Winners and Losers from Berlinale 2016

Posted: February 23, 2016 in 2016 Berlinale
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berlinale 2016The 2015 edition of the Berlinale Film Festival was rough going. Sitting through many of the screenings was like eating undercooked vegetables. Gems were few and far between. The average became sublime; the tolerable were standouts. In any year, the winners of the Bears – the awards given out on the final Saturday night of the festival are a mediocre indicator of the strength of the field. Rather it is the depth and breadth of program sections like Panorama, Forum, and Generation, in addition to the Competition films, that determine just how memorable the year was. With the exception of the Perspective Deutsches Kino section, 2015 was largely forgettable.

Whether that was an assessment shared by the curators is unknown, but, for the most part, they came into 2016 and programmed like they had something to prove. The result was a stellar festival with more movies of interest and excellence than a single filmgoer could hope to see. There were winners aplenty and a few losers as well, and a number of surprises in both categories.

Winner: Panorama Section With its aim to merge commercial appeal and artistic integrity, Panorama is arguably the most important section of Berlinale. In other words, as Panorama goes, so goes the festival. Last year, Panorama went in the crapper, undone by an emphasis on messages and mediocrity. This year was a different story. Outstanding films premiered nightly, introduced by the voice of Berlinale, Wieland Speck, whose trademark phrase, “Good Evening in Panorama” never fails to elicit applause. Indignation, Goat, Alloys, Road to Istanbul, and War on Everyone are just a few of the outstanding films that were shown. The true measure of this year’s field will be evident over the course of the year as many of these movies earn mainstream success and critical acclaim.

Loser: Competition Section The problem with the Competition Section is that the emphasis seems to be on who will look good on the red carpet rather than what will look good on the big screen. So we got George Clooney on Opening Night even though the film – Hail, Caesar – had been released in the United States the week before. That was practically a world premiere compared to Chi-Raq, which came and went and wound up on iTunes by the time Spike Lee strolled the carpet in the German capital. Midnight Special was a good get, and there were some fine films, but too much of it was “Meh.”

Winner: Genre Films Science fiction, horror, cops-and-robbers, Hong Kong action – was this Berlinale or the Fantasy FilmFest? Midnight Special, We are the Tide, Remainder, The End, War on Everyone, Shelley, What’s in the DarknessTrivisa, and The Ones Below all stood as stellar examples of how rich than the festival is when these genres are embraced rather than disdained. Kudos to all the sections for the wide curating net they cast this year along with the fervent hope this represents a permanent approach.

Loser: Studio Films Call them Hollywood movies, call them star vehicles, call them whatever you want, but leave them at the Cineplex next time. There were too many examples of lightweight nonsense masquerading as prestige pictures, their shortcomings magnified by their placement among more challenging works in the line-up. Take Alone in Berlin, staring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson. The film’s lameness was exposed when seen between Death in Sarajevo and Aloys. And sorry, Emma – trying to justify filming a German novel using English-speaking actors boasting German accents by saying it’s a European story doesn’t make it any less painful to watch.

Winner: Gérard Depardieu In recent years, Depardieu received little attention for his acting and more for his buffoonish behavior. Whether it was urinating in the aisle of an airplane or disdaining his native France for Putin’s Russia, Depardieu seemed hellbent on being a spectacle rather than a serious actor. At Berlinale, Gérard returned to excellence. In The End and Saint Amour, Depardieu showed that as a screen presence, he remains formidable.

Loser: Meryl Streep Serving as the President of the International Jury, Streep had what can best be characterized as a Jeb Bush moment in the opening press conference. Remember when Jeb botched the obvious question about Iraq? Well, it should have been equally obvious to Meryl that she would be asked about diversity in the business, especially since she was heading an all-white jury. Her response: “Berliners, we’re all Africans, really.” Okay, one more time – just because they sometimes portray intelligent people does not mean that these actors and actresses are intelligent themselves.

Winner: Philip Roth The adaptation of Roth’s novel Indignation was a highlight of Berlinale. First-time director, long-time producer, James Schamus, adapted a work set in 1951 and published in 2008 when the author was 75 and made it powerful and meaningful in a present-day context.

Loser: Emily Dickinson Dickinson is the subject of A Quiet Passion, a dreary and suffocating period biopic that showed at Berlinale. The innovative nature of her writing and her reputation as one of the first modern American poets is trampled by a headlong stampede toward authenticity, which, in this case, means overly theatrical dialogue, museum costuming, and angst by the bucket. Emily deserves better.

Winner: Audiences Berlinale remains perhaps the most accessible of the major film festivals to the general public. You may not be able to see everything you want – there are only so many screenings and so many hours in the day – but you can be assured that you will see something special. The city embraces the festival, and it is the talk of the town every February.

Loser: Theater Behavior On the downside, Berlinale is likely the only major film festival that does not begin its screenings with an instruction to turn off cell phones. The problem grows worse each year. Some knuckleheads deliberately leave their ringers on; others text throughout. One pinhead spent a good portion of the film shopping online from their tablet while seated in the third row.

The 67th Berlin International Film Festival Berlin will be held from February 9 to 19, 2017. Let the countdown begin!

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