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The 60th annual Berlin International Film Festival


Despite that fact that the competition this year underwhelmed (see Shane Danielsen’s column) there were sill some pleasant surprises and curiosities that are helping 2010 become another great year in film.  Two recent releases premiered over the past couple weeks.  Martin Scosesse’s Shutter Island got a mixed response, which translated the same stateside.  While Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer 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.

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 was made from a script written in the 1950’s by French icon Jacque Tati.  For those of you who don’t know, Tati is more or less the French Charlie Chaplain.  He wrote directed and starred in only five films (Including Mr. Holut’s Holiday and the Oscar winning Mon Oncle), but all of them are considered classics around the world.  He never filmed the Illusionist because it was too personal.  It was about him and his estranged daughter.  The main character is a magician (whose name is   by chance).  Chomet, in an unusual choice, set the film 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.  This one stars Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg a middle aged slacker who, after a nervous breakdown, moves to L.A. to house sit for his wealthy brother.  Almost as an act of defiance against his disappointing life he decides to spend his days doing nothing.  Sparks begin to fly when he meets his brother’s assistant (Greta Gerwig).  But like all of Baumbach’s films things are never simple.  Gerwig isn’t a romantic interest to give us and Greenberg a happy ending.  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 is set for a limited release on March 26th.

Honey – The film by the Turkish writer-director Semih Kaplanoglu won the feastival’s top prize the Golden Bear as well as heaps of critical praise for its mysterious story of a young boy and his beekeeper father.  The film follows the two and their treks in the forest in search of Honey, as the father looks for beehives on the tops of the tallest trees.  But one day the bees begin to disappear leaving the family to struggle financially.  The father decides to set off for work in the remote mountains for work but doesn’t return.  Not long after the young boy becomes mute while living with his mother.  Together the two frantically look for clues of 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 bought 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 and begins entering tournaments.  But her family is unsupportive of her new passion to say the least.  She then will have to make the inevitable choice to either to keep living for her family or for herself.  IFC plans to screen the film in future festivals in the fall with a limited release soon to follow.  So publicity may grow with this film later in the year.

The Robber – The razor sharp German thriller by Benjamin Heisnberg has potential to find a real audience in America.  It tells the story of Johann Retteberger who is essentially a marathon runner by day and serial bank robber by night.  The man’s criminal acts have no real profit motive.  He is simply an endorphin junkie obsessed with getting away with the most efficient and clean robbery possible.  Robbing banks is a thrill-seeking extracurricular activity, like say sky diving is for law abiding citizens.  The film is an adaptation of the popular Martin Prinz novel based on an actual series of crimes committed in Austria.

Apart Together – The opening film in of the fest was by popular Chinese director Wang Quan’an.  It takes place 50 years after the proclamation of Peoples Republic of China and the Island republic of Taiwan.  For the first time a group of ex-soldiers of Taiwan’s National Peoples party are given permission to travel to China to reunite with family members in Shanghai.  But for one aging soldier the journey is to find the long lost love of his life and their unborn child, who he was obligated to leave behind in Shanghai 50 years before.  The big hearted romance won over the crowds and the critics.

Metropolis the Directors cut – A the beginning of the fest hundreds of fans waited out in the snow in 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 world distribution.  But a couple years ago at an old cinema in Barcelona the only known copy of Fritz Lang’s original vision was discovered.  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 suspense that wasn’t there before.  This new and improved version will 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 may have underwhelmed at Berlin, despite masterful visuals and committed performances.  But it still is a real curiosity with its flamboyant period garb and Three Stooges style slapstick.

– Anthony Nicholas