52 Tuesdays scored another prestigious prize, while several Australian distributors secured their favourites titles.
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18 Feb 2014 - 11:23 AM  UPDATED 25 Feb 2014 - 3:33 PM

With Asian films dominating the Berlinale's competition this year perhaps it should come as no surprise that they went on to take out the major prizes.

Diao Yinan's Chinese noir drama Black Coal, Thin Ice won the Berlinale's Golden Bear for Best Flm, while Liao Fan won the Silver Bear for Best Actor for his portrayal of a jaded former detective who investigates an unsolved homicide following the discovery of a series of mysterious new murders in a northern Chinese factory district. Japanese actress Haru Kuroki took out the Best Actress Silver Bear for her performance in Yoji Yamada's Japanese family drama, The Little House (pictured).

Often such awards come down to juries and there's no doubting that Chinese cinematic master Zhang Yimou may have wielded some influence, and, of course, the powerful jury head James Schamus has a strong relationship with Asia as the writer and producer of many of Ang Lee's movies.

Australian films may not have figured in the Competition, but Sophie Hyde's 52 Tuesdays, following up on the best director prize in Sundance, yet again demonstrated its popularity by taking out the Crystal Bear for Best Film in Generation 14plus as voted by he members of the Youth Jury. Filmed chronologically on one day a week over a year, the story follows 16-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) as she comes to terms with her mother's plans to gender transition.

“The situation is exceptional but familiar,” the jury noted in their statement. “This year's winning movie is both surprising and touching. It is a movie about family and the quest for identity, and despite all the conflicts, the protagonists stay connected through their love to each other. The moving story is presented in a fascinating structure and convinces with strong characters, humour, clever ideas and sensitivity.”

The Australian omnibus film, The Turning, which screened out of Competition, was a welcome return to Berlin for Robert Connolly and David Wenham, who makes his directing debut with one of the film's segments.

“David and I came here in '97 with our first film The Boys, which screened in competition,” Connolly recalls of his landmark directing debut. ”We had a wonderful time and I believe the festival helped to give The Boys a context in cinema that has helped the film become part of the canon of Australian cinema. I know you hear Justin Kurzel, who did Snowtown, talk about The Boys, or David Michôd who did Animal Kingdom or Andrew Dominik who did Chopper. There's a generation of these filmmakers who were influenced by the film. David and I feel a great affection for the Berlin Film Festival because they really championed The Boys. So to return 17 years later is quite a thrill to have the international premiere of The Turning here. We've turned down other festivals because we thought this was the right place.”

The always original and perennially popular US-based French director Michel Gondry was not only was part of the competition jury, but presented Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? in the Panorama section. The idea of watching a talking heads documentary about Noam Chomsky might seem a little dry, even apparently to Chomsky himself. So in his typically eccentric way, Gondry animates the ideas and memories he discusses with the American philosopher, commentator and activist surprisingly personal.

“I made the movie over four years in the relaxing time between other movies and it was a very nice experience,” Gondry explains. “There have been several movies made on Noam Chomsky's activism and political work and I felt I'd make a better contribution by doing this film about his scientific work. I didn't want to undermine his political work, which is even more important, but I felt it would be an immense privilege if I could have him talk about what he contributed to science. With my capacity in animation I could explore his scientific work.”

The film's weekend screening was one of the festival's hot tickets, with Gondry's fellow competition jury members turning up to lend support. Chomsky, 85, didn't show, though Gondry didn't expect him to.

“He likes the finished film and that was an important issue for me,” Gondry told the crowd. “He never goes to see movies, especially movies about him, and he went three times to see this one. He likes the fact that you don't see him much on screen.”

Rialto cleverly picked up the film for Australia and New Zealand. Meanwhile, two of my favourite Scandinavians, Swedish actors Stellan Skarsgård and Mikael Persbrandt, appear in films by the Scandi-loving Madman Entertainment, who also released The Hunt and A Royal Affair (starring Dane Mads Mikkelsen). Madman also has TrustNordisk's The Salvation, a western starring good friends Mikkelsen and Persbrandt as brothers in arms, and the film is most likely to premiere in Cannes.

In Berlin, Skarsgård had been a strong contender for his role in his fourth movie with Norway's Hans Petter Moland, In Order of Disappearance, a dark comedic revenge story in the vein of the Coen brothers' Fargo. Australian Hollywood Reporter critic David Rooney calls the film “a deadpan bloodbath” and “a wonderful vehicle for Stellan Skarsgård's stone-faced gravitas and calm intelligence.” Also starring in Nymphomaniac, Skarsgård, a Lars von Trier regular and fellow shit-stirrer, says that in his sex scene in the still unseen Nymphomaniac: Volume II, it's von Trier's penis and not his on screen.

Persbrandt, best known for his starring role in Susanne Bier's Oscar-winning In A Better World, reunites with his co-star in that film, Trine Dyrholm (also a Berlin juror) to play a troubled Leonard Coen-style singer in Someone You Love, directed by Pernille Fischer Christensen (A Family, A Soap). Persbrandt's deep, guttural voice was deftly used as the voice of Beorn in The Hobbit movies.

On the English-language front, The UK had more competition contenders than in recent years and Yann Demange's '71 was an early favourite though went away empty handed in the awards. Jack O'Connell (Starred Up), the star of Angelina Jolie's just completed World War II drama, Unbroken (which she shot in Australia), is impressive as a disoriented British solder cut off from his unit in another war of sorts in 1971 Belfast. Though it was the taut drama, it was written by Gregory Burke, who has experience with soldier stories after writing the acclaimed stage play Black Watch, which had impressed critics.

The top Berlin contenders had been two American films: Wes Anderson's absurdist, star-studded comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, which took out the Grand Jury Prize; and Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which had been the critic's favourite in Sundance and was deemed a perfect film, took out the directing prize. The latter family drama stars Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Linklater's daughter Lorelei Linklater and was shot over a 12-year period. Accepting the award, Linklater thanked the entire crew in making the film: “This prize is for best director but I'll accept it for best ensemble.”

German films had a strong showing at the festival, where Dietrich Brüggemann's Stations of the Cross was the stand-out. Brüggemann and his sister Anna Brüggemann won the best screenplay prize for their story of a young woman breaking away from her upbringing in a Catholic sect. With his Alan Ayckbourn adaptation, Life of Riley, French veteran Alain Resnais who is still going strong at 91, took out the Alfred Bauer Prize “for a feature that opens new perspectives”.

The hot ticket of the festival, though, was Korean director Joon-ho Bong's action film Snowpiercer that made over $60 million when it released in South Korea and had Berliners queuing around the block. The film's US release, however, has been delayed due to an ongoing dispute with distributor Harvey Weinstein. Certainly, the sight of Tilda Swinton as a buck-toothed, cartoonishly evil Maggie Thatcher-style villain is worth the price of a ticket to this 2031-set drama where the earth's remaining inhabitants are circling the icebound planet on a high-speed train. Our idea, too, just might have to be re-evaluated regarding the acting talent of Chris Evans (aka Captain America), who saves the day alongside John Hurt. Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul tells me he was a nobody with Evans at the start of their careers and sings his praises.

Paul is now also staking his claim in movies with his own actioner, Disney's upcoming Need for Speed, where he co-stars with Imogen Poots. In Berlin, Paul and Poots appeared as two of four characters who meet when attempting to throw themselves off a London building in the Nick Hornby scripted out-of-competition entry, A Long Way Down, though in his first English-language feature, French director Pascal Chaumeil fails to conjure the magic he realised with Heartbreaker. Toni Collette recalls some of her lovable Muriel dagginess for her portrayal as a mum struggling with her disabled son, while Pierce Brosnan is a little silly as a disgraced television presenter, the fourth of the would-be suiciders. A resurgent Sam Neill dominates every scene he is in as Poots' father. The film releases here through Transmission.