Yes, Berlin (Still) Matters

 Studiocanal GmbH/Berlin International Film Festival

Maybe it's the weather. Maybe it's the frigid Berlin winter that inspires critics to repeat the same bitter litany year after year about the Berlinale, that there are no stars, no good films, no new ideas.

Several wags called 2011's fest "the worst Berlinale ever." Really? A festival that included Wim Wenders' groundbreaking 3D documentary Pina, J.C. Chandor's furious financial drama Margin Call and the astounding Iranian film A Separation -- all of which picked up Oscar nominations on Jan. 24?

When the 62nd Berlinale opens Feb. 9, expect the critics to be just as disgruntled. And just as wrong. Berlin's broad, eclectic selection process makes it harder to pick which titles will be the big breakouts, but given the festival's track record, there will be some. A cross section of possible standouts includes the Chinese imperial epic White Deer Plain from Golden Bear winner Wang Quan'an (Tuya's Marriage); Home for the Weekend, a shattered-family drama from the always excellent German helmer Hans-Christian Schmid (Requiem); and Billy Bob Thornton's 1960s period drama Jayne Mansfield's Car, featuring John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Duvall and Thornton himself.

None of them, however, is likely to go home with the Golden Bear. Berlin juries reserve the top prize for politically flavored cinema, so a betting man would put his chips on Brillante Mendoza's Captured (about foreigners kidnapped by Filipino terrorists), Benedek Fliegauf's gypsy-focused thriller Just the Wind or Kim Nguyen's Rebelle, which follows Komona, a 14-year-old soldier in Africa who is expecting a child.

There won't be much studio muscle on show in Berlin this year -- Warner Bros.' Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, directed by Stephen Daldry, and Jason Reitman's Young Adult from Paramount are the only studio titles screening, neither of them in competition. But Berlin never has been much of a studio launchpad and, since the Oscar nominations moved to mid-January back in 2004, the studios' prestige films are starting earlier in the year, to the benefit of the fall fests and detriment of Berlin. Moneyball bowed in Toronto, The Descendants in Telluride and Hugo in a surprise screening at the New York Film Festival. A smaller studio presence means fewer stars, so Berlin has had to get creative to ensure sufficient red-carpet wattage. As the only public festival of Europe's big three (Cannes and Venice are industry-only), Berlin needs its stars.

Festival director Dieter Kosslick has taken to combing the indie ranks for smaller features, often directorial debuts, with big-name casts. So this year, Berlin has the world premiere of Bel Ami, a period piece from first-timers Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod that counts Robert Pattinson, Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman and Kristin Scott Thomas among its A-list talent; James Marsh's Sundance entry Shadow Dancer with Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson; and Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, which features Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Antonio Banderas. Angelina Jolie will attend a special screening of her directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and Meryl Streep will get a pre-Oscar Golden Bear in honor of her life's work.

For the industry, however, Berlin's real draw is its market. Again sold out and booked solid, Berlin's European Film Market is forecasted to be a blockbuster, at least compared with the staid and low-volume American Film Market in November.

Pre-buys of in-development projects will be where the big money is, but expect a brisk business in pickups of finished films -- especially the more audience-friendly fare that screens in Berlin's Generations and Panorama sidebars. In Panorama, watch out for Iron Sky, the much-hyped, long- in-development Finnish "Nazis in space" spoof, and Cherry, an indie drama featuring Heather Graham as a porno film director and James Franco as a coke-addled lawyer.

When it all wraps Feb. 19, the critics likely will say it was a weak Berlinale and talk up the "amazing" lineup heading to Cannes. The industry, meanwhile, will add up its deal memos and prebook Berlin's Grand Hyatt for 2013.

 
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