Highlights of the 60th annual Berlin International Film Festival

The Illusionist – The indisputable masterpiece of the fest was — believe it or not — rejected from entering the competition. Sylvain Chomet’s nearly dialogue-free animated film The Illusionist was made from a script he wrote in the 1950s with French icon Jacques Tati. For those who are unfamiliar with him, Tati is more or less the French Charlie Chaplain. Though he wrote, directed and starred in only five films (Including Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and the Oscar-winning Mon Oncle), all of them are considered classics around the world. Tati never filmed The Illusionist because he thought it was too personal. (It was written as "a person letter to his estranged daughter.") Chomet makes the unusual choice of setting the film in Edinburgh, but seeing the footage it’s obvious he made a wise decision.



Greenberg – Hailed as a return to form for Noah Baumbach after 2007’s Margot at the Wedding failed to find an audience, Greenberg stars Ben Stiller as a middle-aged slacker who has a nervous breakdown before moving to L.A. to house-sit for his wealthy brother. Almost as an act of defiance against his disappointing life, Stiller decides to spend his days doing nothing. Sparks begin to fly when he meets his brother’s assistant (Greta Gerwig), but things are never that simple in a Baumbach film. Despite some minor complaints about the unlikable character Stiller plays, his performance has been getting good marks. But it’s Mumblecore actress Gerwig who is the breakout, with Baumbach using her unusual combination of sweetness and goofiness to great success. Focus features has set Greenberg for a limited release on March 26th.



Honey – This film, by the Turkish writer-director Semih Kaplanoglu, won the festival’s top prize (the Golden Bear) as well as heaps of critical praise for its mysterious story involving a young boy and his beekeeper father. The film follows the pair as they trek in the forest in search of honey. One day the bees begin to disappear, leaving the family struggling financially. The father decides to set off for work in the remote mountains but doesn’t return, after which the young boy soon becomes mute while living with his mother. Together mother and son frantically look for clues as to the father’s whereabouts.



Puzzle – The debut feature from Argentine filmmaker Natalia Smirnoff made a big impression on Berlin audiences (not as much with critics) and was snatched up by IFC films almost immediately after it premiered. The film has real crowd-pleaser potential, with its story of a middle-aged housewife (The Headless Woman’s Maria Onetto) who discovers she has a remarkable talent for assembling puzzles. Her family is not supportive of her new passion (to say the least), and she has to make the inevitable choice to either to keep living for her family or for herself. IFC plans to screen the film at future festivals in the fall with a limited release soon after, so look for this film later in 2010.


The Robber – This razor-sharp German thriller by Benjamin Heisenberg has potential to find a real audience in America. It tells the story of a man who is essentially a marathon runner by day and serial bank robber by night. The man’s criminal acts have no real motive; he is simply an endorphin junkie obsessed with getting away with the most efficient and clean robbery possible. The film is an adaptation of the popular Martin Prinz novel, itself based on an actual series of crimes committed in Austria.



Apart Together – The opening film of the fest by popular Chinese director Wang Quan’an, Apart Together is about a group of ex-soldiers of Taiwan’s National Peoples Party who are given permission to travel to China to reunite with family members in Shanghai. For one of the aging soldiers, the journey is to find the long-lost love of his life and their unborn child, who he left behind in Shanghai 50 years before. The big-hearted romance won over the crowds and the critics in Berlin.



Metropolis: The Director's Cut – A the beginning of the fest, hundreds of fans waited out in the snow at Berlin’s legendary Brandenberg Gate for the world premiere of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis the way he intended it too be seen. The cut that most everyone else has seen was botched by German studios who wanted to keep the running time low for international distribution. A few years ago, an old cinema in Barcelona discovered they had the only known copy of Fritz Lang’s original vision. The film was digitally restored and wowed the crowds as the Berlin. After the premiere, Variety simply said, “Throw out your Metropolis DVD.” The new version fills up many plot holes and gives the film a great element of suspense that wasn’t there before. Look for this new and improved version to be released by Kino in April.


A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop – Last and probably least on the list is Zhang Yimou’s remake of the Coen brothers classic Blood Simple. The film underwhelmed at Berlin despite masterful visuals and committed performances, but it's still a curiosity, with its flamboyant period garb and Three Stooges-style slapstick.


Despite that fact that the competition this year underwhelmed (see Shane Danielsen’s column) there were sill some pleasant surprises and curiosities out of the Berlin International Film Festival. Two recent releases premiered over the past couple weeks: Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island got a mixed response, a pretty fair approximation of the reaction to the film stateside, while Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (out Friday in St. Pete) premiered to great acclaim and won the controversial filmmaker the Best Director prize. Polanski is still under house arrest in Switzerland and couldn’t attend the ceremonies. But those films weren’t the only big stories. Here are nine Berlin premiers you should be looking out for in 2010.

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