Montag, 18. Februar 2013

Berlinale 2013

The 63rd Berlinale is over. Of the 21 movies I saw this year, here my personal favorites.

Best film: "Upstream Color"
Runner-up: "一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)"
honorable mentions: "Das merkwürdige Kätzchen", "Gloria", "Harmony Lessons"

(German family dynamics captured and slowly pressurized in "Das merwürdige Kätzchen" (u.l.); Kazakhstani campus bullying and the origin of violence in "Harmony Lessons" (u.r.); American horror story about the loss of self in "Upstream Color" (central); Chilean grandma's journey of heartbreaks and self-fulfillment in "Gloria" (l.l.); Chinese kung-fu master's extraordinary life revisited, WKW-style, in "The Grandmaster" (l.r.))

Best director: Shane Carruth ("Upstream Color")
Runner-up: Ramon Zürcher ("Das merkwürdige Kätzchen")
honorable mentions: 王家衛 ("一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)"), Emir Baigazin ("Harmony Lessons")

Best lead actor: 梁朝偉 Tony Leung ("一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)")
Runner-up: Ethan Hawke ("Before Midnight")
honorable mentions: Paul Rudd + Emile Hirsch ("Prince Avalanche"), Peter Mullan ("Top of the Lake")

Best lead actress: Paulina Garcia ("Gloria")
Runner-up: Luminița Gheorghiu ("Child's Pose")
honorable mentions: Julie Delpy ("Before Midnight"), 章子怡 Zhang Ziyi ("一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)"), Juliette Binoche ("Camille Claudel 1915"), Pauline Etienne ("La religieuse)

(sexy Chilean grandma determined to get her groove back, possessive Romanian mother on a mission to save her son, ambitious French feminist caught between career and family, stubborn Chinese kung-fu heiress bent on avenging her father's death, gifted French sculptor abandoned by her family and brought to the edge of sanity, innocent French girl forced into a life behind monastery walls and condemned to endless abuse)

Best supporting actor: Lance LeGault ("Prince Avalanche")
Runner-up: Yoo Jun-sang ("Nobody's Daughter Haewon")
honorable mentions: 張晉 ("一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)"), Sergio Hernández ("Gloria")

Best supporting actress: Robyn Malcolm ("Top of the Lake")
Runner-up: Louise Bourgoin ("La religieuse)
honorable mentions: Holly Hunter ("Top of the Lake"), 李佩甄 ("明天記得愛上我 (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?)")

Best screenplay: "Before Midnight"
Runner-up: "Frances Ha"
honorable mentions: "Prince Avalanche", "Das merkwürdige Kätzchen"

Best editing: "Upstream Color"
Runner-up: "一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)"
honorable mention: "Das merkwürdige Kätzchen"

Best cinematography: "一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)"
Runner-up: "Upstream Color"
honorable mention: "Harmony Lessons"

Best art direction: "一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)"
Runner-up: "Upstream Color"
honorable mentions: "Harmony Lessons", "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman", "La religieuse"

(brothels, train stations, opium parlors in early 20th century China in night rains, midday snow, and all kinds of lights and shades; strict lines and stern surfaces in schools, yards and prisons against the backdrop of sprawling Kazakhstani landscape; bloodshed and romance dowsed in fantastical colors in modern-day Bucarest; everyday objects of all shapes and sizes given an alluring and theatening tone in futuristic America; stately villas and foreboding monasteries of 18th century France in clean frames and textured materials)

Best costume design: "La religieuse"
Runner-up: "一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)"
honorable mentions: "Gloria", "Das merkwürdige Kätzchen"

Best film music: "Upstream Color"
Runner-up: "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman"
honorable mentions: "明天記得愛上我 (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?)", "Frances Ha"

Best musical number: living-room guitar duo in "Gloria"
Runner-up: Will you still love me tomorrow? in "明天記得愛上我 (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?)"

Best sound: "Upstream Color"
Runner-up: "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman"

Best off-screen moment: Linklater/Delpy/Hawke Berlinale reunion

(1995, 2004, 2013)

Berlinale: Upstream Color

Like "The Tree of Life", "Upstream Color" is probably better described as a collection of magnified, highly stylized impressions with next to no logically pursuable narrative line and should come with a corresponding warning sign (accusations of pretentiousness will no doubt be loud). Unlike Terrence Malick's elusive, meditative drama, however, writer/director/lead actor/editor/composer Shane Carruth has actually devised a plot for this sci-fi thriller/ apocalyptic love story- albeit an obscured, fragmented, greatly abstractified one- to support, reinforce, justify all that splendor displayed on screen. So as extreme close-ups of piglets, worms, microscopic lifeforms and cellular activities glow in all sorts of hypnotic hues, that cryptic but unmistakable undercurrent of evil and the main characters' need to break free would steadily feed your discomfort and challenge you to think harder.

Even without the promise of answers, this movie still works as its visual and aural elements are charged with such dazzling energy and infused with such furious beauty together they form a cinematic experience that connects on an instinctual level. Watching it you get carried away by a sensual overload of bold, crisp images and insanely rich and detailed, textured sounds so finely tuned and synchronized it could only come from a singular, magnificent vision.

Uncompromising, mystifying, overwhelming, this movie blinds the brain and absorbs the mind, it's the best movie I saw at this year's Berlinale.

Berlinale: La religieuse (The Nun) / The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman

French competition entry "La religieuse (The Nun)" by Guillaume Nicloux is an intense, handsomely-made drama about the horrors that went on behind the convent walls in 19th century France. While the physical and psychological abuse depicted in the film borders on torture porn for me, a pristine, dignified lead performance by Pauline Etienne held the narrative firmly anchored on the plight of a young girl oppressed by the institutionalized tyranny exercised in the name of faith. The divine Isabelle Huppert is given the thankless job of playing a predatory lesbian nun and will remain the target of derision so long as this movie is seen, but honestly, just to see the French icon with those watery eyes and mean lips decked out in full Sister gear is worth the price of admission. Among other things, the subtly sumptuous costumes helped afford the film a polished, refined look.

American competition entry "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman", the feature film debut by Fredrik Bond, could be easily dismissed as an extended music video with empty notions of love in blown-up, neon-lit font, accompanied by sugar-coated electronica. That said, credit must be given to the zeal and skill with which those ardently romanticized scenes of bloody fairy tales are realized: glittery, kaleidoscopic, a combustion of light and colors coupled with a killer soundtrack, they may well be shamelessly superficial, but what ravishing surface they scratch. Shia LaBeouf is appropriately bright-eyed and love-struck as the amorous hero, but the true champion of this movie is the visual artistry of the director and his rather talented technical team.

Sonntag, 17. Februar 2013

Berlinale: 누구의딸도아닌해원 (Nobody's Daughter Haewon) / Prince Avalanche

Korean competition title "누구의딸도아닌해원 (Nobody's Daughter Haewon)" by Hong Sang-soo has all the trademark elements of his work, from the randomness of the happenings, the off-beat humor of the dialogue, to the unembellished, pedestrian cinematography with the camera always zooming in and out of the actors like an alert, somewhat nosy bystander. As a result, the odd, endearing artificiality of the settings peculiar to Hong's movies came into being once again and consequently that puzzling take on reality which is very much his own. However, without the episodic structure of "Hahaha" or "In Another Country", "Haewon" lacks the narrative variety, weight and an inner complexity that gave those movies their poesy and dream-like quality, something that no amount of dream sequence can make up for.

American competition title "Prince Avalanche" starts off rather slowly, but once this unlikely buddy dramedy set in 1988 Texas gets into gear, the jokes begin to fly and the pain begins to strike. Writer/director David Gordon Green does a fine job balancing the fun/sad parts of the story, here and there even pitching in some inspired visual stunts to deepen the emotional resonance and elevate the movie out of mainstream conventionality. Both Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch are solid, registering ignorance, worldliness, vulnerability and unbridled joy in an abundance of expressions to great comedic/dramatic effect. On the whole genuinely agreeable and unexpectedly moving.

Samstag, 16. Februar 2013

Berlinale: Uroki Garmonii (Harmony Lessons) / Layla Fourie

Kazakhstani director Emir Baigazin made his phenomenal feature film debut with competition title "Uroki Garmonii (Harmony Lessons)". The bully/revenge story itself doesn't break any grounds, but the way in which the birth and spread of terror and violence on school campus is mapped here is remarkable. The minimalist composition contributed to an eerie calmness and unsettling clarity with which the perversion is observed. While the torture scenes along with their undertones of regime critique may be handled a bit heavy-handedly, the general impression left by this film is that of cool objectivity and stifling precision. In its final frame, beneath the bleak, lyrical lakeview, you could just about hear the boy killer's silent screams.

Pia Marais' "Layla Fourie", a moral thriller set in South Africa, is a middling affair that doesn't belong in the competition line-up. While the premise of a lie detector operator having to lie in the wake of a fatal accident has potential for greatness, the wooden writing didn't give the characters depth nor made their dilemma relatable, so the moral aspect of the story never had any teeth. Add to that an undistinguished direction with no sense for real suspense, and even the thriller aspect came away curiously thrill-free. Lead actress Rayna Campbell has the regal presence and immaculate diction to play a woman with a secret but was given much too little to work with.

Freitag, 15. Februar 2013

Berlinale: Mes séances de lutte (Love Battles) / Frances Ha

Leave it to the French to make a movie about people so consumed by their feelings words, gestures no longer suffice to provide outlet and all attempts at expression or communication come off looking so outlandish and bizarre you don't know whether to laugh or be shocked. In Jacques Doillon's "Mes séances de lutte (Love Battles)", the two main characters argue, wrestle, have sex all in a baffling whirlwind of love, hate, lust, power play most of the time I have no idea what's going on. Whether that's art or just plain lunacy, it looks pretty ridiculous.

Noah Baumbach's sweet and funny "Frances Ha" is probably too loosely structured for its own good, drifting a bit aimlessly in the middle; but the script is peppered with the kind of wit and charm born of sharp observations of life's follies and a keen understanding of what it's like to be down on one's luck that you can't help but identify with and delight in the heroine's various efforts to get her act together. The quick cuts and somewhat crazed soundtrack lend the film a manic, sparkly beat, and the always lovely Greta Gerwig delivers yet another winning performance; her monologue about finding that "look at a party" is silly, honest, incredibly tender.

Donnerstag, 14. Februar 2013

Berlinale: Camille Claudel 1915 / Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (The Strange Little Cat)

Juliette Binoche quivers, shouts and bawls through French competition entry "Camille Claudel 1915", based on the life of the asylum-bound famed sculptor. The most powerful moments of her performance, however, are when she does none of those things and instead just stares into space, letting that transcendent indifference, weariness and resignation blaze across the big screen. Director Bruno Dumont's approach to the movie is stern, exacting, relentless grim. Draining the frames of all music, employing harsh light bouncing off sun-bleached stone walls and sandy grounds, he made a film so sparse you're forced to be confronted head-on with the abundance of misery and suffering depicted. Not an easy film to sit through, but by the end of it, the consistency of the artistic austerity feels strangely moving and cathartic.

Young Swiss filmmaker Ramon Zürcher (b. 1982!) hit it out of the park with his feature film debut "Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (The Strange Little Cat)". Within 72 compact minutes, the writer/director managed to paint a lively family portrait complete with humor, conflict, even hints of passive aggression boiling underneath the surface. The script is neatly structured and beautifully-layered, weaving expertly in and out of dialogue, monologue, flashbacks and reverie, whereby baring childhood wonder, adult fears and a cross-generational tension that you can't quite put your finger on but is ever-present and authentic. The often static and always curiously stealth camera angle, the slightly hyperbolic color pallet create a cinematic language pregnant with suggestions and feelings.

Mittwoch, 13. Februar 2013

Berlinale: Ayer no termina nunca (Yesterday Never Ends) / Pardé (Closed Curtain)

It's a chore to sit through Spanish director Isabel Coixet's "Ayer no termina nunca (Yesterday Never Ends)", a feature film constructed almost entirely upon dialogue between two grieving parents on the anniversary of their son's death. Even though the two main characters are constantly talking, the confinement of space and monotony of their interaction lend it the air of a piece of silent performance art that's delicate but quietly oppressing. Both Javier Cámara and Candela Peña are fully committed to their roles and in the few scenes where the camera wanders off their faces to observe bright open sky or dreary rainwater trails, the work of a great cinematographer is on ample display, but as a whole, this movie tests the patience of the audience much more than it rewards them with anything substantial.

Iranian competition entry "Pardé (Closed Curtain)" has an intriguing premise, using a secluded house as stage, pitting a writer of his own story against mysterious intruders who may or may not be figments of his imagination. When the director Jafar Panahi himself drops in, boundaries between fictional film and documentary, reality and projection get all but obliterated. This potentially explosive idea sadly didn't get the treatment it deserves, the script feels hollow despite all the tricks on perception it plays and the direction too slack. In the end, this movie remains mostly a rigorous formal exercise without real impact, intellectual or emotional.

Berlinale: Gloria / Pozitia Copilului (Child's Pose)

Two competition titles featuring central female characters showcase superb performances by veteran actresses.

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio's "Gloria" starts off a bit shakily, meanders here and there, but gradully grows into a fascinating character study of a woman fighting for happiness late in her life. As the chain-smoking, booze-downing, trigger-happy sexy grandma rocking a pair of retro-glasses, Paulina Garcia is absolutely glorious. In the bitterly funny last act when she finally sees, decides to drop the specs and sway blindly on the dancefloor, it's hard not to cheer.

Romanian director Calin Peter Netzer's "Pozitia Copilului (Child's Pose)" starts out strongly with a bad-ass opening scene and promises of severe social critique plus nasty parenting tips, but dissolves slowly into mushy repentance drama, losing all that sharp angle and wicked tone. As the vehement, scheming mom with a penchant for suffocating his grown-up son with incestuous affection, though, Luminita Gheorghiu is equal parts intimidating, pitiful, loving and perverse, not an easy feat to pull off.

Dienstag, 12. Februar 2013

Berlinale: Before Midnight

Writer/director Richard Linklater reunites with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for a third time in "Before Midnight", again taking viewers along on a summer stroll with Jesse and Celine as they talk, joke, argue about the trivia of the world and of the heart.

The epic long takes, ceaseless conversations and picturesque European backdrop (this time provided by the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece) feel familiar but the protagonists' circumstances are VERY different, which is why one should be prepared for a narrative tone that's consierably removed from that of the first two films. Both lead actors gave impressive, beautifully lived-in performances; even when certain parts of their debates felt forced, it's a delight just to witness the spontaneity with which they portrayed these two characters we've come to know over the years.

Reaction to this movie will ultimately depend on how one relates to the new stage in life it depicts. But in any event, it's a rare cinematic achievement to chronicle the evolution of a relationship spanning nearly two decades. Indeed, the greatest gift of this trilogy is probably the invitation it extends to us to ruminate on time, the time lost and found, wasted and treasured, missed and dreaded.

Montag, 11. Februar 2013

Berlinale: Top of the Lake

Watching Jane Campion's mini-series "Top of the Lake" is a frustrating (and as a 6-hour movie marathon physically demanding) experience. Sizeable tension and good suspense is built towards the middle of the 6-part feature, but it takes quite a while for the story to get a firm grip on its tone and rhythm, before the whole thing finally peters out with a whimper.

The cast does a fine job with what it's given to do. Elisabeth Moss is quietly affecting as the police officer on a mission, especially when the hard shell of her character's composure breaks away. Robyn Malcolm provides strong comedic relief, even if I'm not sure whether all those laughs do this crime series favors. Ditto veteran thespians Peter Mullan and Holly Hunter, both convincing in their performances despite having to portray characters leaning toward the zany side. The sprawling landscape of New Zealand with its endless mountain ridge and water bodies offers the best visual representation of mystery and the unknowable, too bad the writer of this missing-child/ small-town-criminality/ police drama didn't come up with much more than an enticing hook to warrant all this scenic wonder.

Sonntag, 10. Februar 2013

Berlinale: W imię...(In the Name of) / 明天記得愛上我 (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?)

Polish competition title "W imię...(In the Name of)" by director Małgośka Szumowska is skillfully shot, tracing swift movements and capturing fleeting sensations with fluidity and aesthetic assurance. Sadly the taboo-drama is direly underwritten, failing to establish palpable struggle of or emotional association with the characters. The editing is especially patchy, chopping off many scenes before any dramatic potential could be realized.

Taiwanese director Arvin Chen's "明天記得愛上我 (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?)" is a sweet pop-tart of a movie with a happy ending you can spot from miles away. All predictability aside, the script offers high entertainment value while poking at issues of sexuality, marriage, commitment; together with the vibrant colors, a swirling jazzy soundtrack and elements of magical realism lending modern-day Taipei an endearing whim, it led to a romantic comedy that's perhaps too easily digestible, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable.

Samstag, 9. Februar 2013

Berlinale: 一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)

The various storylines in Wong Kar-Wai's "一代宗師 (The Grandmaster)" don't necessarily make an organic whole, the bumpy cuts from one to another often compromise the flow of the narrative, a problem most acutely felt in the last part of the movie. Add to that some miscues in music choice, and people might start calling this a minor-Wong.

Visually, though, WKW proves he's still the irrefutable grandmaster of style, here staging breathtaking fights and observing gorgeous period details in exquisitely lit spaces, plunging the audience in stunning vistas from start to finish. As to the complaints about excessive use of slo-mo, moi thinks the director and his editing team actually managed to find the tricky balance for the many action sequences, allowing the change in speed, angles, distance to underscore the physicality, seismic force and balletic grace unique to martial arts, never missing the grandeur or the intimacy of the battle.

Both lead actors are outstanding, Zhang Ziyi shows tremendous poise and exercises great restraint, using the merest sneers and unwavering gaze to convey the resolve and inner turmoils of the heroine. Tony Leung delivers an even more fully internalized performance, acting at times solely on the strength of the slightest twitch of a muscle or every emotion left unexpressed yet commanding the entire screen with the weight of his focus and his sheer presence. Now THAT is what I call a movie star.

Freitag, 8. Februar 2013

Berlinale: Chemi sabnis nahetsi (A Fold in My Blanket)

There are individual frames or sequences in Zaza Rusadze's debut film "Chemi sabnis nahetsi (A Fold in My Blanket)" that scream Lynchian creepy beauty with surrealist composition, saturated colors and jagged sound. These occasional bursts of delicious madness can't hide the fact that the story doesn't make sense and the exasperatingly confusing dialogue isn't really clever, but suggest a discerning eye of the young Georgian director for the unconventional and unsettling.