The Best of Berlinale 2020: Ten Films We Can't Wait to Hit Cinemas Down Under
We hopped over to the Berlin International Film Festival to get the jump on what's coming soon to cinemas.
March 09, 2020
Weather: crisp. Pretzels: everywhere. Cinemas: packed to the brim. Yes, that's the Berlin International Film Festival. And while plenty of chatter about sickness filtered through the fest's landmark 70th year — and plenty of grim looks at anyone who dared to cough between February 20–March 1, too — the 2020 event marked its massive anniversary in its usual star-studded, movie-filled style.
Among the highlights: Willem Dafoe's moustache beaming its gloriousness from the red carpet, while the actor promoted the most divisive film of the festival; Indigenous Australian storytelling thrust into the spotlight multiple times, showcasing standouts from both the big and small screens; and a Golden Bear winner from an Iranian director, who was banned from filmmaking and unable to leave the country to attend the festival. This year's event also commemorated a 100-year-old masterpiece via an immersive exhibition, celebrated Helen Mirren's momentous career by giving her an award, and invited plenty of filmmakers to pair up and chat about their careers — including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Ang Lee and Shoplifters' Hirokazu Kore-eda.
That's what happened on the ground. If you couldn't be there, don't worry — Berlinale's massive film program will keep spreading its delights over the coming months. After spending 11 days in Berlin's cinemas (and eating the city's schnitzels and spatzle, of course), we've picked ten movies to look out for. Fingers crossed they make it to a screen Down Under sooner rather than later.
Every time Kelly Reichardt steps behind the camera, something astonishing happens, as everything from Wendy and Lucy to Certain Women has shown. So the fact that First Cow ranks among the writer/director's best work is no small feat indeed. Stepping back to 19th-century America, Reichardt spins the story of a cook (John Magaro) and a Chinese entrepreneur (Orion Lee). Two outcasts among the fur-trapper community, they spark up a friendship — and, once the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) ships in the region's highly coveted first cow, they pair starts an illicit but highly profitable business making delicious biscuits using milk stolen direct from the animal in the dark of night. As always in Reichardt's features, there's such empathy, sensitivity and tenderness to this magnificently told tale, which continues the filmmaker's thoughtful exploration of characters on the margins, as well as her ongoing interrogation of the American dream.
Move over Babe, Piglet and Porky — cinema has a new porcine star. Or several to be exact; however other than the eponymous sow, they're not given names in Gunda. Indeed, not a word is spoken in the latest engrossing, meditative and moving documentary from Aquarela's Victor Kossakovsky. Instead, the observational film devotes its black-and-white frames to watching its main subject give birth, care for her squealing and inquisitive little ones, roll around in the mud and simply go about her life. Of course, viewers know that these cute critters are living on a farm, that the piglets are destined to become meat, and that their story won't end happily. Interspersed with brief glimpses of cows and chickens — two other animals bred for human consumption — this film screams its abhorrence of eating flesh through its stunningly intimate imagery. And to the surprise of no one who saw his Golden Globes and Oscars speeches, Joaquin Phoenix is one of the doco's executive producers.
THE WOMAN WHO RAN
Alcohol. Conversation. A scene-stealing cat. Combine all three, and South Korean great Hong Sang-soo is firmly in his element. The booze flows freely as Gamhee (Hong regular Kim Min-hee, a 2017 Berlinale Best Actress winner for On the Beach at Night Alone) enjoys her first time away from her husband in five years, visiting friends around Seoul while he's off on a business trip. In the prolific director's typical fashion, much of The Woman Who Ran unfurls as his characters simply chat — about lives, hopes, dreams, problems and, with a pesky neighbour in the movie's funniest moment, about feeding stray felines. Hong's penchant for long, patient takes, playful repetition and echoes, and expertly timed crash-zooms are all used to winning effect, in a film that slots perfectly into his busy oeuvre (he's made 23 movies since 1996) and yet always feels distinctively insightful. Also, and we can't stress it enough, look out for one helluva kitty.
For the second time in as many films, German writer/director Christian Petzold teams up with rising talents Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski — but you could never accuse the filmmaker of doing the same thing twice. Back in 2018, the trio turned Transit into a war-torn romance that mused on conflict's lingering scars, while here, they're reinventing a German myth about a water spirit who can only turn human through love. Undine (Beer, this year's Silver Bear winner for Best Actress) is a historian who guides museum tours about Berlin's origins. When her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) breaks up with her suddenly, she warns him that she'll have to kill him. Then she meets industrial diver Christoph (Rogowski), but even as their love blossoms, her previous relationship isn't easily overcome. Petzold is no stranger to pondering the impact of the past on the present (see also: Barbara and Phoenix); however in the enchanting, beguiling, beautifully shot Undine, he's at his most haunting.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
The third film from talented American writer/director Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats), Never Rarely Sometimes Always took home Berlinale's Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize — the festival's second most prestigious award — but it would've been a more than worthy overall winner. First premiering at Sundance, where it also nabbed a jury prize, this a heart-wrenching gut-punch of a movie that's about an ordinary teenager in an everyday situation, while simultaneously focused on a crucial topic. When small-town Pennsylvanian 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) discovers that she's pregnant, she only really has one option. She's certain her family (including Sharon Van Etten as her mother) won't help, and the local women's clinic advocates having the baby, so with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) she hops on a bus to New York. Their experiences in the Big Apple are tense and devastating, as is this potent, compassionate and naturalistic entire film.
Riz Ahmed not only stars in but also cowrites Mogul Mowgli — and given that he's playing a British Pakistani rapper, and the Four Lions and Rogue One actor also happens to be British Pakistani rapper himself, this incisive drama understandably feels personal. It's also electrifying from the moment when, early in the film, Ahmed's character Zed takes the stage and unleashes his politically charged lyrics about his experiences to a responsive audience. Zed is on the cusp of stardom but, just as he secures his next big opportunity in a supporting slot on a lucrative European tour, his health unexpectedly begins to fail him. Exploring the fallout, including the professional disappointment, Zed's struggles with his cultural heritage upon his return home to London and the tough reality of facing a shattering diagnosis, writer/director Bassam Tariq makes an exceptional debut, crafting a film that's as bold, dynamic and probing as its central performance.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, one of the best films of 2019, Noémie Merlant played an 18th-century artist who fell in love with the betrothed woman she's commissioned to paint. In the neon-hued, loosely based-on-a-true-story Jumbo, she's once again falling head over heels — this time for an amusement park ride. Her character, fairground worker Jeanne, is shy to the point of being teased by everyone around her. While her mother (Emmanuelle Bercot) doesn't fall into that category, she does repeatedly try to push her out of her comfort zone, including setting her up with the park's new boss (Bastien Bouillon). But in Belgium-born, France-based writer/director Zoé Wittock's debut feature, nothing makes Jeanne feel the way that Jumbo, the theme park's new ride, does. It's a quirky, even whimsical concept, but both Merlant and Wittock treat Jeanne's love affair with sensitivity and enthusiasm — two traits the character isn't accustomed to receiving elsewhere.
THERE IS NO EVIL
The death penalty casts a dark shadow over There Is No Evil, an anthology film that explores capital punishment and its impacts. Across four segments, writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof charts the ripples that state-sanctioned killing has upon Iranian society — via a stressed husband and father (Ehsan Mirhosseini), a conscript (Kaveh Ahangar) who can't fathom ending someone's life, a soldier (Mohammad Valizadegan) whose compliance causes personal issues and a physician (Mohammad Seddighimehr) unable to practise his trade. While some sections hit their mark more firmly and decisively than others (the film's introduction sets a high bar), this year's Golden Bear winner has a lingering cumulative effect as it ponders the threats and freedoms of life under an oppressive regime. Rasoulof has actually been banned from filmmaking in Iran, restricted from leaving the country and sentenced to prison, all for examining the reality of his homeland — and, after 2013's Manuscripts Don't Burn and 2017's A Man of Integrity, There Is No Evil continues the trend.
ONE OF THESE DAYS
After turning in an astonishingly raw and powerful performance in 2017's A Prayer Before Dawn, British actor Joe Cole does so again in US-set drama One of These Days — albeit in completely different circumstances. In a nuanced and naturalistic performance, he plays Kyle, a small-town Texan department store employee who's overjoyed when he wins the chance to compete in the local car dealership's annual 'Hands on a Hardbody' contest. If he can outlast his fellow competitors by placing his hand on a truck for longer than anyone else, he'll drive off with the vehicle he's certain will change not only his life, but that of his wife (Callie Hernandez) and their baby. Also starring True Blood's Carrie Preston as the marketing guru in charge of running and promoting the contest, One of These Days doesn't hold back in exploring the toxic cycle that sees the struggling and desperate chase wealth at any cost, with German writer/director Bastian Günther helming a clear-eyed but immensely empathetic film.
A high-profile Australian cast and an acclaimed local director traipse through the country's colonial past in High Ground — and while that description applies to a growing number of Aussie films (Sweet Country and The Nightingale, just to name two recent examples), it'll never get old. Indeed, while Stephen Maxwell Johnson's (Yolngu Boy) frontier western feels like a natural addition to this growing genre, it also makes its own imprint. The setup: on what's supposed to be a routine expedition, almost an entire Indigenous tribe is wiped out by northern Australian police. Their leader, ex-World War I sniper Travis (Simon Baker), isn't responsible for the carnage, but it weighs heavily on him in the aftermath. In this gorgeously shot, deeply contemplative drama, that especially proves the case twelve years later — when Travis is enlisted by his superior (Jack Thompson) and his ex-partner (Callan Mulvey) to track down one of its revenge-seeking survivors, all while accompanied by the boy-turned-tracker (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) who also lived through the slaughter.
Images: First Cow © Allyson Riggs/A24; Gunda © Egil Håskjold Larsen/Sant & Usant; The Woman Who Ran © Jeonwonsa Film Co. Production; Undine © Christian Schulz/Schramm Film; Never Rarely Sometimes Always © 2019 courtesy of Focus Features; Mogul Mowgli © Mughal Mowgli Ltd, BBC; Jumbo © Caroline Fauvet; There Is No Evil © Cosmopol Film; One of These Days © Michael Kotschi/Flare Film; High Ground © Sarah Enticknap/High Ground Picture.