Everyone Else (dir. Maren Ade) – Five years ago the Berlinale unveiled one of the most uplifting relationship films of the decade, Before Sunset; this year’s competition film to beat is also a sharp observation of a couple who share an uncommonly wacky rapport, except here their amorous vibe is threatened by the looming specter of adult respectability. A twenty-something answer to Voyage to Italy, it recalls Rossellini’s investigation of how environments sculpt emotions, though Ade and her remarkable actors (esp. free-spirited Birgit Minichmayr) achieve this not through Rossellini’s stripping of personal masks, but by presenting a mirror in the form of a rival couple whose confident aura of bourgeois respectability inspire both contempt and insecurity. The Berlin jury may deem this not “high concept” enough to snag a best picture Golden Bear, but the film’s willingness to flesh out a scene to its fullest and its vivid awareness of the little gifts and pinpricks that people give each other in gestures and words is exactly what’s missing from a slog of competition films about global issues that have as much insight and authenticity as an article in Newsweek.
Beeswax (dir. Andrew Bujalski) – It seems that not a few critics were ready to pounce on this film as the Alamo of Mumblecore. Leaving Mumblecore out of this, this is Bujalski’s most ambitious and richest effort, adding new layers of relevance to his trademark milieu of conversational awkwardness among young adults living day to day by depositing them within the creeping walls of grown-up responsibility. Whereas some reviews have found this setting emblematic of the shallowness of Bujalski’s world view, I find it to be a starkly honest and self-knowing depiction of the infantilizing effects of contemporary American culture. To this end, Bujalski’s job isn’t so much to judge his characters as to depict them with discernment and accuracy, and he does this with ethnographic precision. This is especially the case with his main character, an uptight, wheelchair-bound store manager who has to be one of the most sympathetic yet unpatronizing depictions of disabled life onscreen.
The Fish Child (dir. Lucia Puenzo) – The follow-up to Puenzo’s gender-bending debut XXY is an unlikely marriage of teenage lesbianism, telenovela melodrama and discombobulating narrative strategies à la Mulholland Dr. and fellow Argentine Lucretia Martel, and for the most part it works powerfully. A mystery plot resting on multi-layered flashbacks manages to remain compelling thanks to Puenzo’s ability to anchor scenes on one or two details that linger in the mind and provide pieces to a puzzle of secrets that devastate two families. Once the narrative fog clears, the plot goes for the jugular, piling guns, tears and corruption onto its top-heavy climax, but there’s no denying the mood of sexy hauntedness that lingers after the credits.
Deep in the Valley (dir. Atsushi Funahashi) – This beguiling blend of documentary and fiction starts by patiently chronicling the placid lifestyle in Tokyo’s Yanaka district, home to acres of temples and gravesites, then shifts almost imperceptibly into a historical mystery tale involving a pagoda that burned down decades ago, complete with period scenes depicting the tower’s construction. Conceptually ambitious yet calmly executed, the film switches between multiple modes of narration probing through space and time, fact and fiction. The result is something new: a documentary ghost story that exists in a melancholy memory zone connecting the living with the dead.
Bluebeard (dir. Catherine Breillat) – Five years ago one might have shuddered with dreadful anticipation at what Breillat version of a children’s fairy tale might look like, but following The Last Mistress the sexual provocateur seems to be focusing her subversive impulses squarely on the contradictions within the source material. Despite being filmed with clinical flatness in unflattering low-fi digital, Breillat’s interpretation of the story becomes a complex celebration and critique of feminine will. An initially awkward framing device in which two girls read the story to each other proves to add a valuable layer illuminating the contradictory impulses of delight and repulsion that bind a girl to her fantasies, and the dynamic of feminine empowerment and servitude that’s reflected in Perrault’s fairy tale.
Yang Yang (dir. Cheng Yu-Cheih) – Countless films implicitly objectify their actresses; few make objectification their central theme like this rangy chronicle of a French-Chinese high school athlete whose exotic charm keeps getting in the way of her relationships with everyone around her. Cheng’s second feature is heavy on the Dardenne brothers’ handheld long takes that do as much to obfuscate the action as reflect a narrow consciousness coming into its own. But after the rattling camerawork subsides, a number of interesting insights into how personal identity is formulated and commodified begin to take hold.
Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (dir. Manoel de Oliveira) – Oliveira’s first effort in the second century of his life can work as a distillation of his legacy, bookending his lifespan by adapting a short story by 19th century Portugese writer Eça de Queiróz to a setting that vaguely resembles the present day. The result is an intriguing amalgam that reaches for a timeless truth to love and honor, with box-filled compositions and plenty of quirky line readings that have become emblematic of this latest epoch of Oliveira’s storied career. If this ends up as his swan song, at least he’ll have left us with one of the most stunning final shots of a woman ever captured on film.
Kill Daddy Goodnight (dir. Michael Glawogger) – A film whose ambitious attempt to juggle the legacy of the Holocaust, generational resentments and video game violence fires off all kinds of unexpected tones and moments. It swings from single-take Shoah-like testimonial monologues to CGI bloodbaths along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with a sexless, hairless nude scene thrown in for good measure. Frustratingly irresolute but intermittently fascinating, at minimum it’s a fresh kick in the pants to the stale genre of Holocaust prestige flicks.
Double Take (dir. Johan Grimonperez) – This retro found footage whirligig mashes up one part Alfred Hitchcock television clips, one part Cold War newsreels and one part half-baked themes on doublings and theories of how TV and global telecommunications superficialized our lives forever. For a good half of the runtime there’s much nostalgic fun to be had in seeing the TV version of Hitch at his cheeky best, as well as precious footage of Nixon debating Khrushchev about the comparative values of space rockets and color TV sets. By the end all the clever splicing and dicing of footage amounts to a post-modern McGuffin.
Gigante (dir. Adrian Biniez) – Hefty supermarket security guard spies on cleaning lady via surveillance cam and ends up stalking his way to a romantic coming-of-age. Basically a Judd Apatow movie that substitutes mannerist humor for gross-out jokes, it works much more than it has any right to thanks to winning performances and good if conventional comic timing.
Mammoth (dir. Lukas Moodysson) – I walked out when Gabriel Garcia Bernal, wracked with first-world guilt, tries to buy freedom for a Thai hooker and Michelle Williams tries to quell her malaise with gourmet pizzas and humpback whale recordings, thus missing out on joining the boos that reportedly showered the film at the end of the press screening. There isn’t a single credible scene in this generic litany of globalism’s ills; the film itself is as preoccupied with its own importance and pathetically disengaged from anything resembling reality as the poor little rich family whose shallow existence it strains so seriously to condemn.