Berlin: Variety Critics Pick Their Festival Wish Lists

The Berlin Film Festival’s competition, Forum, Panorama and Generation sections program a cornucopia of films from all over the world — so it was a tough task for Variety’s chief international critic Peter Debruge and critic Guy Lodge to narrow down their Berlinale wish lists to a handful of features.

PETER DEBRUGE

GENIUS
Competition
In literature as in film, the editor is often the unsung hero, and few have had a greater impact on 20th century letters than Max Perkins (played by Colin Firth), who wrangled such literary lions as F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce), Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Incidentally, Michael Grandage’s directorial debut is edited by Oscar winner Chris Dickens. As Berlin-launched biopics go, here’s hoping it’s better than last year’s “Life.”

THE PATRIARCH
Out of Competition
More than two decades after “Once Were Warriors,” New Zealand’s own Lee Tamahori returns to his Maori roots with a feuding-families period epic that sounds (in visual terms, at least) to be a Kiwi Western — assuming that were an actual genre. Adapted from a short story by “Whale Rider” writer Witi Ihimaera, the movie marks an intriguing change of pace for a director who’s filled the intervening years making James Bond and “xXx” action movies.

A QUIET PASSION
Berlinales Special
Mere months after premiering his “Sunset Song” in Toronto, Terence Davies (who typically takes from three to 11 years between narrative features) unveils this portrait of American poet Emily Dickinson. Few directors manage to blend a literary sensibility with such exquisite visuals, and though “Sex and the City’s” Cynthia Nixon at first seems curious casting, it’s no stranger than Nicole Kidman with a fake nose (a la “The Hours”).

WAR ON EVERYONE
Panorama
Like Quentin Tarantino with a conscience, wicked-dark wordsmith John Michael McDonough waged war on the Catholic Church in “Calvary” (hardly a crowd-pleaser, but 2014’s finest film nonetheless). Now he offers up what sounds like a soul-sibling to 2010’s “The Guard,” transposed to New Mexico. Both of McDonough’s previous features debuted at Sundance, so it’s curious that his latest skipped Park City to debut in Berlin’s Panorama section.

GUY LODGE

THINGS TO COME
(L’Avenir)
Competition
Mia Hansen-Love, at 34 years old and with five features into her career, hasn’t even come close to striking out: Most recently, her wistful downfall-of-a-DJ study “Eden” was one of last year’s very best releases. Her latest marks her biggest star collaboration to date, with Isabelle Huppert — continuing her apparent drive to work with every major Euro auteur of the moment — headlining as a philosophy teacher and mother who must reclaim her life when her husband walks out on her.

BEING 17
(Quand on a 17 ans)
Competition
Not to be confused with last year’s French coming-of-age drama “Being 14,” veteran director Andre Techine’s return to adolescent-themed territory — which yielded his best film, “Wild Reeds,” in 1994 — pairs him with an exciting younger collaborator in Celine Sciamma. Hot from last year’s critical favorite “Girlhood,” she co-wrote this tale of gay teenage army brat (Kacey Mottet Klein, the breakout star of Ursula Meier’s 2012 Berlin winner “Sister”) forced to share a home with his schoolyard tormentor. Sandrine Kiberlain co-stars.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
Competition
We’ve been waiting a long time for Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to 2012’s Cannes-selected “Mud”: His self-described “sci-fi chase film” was rumored to be ready in time for last year’s Cannes fest, and has been stoking critical curiosity ever since. Reportedly influenced by John Carpenter, the Warner Bros. release stars Nichols regular Michael Shannon as an on-the-run dad desperate to protect his unusually gifted son from a pursuing government task force — led by “Star Wars” villain Adam Driver — and a religious cult. An ace ensemble includes Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Sam Shepard.

A LULLABY TO THE SORROWFUL MYSTERY
(Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis)
Competition
Filipino master Lav Diaz isn’t for everyone, and his vast visions require patience even from the converted: 2014’s exquisite “From What Is Before” clocked in at a formidable 5½ hours. Diaz’s latest promises to be similarly hefty, covering a broad swath of his homeland’s complex history and mythology, but will hopefully showcase his singular flair for visual storytelling. Credit Berlin for being the first of the three major European fests to take a chance on Diaz in competition.

SHEPHERDS AND BUTCHERS
Panorama
A patriotic pick on this critic’s part, perhaps, but South African filmmaker Oliver Schmitz has repeatedly proven himself on the world stage — most recently with the moving, Oscar-shortlisted AIDS drama “Life, Above All.” His latest sees him upping the celebrity quotient: Steve Coogan and Andrea Riseborough star in this 1980s-set drama about a high-flying lawyer taking on the death penalty as he defends a prison guard on multiple murder charges.

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