As with the first quick roundup, the idea here is to point to critical takes on films that I've not caught at the Berlinale but which I'm interested in hearing about (again, for whatever reason), and I'm guessing you might be as well. With just two days left for the festival, this entry will carry on being the catch-all collection for the unseen for days, possibly even weeks, to come.
"As a rule, critics have learned from bitter experience not to expect revelations from Berlin, especially not from the flaccid and usually middle-brow competition selection," writes Jonathan Romney in a dispatch to Sight & Sound. "Surprises, if they come, will be from left field — and the one film I saw this year that can genuinely be called a UFO is a Russian science-fiction extravaganza, shown in the Panorama section. Target (Mishen) — 'The Target' would be a better translation, to make it sound less like an action thriller — is an extraordinary, flamboyant, hugely ambitious chunk of dystopian futurism… The other key discovery for me, albeit a quiet and hardly mould-breaking one, was The Fatherless (Die Vaterlosen), an Austrian family drama by Marie Kreutzer, also shown in Panorama… While there's nothing radically novel here, Kreutzer's mature insights into the contradictions of family life are subtly worked out, with touches of laconic wit, and the ensemble acting is superb. It's also beautifully shot (by Leena Koppe), but never over-aestheticised. First-timer Kreutzer is one of a number of young women writer-directors making striking, intimate dramas in German (cf. Maren Ade, Pia Marais) and she shows fabulous promise."
Robert Koehler focuses on the Forum in his latest post at filmjourney.org, noting that a "big hit" is "Marie Losier's superbly fluid and piquant The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye — expect this one to play a huge festival slate throughout 2011." And Pamela Cohn interviews Losier. Tonight, the film was awarded the Caligari Film Prize, presented by the Federal Association of Communal Cinemas in cooperation with the magazine FILM-DIENST.
Speaking of awards, the Crystal Bears for the best films in the Generation14plus program have been announced by the Youth Jury.
For Electric Sheep, Pamela Jahn and Alison Frank write up Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere, which "sadly only screened at the European Film Market… Ultimately, Road to Nowhere amounts to a series of bravura noir scenes in which the tension and emotion sometimes build up too slowly, but a great meta-B-movie feel and fitting cinematography make it an enjoyable watch." Also covered: Lee Tamahori's The Devil's Double, Céline Sciamma's Tomboy (more from Mike Goodridge in Screen) and Jeon Kyu-hwan's Dance Town (which I did, in fact, see, so more on that one later).
In overviews for their respective papers, the Guardian's Andrew Pulver and the Telegraph's Tim Robey concentrate primarily but not exclusively on the Competition, and so does Shane Danielson at indieWIRE, but not before asking a rather urgent question, namely, "what happened, exactly, to the Berlinale? This, I realized a few weeks ago, was my 20th year attending the festival… The first year I came, I found the following directors represented in competition: Martin Scorsese, Éric Rohmer, István Szabó, David Cronenberg, Gillian Armstrong, Andrei Konchalovsky, Barry Levinson, Paul Schrader, Jan Troell. Among others. To compare that line-up to this year's, where the ranking names were Béla Tarr (with a film reportedly passed over for competition slots by both Cannes and Venice) and Miranda July (with a work that had already world-premiered at Sundance), is to apprehend, at a single glance, the true scale of Berlin's decline… Berlin's still big: handsomely-funded, well-attended — by locals, if not an increasingly disillusioned international press. It's just the pictures that got small… A journalist here, Anke Westphal, last year [actually it was 2009, not that it matters] earned the ire of the festival organizers when she wrote in Berliner Zeitung that the Berlinale could no longer be compared in any meaningful sense to the Cannes it once rivaled; the article was headlined 'Die ewige Zweite' — 'the eternal second.' This year, another journalist stepped forward to offer a correction: the festival, he argues, is actually number-three, now locked firmly behind not only Cannes but also Venice in terms of pulling-power and importance. And frankly, it's hard to disagree."
Back to the films, then. "Don't be fooled by the somber title of Our Grand Despair, which after a grief-laden opening turns out to be one of the frothier entries in a Berlinale competition slate predictably chock-full of weightier fare," writes Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter. "A bromantic Jules et Jim-lite love-triangle set in a snowy Ankara, it's an accessibly droll, bittersweet comedy (rather more sweet than bitter) which has considerable English-language remake potential." The same thought's occurred to Jonathan Romney, who writes in Screen that "the film never quite finds its footing on the humour/drama tightrope, and ultimately comes across as downbeat kitchen-sink stuff with the odd comic insight."
"An adult Argentinean Napoleon Dynamite dithers through life, relationships and Buenos Aires in Rodrigo Moreno's quirkily existential but ultimately grating follow-up to El Custodio," writes Lee Marshall, reviewing A Mysterious World for Screen. "Boris, the geeky, passive, introverted central character, is a kind of walking absence, and Esteban Bigliardi's performance nails his lost Everyman status with some finesse, but this, some moments of comedy, and the film's contention that life is one big waiting room, are not enough to make up for a for a viewing experience that is, for long stretches, plain dull."
"Twelve years after his debut feature, Urban Feel, played the Berlin competition, Jonathan Sagall's follow-up is finally here," writes Dan Fainaru in Screen. "But if the first time around his disenchanted portrait of a self-destructive, decadent life style focused exclusively on Sagall's own generation and environment, now with Lipstikka (Odem) he has added a provocative political angle that might raise protests and recriminations from more than one quarter." Ray Bennett in the Hollywood Reporter: "Set in London with flashbacks to 1994, the film concerns an encounter of two Palestinian teenagers with two Israeli solders during the intifada. More of a human drama than a political one, it still hinges on the fact that in the circumstances the girls had no control over their fate."
Dan Fainaru again: "Wolfgang Murnberger, whose caustic portraits of present day Austrian society (Silentium, The Bone Man) and its dirty underbelly, were hits on the German speaking market, has taken the plunge and moved to WW2 which he treats pretty much as a playground, as well." In the Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young writes that "Murnberger attempts to inject an underbelly of humor, or at least a touch of irony, in a silly tale of switched identities between a Nazi and a Jew during WWII. My Best Enemy barely squeaks by with its life. All comparison to Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds or Benigni's Life is Beautiful are as far-fetched as citing Ernst Lubitsch and Charlie Chaplin as predecessors to this trivial enterprise, which takes the artistic risks of an episode of Hogan's Heroes. Trying to be amusing and respectfully serious at the same time, the film remains in limbo, saddled with an over-worked story, characters and setting." Screened Out of Competition. Update, 1/19: Spiegel Online posts a brief backgrounder.
Back to the Forum: "Few films are quite as upfront in stating their position as Thai docu-essay The Terrorists (Poo Kor Karn Rai), which begins with the declaration, 'We curse those who are behind the slaughter…' — i.e. the present Thai authorities that presided over the suppression of anti-government demonstrators in Bangkok last year." Jonathan Romney in Screen: "Given that initial forthrightness, however, Thunska Pansittivorakul's film emerges as an amorphous hybrid — part agit-prop documentary, part experimental piece that could at times be gallery video art, all liberally laced with pin-up style homoerotica."
And Panorama: "The destinies of a girl who schemes her way out of the slums and a boy who drops out of society are bound by an unsolved murder that scarred their childhood in Into the White Night," writes Maggie Lee in the Hollywood Reporter. "It is a somber love tragedy that depicts the distortion of innocence, faithfulness and love in the guise of a detective mystery. Yoshihiro Fukagawa does not display directorial flair in the early stages, playing safe with flat yet elliptical unfolding of Keigo Higashino's complicated best-seller. Only in the denouement does his sleuth-like attentiveness to detail and controlled revelation of secrets yield a devastating payoff."
"Fresh off their upset album-of-the-year Grammy victory and a double win at the Brit Awards, three members of Arcade Fire jetted over to the Berlin Film Festival for Wednesday's premiere of their 28-minute film, Scenes from the Suburbs, their collaboration with filmmaker Spike Jonze," reports Susan Stone for the Los Angeles Times. "The film project was a natural extension for the Montreal-based group prone to painting epics with sounds and words, especially on their much-lauded album The Suburbs, with its references to suburban war, endless sprawl and dead shopping malls. Scenes from the Suburbs is sort of teen drama meets dark dystopia." Next stop: SXSW.
Guy Lodge took a break from filmgoing the other day and files a report at In Contention: "James Franco obviously had to sleep for a couple of hours between rehearsing for the Oscars, campaigning for the Oscars, filming one of his four films set for release this year, preparing to direct two prestige literary adaptations, planning his Broadway revival of Sweet Bird of Youth opposite Nicole Kidman, writing the Great American Novel and solving world hunger [not to mention launching his Twitter account] — since amid those distractions, he didn't have a film to premiere at this year's Berlinale. The man's slacking. Still, he isn't entirely absent from the city over the festival period: his first solo European art exhibition, The Dangerous Book Four Boys opened last week in a private gallery in Berlin's hipster-saturated Oranienburger Strasse district… [A]s much as I like Franco, I must admit that if, amid his legion of other activities, 'visual artist' got dropped from his résumé, it wouldn't be the most crushing of losses."
Updates, 2/21: With the festival wrapped, the rankings are coming in and three of the most interesting come from Ekkehard Knörer, Diego Lerer and Neil Young.
Fandor's Kevin B Lee has posted three roundups of "Quick Hits," each comprised of at least half a dozen one-paragraph reviews ranked "Top to Bottom." Parts I, II and III.
Robert Koehler at filmjourney.org on Saturday: "Even with more than enough films that don't belong in a major lineup, the competition isn't completely bad, and Forum is — with a few exceptions — a bust." He's found only "four new noteworthy films" — "Volker Sattel's Under Control elegantly captures the rise and fall of nuclear power facilities in Germany and Austria with a precision that recalls Austrian documentary filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter; Bujar Alimani's Amnesty presents a brilliantly ironic narrative paralleling the lives of a man and woman whose respective spouses are behind bars; Marie Losier's The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is an intoxicating, fluid work (largely narrated by former Throbbing Gristle star Genesis P-Orridge) about the great, tragic love of his life, Lady Jaye, and their project in pan-sexuality — literally attempting to remake their bodies into twins — and Tiago Mata Machado's The Residents, which is more like the kind of cinema you expect from Forum: formally challenging, thematically subversive, real cinema (and in 35mm!). In fact, Machado's film is the only Forum film I saw that suggested something genuinely new, even as it portrayed/dramatized/documented (possibly all three, so fluid and elusive are the sources) a performance art project designed to 'kill' art."
More overviews: Nick James in the Observer and James Woodall at the Arts Desk.
Update, 2/28: Alison Frank reviews three Czech films for Electric Sheep.