Best & Worst Films at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival

  • Publish Date: February 29, 2020
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Which movies and TV shows impressed at this year's Berlinale?

Berlinale 2020

The 70th Berlin International Film Festival concluded this weekend with There Is No Evil, from absentee Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof (who was held up by visa issues), receiving the top prize from a jury led by actor Jeremy Irons. Second place went to a film that previously debuted at Sundance (and which currently ranks #1 by Metascore of all 2020 releases), Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

Below, we summarize the reactions of critics to that title and all of the major films (and a few TV shows) debuting at this year's Berlinale. We have grouped the films into rough categories (from best to worst) based on how much critics seemed to like them. Any other Berlinale films that previously debuted at other festivals (such as last month's Sundance Film Festival) or that have already opened in theaters or aired on television are excluded.

The winners

Golden Bear (Best Film in Competition)
There Is No Evil (Sheytan vojud nadarad)
Drama | Germany/Czech Republic/Iran | Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof

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Despite being banned from filmmaking, Iranian writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof (Manuscripts Don't Burn) took home the top prize at this year’s festival. Confronting Iran’s death penalty through four stories, Rasoulof involves the viewer in the decisions that must be made and the ramifications that result when one is tasked with executing someone. THR's Deborah Young and Screen Daily's Lee Marshall both find the first episode to be the strongest, with Young calling it a “perfectly balanced and crafted little jewel that stands out in Rasoulof’s filmography. It promises a very impressive film and it is disappointing that nothing at this level follows it. As things stand, perhaps it would have done better as the culminating final tale, rather than the first.”

Critics who, like the jury, embraced the entire film include Peter Debruge of Variety, who believes Evil “comes across as four films for the price of one, none of its segments anemic, and each contributing fresh insights to the paradoxes of capital punishment in Iran.” IndieWire's Eric Kohn adds, “Rasoulof deploys an inspired tonal uncertainty, as each chapter involves a new angle on the emotional stakes at hand. The scope of the storytelling combines “Pulp Fiction” energy with the structural playfulness of Rasoulof’s fellow Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, but radiates with a narrative urgency all its own.”

Silver Bear - Grand Jury Prize (2nd Place)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Drama | USA | Directed by Eliza Hittman
In theaters March 13

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Previously debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The following is reprinted from our Sundance wrap-up. After earning critical acclaim for her first two features (It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, which earned her the Directing Award in 2017), writer-director Eliza Hittman returned to Sundance with what Mary Sollosi of EW calls an “urgent, extraordinary film.” The focus is on Autumn, a quiet teenager growing up in rural Pennsylvania who has no viable options to terminate an unintended pregnancy. When her cousin Skylar gathers up enough money to get to New York City, their predicament doesn’t get any easier. The Playlist's Jason Bailey believes this is Hittman’s “strongest work to date,” and Jordan Raup of The Film Stage agrees, writing, “While Never Rarely Sometimes Always is her most straight-forward film yet, it’s also her most powerful, culminating in a sensitive, stirring experience free from heavy-handed sensationalism.” Lastly, Kate Erbland of IndieWire praises the film as a “searing examination of the current state of this country’s finicky abortion laws and the medical professionals tasked with enforcing them,” as well as a “singular look at what it means to be a teenage girl today, and with all the joy and pain that comes with it.” Hittman received a special jury award (for "neo-realism") for her work as director and screenwriter of the film.

Best of the festival

DAU. Natasha
Drama | Germany/Ukraine/UK/Russia | Directed by Ilya Khrjanovsky and Jekaterina Oertel

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Funded by Russian telecom oligarch Sergey Adonyev and filmed over three years on a 42,000-square-foot set in Kharkiv, Ukraine with a cast of over 350,000 people who lived 24 hours a day in character in settings that depicted the Soviet Union from 1938-1968, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s notorious multimedia art project DAU produced 13 films in total. Natasha is the first to show theatrically (the six-hour DAU. Degeneratsia also screened in the Berlinale Special section of the festival). And, of the 18 films in competition at the festival, it was Natasha that provoked the strongest reactions.

Co-directed by Jekaterina Oertel, the film follows a waitress at the canteen of a Soviet research institute as she converses with a coworker, sleeps with a French scientist, and is then questioned by a K.G.B officer (played by real-life former K.G.B. officer Vladimir Azhippo). Despite the film featuring graphic un-simulated sex, and (reportedly) simulated sexual torture, THR's Stephen Dalton claims the result “lacks dramatic force” and is ultimately a “disappointingly conventional, small-scale, low-voltage character study at heart.” Writing for Screen Daily, Jonathan Romney agrees that it’s a “puzzling, inconclusive drama” that “may leave viewers shaken, but also mystified and frustrated” even though Khrzhanovsky proves himself and his actors to be risk-takers with this “uncompromisingly confrontational watch.”

Praising Natasha, Peter Bradshaw gives the film 5 stars in The Guardian, calling it a “brutally queasy and stark picture” and an “eerie, intimately disturbing film.” Another admirer is Rory O’Connor of The Film Stage, who writes, “It is a staggering film; one that defies categorization and a unique achievement that must be seen to be believed.” And the festival jury honored the cinematography by Jürgen Jürges with a Sliver Bear trophy.

Last and First Men
Experimental/Sci-fi | Iceland | Directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson

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Making its world premiere at Berlin two years after his death at 48, Men is the last and first feature directed by the Oscar-nominated film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario, Arrival). The black-and-white, 16mm film (also scored and written by Jóhannsson and narrated by Tilda Swinton) is ostensibly based on Olaf Stapledon's 1930 sci-fi novel, but it's more of a multimedia experiment than a conventional narrative film. But it's a memorable one. This “meditative and altogether awe-inspiring visual poem,” as The Playlist's Jack King describes it, is “a visionary work about the final days of humankind that stretches the audience’s ability to imagine not only an immense time frame reaching over billions of years, but huge steps in human evolution,” writes Deborah Young of THR. In his review for The Film Stage, Ed Frankel claims Jóhannsson’s “dreamy combination of sound and images, the editing and pacing, and his use of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s grainy 16mm cinematography combine with strange potency.” And IndieWire's Eric Kohn simply calls it “one of the most original science fiction movies in recent memory.”

My Little Sister (Schwesterlein)
Drama | Switzerland | Directed by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond

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The Little Bedroom filmmakers Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond direct Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger in this drama about Lisa, a former playwright and now married mother, who, after her own mother proves inadequate, must assume care for her twin brother, a famous theater actor diagnosed with leukemia. Ed Frankel of The Film Stage praises Sister as a  “moving, perceptive film, elevated by rich performances.” And in his review for Screen Daily, Lee Marshall claims this "sensitive if not exactly groundbreaking” drama is an “affecting, emotionally truthful experience” thanks to the actors.

The Woman Who Ran (Domangchin yeoja)
Drama | South Korea | Directed by Sang-soo Hong

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After directing 14 narrative features in the last decade, including five between 2017 and 2018 (On the Beach at Night Alone, Claire’s Camera, The Day After, Grass, Hotel by the River), writer-director Hong Sang-soo took a whole two years to release his latest, the story of Gamhee (Kim Minhee), who, while her husband is away, visits three friends. The wait proved worth it for Hong, who won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the festival. In her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang warns about this “delightfully slight, slightly delightful” film, “Woe betide anyone suddenly so turned on to South Korean cinema after Parasite that they follow up that hit of Bong with this bit of Hong.” No. it’s not a genre piece, unless that genre is Hong, but it does exemplify “some of best aspects of Hong’s fast-and-loose approach, and why it can never be easily dismissed,” according to Eric Kohn of IndieWire, who continues, “the movie reveals its deeper layers with time, congealing into a perceptive and often charming bite-sized study of smart women contending with a series of annoying men.” Agreeing with Kohn’s assessment, THR's Boyd van Hoeij believes Hong is “in fine form here,” resulting in a “not only intriguing and sometimes hilarious but clearly also a sincere meditation on what you might be saying when you think you aren't saying much at all.”

Other notable debuts (neither great nor terrible)

Charlatan
Drama | Czech Republic/Ireland/Poland/Slovak Repulic | Directed by Agnieszka Holland

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After premiering Mr. Jones at last year’s festival, Agnieszka Holland returned this year with another biopic. Based on the life of Czech herbalist and healer Jan Mikolášek, the film charts Mikolášek’s rise and fall through the various regime changes (including the Nazis and the Communist party) of what was then Czechoslovakia, with his life in particular danger during the post-Stalin years. In his review for Variety, Guy Lodge calls Charlatan a “handsome, intelligently questioning but slightly dry biopic,” and The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw concurs, claiming it’s “intriguing, if a little frustrating.” More positive, THR's Deborah Young praises the “mesmerizing performances,” and the final scene, which is a “knock-out, pulling together all the clues to Mikolášek’s eerie personality in one unbelievable minute.”

The Eddy
TV/Drama/Musical | France | Directed by Damien Chazelle
Season 1 streams May 8 on Netflix

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The first TV series from director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) is yet another music-focused project. Written by Jack Thorne (National Treasure), with original songs from Glen Ballard and Randy Kerber, the gritty, multi-lingual, Paris-set Netflix series stars Andre Holland as a pianist and part-owner of a failing jazz club whose estranged teenage daughter (Amandla Stenberg) suddenly re-enters his life. Critics saw the first two (of eight) episodes at Berlin and generally liked the result. The least positive review comes from Variety's Peter Debruge, who worries that the opening hours put the music ahead of character development, to the detriment of the show. In The Times, Kevin Maher agrees there is "tons of jazz" on screen, coupled with "unfussy pacing, and the slow sedimentary building of character"—yet he enjoys what he sees. At The Playlist, Jessica Kiang is enthralled by the music, arguing that "any fan of filmic storytelling with even a passing appreciation of [jazz music] will find the two artforms intersecting and interacting in thrillingly inventive ways here." And THR critic Deborah Young praises Chazelle's "high cinematic style," noting that "Paris and jazz make a smart, sophisticated combo" in the opening episodes.

Funny Face
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Tim Sutton

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After the dark and violent Donnybrook, writer-director Tim Sutton returns to the more familiar lyrical mode of his earlier films (Dark Night, Memphis, Pavilion) with this Brooklyn romance between Saul (Cosmo Jarvis), a mask-wearing NBA fan with plans for revenge against a real estate developer played by Johnny Lee Miller, and Zama (Dela Meskienyar), a young Muslim woman chafing against her controlling aunt and uncle. Variety's Guy Lodge believes it’s a “promising enough setup. But it never becomes much more than that.” But David Ehrlich of IndieWire feels it’s a “skillful and muscular step forward that can be captivating for how it applies Sutton’s impressionistic approach to mainstream iconography.” And in her review for The Playlist, Jessica Kiang claims the film exerts a “strange and singular power” even though it’s “less of a story than an assemblage of interludes.”

The Intruder (El prófugo)
Thriller | Argentina/Mexico | Directed by Natalia Meta

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Argentinian writer-director Natalia Meta’s sophomore effort is an adaptation of C.E. Feiling’s horror novel El Mal Menor, about Inés (Érica Rivas), a traumatized dubbing artist who begins to suffer from paranoid delusions. In her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang describes this “oddly flavorless supernatural psycho-thriller” as “two parts De Palma, one part Zulawski, four parts Berberian Sound Studio.” On the other hand, THR's Deborah Young applauds the “mischievous fun” of the film and Rivas’ ability to bring a “sense of fun to a fast-paced comedy” that amounts to a “one-woman show.” Eric Kohn of IndieWire also believes “Rives’ layered performance” is the key as she “sizzles with frantic energy throughout” in a role that “calls for a range of expressive abilities that oscillate from domineering to weakened and back again.”

Kill It and Leave This Town
Animation | Poland | Directed by Mariusz Wilczynski

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Animator Mariusz Wilczyński makes his feature-length debut with this exploration of his childhood in Lodz, Poland during the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s “raw, rough, fragmented, angry, often brilliant with its own kind of aesthetic brusquery and pain,” according to The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. Sarah Ward of Screen Daily believes the film “never fails to impress visually, resembling the art of David Lynch in its industrial style, brusque tone and curt humour.” And IndieWire's David Ehrlich claims the film is “almost oppressively personal at times” and “so lo-fi that it makes Don Hertzfeldt look like Walt Disney, Wilczyński’s hallucinatory opus appears as if sketched out in about 15 minutes, but its autodidactic writer/director actually worked on the film for more than 15 years.”

Minyan
Drama | USA | Directed by Eric Steel

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Documentarian Eric Steel (The Bridge) makes his narrative feature debut with this gay coming-of-age story set in the Russian Jewish community of Brighton Beach. Based on a short story by David Bezmozgis and on Steel’s experience of coming out during the 1980s, it’s a “minor-key drama observed with a lucid but compassionate gaze,” according to David Rooney of THR. At IndieWire, Jude Dry praises Minyan as an “arresting and evocative feature film debut.” And while she admits it “might not be doing anything revolutionary with the gay coming of age story,” Wendy Ide of Screen Daily still finds it “heartfelt and honest” and “at times, unexpectedly hot.”

Mogul Mowgli
Drama | UK | Directed by Bassam Tariq

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Written by star Riz Ahmed along with director Bassam Tariq (making his feature debut), this personal drama, much like last year's TIFF premiere Sound of Metal, takes advantage of Ahmed’s side career as a musician. Here he plays a British Pakistani rapper on the verge of breaking big until he’s hospitalized with a debilitating autoimmune disease while visiting his parents in the UK. THR's Stephen Dalton finds Mogul  “admirably ambitious,” as well as “thoughtfully crafted and thematically rich,” but suspects a “more complex, colorful, daring film seems to be trapped just below the surface.” Both Wendy Ide of Screen Daily and Variety’s Guy Lodge believe Ahmed’s performance lifts the film, but the latter adds, “This is gutsy, spiky, imperfect independent filmmaking that finds the formal gusto to complement and buoy its star’s aggressive dynamism: Ahmed affirms his standing as one of Britain’s most vital, risky actors, even in a role we thought we’d already seen him play.”

Stateless
TV/Drama | Australia | Directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse
Miniseries streams tbd 2020 on Netflix

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This six-part Australian series is produced and co-created by actress Cate Blanchett, who stars alongside Yvonne Strahovski, Dominic West, and Jai Courtney. Stateless follows the intersecting stories of four main characters who have very different experiences in Australia's immigration system before and after arriving at a detention center as refugees. Critics screened about a third of the series at the festival (with scenes culled from various episodes), and seem encouraged by what they saw. In The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young notes some confusion in following the story stemming from the decision not to show full episodes, but feels that "the two main intertwining stories — an Afghan family fleeing the Taliban and a German flight attendant on the run from her personal demons — make an impression as they highlight the contrast between first- and third-world citizens who decide to change countries." In The Guardian, Luke Buckmaster admires a thought-provoking, "thrilling," and unpredictable show that offers a "curious mixture of nail-biting verisimilitude and psychologically charged aesthetic." The series debuts on Australia's ABC this weekend and will stream in the remainder of the world on Netflix later this year.

Undine
Drama | Germany/France | Directed by Christian Petzold

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Writer-director Christian Petzold won the Silver Bear in the 2012 Berlin competition for Barbara. Last year he premiered Transit in competition, but despite good reviews, walked away without an award. His latest is lighter fare, riffing on the myth of the water nymph Undine (or Ondine), played here by Paula Beer (winner of the festival’s Best Actress award). She is reunited with her Transit co-star Franz Rogowski for this mystical love story reimagined for a disenchanted world. While not living up to his last three films, Undine is nevertheless a “diverting and handsomely crafted piece of fantasy,” according to Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian. Enjoying the film even more, THR's Boyd van Hoeij finds it “heartfelt and profound in all its simplicity,” with Beer and Rogowski’s “amazing chemistry” making it “hard to look away or not root for them to be together.”

The disappointments

All the Dead Ones (Todos os mortos)
Drama | Brazil/France | Directed by Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra

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Brazilian filmmakers Marco Duarte (Good Manners) and Caetano Gotardo (The Moving Creatures) share writing and directing duties on this examination of how the end of slavery in 1899 São Paulo impacts two families: the Nascimentos, who used to work as slaves on a coffee farm but now find themselves suddenly free, and the Soares, who own the farm but are now in peril of losing it. Boyd van Hoeij of THR claims the movie feels “like a dry and endless lecture more than an involving human story about serious issues,” and Screen Daily's Jonathan Romney agrees that this “stately, eccentric fiction that merges cultural-political history with outré melodrama … plays out here to stiffly academic effect.” But Ed Frankel of The Film Stage is more positive, calling the film “rich in the nation’s poetry and music, daring in highlighting women’s voices while commenting on Brazil’s history of inequality of wealth, class, and race.”

Malmkrog
Drama | Romania/Serbia/Switz./Sweden/Bos. & Herz./N. Macedonia | Directed by Cristi Puiu

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Fifteen years ago, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu ushered in the Romanian new wave. The existential crime story Aurora and the family drama Sieranevada followed. With his latest, Puiu has stepped away from the austere, realist approach to those films with a period piece set in a country house in the village of the title at the end of the 19th century. There, a landowner, a politician, a general and his wife, and a countess gather over the Christmas holidays and discuss war, morality, death and progress. Inspired by Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s 1915 text War and Christianity: Three Conversations, “it is uncompromising filmmaking, certainly, but also insular filmmaking,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in his review for THR, claiming “these conversations have no direct bearing on the real world — unless we take into consideration the viewers’ behinds and bladders,” and hoping “Puiu’s next work will be made for more spectators than the number of minutes required to tell the story.” Giving it grudging respect, The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw writes, “This is a film of formidable and almost intimidating seriousness, which is admirable and refreshing in its way, but it does not make many concessions to anything as vulgar as entertainment or even drama (as that might be vulgarly conceived).” Puiu did pick up an award for directing in the festival's "Encounters" section.

Minamata
Drama | UK | Directed by Andrew Levitas

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Johnny Depp plays acclaimed American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith in this look at his 1971 journey to the Japanese fishing village of Minamata, whose inhabitants suffered years of mercury poisoning from the Chisso corporation. The resulting photo essay for Life magazine (later expanded into a book and exhibition) exposed the truth. According to Jonathan Romney of Screen Daily, director Andrew Levitas’ (Lullaby) dramatization of these events results in a “serious-minded, yet narratively sluggish, cliche-laden drama” that falls into the “troublesome category of ‘white saviour’ dramas.” But in her review for The Playlist, Jessica Kiang claims the film avoids that white savior label with an “even-handed approach” that refuses to “overstate Smith’s personal heroics, while sensitively outlining the everyday heroism of the ordinary men and women most grievously affected.” She also has praise for Depp, who shows “what a soulful and sincerely generous actor he can be, when he is moved by the material as opposed to the material moving around him.”

My Salinger Year
Drama | Canada/Ireland | Directed by Philippe Falardeau

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Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar, The Good Lie, Chuck) directs Margaret Qualley in this adaptation of Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir, selected as the opening night film of the 70th Berlinale. Qualley stars as Joanna, a young assistant to a literary agent played by Sigourney Weaver. She dreams of being an author, and her job provides her access to J.D. Salinger through her responses to the reclusive author’s fan mail. Falardeau “tackles the material with more enthusiasm than efficiency,” according to THR's Boyd van Hoeij, who finds it “more jocular than insightful or touching.” While some critics think Qualley failed to give life to her role, Eric Kohn of IndieWire believes her “warm” performance imbues the “sincere narrative with some measure of soul.” And in his review for The Playlist, Jack King claims the film’s “smorgasbord of strong performances, and gorgeous autumnal production design, particularly outweigh the script’s shortfalls.”

Onward
Animation/Family | USA | Directed by Dan Scanlon
In theaters March 6

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It's a disappointment mainly because it's a Pixar film, and that's a fairly low score by the animation studio's previous standards. In fact, Pixar’s latest will likely place toward the bottom of our rankings of every Pixar movie, probably close to director Dan Scanlon’s other film, Monsters University. Unlike that film (and the studio’s output since 2017’s Coco), this is an original story, one that follows teenage elf brothers Ian and Barney Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) on a quest to bring their father fully back to life for a day because their original attempt stopped at a pair of legs and a waist. The film earned a full range of critical opinions: from Total Film's “galloping adventure full of amusement, excitement and enchantment” to Vulture's “feels like a pile of prefab story ideas occasionally enlivened by brief flashes of earnestness and invention.” Surely, Soul will be better.

The Roads Not Taken
Drama | UK | Directed by Sally Potter

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The latest from writer-director Sally Potter (The Party, Ginger & Rosa) stars Javier Bardem as a man slipping into dementia and Elle Fanning as his daughter and caretaker. Unfortunately, their performances can’t save the movie, which stands as the 2020 festival’s biggest disappointment. Screen Daily's Lee Marshall believes the stars “both lift a script that, in the hand of less able actors, would have risked coming across as a grotesquely sentimental.” And Deborah Young of THR feels that despite the efforts of these “commanding actors” the film can be “intriguing” but “never truly moving.”

The Salt of Tears (Le sel des larmes)
Drama | France/Switzerland | Directed by Philippe Garrel

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As IndieWire's Eric Kohn notes, Phillipe Garrel’s latest black-and-white look at French men and women in love could make the trilogy of Jealousy, In the Shadow of Women, and Lover for a Day a “tetrology” of love, even if the newest film is less highly regarded than those previous efforts. Following a cabinetmaker’s various trysts, Tears is, according Variety's Guy Lodge, an “exercise only for the most forgiving of Garrel acolytes — who should revel in its warm, tactile black-and-white lensing and throwback air of mournful romanticism, but would still be hard pressed to describe the whole as essential.” Slightly more positive, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian declares it a “watchable, insouciant love story with some great incidental performances, although there is a sense of the shark being jumped 30 minutes from the end.”

Siberia
Drama | Italy/Germany/Mexico | Directed by Abel Ferrara

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Abel Ferrara takes a deep (or shallow depending on your opinion of the director) dive into his own mind with this Jungian leap into the subconscious. In his fourth collaboration with Ferrara, following 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Pasolini, and Tommaso, Willem Dafoe plays Clint, a man who lives in an isolated cabin in the Siberian mountains before setting off on his dogsled to explore his own psyche. “Siberia juggles a number of intriguing ideas without any real success at marrying them,” writes Jack King in his review for The Playlist. “It’s an enjoyable watch, if only for the confident surrealism, albeit one which could inspire confusion and/or disgust in many film fans.” IndieWire's David Ehrlich dismisses Siberia as a “baffling attempt to project the human subconscious on screen,” and Wendy Ide of Screen Daily concurs, calling it an “incoherent indulgence.” Finding more to enjoy, Variety's Guy Lodge declares it a “beautiful, unhinged, sometimes hilarious trek into geographical and psychological wilderness that will delight some and mystify many others.”

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue
Documentary | China | Directed by Zhang Ke Jia

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With his latest film, director Jia Zhangke completes a trilogy of documentaries about Chinese artists that began in 2006 with Dong, about painter Liu Xiaodong, and continued with 2007’s Useless, a survey of designer Ma Ke and the fashion industry. This time he turns his attention to three writers—Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong—as they talk about their own experiences in a transformed China. Wendy Ide of Screen Daily finds the film to be an “oddly inconsistent experience, one which gives the impression of a work not quite finished.” Echoing her thoughts, Variety's Guy Lodge adds, “The result, though intermittently stirring and often luminously shot, represents something of a chore for all but the most ardent Jia completists — and even some of them may be left adrift by the literary scope of a film that does surprisingly little to contextualize its subjects for viewers unfamiliar with their work.”

 

 

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