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Berlin Dispatch – That’s a Wrap

All right, so I was WAY off with my predictions this year, nailing exactly zero of all awards presented at the 68th Berlinale. It’s never easy to tell how these things will go down with a small number of jurors coming from an eclectic mix of backgrounds. But I’d say the list of winners chosen by German director Tom Tykwer’s jury is still… surprising. Let’s see where I went wrong.

Outstanding Artistic Contribution: production and costume design of DOVLATOV

DOVLATOV is one of the few films in competition that I didn’t care for at all. It’s a classically made biopic about renowned writer Sergei Dovlatov where everyone is always talking – often over one another – just in case you don’t know that they are full of great ideas and have the best words. I wonder if even the admirers of the film – of which there are many – would call its production/costume design an outstanding artistic contribution though. The production value is fine for sure (I’d argue the dreamy cinematography is best in show), but worthy of being singled out for recognition? Not convinced. To find some truly mesmerizing visual design for a film, people should check out director Aleksey German’s last feature UNDER ELECTRIC CLOUDS (2015), also a Berlinale premiere, which looked genuinely strange and stunning.

Best Screenplay: MUSEUM

I enjoyed MUSEUM quite a lot. It’s not as narratively or emotionally fluent as Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios’ breakout debut Güeros (2014), another Berlinale debut which won the prize for best first film that year, but looks and sounds just as gorgeous, AND it has the same kind of melancholic charm to it. I would argue, however, that the screenplay is actually one of its weaker aspects. Reason: the overlong mid-section, consisting of various stops on a journey to sell off artefacts stolen from the titular museum, should be considerably leaner. Meanwhile, both the central character played by Gael Garcia Bernal and the relationship between him and his buddy/sidekick need more work. So this is not an immediately understandable decision to me either.

Best Actor: Anthony Bajon (THE PRAYER)

I figured the race would be between Franz Rogowski and Anthony Bajon, but thought having two films in competition AND that It-Boy buzz about him would help tip things in Rogowski’s favor. Well I was wrong. Turned out in a year with a particularly strong showing of German films in the competition lineup (4 out of 19), the jury led by a German filmmaker went ahead and shut them all out. Which is quite a statement to make. Bajon is very good in his film as I’d pointed out in my review, so no complaints here. I do suspect, though, that despite his high-profile loss, people are going to see/hear about Rogowski a lot more in the next months/years.

Best Actress: Ana Brun (THE HEIRESSES)

The best actress race is white hot this year with many worthy contenders. Crowning Brun gets no complaints from me. It’s a lovely performance in a moving, genuinely tender film. That said, people should really check out what Andrea Berntzen did on U – JULY 22, something I find compelling and very special indeed.

Best Director: Wes Anderson (ISLE OF DOGS)

My favorite film in competition won a major prize, so yay! Aside from Anderson’s direction, ISLE OF DOGS is brilliant in just about every way. Barring an unlikely critical backlash stateside or total box office underperformance, I expect we will be hearing about this film again in the next awards season. (For comparison’s sake, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale four years ago.)

Alfred Bauer Prize (for a feature film that opens new perspectives): THE HEIRESSES

Now THE HEIRESSES is my second favorite film in competition, so Hooray! for its being the only film to win multiple statutes today. But if we are to be honest, I’m not sure if it really opened any particularly new perspectives. With this decision and the complete shut-out of controversial/risky films like U – July 22, SEASON OF THE DEVIL and MY BROTHER’S NAME IS ROBERT AND HE IS AN IDIOT (previously reviewed), the jury is showing a conservative tendency which I find somewhat disappointing.

Grand Jury Prize: MUG

MUG is a fine film that gets the drama right, the comedy right, and makes some pointed statements about religion and our collective obsession with the way we look. I was especially impressed with the script that weaves all these elements together in a story about someone who receives a face transplant after an accident. The jury evidently loved it even more. Well, good for them. It’s obviously too early to tell, but if Poland submits this film for Oscar consideration next year (which is a big if since Pawel Pawlikowski, Oscar winner of IDA, should have new film COLD WAR ready this year), it could be a big player à la ON BODY AND SOUL and A FANTASTIC WOMAN.

Golden Bear: TOUCH ME NOT

Oh where do I begin with this one. It being the single most WTF choice in the 10+ years I’ve been going to the Berlinale? The fact that it makes me rethink everything I thought I knew about everyone on that jury? Or the fact that they chose this radical-but-actually-not-at-all-controversial-because-everybody-hated-it movie over the really controversial ones to make some kind of statement? It’s all rather unfortunate I have to say.

TOUCH ME NOT is a highly experimental mix-form feature that deals with the issue of intimacy. The main character is a middle-aged lady who has inhibitions about getting intimate with anyone. She pays men to masturbate in front of her. She watches couples in therapy groups touch and talk with each other. She follows people into sex clubs and does some more watching there. All the while she’s interviewed by the film’s director in a faux-documentary setting and shares with the camera her innermost secrets. And finally she’s a liberated woman!

I don’t really want to get into it further except to say this is not a good movie. That, along with MUG and THE HEIRESSES, the jury awarded all three top prizes of the festival to films either directed by women or are thematically female-centric, is a monumental statement. It’s just sad that TOUCH ME NOT has to be part of that rare feat.

To put it lightly, the Golden Bear winner, which features explicit sex scenes, including one between a severely disabled man and an obese woman, and such wholesome exchanges as the one where a middle-aged transgender woman shares the names and personality traits of her two breasts, has no chance in hell at the Oscars. On the other hand, I would watch out for THE HEIRESSES, MUSEUM, MUG, and even non-winner U – JULY 22 as potential foreign language film contenders.

Finally, aside from prizes and Oscar considerations, here are my personal top 10 films seen at the 68th Berlin Film Festival, including out-of-competition titles and films screened in the sidebar sections:

1. ISLE OF DOGS
2. AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL
3. DIE TOMORROW
4. OUR HOUSE
5. THE HEIRESSES
6. U – JULY 22
7. MY BROTHER’S NAME IS ROBERT AND HE IS AN IDIOT
8. SEASON OF THE DEVIL
9. AGA
10. MUSEO