Winters in Berlin are nothing if not bleak; it’s dark and cold and the dizzy summer months spent sipping pilsners on Tempelhofer Feld are long gone. It’s a long time coming until summer rolls back around, too, bringing with it a flurry of flea markets and open-airs, Sudanese kebabs by the canal, and balmy evening bike rides.
Nevertheless, there is something worth sticking around the city for in winter: The Berlinale. Supposedly now the biggest film festival in the world (organizers say it is the most heavily attended such event, selling more than 300,000 tickets in 2016), this year’s Berlin Film Festival will premiere the latest and greatest that should have us talking this February, from Ildikó Enyedi’s Golden Bear winner On Body and Soul to Best Director Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope.
In previous years, the German capital’s Berlinale has opened with star-studded Oscar contenders such as the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. This year, as Europe and the U.S. retreat from each other politically, cinephiles seem to have cut back on Hollywood fare, leaving us with a wealth of decidedly left-field film fodder that address topics such as discrimination against refugees, an adolescent Karl Marx, and all kinds of sexual diversity.
So, without further ado, here’s our hand-picked selection of the 20 best Berlinale films from 2017.
Director: Sang-soo Hong
Veteran writer-director Sang-soo Hong is known as “the Woody Allen of Korea.” He’s behind a large handful of respectable (and interesting, if not straight up adorable) films, including Right Now, Wrong Then, In Another Country and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. (How his excellent The Day He Arrives failed to win top prize in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes 2012 is beyond us.)
His latest, On the Beach at Night Alone, follows an actress who wanders around a seaside town, pondering her relationship with a married man.
Director: James Gray
The Lost City of Z is a small piece of adventure movie perfection starring Charlie Hunnam and Sienna Miller and directed by U.S. auteur James Gray (We Own the Night, The Immigrant, Two Lovers).
Gray directs the true-life drama, centering on British explorer Percival Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a mysterious city in the Amazon in the ‘20s. Surprisingly, it doesn’t come across as imperialistic and also manages to escape the evil European/ savage dichotomy by focusing instead on the compelling lead characters.
Director: Neil Triffett
The whole emo thing might seem a bit outdated, but here it works for any mainstream “counterculture” adopted by terrified adolescents (hey, we’ve all been there). When Ethan, an emo kid who hates almost everything, falls in love with Trinity, a good Christian girl with a passion for Jesus, will they be able to live happily ever after?
The film’s humor walks the line between laughs and earnest storytelling. While director Triffett is clearly making fun of the archetypes his characters play, he also has great empathy for the lonely teenagers behind them.
Director: Askold Kurov
The Trial is an investigation by Kurov into the political show trial of Ukrainian film director and activist Oleg Sentsov. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in a Siberian prison for terrorism after his film Gamer was released; the film is supported by a campaign and backed by directors such as Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake) and Pedro Almodovar (Julieta) which attempts to highlight his plight.
The evidence against Sentsov was massively underwhelming, and the disbelief on his face during parts of the trial makes it look like thought it was some kind of unfunny prank. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, and this documentary makes for exceptionally frustrating viewing.
Director: Sally Potter
Starting with a celebration and ending with a whole lot of bloodspill, Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Mortimer and Cillian Murphy endure a get together for – you guessed it – a party (a pretty depressing one, at that).
Ginger & Rosa director Potter has called her new film “a comedy wrapped around a tragedy,” which sounds intriguing at the very least. We’re sold on the cast alone.
Director: Liu Jian
Have a Nice Day is the second animated feature from Nanjing-born filmmaker Liu Jian after 2010’s award-winning Piercing 1, which was billed as China’s first independent feature-length animation.
The dark comedy is set in a city in southern China and revolves around a driver who steals $1 million from his boss in order to fix his girlfriend’s failed plastic surgery. But the theft puts a hit man, a gangster and a robber after him and the money.
Director: Stanley Tucci
Stanley Tucci’s fifth narrative feature film as a director tells the story of Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti. The movie stars a very funny Geoffrey Rush as the prankish Giacometti and a charming Armie Hammer as the art critic James Lord. Adding to the exceptionally strong cast are Clémence Poésy and Tony Shalhoub.
The film, produced by Wind River and Selma producer Nik Bower, is a drama about the process of artistic creation. It’s also a highly entertaining portrait of the two men, and Tucci’s own directorial brush strokes are nicely refreshing.
Director: Agnieszka Holland
This revenge thriller from one of Poland’s proudest exports follows Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman who lives alone in the Klodzko Valley where a series of mysterious crimes are committed. Duszejko is convinced that she knows who or what is the murderer, but nobody believes her.
Director Holland (Europa Europa) is on top form, as usual. Spoor remains humorous throughout, dismantling even the movie’s most nail-biting moments (and there’s a few).
Director: Trudie Styler
Trudie Styler has lined up a star-studded cast for her feature directorial debut, with the likes of Alex Lawther, Abigail Breslin, AnnaSophia Robb, Ian Nelson, Celia Weston, Willa Fitzgerald, Laverne Cox, John McEnroe, Charlotte Ubben, Mickey Sumner, Michael Park and, yes, Bette Midler on board.
Describing itself as “somewhere in-between David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Freddie Mercury and Oscar Wilde, in the transgressive space of pop culture and dressed up as a high school comedy with wit, heart and a dazzling cast,” Freak Show follows the story of teenager Billy Bloom who, despite attending an ultra conservative high school, makes the decision to run for homecoming queen.
To view trailer, head here.
Director: Raoul Peck
From I Am Not Your Negro director Peck, this flick (quite aptly, given the title) follows the early years of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Jenny Marx, between Paris, Brussels and London. It’s the communist bromance that political crusties – disillusioned with the world’s status quo – have been waiting for.
Between censorship and the police’s repression, riots and political upheavals, Marx and Engels lead the labor movement during its development into a modern era. Peck commented that the duo “became important monuments for me and made me the person I am. They frame who I am, my way of thinking and the way I analyze society.”
Director: Aki Kaurismäki
One of the most anticipated premieres of Berlinale, Kaurismäki’s film is inspired by Europe’s refugee crisis. It connects the lives of Wikström, a 50-year-old traveling salesman, and Khaled, a Syrian refugee, who, upon learning that that he will be deported to Aleppo, decides to stay in Finland illegally and finds both discrimination and kindness.
“With this film, I try to do my best to shatter the European way of only seeing refugees as either pitiful victims or arrogant economic immigrants invading our societies merely to steal our jobs, our wives, our homes and our cars,” Kaurismäki said in a statement.
Director: James Mangold
Logan, the third and final standalone Wolverine film to star Hugh Jackman as the adamantium-clawed mutant, is to receive its world premiere at the Berlinale. We’re excited about the R-rating of this comic book movie installation; it was utterly nonsensical having the others suitable for kids, when this is about a guy who fights with knives coming out of his hands.
Set a year after the time-traveling X-Men: Days of Future Past, a weary Logan cares for an ailing Professor X in a hide out on the Mexican border. But Logan’s attempts to hide from the world and his legacy are up-ended when a young mutant arrives, being pursued by dark forces.
Director: Oren Moverman
Based on the novel by Herman Koch, one of the best things about watching how Oren Moverman’s film unfolds is the way in which we’re constantly shown new and surprising sides to our protagonists. The claustrophobic drama, about two couples who discuss what to do when their sons commit a horrible crime, is a look at how far parents will go to protect their kids.
Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall are the diners; Chloe Sevigny is also in the mix. Moverman made unsung homelessness drama Time Out of Mind with Gere a few years back; maybe this film can gain more traction.
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Chilean filmmaker Sebástian Lelio’s latest movie looks every bit as awesome as his 2014 drama Gloria. (Lelio is a regular at the Berlinale, where he lives and owns a restaurant, also called Gloria.) The film is also co-produced by Pablo Larrain, the genius at the helm of 2012’s No and last year’s Natalie Portman-starring Jackie.
A Fantastic Woman stars Daniela Vega as transsexual Marina, a waitress moonlighting as a nightclub singer who is bowled over by the death of her older boyfriend. With the same energy she once used to fight for her right to live as a woman, Marina – with her head held high – now insists on her right to grieve.
Director: James Cameron
The quintessential sequel, the quintessential sci-fi actioner and one of the greatest films ever made, James Cameron’s sequel to his breakthrough classic was such a massive upgrade over its predecessor that it ended up decimating the 1984 original in all filmmaking departments with effortless ease, and remains one of the most influential, entertaining and breathtaking action extravaganzas to ever grace our movie screens.
Are we embarrassed at our through-the-roof excitement for this 3D iteration at a predominantly arthouse European film festival? A little. Did that stop us attending the 3D screening of this unanimous classic? Hell, no… Hasta la vista, baby!
Director: Jochen Hick
Today’s hip image of Berlin is based on the city’s vibrant and subversive subcultures, which originally emerged within the grey walls surrounding West Berlin. The queer scene played a major role in creating that subculture, with its sexual diversity and its wild and unconstrained party culture.
My Wonderful West Berlin recounts the lives and struggles of gay men in West Berlin. Through present-day scenes and never before seen archival footage, a fascinating picture emerges of a city, that today characterizes itself as a dream destination and place of refuge for gay men and women.
Director: Dechen Roder
Bhutanese film noir, anyone? Honeygiver Among the Dogs follows an undercover detective investigating the case of a missing Buddhist nun and falling into a risky alliance with his only suspect – an alluring young woman known as the village “demoness.”
A genre long associated with seediness and perversion, film noir receives a surprisingly clean and feminine reworking in Roder’s beautiful debut (the color palette and exotic imagery are reason enough to check this one out).
Director: Felicitas Sonvilla
In the near future, a young woman named Mira leaves her familiar world in search of a freer existence and boards a train in Paris bound for the East. Somewhere out there, there’s a place called Tara, where a group of people have dedicated themselves to becoming “who they want to be.”
Mysterious and ethereal, the German film (given Sonvilla’s documentary-making history, perhaps) brings into question issues about Europe’s future. We accompany Mira on her journey into the unknown that is both highly artificial and yet scarily close to today’s eerie realities.
Director: Francis Lee
Spring. Yorkshire, England. Young farmer Johnny Saxby numbs his daily frustrations with binge drinking and casual sex, until the arrival of a Romanian migrant worker for lambing season ignites an intense relationship that sets Johnny on a new path.
Director Lee, a Yorkshireman himself, is clearly indebted to the memory of Brokeback Mountain and its careful handling of gay male love amidst livestock and desolate landscapes. God’s Own Country is similarly furtive and erotic – and definitely worth a watch.
Director: Danny Boyle
Back in ‘96, Irvine Welsh’s cult novel about heroin subculture in ’80s Scotland was given a screen presence with painful imagery, obsidian humor, insane surrealism, a messed-up soundtrack, and gob-smacking performances from Renton (Ewan McGregor), Begbie, (Robert Carlyle), Spud (Ewan Bremner) and Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller). Is it any wonder we were excited for this Berlinale premiere?
This return to the scene of his finest hour will give Danny Boyle a chance to flex his directorial muscles with more force than in the likes of Steve Jobs. Trainspotting’s original scriptwriter, John Hodges, is also on board, making sure all of our boys are all satisfactorily lacking in moral fiber.
In case you missed them, here are the 10 best movies to look out for from the Sundance Film Festival.