Fest gets points for strong selections

BERLIN — The 56th Berlinale accomplished something memorable: It kept critics from griping.

The organization was, as usual, tip-top. Even more important, the high points were not just concentrated in the Competition and Panorama sections, but were spread across the fest. People even talked about movies in the semi-experimental section, the Forum (written off last year as almost moribund) and the Kinderfest, which has been quietly growing in stature.

During fest’s closing hours, Official Selection topper Dieter Kosslick opined that in every way it had been “a smooth fest.” And critics — who are by nature, well, critical — would have to agree with him.

There may not have been any major discoveries or artistic triumphs, but the fest will go down as a pleasurable 10 days of world cinema.

Kosslick managed to bounce back from last year’s lackluster selection with a significantly better Competition lineup. And his gamble of putting all potential U.S. Oscar contenders out of competition — bucking the template set by former Berlin boss Moritz de Hadeln — seemed to work, with “Syriana,” “Capote” and “The New World” all scoring kudos.

“I’ve gradually sneaked out of the Oscar trap,” Kosslick tells Variety, “by trying a detour via ‘independent’ (non-studio) movies. It didn’t work last year, but this time it did.”

The fest lifted up a notch on the fourth day with the world preem of Robert Altman’s folksy and wonderfully life-affirming ensembler “A Prairie Home Companion.”

The heft of Altman’s movie was maintained two days later by Michael Winterbottom’s “The Road to Guantanamo,” a moving look at the indignities suffered by three Brit inmates that was all the more powerful for its lack of grandstanding.

And near the end of the fest, Sidney Lumet — like Altman, an octogenarian — showed there’s still life in his helming bones with the spiky “Find Me Guilty,” shot like a U.S. TV drama of the ’50s and with an enjoyably quirky perf by Vin Diesel as mobster Jackie DiNorscio.

Other standouts in Competition included Claude Chabrol’s look at the French justice system, “Comedy of Power,” good if not great but with a socko performance by Isabelle Huppert as an examining magistrate.

Competition had few outright clunkers, though both East Asian entries — Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Thai existential drama “Invisible Waves” and Hong Kong director Edmond Pang’s nostalgic two-hander “Isabella” — kindled little heat.

So, also, two debuts by Euro directors, Jasmila Zbanic’s Bosnian mother-daughter drama “Grbavica” and Pernille Fischer Christensen’s familiar slice of Danish realismo ham, “A Soap.”

Aussie druggie entry “Candy,” with Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, drew admiration for its perfs but less for its commercial and dramatic qualities.

Much of the local press interest in the 19-title Competition centered on the four (count ’em, four) German features. Kosslick claims the Berlinale has helped to change the “depressive mood in the industry” by showcasing the current range in Teuton cinema, with its “variations in style and great actors and actresses.”

Such was certainly the case with three of them, all metaphysical dramas of sorts: Oskar Roehler’s “The Elementary Particles,” Valeska Grisebach’s heartfelt “Longing” and Matthias Glasner’s 163-minute grungefest “The Free Will.”

Performances were also the key in two movies which brought their countries back to Berlin’s competition after several decades: Iranian Jafar Panahi’s enjoyable femme-centered pic “Offside” and Austrian Michael Glawogger’s “Slumming,” a black comedy about a tramp and a yuppie.

This go-round, other sections of the fest more than held their own, with Panorama and Forum each delivering some meaty (and marketable) fare.

Argentinian father-and-son drama “Family Law,” by David Burman, and Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s black mockumentary “Brothers of the Head,” about a grunge-rock act by conjoined Siamese twins, got Panorama off to a strong start.

Even the usually hardcore-arty Forum delivered several pics with niche commercial chances, including Israeli charmer “Close to Home,” low-key Gallic surprise “Hotel Harabati” (about post 9/11 urban paranoia) and Gotham documaker Laura Poitras’ “My Country, My Country,” looking at last year’s Iraqi elections from a local perspective.

And Kinderfest delivered “I Am,” a heartfelt story of a runaway orphan that already has U.S. distribution via Dream Entertainment.

Ticket sales were expected to hit a record high of 400,000, with all venues SRO. And critics and fest scouts at least had the feeling of having spent a worthwhile 10 days amid Potsdamer Platz’s futuristic glass and steel towers.

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