The Best of the 2014 Berlin Film Festival

From 'Boyhood' to 'Black Coal,' Variety critics recap their favorite movies from the fest

"Boyhood" & "Black Coal, Thin Ice"

SCOTT FOUNDAS: Well, Peter, another film festival draws to a close. It seems we were only just at Sundance, and now Berlin is but a memory. Time goes by so quickly…why, it’s almost like being one of the characters in Richard Linklater’s widely admired “Boyhood,” who age a dozen years in the course of two-and-a-half-hours of screen time. On the other hand, in Berlin’s Greek competition film, “Stratos,” a relatively short amount of time passes for the characters, but the movie itself creeps along so slowly that watching it calls to mind the title of a far better Greek film by the late master Theo Angelopoulos: “Eternity and a Day.”

Meanwhile, over in the parallel festival section known as the Forum, the international press finally got its long-overdue chance to see Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s terrific “Snowpiercer,” which opened in Korea last summer but has kept a pretty low profile on the festival circuit, and has yet to be released in the U.S. due to an ongoing dispute between the filmmakers and their North American distributor, Harvey Weinstein. “Snowpiercer” takes place during a second ice age, where the only way of surviving is to hop aboard a luxury passenger train that barrels through the glacial landscape with high-tech ease — precisely the means of travel one craves most years in Berlin, when the city sits under a heavy blanket of snow and ice. But in 2014, the Berlinale was downright balmy, with no snow, only a drop of rain, and temperatures well above freezing.

The movies weren’t always as agreeable as the weather, but overall it strikes me as having been a solid year, if not quite as strong as that annus mirabilis of 2012, when “Barbara,” “Caesar Must Die,” “Farewell My Queen,” “A Royal Affair” and “Tabu” all screened in competition.

PETER DEBRUGE: This is only my second time attending the Berlinale, and I confess being profoundly disappointed on my previous visit, in 2011, which served up Asghar Farhadi’s exceptional “A Separation” and little else. I’ve had three years to readjust my expectations, and this time arrived with open mind, better prepared for what the Berlinale has to offer.

For those better acquainted with other better-curated festivals, it’s worth explaining the sheer scale of Berlin, which serves up no fewer than 409 films, plus countless more in the European Film Market (a mix of schlock and still-unsold festival treasures). It’s also interesting to note that Berlin dedicates entire sections — such as the experimental Forum, youth-focused Generations and self-explanatory Culinary Cinema — to categories of film that the American industry doesn’t much care for.

Arriving with open mind, I was ready to discover some treasure that challenged my notion of what a film should be (as A.J. Edwards’ hypnotic and heavily Malick-indebted “The Better Angels” so beautifully did). The surprise I wasn’t prepared for was just how satisfying — splendid, even — Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” turned out to be. At last, Anderson doesn’t let his Faberge-like design impulses get in the way of fixing a really good omelet.

FOUNDAS: I’m glad you mention Berlin’s incredible diversity of programs, which also traditionally includes a large retrospective section, this year focused on lighting styles in movies from 1915-1950. That may sound like an esoteric subject, but it was one that allowed the festival to screen the glorious likes of Josef von Sternberg’s “The Docks of New York” and “Shanghai Express,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and even “Citizen Kane” in the best possible prints in Berlin’s typically excellent cinemas (this year graced by the return of the beautifully renovated Zoo Palast).

Moreover, it’s worth noting that Berlin is the only one of the “big three” European festivals (the other two being Cannes and Venice) that is also a massive, public-facing event taking place in a big, urban center. The press and industry attendees, who tend to stick to special screenings organized expressly for them, experience only a fraction of this, but even we can hardly fail to notice, as we scurry into the daily 9 a.m. press screenings inside the Berlinale Palast, the huge line of general-public ticket buyers snaking out of the main box office in Potsdamer Platz. This year, the festival set a new record for public attendance, with more than 330,000 tickets sold, which is really something to crow about.

DEBRUGE: Your experience on the festival circuit provides valuable context, Scott, since the “big three” from my more limited perspective have traditionally been Sundance, Toronto and Cannes, with Berlin running in the far distance. Berlin may be big in scale, but not so much in importance to the U.S. industry, which virtually ignored the fruits of your annus mirabilis. As you know (but some of our readers may not) Berlin kicks off my new role as Variety’s Chief International Film Critic (I’ll be based in Paris, but spending much of my time traveling to and reviewing from festivals around Europe and the world).

My understanding of the scene is sure to evolve, but in the meantime, I’m still fighting the tendency to judge too harshly an event like this, which feels like a bust by Hollywood standards. Though it can claim “Budapest,” Berlin didn’t give U.S. distributors much more to get excited about. George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” (bumped by Sony from an Oscar-season release in the States with good reason) went over like a dead body at a birthday party. Meanwhile, the festival allowed itself to be scooped by Sundance on both “Boyhood” and Lars von Trier’s “Nympomaniac: Part 1” (though I sat through the just-unveiled director’s cut here, expecting to find more than just few more dirty jokes and X-rated images to justify its extra half-hour running time), while “Snowpiercer,” which you mention, has been out in various countries since as far back as August.

That leaves us with “special” screenings of a cringe-worthy adaptation of Nick Hornby’s “A Long Way Down” that Sundance wanted nothing to do with and a remarkably strong directorial debut from Hossein Amini (the screenwriter of “Drive”), whose tense and sexy “The Two Faces of January” really ought to have played in competition. Of the competish offerings, Jennifer Connelly starrer “Aloft” (acquired by Sony Classics) felt like a marathon of miserabilism, while the Scandi dark comedy “In Order of Disappearance” was sharp and satisfying enough to earn $100 million, if only it were in English.

FOUNDAS: Looking beyond American interests, the big headlines this year seemed to be the large number of German (4) and Chinese (3) films selected for the official competition, with one of the latter, director Diao Yinan’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” making off with two major prizes: the Golden Bear for best film, and a Silver Bear for best actor, Liao Fan. I agree that this was the best of the Chinese selection and a very strong film by any measure — a great leap on to the world’s auteur stage for Diao, who’s seemed like a very promising talent ever since his debut pic, “Uniform,” in 2003 (which I had the pleasure of awarding a prize to as a jury member at that year’s Vancouver Film Festival). 

You mentioned “A Separation,” Peter, a film widely believed to have been turned down by Cannes before it premiered at Berlin, and the same is most likely true of Diao’s film. In the case of Asghar Farhadi, “A Separation” was his fourth feature; “Black Coal” is Diao’s third, but they’re both directors who’d been working for a while, been shown in a lot of good, smaller festivals like Karlovy Vary, Rotterdam, et al., and been looking to move up to the competition of a bigger festival (with all of the increased attention from the press, public and potential distributors that brings).

This, to my mind, has long been and continues to be the single greatest strength of the Berlinale: unencumbered by Cannes and Venice’s reputations as ground zero for the latest work of the world’s most important name-brand auteurs, Berlin has the ability to think a little bit more radically, and to put films and filmmakers in competition who would almost certainly be relegated to a sidebar at one of those other fests. A lot more people know the name Diao Yinan today than did even 24 hours ago, and where the future of movies are concerned, that can only be a good thing.