Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Best Berlinale So Far

It was a very good Berlinale year; about mid-way through, I realized I was virtually incapable of picking a bad film, so I rode the wave all the way to the end. Five-years' experience helps a great deal with translating into reality the universally glowing Berlinale film synopses (written, after all, by the very selection committees that choose the films). For example, I know that "contemplative" or "reflective" means the subtitles will put you to sleep within half an hour as you sit in a packed theater in your long underwear and thick boots (requisite for Berlin in February). "Experimental" is another tricky one; good-experimental means vanguard, edgy, just how I like film to be. But bad-experimental means an assault on the audience, of which I always give certain of Peter Greenaway's over-the-top oeuvre as my primary example.

I could have reached my goal of seeing 20 films this year, as I had a significant gap on the last Saturday afternoon. But there was nothing that inspired me, and I was looking at three films back-to-back the following day (Kinotag). So I didn't force it. Out of the 19 total I saw, there was only one film for which my screening techniques broke down; Traumfabrik Kabul just didn't live up to its subject matter -- a Kabul policewoman who made and starred in feminist action movies. Great premise but my head was nodding by the first half-hour in the stuffy back row of a packed Delphi Filmpalast.

So, what was the best of so many good films? Made in Poland got a lot of hype but I found the director's Q&A to be more interesting than the film, which he had pared from a color feature film of over two hours to a spare 90-minute black-and-white where the most interesting part was the numerous chapter titles, a la von Trier. He used a sort of talk-radio approach to the sound as the titles flashed briefly on the screen, with rabid (anti-gay, anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi, etc.) sound-bites reminiscent the worst of American talk radio. The director's comments on YouTube, Canon 5D or 7C cameras and how necessary it is to keep up with what the young people are doing with them were fascinating. Think of how the work of the Dogme movement (which of course has been one of the most important influences on post-modern film) would have looked if shot today...

I hesitate to let the secret out of the bag but the Generation 14+ section often has interesting selections, plus the tickets are also much cheaper than the usual films. If there is any sex involved, however (and few films these days leave out sex), one has to endure sniggering teenagers vibrating with sexual frustration. So go prepared to filter out the background noise. Denmark impressed me this year (but then, Danish film nearly always does), with two very good entries in Gen 14+. Skyskraber was one of the best films I saw in the entire festival -- a simply charming coming-of-age story of two misfits trapped in a rural Danish town in thrall to its sadistic mayor. In contrast, Frit Fald provided a poignant treatment of the city girl obliged to grow up far too quickly.

We Were Here was the best documentary; the only thing I didn't like about it was its uninspired title. I went into it with purposefully lowered expectations because I know one of the main participants. It's not usual that a documentary focus this well on such a complex and dynamic subject. But I was captivated by the in-depth treatment of the five individuals which the filmmaker chose to construct his careful history of this difficult time. It won a 3rd prize from the Panorama audience and I have to say on a personal note: Daniel, dahling, you are a star.

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