Tuesday, 9 February 2010

So you're going to Berlin?


Me neither. But I wish I was.

I've always had a bit of a fascination with Berlin, tho I haven't had the chance to visit it (yet). And, even though I am generally not a fan of either prizes or 'major' film festivals, the Berlinale – with its combination of Hollywood-visiting-Europe glamour and real cinematic art – is (alongside Cannes, but that deserves a post of its own), and has always been, an exception to that rule. Somehow, in the (over)inflation of film festivals of all kinds (which is mostly good, but sometimes I still do sense a twitch in my semi-conservative soul telling me it might have all gone a tiny bit too far) I still perceive it as relevant, meaningful, and not completely losing its voice when it comes to giving out signs to film buffs and addicts (such as yours truly here) everywhere on what should be 'compulsory viewing' for the year (which, when you live in Croatia, still means making long lists of 'to watch' films which you shall than proceed to catch for an entire year or more, but that's getting a tiny bit better too...). Venice, with its affection for mainstream and stardom, has long lost its relevance in my eyes (tho I know many would disagree); Karlovy Vary still has its tradition, but not a voice loud enough...

Yet Berlinale is still there, standing – and is, which always adds a couple of point when the observer is a social scientist to the core like me, never afraid of being openly political. Yes, sometimes this means that the main prizes go to films societal relevance of which is higher than the contribution they make to cinema as art. But in the end, awards are not the main part of the festival (at least not when you're an idealist outsider like me, someone who has no gains or losses if the movie doesn't do well, just simple feelings of content or disappointment, depending on personal views and preferences); and it is not all about visual beauty or technical improvements either. The introduction and spreading of ideas, opening of new debates, bringing new issues into the (policy or other) spotlight are just as relevant, and Berlinale, with its strong tendency to 'give voice' to people opening complex topics, is a good contributor to that. And since film is a medium so complex and so versatile, sometimes the balance between all these elements gets just right in some of the works shown, which is about as good as it can get for me...

Whether this year would be a 'good one', it is hard to tell – but with the 2010 edition of Berlinale just around the corner (starting February 11, and ending February 21), I couldn't resist making a short list of films (from the In competition section) I expect a lot from this year. The awards don't really matter that much (and with the character as versatile and unpredictable as Werner Herzog heading the International Jury this year, even making hints seems completely unwise, even a bit crazy); but in the hundreds of titles we're to get confronted with throughout the year, here are some, premiering at Berlinale, that I have high hopes for in terms of quality, beauty, entertainment, or all those combined.

Submarino (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)

After three long years of absence from our lives and screens, Thomas Vinterberg makes a comeback with what is said to be another one of his family dramas, set in modern Denmark and involving two brothers. I've always had a soft spot for Danish cinema, and Vinterberg – with his amazing 'Festen', the first and arguably the best of all that would eventually came out of the Dogme 95 movement – is extremely dear to my heart. While 'Festen', however, was undoubtedly a major (even if not commercial) success, none of his latter films have, in all honesty, had the same impact, or the same greatness as the multi-layered masterpiece (with the exception of the last one, 'En mand kommer hjem', which I have not yet seen and therefore cannot judge), and I certainly hope that 'Submarino' will be a step ahead. Unfortunately, it also marks the ending of Vinterberg's constant collaboration with Thomas Bo Larsen, the charismatic actor who has appeared in all of his previous feature films, leaving a particular mark as Festen's torn-apart, violent and sad Michael, and who is still one of my favorite Danes to watch on-screen (tho, I admit, not as excellent as Mikkelsen, Thomsen or Albinus, or fun as Søren Pilmark). The trailer for the film has been out for a while now, and it looks promising even without English subtitles – but I really can't wait to see more, and if I were in Berlin, this would be my No.1 to watch.

Eu cand vreau sa fluier, fluier (Florin Serban, Romania)

A 'mystery film' by a ‘mystery director’, a Romanian debutant Florin Serban, the film about a teenager faced with tough choices is my ‘blind pick’ out of the Berlinale’s basket, based solely on one fact: in the past couple of years, literally all films I have seen coming from Romania have been at least good, if not excellent. If I had to choose a personal favourite for 2009, again it would be a Romanian film, ‘Politist, adj.’ by Corneliu Porumboiu, beating such amazing achievements as Audiard's 'Un Prophete', Andrea Arnold's 'Fish Tank', and even Michael Haneke's 'Das Weisse Band', the Palme d'Or winner at last year's Cannes and, much more importantly in this case, probably my all-time favourite director. While I am still not sure whether we can talk about a unified phenomenon of a 'new wave' of Romanian cinema, bound by common style marks other than those resulting from the conditions (or lack of conditions) the Romanian filmmakers face in their work as well as some originating from similar background and education, the fact remains that the vivid, but also high quality Romanian cinematography of the moment is impossible to ignore. And if Serban has anything good to add to the long list of fantastic films it has so far produced, I am really really looking forward to it.

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, United Kingdom)

Already having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it has caused a lot of controversy with both its topic and the director’s brave treatment of it, this ‘bad sheriff’ story seems like a predictable pick. Yet while Winterbottom has done a fair share of good to excellent films in his career (his ‘Road to Guantanamo’ actually won the Silver Bear in Berlin four years ago), he’s also known for stepping into forbidden territory of badly scripted, low quality experiments from time to time (with ‘I Want You’ being particularly of interest in my book, having one of the major roles delivered by the then unknown Luka Petrušić, who went on to become a relatively successful actor in Croatia), so with him, no bet is ever safe to make. Yet it is Casey Affleck who I expect a lot from here: after seeing his performance in ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, I went on to watch every single movie I could find with him in it, only to discover that the mesmerising delivery in the role of the famous, yet hated ‘coward’ was no one-time luck; Once you manage to get over his last name and family ties, Affleck comes off as an extremely talented young actor, and I hope to see great things from him in this one – a hope underlined by some critiques already available.

Kyatapirâ (Koji Wakamatsu, Japan)

No great story here. If there is one weak spot in my love for cinema that I am embarrassed of, it is my serious lack of knowledge when it comes to Asian cinema; sadly, even the fact that I use the expression 'Asian cinema' tells enough about it to make me blush. But after seeing the trailer (at Twitch) for this particular film, I was shocked, amazed and tremendously saddened at the same time. And even if the story of a man who comes home from a war as a multiple amputee doesn't sound like a particularly happy ride, I expect the film to provide for just as gripping of an experience in its 85 minutes running time as it did in the two-minute preview.

Na putu (Jasmila Žbanić, Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Jasmila Žbanić is not a new name to the Berlin audiences: her first feature film, ‘Grbavica’, won the Golden Berlin Bear in 2006, getting hold of two other Berlinale awards before starting a rather successful world festivals tour as well. ‘Grbavica’ was a film bound to be adored by critics worldwide: a serious take on a serious topic (women raped in wartime, a question that contemporary cinema really does keep ignoring, or treats inappropriately), but with just enough of the ‘exotic’ Balkans to make it interesting. To me, however, as much as I appreciated her attempt (and the exemplary acting from Mirjana Karanović), the entire story seemed like an underdeveloped construct of tragedy, choke full of stereotypes and illogical steps. But while I disliked Žbanić as a writer, I liked her as a director: she managed to find her way through a bundle of hard issues rather elegantly, and make a film that was festival-designed, yet was embraced by people – and women in particular – who were interested in raising awareness, not gaining any cultural praise or sympathy. Her new film deals with no less controversial topic: it is a story of a young couple whose life turns around when he decides to turn to (radical) religion in order to fix his problems-ridden life. In post-war Bosnia, where the issue of religion is more political than everyday institutionalized politics, Žbanić once again takes a bold chance. The film stars two Croatian actors, Zrinka Cvitešić and Leon Lučev, neither of whom would have been my primary choice – but it still, judging by the trailer, looks promising, and if it takes on the path of ‘Grbavica’, but with a stronger story, it could be another success.

and finally...

Žuti mjesec (Zvonimir Jurić, Croatia)

Jurić’s film is an exception to the rule here – it’s a film in competition, but not in the main, but the short programme. It is, however, an exceptional piece of work, and should not go unmentioned. Originaly released in Croatia as a part of an omnibus ‘Zagrebačke priče’ (‘Zagreb stories’), ‘Mjesec’ is a two-character story about the kind of isolation and loneliness that is often attached to living in a big city. I’ve had the chance of writing about it before (for a Croatian bi-weekly cultural magazine), and – about the same time - meeting its director, a gentleman in his mid-thirties who I was mildly unimpressed by until he started discussing literature with me, purely by accident, at which point I was blown away and amazed; I was also amazed by his method of working – the entire film was born out of a handful of sketches and ‘starting points’, and hours and hours of rehearsals, improvisations and character development by the two young actresses. If the method reminds you somewhat of Mike Leigh, the film might also strike a familiar note – to me it brought back the memories of Leigh’s earlier film works (leaving out the ‘Play for today’ series), both in the mood, colour, and the “naturalness” of the directing. But ‘Žuti mjesec’ is no copy or reinterpretation, it is a little gem of its own kind, and thus well worth the attention.

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