The Berlin festival has always had to work harder than the other elite festivals. It unspools in snowy February, so can’t deliver the lovely weather of a Cannes or Venice or Toronto. It’s also not in the calendar’s sweet spot for launching an awards season contender, like its rivals. And increasingly, Berlin competition lineups of the past few years have sometimes looked on paper like the equivalent of cinematic granola: rich in moral fiber, with many issue-driven stories, but a little low on excitement. But this year may be much different.
Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick seems to be upping his game this year by luring some major helmers and delivering a more promising than usual lineup for the Teutonic sprocket opera’s 63rd edition. Cannes alumni unspooling world or international premieres in the fest’s official selection this year include Wong Kar Wai, bringing chopsocky out-of-comp crowd-pleaser “The Grandmaster” (which bowed in Asia first); Bruno Dumont, with period-piece “Camille Claudel, 1915” starring Juliette Binoche; the still-imprisoned Jafar Panahi with “Closed Curtain,” co-directed by Kambuzia Partovi; Hong Sang-soo with femme-driven “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon,” his first Berlin competish entrant since “Night and Day” in 2008; and Gus Van Sant with “Promised Land,” coming back to fest that showed him much love earlier in his career.
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Taking a break from his usual berth in Toronto, Danis Tanovic competes for the first time in Berlin with “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker,” about a Roma family caught up in a medical nightmare, set in the helmer’s homeland, Bosnia, while Steven Soderbergh, having favored Venice and Cannes for several of his bigger releases in the past, has returned to the fold with “Side Effects,” marking his second visit in a row after showing “Haywire” on Potsdamer Platz in 2011. Austrian Ulrich Seidl, on the other hand, has hedged his bets with his “Paradise” trilogy by playing Cannes with “Love,” Venice with “Faith,” and now Berlin with “Hope,” a rare trifecta of competition visits.
Kosslick and his selection committee have found room for several Berlin alumni in the competition, out-of-competition and special strands. Clearly one of Berlin’s darlings, especially after winning the honorary Berlinale Camera award, Yoji Yamada returns again out of competition with “Tokyo Family.” Tom Hooper’s global hit and Oscar hopeful “Les Miserables” makes its German bow out of competition; Hooper brought his 2012 hit “The King’s Speech” to Berlin, and then went on to win a best picture Oscar a few weeks later. Perhaps Hooper is hoping history will repeat itself with his tuner. Boris Khlebnikov, whose bittersweet 2009 drama “Help Gone Mad” played in a sidebar, makes his debut in the Berlinale competition lineup this year. Back after a long hiatus following his debut “George Washington” won acclaim in the Forum back in 2000, David Gordon Green returns to Berlin with low-budget two-hander “Prince Avalanche” in competition. Pic preemed to good reviews, as did out-of-comp gala “Before Midnight,” Richard Linklater’s final installment in the Julie Delpy-Ethan Hawke romantic trilogy, whose predecessor, “Before Sunset” won raves in Berlin. Sundance fare “The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman” by Fredrik Bond found less favor, but Berlin’s sizeable public audience and crowds of industry participants will be able to make up their own mind about it.
Other Park City players making the trip include Jane Campion’s TV series “Top of the Lake;” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon’s Addiction” and two films set in the dingy world of pornography — “The Look of Love” from Michael Winterbottom (a past Golden Bear winner for “The Road to Guantanamo”) and Ron Epstein’s biopic “Lovelace.”
If Berlin’s competition has a unique strength, it’s taking a chance on up-and-coming helmers, names who might have been berthed in sidebar line-ups at other fests but who get an extra lift here from the competition spotlight, like Miguel Gomes and Ursula Meier, whose “Tabu” and “Sister,” respectively, repped breakout hits from last year. Ones to watch this edition include: Guillaume Nicloux whose “The Nun,” co-starring Isabelle Huppert, revisits a Diderot novel previously filmed by Jacques Rivette; first-time Kazakh helmer and Berlinale Talent Campus graduate Emir Baigazin, who brings “Harmony Lessons” to the table (made possible funding from the Berlinale World Cinema Fund); innovative Canuck critic-turned-director Denis Cote, showing “Vic+Flo Saw a Bear” starring Romane Bohringer; and Romanian Calin Peter Netzer whose “Child’s Pose,” featuring prominent local thesps in the story of an overbearing mother’s relationship with her son.
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