When it's February in Berlin, the temperature is barely approaching positive figures and the ground is slick with last night's snow, there's only one place to be: the Berlin International Film Festival. Also known as the Berlinale, it's not just Germany's premier annual celebration of cinema, but one of the world's as well.
Even from afar, it's easy to see why. Huge world premieres, like this year's opening night film Isle of Dogs? Tick. A host of famous attendees, spanning everyone from actors Bill Murray, Isabelle Huppert and Robert Pattinson to filmmakers Wes Anderson, Steven Soderbergh and Idris Elba (yes, he's a director too)? Tick again. Plenty of movies that everyone will be talking about for the next 12 months and longer? After featuring Call Me By Your Name and A Fantastic Woman on their 2017 program, the festival well and truly has that sorted in 2018 as well.
There's nothing like being there, however. The rushing between cinemas, the pretzels devoured between sessions, the delicious mulled wine at the end of (and during) the day — from February 15 to 25, that was our life. We went, we watched, we saw scores of people walk out of unimpressive eventual Berlinale Golden Bear winner Touch Me Not, and we witnessed an entire theatre going crazy for Australia's own Hugo Weaving. And now that it's all over, we're excited about all of the movies that'll hopefully make their way to our own shores at festivals or in general release. Take our word for it, and look out for these ten at a cinema near you — we can't wait to catch them again.
ISLE OF DOGS
A stop-motion animated movie about a futuristic Japanese wasteland filled with dogs, one plucky orphan boy trying to find his beloved pet and the island's helpful canine inhabitants, Isle of Dogs couldn't sound more like a Wes Anderson movie if it tried. Actually, thanks to a voice cast that includes Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton and Frances McDormand, it literally sounds like a Wes Anderson movie during every moment — and, it proves a smart, sharp, glorious and gorgeous feast for both the ears and the eyes. It's no wonder that the filmmaker won Berlinale's best director award, with his ninth feature a feat of all-round artistry in each elaborate, detailed, textured frame. Similarly unsurprisingly, it's also filled with heart, humour and wit, all while making a very timely social statement. Yep, it's enough to make you go barking mad with delight.
DAUGHTER OF MINE
In 2015, Italian filmmaker Laura Bispuri and actress Alba Rohrwacher teamed up for Sworn Virgin, a compelling, moving film about an Albanian woman who vows to live life in the mountains, without sex and as a man rather than adhere to traditional views about female subservience. Their second collaboration, Daughter of Mine, also explores ideas of femininity, but in a vastly different way. It's also excellent, and exceptionally acted. As the title suggests, motherhood is in the spotlight as Rohrwacher's strong-willed Angelica and Valeria Golino's more traditionally maternal Tina grapple not only with each other, but over what's best for ten-year-old Vittoria (Sara Casu). As a Sardinian summer rolls by, the secret that connects the trio is thrust out into the open, as is a tussle between nature and nurture that shapes a young girl's journey of discovery.
THE GREEN FOG
No one loves movies the way that Guy Maddin loves movies. No one turns snippets of films into such loving, intelligent and amusing collages and homages like the experimental Canadian filmmaker either. In The Green Fog, he once again joins forces with his The Forbidden Room collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson, takes cues from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and makes an amusing, immersive reimagining using clips from other San Francisco-set fare. The Game, The Love Bug, an NSYNC video — they're all featured in this retelling, as is everything from Sister Act to Basic Instinct to The Rock. The fact that The Green Fog mostly eschews dialogue adds another layer, too, to a finished product that sweeps over viewers like its titular mist. And, also brilliant is the trio's accompanying ten-minute Accidence, which peers into the balconies behind an apartment block in a clever and involving riff on Hitchcock's Rear Window.
There's nothing new about recreating a harrowing real-life event from the perspective of those who were there, and giving audiences an on-the-ground view of their horrifying experiences. There's nothing new about adopting that approach when it comes to mass shootings either, or just generally unravelling a tense and terrifying situation in a single shot. Still, Norwegian effort U — July 22 finds the best way to plunge viewers into the thick of one of the most traumatic incidents in the country's history. On the eponymous date in 2011, a right-wing extremist gunned down 69 of the 500 attendees at a youth summer camp on the island of Utøya, with filmmakerErik Poppe following one 19-year-old's efforts to survive. Lead actress Andrea Berntzen is fantastic as the desperate young woman searching for her sister, and for a way to make it out alive, in a feature that's never easy to watch but remains heartbreakingly engrossing — and important — from start to finish.
One of the best films at Berlinale unspools solely on a computer screen. It's the latest to use what might seem like a gimmick — and the third linked Night Watch, Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter director Timur Bekmambetov — and it's absolutely captivating. Unlike Unfriended and this year's Sundance flick Search, which he produced, Bekmambetov helms this based-on-a-true-story account of a journalist (Valene Kane) investigating ISIS enlistment campaigns by befriending a charming recruiter (Shazad Latif) online. Tabs, programs and windows pop up thick and fast, and the stress and tension soars with it, as a bond forms between the two. Profile won the audience award in the festival's Panorama section for good reason: slick, thrilling and utterly involving, and with pitch-perfect performances to go with it, it's a film that not only entertains and engages, but lingers.
AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL
In his nearly four-hour debut feature, Chinese writer/director Hu Bo achieves what every filmmaker dreams of: a movie that assembles its parts in such an assured and astute way that changing even one element seems unthinkable. And it's not just the length of his first and only film that makes that such an impressive feat, but the command of tone, the naturalistic yet patient style, and the subject matter. Working with a story from one of his own novels, Hu weaves together intertwined slices of unhappy lives, following four figures miserable in their modern-day Chinese industrial town. Each is going through a particularly bleak day, and all are drawn to a story about an elephant that sits still and ignores the world around it. As a heartbreaking postscript that casts a shadow over every moment of his movie, the author-turned-filmmaker took his own life in October last year.
As Barbara and Phoenix both cemented in recent years, Christian Petzold is one of Germany's best contemporary filmmakers, crafting accounts of the country's fractured past with an artistic eye and an empathetic gaze. With Transit, he bases his latest in the French port city of Marseilles, though his usual approach — and thematic fascinations — remain. Escaping war and fascism, the film's protagonist, Georg (Franz Rogowski), is desperate to flee to Mexico, but is forced to bide his time until the requisite papers come through. Assumed identities, heartbroken children, complex love triangles and the realisation that inertia is hell in itself all feature in this thoughtful, soulful film, as does a stellar turn by Victoria and Happy End's Rogowski, who proved a standout of the festival thanks to his similarly excellent work in contemplative warehouse romance In the Aisles.
At the Berlinale press conference for Unsane, Steven Soderbergh was filed with enthusiasm about his latest filmmaking technique: shooting an entire feature on an iPhone. Watching the results of his efforts, it's easy to understand why — when you're making a psychological thriller about a woman (The Crown's Claire Foy) pursued by a stalker (Joshua Leonard), trapped in a mental health facility and pondering her sanity, you want the intimacy and immediacy that comes with his choice of camera. The film doesn't go exactly where that plot description suggests, either, in a tense, twist-filled, nightmarish flick that shows just why the cinema-loving world should be thankful that Soderbergh's supposed retirement didn't stick. If his 2013 flick Side Effects met his fantastic TV series The Knick, threw in a committed performance by Foy, adopted a pulpy tone and mirrored society's current probing of the treatment of women, it might look something like this.
Heists have long proven one of cinema's favourite scenarios. Thankfully, there's no shortage of different approaches to what's become a very, very familiar on-screen premise. Museum throws up one of them — and won Berlinale's best screenplay prize for writer/director Alonso Ruizpalacios and co-scribe Manuel Alcala for its addition to the fold. The Gael Garcia Bernal-starring effort is actually loosely inspired by reality, taking on the Christmas eve 1985 theft of 140 indigenous objects from Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology, but doing so with fictional characters. That's just one of its playful touches, in a film that knows how to stage the main event in an attention-grabbing manner, yet also knows how to ponder everything from the control of historical artefacts to the bonds of friendship to father-son relationships, and to do so with a cheeky smile and stylistic confidence.
When a film takes viewers to a world vastly dissimilar to their own, one of the best pieces of praise it can garner is also one of the simplest. Calling a fictional movie "documentary-like" isn't just quick shorthand — it recognises the skill required to dive so convincingly, thoughtfully and delicately into another way of life, opening it up to audiences far removed from its reality while showing the requisite respect as well. And, it's a term that Ága earns as it follows ageing Inuit couple Nanook (Mikhail Aprosimov) and Sedna (Feodosia Ivanova), their daily existence in their snow-surrounded yurt, and the subtle — and not-so — changes encroaching upon their happiness. Finessed performances, astonishing images, a concise script, and a well-handled sense of pace and mood all combine for a movie that initially seems like it'll trek down a recognisable path, but is filled with its own considerable charms.