• 'The Crown' star Claire Foy in Steven Soderbergh's 'Unsane'. (20th Century Fox)Source: 20th Century Fox
Hollywood stars did not figure strongly at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, although there were other pleasures to be had.
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14 Mar 2018 - 3:06 PM  UPDATED 14 Mar 2018 - 3:06 PM

The highlights

'Transit'

Barbara director Christian Petzold’s new film does not star Nina Hoss, but rather Franz Rogowski, who resembles a young Joaquin Phoenix, though is far more understated and brooding in his portrayals. Rogowski appears alongside Paula Beer (Frantz) in Petzold’s adaptation of Anna Seghers' 1942 Marseille-set novel, with the writer-director transposing the Holocaust to the present day. “It’s an intellectual gamble that underlines how little has changed for refugees in the last 75 years,” notes the Hollywood Reporter. Rogowski also leads another Berlinale stand-out, In the Aisles, alongside Sandra Hueller (Toni Erdmann).

 

'Gurrumul'

Out 25 April

Paul Williams’ strong, moving Australian documentary about the national treasure and multiple ARIA Award-winning singer had screened in Australia already so was ineligible to compete in Berlin. It was nevertheless one of the festival highlights.

 

'The Happy Prince'

British actor Rupert Everett, who led the 2007 Mardi Gras parade – “Oh, that was fabulous,” he recalls – has just directed his first feature film, The Happy Prince, in which he plays one of his favourites, Oscar Wilde. It cannot, however, be called a vanity project as Everett embodies the author in his late, final years. It's an impressive performance that makes us realise how we have missed the eccentric, irrepressible Brit on our screens.

 

The Americans

'Isle of Dogs'

Out 12 April

Wes Anderson can do no wrong, and here, with his second stop-motion animated feature (after the Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr Fox), he is as original as ever. His futuristic Japan-set story of an eclectic bunch of mutts banished to a garbage dump (the city mayor prefers cats) is, however, far more politically charged. As always, he brings his buddies, including Bill Murray, Ed Norton and Jeff Goldblum, along for the ride and it takes a little time to work out which dog is voiced by which. However Bryan Cranston’s top dog, Chief, is unmissable. Anderson took out the festival’s Best Director award.

 

'Unsane'

Out 25 April

Steven Soderbergh famously shot this on an iPhone, and the story seems contrived at first. Still, if you are prepared to go along for the ride, it’s an enjoyable cinema-going experience. The Crown star Claire Foy shows she is far more than a British rose and delivers an action turn of sorts as her totally sane character battles her way out of a mental institution.

 

'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot'

In a role meant for the late great Robin Williams, Joaquin Phoenix excels as John Callahan, a heavy-drinking young man who was never going to live to a ripe old age. Yet, when he was paralysed following a car crash, he found his calling as a satirical cartoonist, and Gus Van Sant does a remarkable job at presenting his life on-screen. Variety calls it “a life-affirming, sweet-and-sour concoction”.

 

Winner from Russia

'Dolatov'

Alexey German Jr's drama focuses on six days in the life of Soviet dissident writer Sergei Dovlatov, who is played by Serbian actor Milan Marić. The film won two awards: Elena Okopnaya took out the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for her costume and production design, while the film won the jury award from the Berliner Morgenpost readers, with the jurors citing, “Dovlatov showed us the loneliness of being censored. In a laugh we shared his pain. With a light touch the film gave us a life.” Hopefully, the awards will help give Dovlatov, who died of a heart attack in 1990 at age 48, the international recognition he deserves.

 

The Europeans

'The Interpreter'

The initial delight was to see Czech actor-writer-director Jiří Menzel (My Sweet Little Village, Larks on a String) and the wonderfully affable Austrian actor Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann) as a kind of odd couple on-screen. As the story moves forward into Holocaust territory, this film's Slovak director Martin Sulík manages to maintain some of the humour, with Simonischek’s son of a Nazi officer hiring Menzel’s interpreter to accompany him on a trip across Slovakia as he searches for surviving witnesses of the atrocities.

 

The duds

'The Bookshop'

Out 7 June

The worst film I saw at the festival. One wonders why the Berlinale keeps inviting Catalan director Isabel Coixet back, and in a prime Friday night slot, after her 2015 opening film, Endless Night starring Juliette Binoche, was widely derided. Since then, Coixet has redeemed herself with Learning to Drive starring Patricia Clarkson, but why on earth did she cast the sassy American Southerner (terrific in The Party) as a rich haughty Brit in this adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald's 1978 novel about a woman (Emily Mortimer) struggling to bring literary culture to an English town? Bill Nighy looks like a stunned mullet, while Mortimer is sweet but dull. Clearly the festival was lured by the star power, as was Transmission Films, who picked up The Bookshop for Australia.

 

'Entebbe'

Out 31 May

Likewise, Entertainment One can’t be blamed for thinking that a star-studded cast and Brazilian Elite Squad director José Padilha would deliver the goods here. But even the action is dull, as is the acting. Rosamund Pike speaks good German, though with a similar stunned mullet expression and very strange hair, while Daniel Bruehl is stiff as her fellow terrorist in this account of the hijacking of an Air France plane in 1976. Padilha came late to the project, replacing Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44), and the decision to intersperse the action with dance moves by Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company left Berlin critics reeling.

 

Aussies in films without distributors (though they’re bound to find one)

'Damsel'

Robert Pattinson’s career is lagging behind that of his Twilight co-star and former sweetheart, Kristen Stewart, and in this revisionist Western, he is again going out on a limb (as he did with last year’s Good Time). He is playing an idiot of sorts and is put out of his misery by our own Mia Wasikowska, who, like Stewart, is a damsel on fire.

 

'Black 47'

Set during the Irish famine, Irish writer-director Lance Daly’s Black 47 had its world premiere out of competition and it came as a huge surprise that his two leads are Australian. Sure, Hugo Weaving, who plays a British soldier, was born in the UK, even if he considers himself Australian, but the big surprise is James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom), who transforms into a vengeful Gaellic-speaking combatant.

 

'A Field Guide to Being a 12-Year-Old Girl'

Tilda Cobham-Hervey, memorable as the daughter in Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays, had her 20-minute short, which is screening on ABC iView, in the Generation KPlus section. She was awarded the Crystal Bear for Best Short Film by the Youth Jury in that section. A cross between a documentary and a theatre piece, the film is billed as being “about 12-year-old girls, made by 12-year-old girls, for 12-year-old girls, or anyone that has been a 12-year-old girl, or will be a 12-year-old girl, or wishes they were a 12-year-old girl”. As an actor, Cobham-Hervey’s star is on the rise, as she will soon be seen alongside Dev Patel and Armie Hammer in the Australian film, Hotel Mumbai, which was filmed in her hometown of Adelaide.

 

Surprise gems that are bound to find distribution

'U - July 22'

Norwegian The King’s Choice director Erik Poppe’s fictional feature looked likely to win a major prize, but went away empty-handed. Set around a right wing extremist’s 2011 attack on more than 500 youths at a political summer camp on an island outside Oslo, the film follows 18-year-old Kaja and her friends as they assure their parents they are far away from the government building that was bombed in Oslo earlier that day. Ultimately, they are in the thick of it.

 

'Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.'

This documentary profile of the Sri Lankan/London rapper, political provocateur and pop star, who was born Matangi Arulpragasam, was directed by her good friend Stephen Loveridge. In a manner that Asif Kapadia enjoyed with Amy Winehouse, Loveridge had access to Arulpragasam’s extensive personal footage, not only from her early life when her absent father led the Tamil independence movement, but from her life over the years as she experienced success and aroused controversy in the UK and the US.