Best & Worst Films at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival

  • Publish Date: February 16, 2019
  • Comments: ↓ 2 user comments

Which films impressed at this year's Berlinale?

Berlinale 2019

The 69th Berlin International Film Festival wrapped up this weekend with French-Israeli drama Synonyms earning top honors from a jury led by actress Juliette Binoche.

Below, we summarize the reactions of critics to that title and all of the major films debuting at this year's Berlinale. Note that Berlinale films which previously debuted at other festivals (such as last month's Sundance Film Festival) or screened in North American theaters (like the just-opened Gully Boy) are not included here.

The winners

Golden Bear (Best Film)
Drama | France/Israel/Germany | Directed by Nadav Lapid

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The latest from Nadav Lapid (The Kindergarten Teacher, Policeman) looks to be another critical success. Based on his own experiences as a young man in Paris, Lapid has constructed a “fervid first-person chronicle centered around the volatile performance of newcomer Tom Mercier,” writes Jordan Mintzer in The Hollywood Reporter. Mercier receives further praise from IndieWire's David Ehrlich, who writes, “Here is an actor capable of possessing a movie, like Daniel Day-Lewis or Denis Lavant, and a movie as episodic and unmoored as Synonyms is only sustained by the tension Mercier brings to every scene.” Ehrlich further describes the festival-winning film as “astonishing, maddening, brilliant, hilarious, obstinate, and altogether unmissable.”

Silver Bear - Grand Jury Prize (2nd Place)
By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu)
Drama | France | Directed by François Ozon

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François Ozon’s latest is a departure from the director’s previous work (Double Lover, Frantz, Young & Beautiful, Swimming Pool). An investigative drama in the style of Spotlight—Ozon acknowledges the influence and tips his cap by placing a Spotlight poster in one scene—the film is an account of the case against Father Bernard Preynat, who was accused in 2016 of sexually assaulting 70 boys in Lyon. Critic Jonathan Romney admits the film is “superbly acted and highly controlled,” but in his review for Screen Daily, he also deems Grace Ozon’s “most conventional drama of his career, though not without some formal invention.” David Ehrlich of IndieWire also praises the cast of this “thoughtful, fast-paced, and immaculately acted procedural that unfolds with the urgency of a newspaper deadline.” And THR's David Rooney finds the film “never less than absorbing.”

Other highlights of the festival

Drama | USA | Directed by Andrew Ahn

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Director Andrew Ahn’s follow-up to Spa Night features strong performances from main cast members Hong Chau (Inherent Vice, Downsizing), Brian Dennehy, and newcomer Lucas Jaye. Written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, the film captures a coming-of-age summer for 9-year-old Cody (Jaye), who bonds with 83-year-old Del (Dennehy) while his mother (Chau) cleans out her sister’s home. THR's Stephen Farber believes it’s a “small gem.” And, writing for TheWrap, William Bibbiani calls Driveways a “delightful discovery” with an “incredible collection of impeccable performances.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Dan Sallitt

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Dan Sallitt reunites with his The Unspeakable Act star, Tallie Medel, for this look at the complex friendship between Mara (Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling). IndieWire's David Ehrlich finds it to be a “modest but gradually — and, in the end, greatly — affecting sketch of how even the closest of friendships can shift and wither over the years.” Rory O’Connor also has praise for Fourteen in The Film Stage, calling it an “acutely observed and quietly expansive little film."

Ghost Town Anthology
Drama | Canada | Directed by Denis Côté

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Writer-director Denis Côté (A Skin So Soft, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear) adds another unique picture to his filmography with this supernatural mystery about Irénée-les-Neiges, an isolated village in Quebec where the dead come back to visit the living. The film occupies “a peculiar space between life and death, arthouse and genre,” writes CineVue's Patrick Gamble. Adapted from Laurence Olivier’s 2015 novel, Ghost Town is “every bit as bleak and fragmented as its title implies,” according to David Ehrlich of IndieWire, who also notes that it’s “impressively suspended between social-realism and the supernatural.”

Drama | USA | Directed by Sam de Jong

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Writer-director Sam de Jong’s follow-up to 2015’s Prince stars model Slick Woods as an 18-year-old striving to make it as a music video dancer while keeping her younger sisters away from the clutches of child welfare services. IndieWire's David Ehrlich claims the film “explodes with energy and hope,” but the “more urgent things get for Goldie, the more conventional the film becomes.” Allan Hunter of Screen Daily believes Woods’ “charismatic, eye-catching debut performance” is the key to the “film’s appeal,” and David Rooney of THR praises Woods’ “brash vitality,” in a film whose “charms far outweigh its flaws.”

I Was at Home, But ...
Drama | Germany/Serbia | Directed by Angela Schanelec

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Critics predict that the latest idiosyncratic work from writer-director Angela Schanelec (The Dreamed Path) will divide audiences, though the Berlinale jury certainly approved, giving Schanelec the festival's best director award. Where Ed Frankel of The Film Stage sees a “difficult but certainly engaging enigma,” The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw finds a “frozen, torpid work.” Multiple stories rotate around the disappearance and eventual return of a 13-year-old boy to his mother, confounding many viewers, but THR's Neil Young insists it’s a “complex, challenging but brilliant work.” And Guy Lodge writes for Variety, “Willing audiences…will be rewarded in spades with Schanelec’s signature virtues: vignettes of piercing human truth and cool, cockeyed humor; gorgeous first-chill-of-autumn atmospherics; and a seductively restful pace at which to puzzle it all out.”

Light of My Life
Drama | USA | Directed by Casey Affleck

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After directing the sham documentary I'm Still Here, Casey Affleck makes his narrative writing-directing debut with this story of a father (Affleck) and his young daughter (Anna Pniowsky) trying to survive in a dystopian world where the female population has been decimated. Despite the troubling accusations from the set of his previous directorial effort, "Affleck wades into this treacherous morass with reckless sincerity and a depth of feeling that convinces even when the film is at its most self-indulgent,” writes Jessica Kiang in her review for The Playlist. THR's David Rooney calls it a “respectable debut, with more depth of feeling than originality.” And Fionnuala Halligan of Screen Daily believes a “superb performance by Affleck, who constructs a touching and believable rapport with his 11 year-old co-star, grounds his low-key directorial and feature-writing debut.”

Mr. Jones
Drama/Thriller | Poland/UK/Ukraine | Directed by Agnieszka Holland

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Director Agnieszka Holland (In Darkness, The Secret Garden) tells the story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones’ 1933 investigation into the famine in the Ukraine, where Stalin’s policies resulted in the deaths of millions. Though Variety's Guy Lodge and THR's David Rooney believe Holland’s efforts are stymied by the cluttered script from first-time screenwriter Andrea Chalupa, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian finds Jones to be a “picture with sinew and strength.”

Out Stealing Horses
Drama | Norway/Sweden/Denmark | Directed by Hans Petter Moland

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Hans Petter Moland (Cold Pursuit) reunites with his In Order of Disappearance and A Somewhat Gentle Man star, Stellan Skarsgård, for this adaptation of Per Petterson’s acclaimed novel that follows a man’s life during two time periods: as a youth in the summer of 1948, and as a widower in winter of 1999. Wendy Ide of Screen Daily finds it “strikingly photographed, sensitively acted but torpid in its pacing,” but Variety's Guy Lodge believes this “loving film adaptation … effectively plays lush visual storytelling against its characters’ desolate interiors.” And, in her positive review in THR, Deborah Young agrees: “One of the pleasures of this extremely sensual film is the way it elicits physical sensations in the viewer through expressive camerawork, cutting and sound effects.”

The Plagiarists
Drama | USA | Directed by Peter Parlow

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This surprising indie from director Peter Barlow and writers James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir received unanimous praise save for The Playlist's Jonathan Christian, who believes the film “is a perfect example of unintentional hypocrisy,” with themes that “primarily revolve around racial prejudices and the sanctity of art,” but “never tie themselves off in a satisfying manner.” Plagiarists follows self-absorbed millennials Anna and Tyler as their car breaks down, and they get assistance from Clip, a good Samaritan who happens to be African American. Rory O’Connor of The Film Stage praises the “terrific” script which “becomes more nuanced and haunting only after that first act.” And THR's Keith Uhlich believes the film “improves upon reflection, raising, as it does, some knotty questions about originality in art and in life, as well as provocatively positing that even a copy of a copy of a copy has the potential to move hearts and minds.”

So Long, My Son (Di jiu tian chang)
Drama | China | Directed by Xiaoshuai Wang

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Stars Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun each collected a Silver Bear award for their performances in this epic family melodrama from Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai (11 Flowers). Spanning four decades (and, thanks to flashbacks, not linearly), the film examines the impacts of the Cultural Revolution, the government's controversial one-child policy, the country's recent embrace of capitalism, and a personal tragedy on the lives of multiple generations of a Chinese family. The resulting film is a major work that may not be for everyone. THR's Deborah Young warns that "a running time over three hours and the unspectacular approach taken to what is really a very Chinese story" may deter Western moviegoers, though she also praises an "intimate" story that is "directed with self-assurance." Similarly, Screen Daily's Jonathan Romney cautions of a "challenging narrative structure" and a "daunting" viewing experience, though he ultimately deems the film "a formidable and, for the most part, involving work of novelistic scope."

Tremors (Temblores)
Drama | Guatemala/France/Luxembourg | Directed by Jayro Bustamante

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Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Ixcanul chronicles the struggles of Pablo, a religious father and husband who falls in love with a man and is torn apart by his family and faith as his religious community attempts to “heal” him. Variety's Guy Lodge claims “Bustamante’s command of visual and sonic texture still bewitches.” And in his "A–" review for IndieWire, David Ehrlich writes, “If Bustamante’s lucid second feature makes it feel as though the world itself is trembling beneath your feet, it’s because this mercilessly grounded film keys into the devilishness of Pablo’s dilemma.”

Varda by Agnès
Documentary | France | Directed by Agnès Varda

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Agnès Varda has claimed that this career-spanning documentary will be her last film, but critics hope that it’s not. Looking at her “analog period” from 1954-2000 and her digital years (2000 to the present), the film is, according to The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, “charming and approachable.” Wendy Ide of Screen Daily praises a film “which looks both inwards and outwards at the same time. And like Varda herself, it pulls off the combination of a trundling, amiable pace with a biting intellectual acuity.” In her review for Time, Stephanie Zacharek notes, “Just listening to Varda speak is a delight. She’s a person who takes pleasure in the world of life around her, even in the midst of the curveballs thrown by old age.”

The disappointments

Elisa & Marcela
Drama | Spain | Directed by Isabel Coixet

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"Writer-director Isabel Coixet has taken a real-life love story from 20th-century LGBT Spanish history and turned it into something bafflingly passionless, joyless and excessively tasteful,” warns Peter Bradshaw in his review for The Guardian. Other critics weren’t much kinder in their assessment of this story of two women (one posing as a man) who married in the church of San Jorge in A Coruña, Spain in 1901. Coixet (The Bookshop, Learning to Drive, Elegy) “fails to inject the girls’ relationship with complexity, tension and conflict,” according to Clarence Tsui of THR. And Variety's Jay Weissberg labels it a “tired romanticized biopic.”

God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya
Drama | Macedonia/Belgium/Slovenia/Croatia/France | Directed by Teona Strugar Mitevska

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Teona Strugar Mitevska’s feminist satire of Macedonia’s deep-rooted misogyny divided critics at the festival. THR's Neil Young finds it “ambitious but disappointing,” and Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian believes it “simply runs out of ideas.” But Screen Daily critic Sarah Ward claims Petrunya is “bitingly amusing at times”, resulting in a “smart, impassioned statement against widely accepted subjugation in many forms.”

The Golden Glove (Der Goldene Handschuh)
Horror/Thriller/Drama | Germany/France | Directed by Fatih Akin

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After viewing the latest from the usually dependable writer-director Fatih Akin (In the Fade, The Cut, The Edge of Heaven, Head On), many critics wondered how the film received a competition slot at the festival. Based on the true story of Fritz Honka (and a 2016 crime novel by Heinz Strunk), a serial killer who haunted Hamburg in the early 1970s, Golden Glove is “relentlessly pungent; the cinematic equivalent of an overflowing porta potty,” writes IndieWire's David Ehrlich. Similarly, Ed Frankel of The Film Stage adds, “Fatih Akin’s latest movie is a fetid stain on the CV of a good filmmaker.” In her review for Time, Stephanie Zacharek claims “the relentlessness of The Golden Glove is exhausting,” and the film’s “visual and spiritual ugliness is relentless and punishing.” It's not entirely without merit; The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw (and other critics) believe the film to be “technically accomplished.” But even Bradshaw finds “something meagre and futile about it,” adding that it lacks the “subtlety and humanity” of Akin’s earlier work.

The Kindness of Strangers
Drama | Denmark/Canada/Sweden/Germany/France | Directed by Lone Scherfig

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Despite an impressive cast (Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim, Bill Nighy, Caleb Landry Jones), critics found little to praise beyond Kazan’s performance in this surprising misfire from accomplished writer-director Lone Scherfig (Their Finest, An Education). An ensemble drama of people in crisis set around a Russian restaurant, the film is “certainly not lacking in good intentions,” notes The Film Stage's Rory O’Connor, who adds “nor is it lacking in mawkish sentimentality either.” The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw dismisses Kindness as an “inert, implausible, often bafflingly acted ensemble movie.” And David Rooney of THR adds to the poor appraisal, calling it a “ponderous dollop of urban misery porn.”

The Operative (Die Agentin)
Thriller | Germany/Israel/France/USA | Directed by Yuval Adler

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Bethlehem director Yuval Adler directs this adaptation of former Israel intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher Atir’s novel The English Teacher. Diane Kruger stars as Rachel, a language teacher recruited by the Mossad to spy on a businessman in Tehran. Martin Freeman plays her handler. “At the end of this long, long story you feel like you have boarded a roller-coaster ride at a funfair that only chugs along at ground-level: very slowly,” according to Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, whose views represent the majority. But Variety's Guy Lodge calls the film a “a sturdy, intelligent mainstream entertainment” that’s “another well-fitted showcase for Diane Kruger’s stern resolve as a performer.”

Piranhas (La paranza dei bambini)
Drama | Italy | Directed by Claudio Giovannesi

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Roberto Saviano’s 2006 book about the Neapolitan mafia, Gomorrah, resulted in director Mateo Garrone’s 2008 Cannes Grand Prix-winning movie and later a TV series. Now his book La Paranza dei Bambini, a look at the teenage gangs of Naples, has made it to the screen under the direction of Claudio Giovannesi (a director on the Gomorrah TV series), but don’t expect the same plaudits to follow. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw finds the movie “watchable enough, but often looks like a smoothed-out, planed-down version of Garrone’s Gomorrah: Gomorrah without the rough edges, like a classy television version.” And Deborah Young of THR cautions that the “uninspired acting and directing bring little emotion to the table.”


Comments (2)

  • JasonDietz  

    TheKingJack: The Souvenir was already covered in our Sundance article (it debuted at Sundance) -- it didn't pick up many additional reviews at Berlin. See:

  • TheKingJack  

    How on earth can you compile a Berlinale highlights list and totally miss out on THE SOUVENIR - the film with the highest Metascore from the festival? I appreciate it wasn't a Berlinale debutant, but still...

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