Berlin Critics' Notebook: The Good, the Bad and the Truly Bizarre

Berlin Film Festival

The 2014 Berlinale will be remembered for a number of personal and offbeat works in competition, most aimed less at paying audiences than at hard-nosed filmgoers willing to go the extra mile.

It may not have been the most exciting year for critics at Berlin, and precious few films in the increasingly formulaic Forum, Panorama and Generation sidebars turned out to be great discoveries, even if they frequently played to sold-out houses. It was a classic case of festival frenzy over films most viewers wouldn’t cross the street to see a week later. In the end, the 2014 Berlinale will be remembered for a number of personal and offbeat works in competition, most aimed less at paying audiences than at hard-nosed filmgoers willing to go the extra mile.

The festival was happily bookended by films from two of America’s most critically beloved contemporary auteurs – Richard Linklater, whose intensely admired Boyhood was a universal favorite with critics and audiences alike and the winner of multiple festival awards including best director, and Wes Anderson with his idiosyncratic, at times bizarre period comedy set in pre-WWII Europe, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which took home the Berlinale Jury Prize.

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Boyhood is a unique coming-of-age tale shot over 12 years with the same actors who include Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. Perhaps never before has the long arc of the journey from childhood to college been portrayed as cohesively and convincingly as in this epic about the ordinary: growing up, the banality of family life, and forging an identity. The Grand Budapest Hotel, on the other hand, is an idiosyncratic period comedy with boisterous, sometimes bizarre humor, played by a colorful cast. Its sensibility and concerns are very much those of an earlier, more elegant era, meaning that the film's deepest intentions will fly far over the heads of most modern filmgoers.

Nobody could miss the festival’s warm bear-hug to China.  With three good, strong Chinese films in competition, director Diao Yinan took home the Golden Bear for his stylistic tour-de-force Black Coal, Thin Ice, a fascinating if complexly structured film. The screenings ended in open admiration but also close huddles of reviewers who desperately tried to puzzle out the characters and plot. Is incomprehensibility the new cool? And how will audiences react to this magnificently atmospheric Chinese film noir featuring an alcohol-addled ex-detective from the provinces and a femme fatale who works in a dry cleaners? Actor Liao Fan, who played the detective with wry humor and bleak pessimism, took home a Silver Bear as Best Actor.

After this double prize to the mysterious Black Coal (actually a Chinese-U.S. co-production between Jiangsu Omnijoi Movie and Boneyard Entertainment), the jury presided by American producer and screenwriter James Schamus awarded a Silver Bear to Lou Ye's low-key drama of love among the sightless Blind Massage, in honor of its extraordinary artistic achievement. Though not the flashiest of films, it straddles an interesting middle ground between realism and imagination, while Zeng Jian’s camera brings the viewer uncomfortably up close to the world of the blind.

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Much has been made of the fact that Schamus is a regular screenwriter for Taiwanese director Ang Lee, but the Far East fireworks at Berlin were very real, confirming the dynamic creativity and wide range of current production. One can only say that Berlin’s typically weak competition was bolstered by the Asian presence.

The third Chinese film in competition didn’t win any prizes, but Ning Hao’s long-shelved comedy-thriller set in the Central Asia desert, No Man’s Land is a black sheep crowd pleaser that follows in the hallowed boot-steps of Sergio Leone’s neo-Westerns, a darkly humorous comment on society’s disintegrating morality and selfishness.  And to stay in the area, Japanese best actress Haru Kuroki won a Silver Bear, although Yoji Yamada’s period melodrama The Little House was no critical favorite. The lethargic tale of longing glances and thwarted passions in an upper middle-class Tokyo household around World War II was panned as an under-heated, conventionally soapy melodrama.

One of the most talked-about titles in competition was Germany’s Catholic drama Stations of the Cross, a stunning tale about a teenage girl's descent into hell and her journey through faith. Though leavened with occasional moments of acerbic humor, the film is a pretty grim a cinematic experience. Director Dietrich Bruggemann and his sister Anna Bruggemann won the best screenplay award.

It’s no secret that most Berlin films are aimed primarily at festival audiences with patience, forbearance and preferably a background in film culture and the humanities. But a few films did leap out of the pack with commercial potential. One of these is '71, set in Belfast at the start of the “Troubles” between Catholic and Protestant extremists. A gripping, nightmarish journey into the end of night, this war story-cum-thriller is an outstanding, muscular feature debut for French-born, British-based director Yann Demange.

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Another cross-over title is the Norwegian In Order of Disappearance, a rip-roaring revenge tale that heats up the vividly depicted frozen North. Stellan Skarsgard plays a mild-mannered snowplow driver who stacks up a formidable body count while avenging the murder of his son in Hans Petter Moland’s deadpan bloodbath.

But back to the art house. France sent two entries to competition, and both disappointed. True, master filmmaker Alain Resnais picked up the Alfred Bauer award and the Fipresci International Critics Prize as best filmfor his latest ensemble piece Life of Riley, but THR’s review echoed a widespread feeling that the film is an outrageously artificial piece of filmed theater. Using stagy sets, affected performances and Surrealistic touches, it offers a joyous/melancholy depiction of middle-class couples coping with problematic love lives, solitude and death.

The other French film, Beauty and the Beast from director Christophe Gans, is equally problematic. An overblown and unconvincing update of the French fairy tale, it was neither the cinematic beauty that is Jean Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece, nor the commercial beast that Disney released in 1991, but a kitschy, effects-laden middle-grounder.

Apart from Stations of the Cross, the other German films in competition raised very little heat. Jack, from director Edward Berger, is a sad, all-too-credible story of two lost and neglected brothers in Berlin that should have been more moving. Director Feo Aladag presented Inbetween Worlds, a war tale shot on location in Afghanistanthat dilutes its strength by switching back and forth from the German army to Afghani civilians, leaving the drama in no man’s land. Dominik Graf’s period romance Beloved Sisters, depicting the tumultuous private life of German poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller, is an expensive melodrama short on originality.

A closer examination of the catalog reveals that 12 out of 23 films in the main section – including the long version of Nymphomaniac, Part I and The Monuments Men, which were non-competing – are German productions or co-productions.  Among these is the undercooked Greek drama Stratos, a somber film noir about an Athens hit man who has a day job as a baker, a veiled comment on the Greek financial crisis from Yannis Economides with a strong socio-political subtext.

South America made a valiant appearance with three well-received films and a miss. In The Third Side of the River, Argentinian director Celina Murga offers a transfixing portrait of adolescent unease that steadily builds power. Her downbeat but penetrating character study, marked by rigorously unadorned ultrarealism, is a small but beautifully observed contemplative drama from about a 17-year-old boy bristling against the frustrations of his family life. Martin Scorsese executive produced.

History of Fear, directed by Benjamin Naishtat, is an impressive debut feature that relies on visuals and the power of suggestion to talk about abstract notions such as angst, while it looks at series of strange occurrences in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Semi-experimental, it’s very much a festival film.

So is Praia do Futuro, Brazilian director Karim Ainouz’s dreamy, melancholy drama that’s stronger on mood than narrative depth. Tragedy brings two strangers together in a visually hypnotic journey, and mesmerizes beyond the aesthetic level with the physicality of men’s bodies.

A major disappointment was Claudia Llosa’s magical realist fable Aloft, the first English-language feature from the admired Peruvian director of The Milk of Sorrow, which won an Oscar nomination as well as Berlin’s Golden Bear. Starring Jennifer Connelly, Aloft loses its balance and turns into a symphony of ponderous New Age mumbo-jumbo masquerading as philosophical wisdom. 

Rachid Bouchareb’s Two Men in Town pits a sterling cast starring Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel and Blenda Blethyn against predictable storytelling, in the remake of a 1973 French drama transposed to the New Mexico desert. What seems meant as a scorching indictment of American injustice and prejudice, or perhaps the searing character study of a cornered man, just ends up looking wishy-washy and old-fashioned.

In her satisfying debut feature Macondo, Sudabeh Mortezai presents an intimate glimpse of immigrant life inside a Vienna refugee community, focusing on an 11-year-old Chechen boy’s confused contemplation of manhood. Modest in scope, it is entirely captivating in the docu-style humanism of its approach.

Stephen Dalton, Leslie Felperin, Todd McCarthy, Jordan Mintzer, David Rooney and Boyd Van Hoeij contributed to this report.