A ‘look back’ at this year’s Golden Bear contenders

Saturday February 18th 2012

After ten fun but freezing days at the Berlin Film Festival, I’m glad to be back in London — home of a temperature I can cope with and an underground network I can understand. I saw an embarrassingly meagre thirteen films during my time there (compared with twenty at Cannes last year) and only seven of those were Competition entries, eligible for Berlin’s most prestigious prize: The Golden Bear, which is awarded this evening. Previous winners include Magnolia, In the Name of the Father and The Thin Red Line, but it’s safe to say that this year’s contenders are a little more ‘off the beaten track’. Let’s take a look:

When adolescent Gaëlle is released from from the basement in which she’s been held prisoner for the best part of eight years, the outside world proves every bit as menacing as her cell. This ripped-from-the-headlines French drama (blatantly modelled on the Natascha Kampusch case) is basically a peculiarly unaffecting sequel to Michael, with added techno music. ★★

Starring American alt hip hop luminary (and co-star of K-PAX!) Saul Williams, Aujourd’hui tells the story of Satché, a Senegalese man who returns to his home town from America on the last day of his life. The watchword, fans of arthouse movies will be pleased to hear, is ‘meditative’.

The longest film in competition this year is also one of the most critically reviled. Set in the peaceful Chinese village of White Deer Plain, the film tracks the fortunes of two prominent families from 1910 until the beginning of the second world war. It’s political, it’s full of sex, and apparently it’s hella boring.

No Berlinale would be complete without a poignant reminder of Germany’s troubled past, and sadly Iron Sky (which premiered in the Panorama strand) isn’t eligible for the Golden Bear, so I guess Barbara will have to do. With an impressive central performance from German actress Nina Hoss as a doctor eager to escape the GDR to the West, the film is wall to wall uncertain allegiances and necessary sacrifices. A little more pace wouldn’t go amiss though. ★★★

Amazingly named Filipino auteur Brilliante Mendoza is world cinema’s foremost purveyor of awful things happening very, very slowly. Captive is based on the 2000 Sipadan kidnapping of twenty tourists from a resort in Malaysia by Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf, and stars Isabelle Huppert as one of the group’s endlessly brutalised abductees. Grim doesn’t begin to cover it. ★★★

The only documentary in competition this year follows the inmates of Rome’s maximum security prison Rebibbia as they rehearse for a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I haven’t seen it so sadly I can’t verify whether or not it’s a real-world version of Lucky Break.

90 minutes of slow burning tension followed by 8 minutes of climactic action, Just the Wind addresses a spate of violence against Romany families in Hungary over the last decade. With big important things to say about race, discrimination and intolerance, it’d be an unsurprising (if not necessarily worthy) Golden Bear winner.

Spanish director Antonio Chavarrías brings a moody slice of genre cinema in the mould of The Orphanage to the Berlinale, and in doing so eliminates his chance of walking away with any prizes whatsoever (the first rule of festivals is: stick to drama). Despite its crappy English title, Chavarrías’s film is a wholly engaging new spin on the well-worn possessed child horror subgenre. ★★★

Award-winning actor (and uninspiring Bond villain) Mads Mikkelsen is a doctor to the King of Denmark in this 18th Century period drama, from Dragon Tats screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel. The film is notable for its lengthy runtime, decent costume design and the presence of Lars von Trier amongst its executive producers.

Sounding oddly similar to the 2008 arthouse snorefest The Headless Woman, this ‘intimate melodrama’ from German director Matthias Glasner examines the impact of a car accident on a small family living in perpetual twilight at the northern tip of Norway. Regardless of quality, the production stills suggest it’s a looker.

Billy Bob Thornton’s first film as director since 2001’s bizarre-sounding Daddy & Them is a family dramedy with an all-star cast, some handsome production design, and absolute no sense of structure or tone whatsoever. And yet, there’s something perversely fascinating about Thornton’s stubbornly erratic approach to ensemble filmmaking, willing as he is to abandon characters, conversations or entire plotlines at the drop of a hat. ★★★

Regrettably unrelated to the upcoming Matt Damon vehicle We Bought a Zoo (except in that they’re both about zoos, obviously), this hazy slice of magic realism from succinctly named Indonesian director Edwin is one of the few films in competition to contain both magic cowboys AND adorable giraffes.

Now a strong favourite to win the Golden Bear, Sister is a humanist drama about a young boy who steals skiing equipment from the wealthy guests of a Swiss resort to supplement his family’s impoverished existence in the industrial town below. It benefits from some decent name recognition (Gillian Anderson, Martin Compston and Léa Seydoux — the assassin with the farcically buoyant breasts in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol — all appear) and, according to reports, it’s actually funny, which instantly sets it apart from the grim shit that makes up the bulk of the competition.

Léa Seydoux re-appears in Farewell my Queen, which may well prove the finest hour for her breasts — hiked as they at least seven or eight feet above her chest — but is already a footnote in her career. She plays Sidonie, a member of Marie Antoinette’s (Diane Kruger) inner circle whose duties include reading to her and being the subject of her latent homosexual desires. It’s like really boring (but admittedly well-dressed) softcore porn. 

Metéora is set in an Orthodox monastery in the hot plains of central Greece, and apparently it’s about as interesting as that sounds. The crux of the story (which at least plays out over a merciful 82 minutes) is the burgeoning relationship between a young monk and a nun, and the spiritual dilemma posed by their mutual desire. Think Teresa: The Making of a Saint, with less star-power.

Second to Sister in the Golden Bear odds (I’m referring to this knowledgable resource) is War Witch, the tale of an adolescent girl forced to work as a child soldier during an African civil war. Shot documentary-style with non-professional actors by Canadian director Kim Nguyen, the film was well received when it premiered last night (the last film in competition to do so) despite some criticism of Nguyen’s ‘outsider’ approach to such a serious issue.

A quirky, cineliterate romance (shot in black and white, Academy ratio format) that’s come from nowhere to be the surprise hit of a major European festival — I wonder which movie Tabu is going to be endlessly compared to. (Hint: it’s The Artist.) They’re actually not all that similar, but at least it’s a fair comparison in terms of quality: Tabu is far and away the best thing I’ve seen in competition this year. ★★★★★

Exposed truths reveal the cracks beneath a seemingly united family during a routine reunion in Hans-Christian Schmid’s well received psychological drama Home for the Weekend. It’s a familiar story (in this year’s competition alone, Jayne Mansfield’s Car treads similar ground) but is apparently sufficiently well acted to ensure that the film stands out as a highlight of this frankly unimpressive roster of arthouse also-rans. There, I said it.