The Rocket soared, while David Gordon Green returned to form with a remake of an Icelandic film.
18 Feb 2013 - 3:49 PM  UPDATED 18 Feb 2013 - 5:33 PM

This year, the Berlin Film Festival had a surprising influx of stars, from the three French femmes, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Deneuve, to the Hollywood heavyweights Nicolas Cage, Matt Damon and Hugh Jackman. (Jackman was in town to promote the belated German release of Les Misérables.) Seasoned European helmers including Giuseppe Tornatore and Bille August came up with English-language movies as did George Sluizer, resurrecting what he has salvaged of River Phoenix's final film, the 1993 production Dark Blood, which features a feisty performance from Judy Davis in her prime. Steven Soderbergh says he has made his final film, though surely must have been disappointed that Side Effects flopped in the US before it was presented in Berlin. He still has one more film left, the Cannes-bound HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as the glittering singer's lover. Damon's Gus Van Sant-directed anti-fracking feature Promised Land was well received at the politically conscious festival, even if it will go straight to DVD here after it too bombed in the US.

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Still, which were the films that excited the critics and crowds? In the competition nothing came close to rivalling the Chilean feature Gloria even if the Romanian film, Călin Peter Netzer's Child's Pose, was well received and Juliette Binoche emerged as a strong best actress contender for her performance as the French sculptress isolated in an asylum in Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel 1915. Hollywood funnyman and romantic lead Paul Rudd was likewise beloved for his unusual dorky turn in the feel-good comedy Prince Avalanche, the story of two men (Rudd and Emile Hirsch) who bond and talk about women as they paint the yellow lines on roads in fire-ravaged rural Arkansaw. Based on the Icelandic film, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson's Either Way, Prince Avalanche marks the welcome return of George Washington and All the Real Girls director David Gordon Green to the independent realm following his stint in Hollywood making the likes of Pineapple Express and Your Highness. Nicolas Cage, who was in town for the DreamWorks animation The Croods—a colourful kiddies movie—says he is returning to smaller dramatic films too, having just completed the independent dramatic feature Joe (where he plays an ex-con who meets a teenager and probably transforms) for Gordon Green.

As usual, the majority of the Berlin competition's prizewinners will mean little to Australian distributors even if the awards should ensure a berth in local film festivals. Gloria, about an aging Santiago divorcee who lets loose, will obtain a release (Rialto), as likely will Prince Avalanche, while Deneuve's brave warts-and-all turn as a grandmother who takes to the road in Emmanuelle Bercot's On My Way, will be distributed through Umbrella Entertainment.

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Many of the stronger films screened in other Berlinale sections. Antipodeans seem to own the Generations sidebars where Red Dog, Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger and Taika Waititi's Boy first rose to prominence.

The biggest prize of the night for local cinema was in fact the festival's best first feature award, handed to The Rocket's Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt by Waititi. The Rocket (pictured) also took out the Crystal Bear for best film, awarded by the Children's jury to a film from the Generation Kplus section for younger kiddies.

Mordaunt and The Rocket's producer Sylvia Wilczynski took to the stage to accept the award.

“I'm just amazed! The Berlinale is the perfect birthplace for the film and is an incredible start to a long journey,” Mordaunt told the crowd. “The Rocket is a collaboration between Australia, Laos and Thailand and we hope it will help put Laos on the map as it's been largely invisible to the world. The film is a leap of faith and to be recognised on this level will help bring it an audience which is the key thing.”

At the later press conference he added, “The story is about a family, it's a very personal story about a boy's journey through grief and through reconciliation. The issues of the relocation of traditional people, the legacy of war and poverty, form a backdrop to the story.”

“Still, there's no point making a film with important issues if nobody wants to see it,” Wilczynski added. “So we really wanted to tell a story that captured the humour and the spirit of the Lao people. Humour unites everybody around the world and that's what audiences here responded to. It's quite a grim setting for a story but you constantly laugh throughout the film. You laugh with the characters.”

Best actress winner Paulina García had been so overwhelmed by the response to her performance in Gloria that she maintained she would not return from her holiday in Sicily for the awards ceremony. Ultimately, she relented.

“I have to go back to Chile to work soon and I work every day of my life, just like Gloria,” García said. “I came back for Gloria; I had to remain by her side.”

David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche proved to be one of the festival's revelations. He well deserved the directing award.

“Generally directors prepare and like to know exactly what they are doing but for me it's about creative freedom, having a great crew and actors and letting everyone bring their own creative value to the table.” His process he says is an amalgamation of his last 13 years of making films, be they big or small like Prince Avalanche. “I made an aggressive attempt to streamline all the things I love, all the values I love which adds to the delight of winning this award.”

While the smart-talking Texan says he may be tempted to do anything now, from a horror film to a documentary or even a Bollywood movie, it's great to know that the basics can be enough. “You just need two characters, a backdrop and a crew who believe in the project, and you can fill it up as grand as you want or strip it down naked on the road.”

As for the original Icelandic film, he says Either Way was a specific, smart well-crafted movie from which “we could take the framework and go in our own direction. We utilised some shots from their film, added characters and I made it have more impact for me personally.”

In interviews Bosnian director Danis Tanović, a self-confessed cynic, was downplaying the potential of his 17,000 Euro film, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, until it won the Jury Prize (essentially second prize) and non-actor Nazif Mujić took out the award for best actor for incredibly, portraying events from his own life with his own wife and daughter. The story revolves around an impoverished Roma woman's struggle to get treatment following her stillbirth.

“This movie's there to give a voice to those who are invisible in our society,” says Tanović, who is about to make a bigger budget movie in Germany. “I went to this village and I really fell in love with the Roma people. They're trying to make the best of what they have.”