cultural elite, an audience including Tenessee Williams and Elia Kazan, this is an extraordinary and complex portrait. 

Interior.Leather.Bar (Dir. James Franco & Travis Mathews)

In a subtle subversion of the documentary form, James Franco and Travis Mathews have created a hybrid film, not quite documentary, not fiction, but somewhere in between. Filmed as a documentary, Franco and Mathews explore their desire to reconstruct an imagined vision of the 40 minutes, that were rumoured to have been cut from Cruising, in a gay S&M nightclub. His close friend Val Lauren cooperates and agrees to play the leading role that was filled by Al Pacino in the original film. Acting gay, surrounded by explicit sexual behaviour, Val’s sense of his own sexuality seems to be threatened by this role and his agent urges him to get out of Franco’s ‘faggot’ project. Broad notions of acting and being are explored, and as the film progresses it is hard to grasp who is acting, who is the audience and to what extent it has been scripted. The explicit 40 minutes themselves are eclipsed by the personal complexities that surround their very creation. In the sweaty subterranean hues of the S&M club, Val creates a window into the possible thought processes and dilemmas Pacino faced with this role in Cruising. His discomfort is compelling, be it acting or genuine, as is the conversation of boundaries that arises for each of these male actors of all sexualities.

Shirley: Visions of Reality (Dir. Gustav Deutsch)

In a bold undertaking inspired by the Edward Hopper retrospective, Gustav Deutsch’s reconsctructions of 13 paintings are brought to life and drawn together by a narrative thread in the character of Shirley, a woman at odds with the politics and climate of her time.  The film is remarkable for its absorbing accuracy with the incredible colours and shapes of the sets that make the film resemble a moving painting. The paintings fade to black and are separated by radio announcements, blaring out crackly news from around the world. The sense of isolation of Hopper’s work permeates the tableaux as Shirley drifts through time in the chronology of the paintings. 

Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock) 

Adapted from a stage play by English playwright Frederick Knott, Hitchcock’s classic was originally shot in 1954 on stereoscopic film, but was predominantly screened in 2D upon its release due to 3D’s fall in popularity. Keen to construct a fully immersive experience, Hitchcock had trenches built into the sets in order to place the cameras at angles that would thrust the audience into the heart of the misdemeanor. Grace Kelly’s adulterous Margot becomes the victim of a meticulously planned murder plot, devised by her husband, which is unraveled by her lover Mark, a crime fiction writer. The restoration gives extraordinary clarity to the rich colours, and the clammy fury of Margot’s husband Tony (Ray Milland), who oozes with stifling menace through the three-dimensional intimacy. It is fascinating to experience Hitchcock’s intended vision, the intensity and complicity into which he had hoped to plunge his audience, and the climatic moment when Grace Kelly’s hand desperately breaks out of the screen.