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The Best From Berlin: Berlinale Film Festival Report
Stephen Dalton , February 26th, 2010 13:59

Our man in Germany Stephen Dalton takes a look at the best the Berlinale film festival had to offer this year and reports back to The Quietus

Greetings from deep-frozen Berlin, where the streets have been giant ice rinks for weeks, and the 60th Berlinale film festival has just ended. After a few years in the doldrums, the 2010 Berlinale has generally been perceived as an improvement, boasting a higher general standard of films spiced with a whiff of controversy and superstar glamour.

Although bigger than Cannes, Venice or Sundance in admissions terms, Berlin has somehow never enjoyed the same level of Hollywood celebrity buzz. This could be due to its long-term commitment to arthouse Eurodramas and political documentaries. Another factor may be the festival’s forbidding urban location in a sci-fi citadel of skyscrapers and shopping malls huddled around the former route of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz, a vast and vulgar monument to capitalism built on the ruins of Eastern Bloc Communism.

Sadly, street artist Banksy did not join the EasyJet set at the Berlinale to promote his new documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop. In Sundance last month, he launched the film with a series of graffiti stunts. Admittedly, that would have been pointless here in Berlin, since every spare inch of Germany’s grungy capital is decorated with super-sized scrawl and colourful hip-hop hieroglyphics. This city is already a giant art gallery with a thousand home-grown Banksys of its own.

There was minor scandal at the Berlinale this year. Roman Polanski was unable to attend with his warmly praised new political thriller The Ghost Writer, while Michael Winterbottom’s pulpy retro-noir The Killer Inside Me received a chilly reception for its graphic violence. Strange how some people are happy to forgive a convicted rapist while condemning a movie which clearly deplores violence against women, but film critics are an odd bunch.

So as the red carpets are rolled away for another year, and fresh snow falls on Berlin, here are The Quietus recommendations for the 10 biggest, best and most interesting films of the festival:

THE GHOST WRITER

Still under house arrest in Switzerland awaiting possible extradition to the US on 32-year-old sex charges, Roman Polanski’s absence was the biggest story in Berlin, lending an extra frisson to this contemporary conspiracy thriller about a Tony Blair-style politician facing prosecution for war crimes. Based on the Robert Harris best-seller, The Ghost Writer is a solid B-movie starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams. It earned rave reviews and a Silver Bear prize for the 76-year-old director in Berlin, but I found it slow and clunky, while McGregor’s Dick Van Dyke-style London accent grated. Without its topical background parallels to Polanski and Blair, this would be a polished but minor Euro-thriller. Not great, not terrible, but just good enough.

SHUTTER ISLAND

Berlin’s other big-name Hollywood premiere, with Martin Scorsese behind the camera for his fourth collaboration to date with Leonardo DiCaprio. Like The Ghost Writer, this is another sub-Hitchcock suspense yarn set on an island off New England - spooky. But there the parallels end as Scorsese goes for baroque, operatic razzle-dazzle where Polanski favours low-voltage creep. Set in a gothic insane asylum, Shutter Island lurches from murder investigation to reality-blurring psycho-thriller, with a final twist that helps explain all the melodramatic pulp-movie clichés that have passed before. Enjoyable on a purely sensory level, but instantly forgettable, this is Scorsese on autumnal autopilot. Full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.

EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP

Graffiti guru Banksy makes his directing debut with this tricksy, elusive documentary on the street art scene. His main subject is Thierry Guetta, aka Mister Brainwash, a French-born filmmaker who evolves during the shoot into a successful artist in his own right. Appearing on screen only in heavy disguise, Banksy presents Guetta as a cautionary tale about the hype and gullibility surrounding commercialised art. Which is a bit rich, coming from the immensely wealthy Damien Hirst of municipal vandalism. Some cynics have even suggested he invented Guetta as a Chris Morris-style satirical spoof, which is plausible, but it would be a pretty thin joke. Wherever the truth lies, this is a fun little film about the value of art and the oddball personalities it attracts.

WASTE LAND

An interesting companion piece to the Banksy film, director Lucy Walker’s documentary about the transformative power of visual art is much less cynical affair, but arguably just as manipulative. It follows the Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz as he creates a major collaborative project with the dirt-poor garbage sorters at the Jardim Gramacho, a massive municipal rubbish dump near Rio de Janeiro. In the process, Muniz changes the lives of several workers, mostly for the better. Wrapped in swirls of uplifting, Coldplay-style music, Walker’s film clearly has a simplistic feelgood agenda. She concentrates on a handful of heart-warming happy endings rather than the deaths, divorces and disappearances which afflicted some of the story’s key players. All the same, this Berlin prize-winner is a fascinating record of a remarkable project.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME

This stylish but controversial thriller from Michael Winterbottom, the prolific British director of 24 Hour Party People and A Mighty Heart, was greeted with boos and critical hostility in Berlin. Based on a pulp fiction classic by film noir favourite Jim Thompson, it stars Casey Affleck as a small-town sheriff in 1950s Texas whose boyish surface charm masks a murderously violent psychosis. Winterbottom shows Affleck’s attacks on two women in bone-crunching detail, which some have condemned as exploitative. Even Affleck and his co-stars are reportedly angry with the film. Which is odd, because The Killer Inside Me is an intelligent and well-made slice of hard-boiled Americana which depicts violence as sickening and horrible, as opposed to the Hollywood norm, where brain-splattering bloodbaths are fun and free of consequences. Don’t shoot the messenger.

MAMMUTH

How’s this for an off-putting premise: Gerard Depardieu plays a newly retired meat factory worker who sets off on a cross-country motorcycle trip to track down enough old payslips to secure his full pension. Zzzzz. And yet this gritty, grungy, lo-fi comic road movie from the French writer-director duo Gustave de Kevern and Benoit Delepine is just fantastic. Depardieu’s vanity-free performance as a gone-to-seed biker, complete with long greasy locks and huge belly on display, is on a par with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. The episodic story is packed with inspired vignettes, including a hilarious mutual masturbation scene destined for all-time bad-taste classic status.

Benoît Delépine on his new movie "Mammuth" with Gerard Depardieu. from Exberliner on Vimeo.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

The best all-out comedy of the Berlin festival stars Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a middle-aged lesbian couple whose teenage son and daughter resolve to track down the sperm donor who fathered them, a louche restaurant boss played by Mark Ruffalo. A storm of emotional and sexual complications ensue, but writer-director Lisa Cholodenko depicts them with a humane tone closer to farce than tragedy. Zingy script and fantastic performances, especially Moore and Bening, in this big-hearted Berlin prize-winner.

THE HUNTER

A smart chase thriller with a topical political edge, The Hunter takes place in an unnamed city in modern Iran. Recently released from jail for unspecified crimes, a factory worker loses his wife and daughter in police crossfire during last year’s election protests. After being fobbed off by Orwellian government bureaucrats, the emotionally shattered anti-hero takes his hunting rifle and begins shooting policemen at random, leading to a darkly comic showdown in misty woodland. Born in Iran, educated in Britain and now based in Paris, the writer-director Rafi Pitts also plays the main character. Pitts was granted permission to shoot The Hunter in Iran before last year’s election crisis, which he then incorporated into the plot. As a consequence, his film may now never be shown in his homeland. Which is a shame, as this is not just a local story but a universal fable with its roots in Kafka, Camus and those classic New Hollywood conspiracy movies of the 1970s.

GREENBERG

Ben Stiller is the Steve Coogan of US indie comedies, refreshingly keen to play unsympathetic uber-nerds consumed by narcissism and sexual neurosis. In this bittersweet slice-of-life from the mumblecore school, Stiller plays a mentally fragile fish-out-of-water New Yorker who becomes emotionally involved with his brother’s young assistant while house-sitting for him in LA. Rhys Ifans is also excellent as Stiller’s eternally patient friend and former bandmate, while Greta Gerwig occupies the obligatory kooky indie-chick role usually reserved for Zooey Deschanel. It is difficult to care about such self-absorbed fuck-ups, but the director Noah Baumbach and his co-writer wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, clearly know this boho-bourgeois Hollywood milieu intimately enough to paint a witty and well-observed picture.

RED HILL

High Noon meets Straw Dogs, with just a hint of Hot Fuzz, in this good-looking Australian horror western. True Blood star Ryan Kwanten plays a young rookie policeman who relocates from the big city to a sleepy Outback town, where his first day on the job becomes a crazed bloodbath involving escaped killers, buried secrets and mythical beasts roaming the high plains. Backed by the team behind Wolf Creek, the young commercials director Patrick Hughes made a big commercial splash in Berlin, selling his debut feature all over the world. His movie could use a tighter edit, and plays shamelessly on well-worn hackneyed revenge thriller clichés, but it still looks fantastic.

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