Berlin Film Festival 2016: a top 10

BFI Southbank’s senior film programmer Geoff Andrew picks his favourite films from this year’s Berlinale, including new work from Mia Hansen-Løve and Terence Davies.

25 February 2016

By Geoff Andrew

Things to Come (2016)

In recent years many have observed that the Cannes Film Festival has been drawing further and further ahead of its main European rivals – Berlin and Venice – when it comes to attracting top-notch films for its competition. That said, every year is different, and certainly this writer found the 2015 edition of the Berlinale one of the most satisfying he’d attended.

It was, perhaps, a hard act to follow, but while it would be hard to make a case for the 2016 edition being anything like a classic vintage, there were enough films of note to make it worthwhile. Notwithstanding the fact that it had to sit through an eight-hour film – A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, by Filipino Lav Diaz – Meryl Streep’s jury (which included Sight & Sound editor Nick James) must surely have faced a fairly easy task when it came to allotting the prizes, since a handful of films stood out very clearly from the competing crowd.

For a variety of reasons, I didn’t manage to make it through the Diaz epic; nor, sadly, did I arrive in time to see the opening film, the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, which seemed to divide critics somewhat, though I imagine, both from the second trailer and from what I heard, that I would at the very least have found it very funny indeed.

Out-and-out comedy, of course, is often in short supply at the big festivals, and it’s true that Berlin’s director Dieter Kosslick struck a serious note, with his very first paragraph in the competition catalogue, by drawing attention to Germany’s position vis-à-vis refugees both past and present. It was appropriate, then, that the Golden Bear eventually went to Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare) – certainly one of the finest films I saw, and undoubtedly one of the most urgently timely. Would that some of our politicians – especially those keen for us to leave Europe – could be made to sit down and watch it! 

Here are my thoughts on 10 of the best; while there were others I found rewarding (Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent, for example, boasted extraordinarily beautiful camerawork from Mark Lee Ping Bin, while Danis Tanović’s Death in Sarajevo benefitted from unflashily expert staging and camera choreography), for one reason or another, they didn’t quite make the grade for me.

L’Avenir (Things to Come)

Director: Mia Hansen-Løve (Competition)

Things to Come (2016)

A wondrously assured look at a philosophy teacher going through what might be described as a mid-life crisis – largely involving her elderly mother and her lecturer husband – were it not for the stoic fortitude and keen appetite for life with which she responds to whatever befalls her. Effortlessly sidestepping the sentimental clichés one might expect from such a story, Mia Hansen-Løve creates and sustains a light, delicate tone while never downplaying the difficulties of an unexpected, unwanted life-change. She’s helped enormously by a supremely witty, touching, utterly truthful performance by Isabelle Huppert as the protagonist – though the rest of the cast lend more than sterling support.

A Quiet Passion

Director: Terence Davies (Special Screening Out of Competition)

A Quiet Passion (2016)

Arguably Terence Davies’ finest film since Of Time and the City, this subtly stylised account of the life of Emily Dickinson – from her departure from the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary to her death in her 50s – may initially surprise some with the irreverent, wickedly funny repartee that marks many of the early scenes depicting the young poet’s friendship with her outspoken friend Vryling Buffam. As time passes, however, and the older Emily (Cynthia Nixon, quite superb) falls prey to disappointment, doubt, loneliness, bitterness and illness, the mood gets steadily darker, taking us into territory familiar from Davies’ earliest work. Not quite naturalism, but a more profound realism focused on the inner life of the poet, it allows Davies not only to create a world that vividly complements the verse heard in voiceover on the soundtrack, but to explore themes that have long been central to his own worldview. 

Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare)

Director: Gianfranco Rosi (Competition)

Fire at Sea (2016)

Shot on (and in the seas around) the Italian island of Lampedusa, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary focuses on the one hand on local inhabitants – most notably a 12-year-old, and his fisherman father and grandmother, all living largely traditional island lives – and on the other on the many migrants passing through from Africa (if they’re fortunate enough to have survived the Mediterranean crossing) in the hope of attaining a better life. A link between the two seemingly separate groups is the doctor, who provides the film’s only explicit statement of moral purpose – not that one is needed, when the images of the migrants, dead, dying or sorely afflicted in barely imaginable ways, are so terribly vivid. A film of an terribly saddening power, necessarily leavened by moments of wry humour.

All of a Sudden (Auf Einmal)

Director: Asli Őzge (Panorama Special)

All of a Sudden (2016)

The first German-language film by the Turkish writer-director of Men on the Bridge (2009) and Lifelong (2013), this is as bold and rewarding as its predecessors. A drama that expertly combines suspense, social satire, psychological study and ethical analysis, it centres on a successful young professional whose life is suddenly cast into turmoil when a woman who turned up at an impromptu party he threw dies in mysterious circumstances. The incisive, insightful script is well served by strong but nuanced performances, by elegant and expressive camerawork, and by Őzge’s assured handling of the unexpected turns and tonal shifts in her wholly compelling narrative.

Hedi (Inhebbek Hedi)

Director: Mohamed Ben Attia (Competition)

Hedi (2016)

This debut feature from Tunisia focuses on a somewhat feckless young car salesman sent to work in a different town just a week before his wedding; bored and lonely at his hotel, he finds himself attracted to a vivacious dancer, and embarks on a fling that could change his entire life. Majd Mastoura’s impressively understated performance as the indecisive protagonist, hesitantly wondering whether he can break with tradition and go against the wishes of his mother, won him the Berlinale’s best actor prize, while Ben Attia proved deserving of the best first feature gong for a film that builds slowly but steadily to scenes of real emotional intensity.

Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans)

Director: André Techiné (Competition)

Being 17 (2016)

André Techiné’s latest charts the volatile development of the fraught relationship of two high-school kids: the adopted son of a farming couple living high in the Pyrenees, and the son of a doctor (Sandrine Kiberlain) who after visiting the other boy’s ailing mother suggests he move into their apartment in town. Trouble is, they detest each other… Class, race (the young farmer is Maghrebi), sexuality, experience and ambition all come into play in this sensitive, sometimes surprising study of adolescent upheaval; terrific performances and Techiné’s eloquent use of landscape make for engrossing drama.

The Commune (Kollektivet)

Director: Thomas Vinterberg (Competition)

The Commune (2016)

Thomas Vinterberg’s best film since Festen, since its account of a middle-aged couple and their teenage daughter deciding to share their inherited mansion with friends and strangers is free of the whimsy and contrivance that has marred much of his work. It feels authentic in its observations of the pros and cons of 70s commune life – unsurprising, perhaps, given that Vinterberg apparently underwent such experiences as a child. He’s helped no end by the excellence of the lead performances: Trine Dyrholm won the Berlinale’s best actress prize for her turn as the unravelling Anna, though Ulrich Thomsen as her seemingly permanently confused husband is equally fine. Funny, touching, and mercifully free of any impulse to pour contempt on the ethos of an earlier era.

Soy Nero

Director: Rafi Pitts (Competition)

Soy Nero (2016)

Whereas his earlier films were mostly set in Iran, Rafi Pitts’ latest begins at the US-Mexican border, with young Nero trying to cross illegally and track down his elder brother in LA; his only hope of getting a green card is to volunteer for the army – which may well, of course, send him overseas to serve in a landscape still more dangerous than the deserts of Southern California. Structured as an existential odyssey pitched somewhere between realism and abstract allegory, the film isn’t always entirely plausible in its narrative details, but it’s certainly very watchable thanks to vivid characters, a good eye for locations, and Johnny Ortiz’s solid but never sentimentalised turn as the resourceful Nero.

24 Weeks (24 Wochen)

Director: Anne Zohra Berrached (Competition)

24 Weeks (2016)

About the dilemmas and pressures faced by a couple – a stand-up comedian and her manager – with a nine-year-old daughter who discover that the second child they are expecting will face various very serious health problems, Anne Zohra Berrached’s film succeeds primarily because it covers all the relevant issues – ethical, psychological, social and medical – so thoroughly. If the central characters initially come across as a little complacent, that in no way diminishes the enormity of the issues they are forced to confront, or the suffering of a woman undecided as to whether to terminate her pregnancy very late in the day. Julia Jentsch’s performance ensures that the final scenes are quietly affecting.

Zero Days

Director: Alex Gibney (Competition)

Zero Days (2016)

Alex Gibney’s latest doc could not be more different from Rosi’s Golden Bear-winner; it’s fast-paced, cleverly edited, packed with assertive talking heads, and peppered with eye-catching graphics. But it’s also surprisingly clear in investigating and explaining how a computer virus discovered in 2010 was actually a malware specifically designed by the US and Israeli governments (not that they’ll admit as much) to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme. It’s a complicated subject, but Gibney certainly manages to convey the sheer scary scale of the threat we all face from cyber warfare.

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