​10 films we loved at this year’s berlinale

While top international stars walk down red carpets galore during the Berlinale, the winter festival is decidedly different from its Cannes and Venice counterparts in that the films take precedence over any fashion faux pas or paparazzi incident. Take...

by Michael-Oliver Harding
24 February 2016, 10:44pm

Las Plantas
The highlight in what was a standout showing of Chilean films at the fest, this daring, atmospheric debut by Roberto Doveris crosses coming-of-age undercurrents with shifting states of consciousness. With both her parents away indefinitely, withdrawn 17-year-old Flor (Argentinian singer-songwriter Violeta Castillo) fills in as temporary caretaker for her comatose brother, changing his diapers and reading to him from Las Plantas, a comic book about plant souls that take over human bodies during the full moon. Flor also explores lusty times by luring men from the web to her doorstep and then ordering them to drop trou. Power dynamics are refreshingly flipped in this gorgeously lensed teen salute to the female gaze, effortlessly drifting from corporeality and fantasy to dreamland.

Since taking office in the fall of 2014, Indonesian president Joko Widodo has ignored all international pressure to spare the many foreign nationals on death row for drug trafficking in his country. This harrowing documentary helps us better understand how one such prisoner sealed his own fate - Brazilian Marco "Curumim" Archer, arrested with 13.5 kg of cocaine at Jakarta international airport in 2004. Prior to being executed last year, Curumim reached out to director Marcos Prado about sharing his life story to ensure others wouldn't repeat his mistakes. Combining phone conversations, hand-written letters, footage shot on the sly by Curumim inside his maximum-security jail, and interviews with friends, lawyers and former traffickers, this makes for compelling and often infuriating viewing. Curumim, while not always the most sympathetic guy, clearly regretted his choices and believed he'd get a second chance to start over.

Before The Streets
A first-rate addition to Canada's too scanty First Nations filmography, Chloé Leriche's debut is a dark, dreamlike fable about a teenage loner who seeks spiritual redemption after accidentally killing a man during a robbery gone wrong. The first feature shot in the native language of Atikamekw, mostly featuring a cast of non-professionals and music by powwow staples A Tribe Called Red and Northern Voice, Before The Streets celebrates notions of restorative justice and the wisdom of community elders. The film's breathtaking panoramas of the sacred forest, with its sweat lodges, sharing circles and drum deliverance, offer an empowering counterpoint to typically grim depictions of Native culture.

Kate Plays Christine
At Sundance this year, two films tackled the same little-known broadcasting tragedy: a depressed and lovelorn Florida reporter named Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself live on air in 1974, after warning viewers to brace themselves for "the latest in blood and guts." This brilliant docu-fiction hybrid follows soft-spoken actress Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards) as she travels to the town where it all played out, hoping to immerse herself in Christine's story. But the boundaries between performer and protagonist become porous at best. Kate's concerns about exploiting Christine's demise and her "unhealthy" impulse to act become intertwined with melodramatic fictional segments where she's outfitted with a D-movie wig and brown contact lenses. By the end, I couldn't quite decide which was more fascinating: watching Kate become Christine, dig for clues about Christine, or play a sensitive indie actress who pretends to be Christine. I'd go with the latter.

Don't Call Me Son
In this astute drama by past Berlinale prizewinner Anna Muylaert (The Second Mother), the world of suburban teen Pierre falls apart after taking a DNA test that reveals his mom kidnapped him as a newborn. As he's forced to move in with his affluent biological parents and brother - who all call him by his birth name, Felipe - Pierre is left to wrestle with many unanswered questions about his own identity. Told almost exclusively from Pierre/Felipe's viewpoint, this breezily paced Brazilian stunner explores how a nail-painting, garter belt-wearing teenager might be more concerned with matters of gender fluidity than with who his true parents really are. Based on a real-life case that rocked Brazil, the film also has the same actress play both moms, a brilliant bit of casting that only adds to Pierre/Felipe's mounting confusion.

Chicagoans may be sharply divided about Spike Lee using a war zone portmanteau to draw attention to their city's gang violence impasse, but the filmmaker shows up with the cold, hard truth: 7,356 homicides (of mostly black men on other black men) carried out between 2001 and 2015. Alarming statistics aside, Lee delivers his most unbridled, raunchy and sobering feat of filmmaking in years: a modern-day adaptation of Greek comedy Lysistrata and its satirical premise that chastity belt-outfitted women withhold sex to coerce their South Side men into some kind of ceasefire. Scripted mostly in rhyming verse, pitting the orange Trojans against the purple Spartans, and featuring an entirely fitting Dave Chappelle lamenting "the situation's out of control because I'm in front of an empty stripper pole," this is the impassioned Spike we've been yearning for since When the Levees Broke.

New York's exuberant ballroom scene sure has come a long way since 1990's legendary Paris is Burning. In Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö's vibrant documentary portrait, queer youth welfare organizations throw empowering Kiki balls for its oft-marginalized LGBTQ members. And in a post-marriage equality era where, as one Kiki character puts it, the "gay white upper-middle classes are living it up in Chelsea," the ballroom scene offers not only spectacle but also potent social and political activism to its lower-income Black and Latino youths. The Houses of LaBeija and Xtravaganza have made way for those of Juicy Couture and Unbothered Cartier, but the commitment to squashing heteronormativity, transphobia and HIV are as fierce as ever. You'll also discover inspirational voices for the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

P.S. Jerusalem
At a festival where themes of borders and migration cut across all programs and platforms, the intimate doc P.S. Jerusalem eloquently conveys the apparent absurdity of geographic, linguistic and religious divisions when you're a kid from Brooklyn suddenly transplanted in Jerusalem. Upon moving back to her birthplace with her two boys and partner Philippe in 2010, filmmaker Danae Elon spends the next 3 years documenting her family's struggles to adapt to a place where settlements, bomb shelters and gas masks are part of the everyday. The most heartbreaking scene finds her two shrewd sons and their Palestinian classmate navigate their way through neighbourhoods, alternately speaking Hebrew and Arabic, depending on their whereabouts. An increasingly conflicted Elon makes us wonder whether any parent would want their children to be exposed to such an inescapable threat of danger.

Being 17
The cinematic intersection of coming of age and same-sex attraction, in which teenage characters explore their nascent queer desires, can sound awfully unremarkable in 2016. Leave it to French filmmaker André Téchiné (Wild Reeds) and co-screenwriter Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) to provide a fresh take on that messy emotional whirlwind. While classmates Damien and Thomas express their disapproval of each other in startlingly violent ways high up in the Pyrenees mountains, their lingering looks and mounting levels of disdain suggest something else entirely. The young actors are phenomenal, the flow is seamless and the story unfolds over the three semesters of their last school year, as the mountains of Southwest France - and the boys - experience a thaw that's unfamiliar, overwhelming and quite possibly irresistible.

Hotel Dallas
As a young kid growing up with food shortages and endemic corruption in 1980s Communist Romania, primetime soap Dallas - the only American show allowed on television at the time - provided not only cowboy hat escapism but also the inspiration a young woman needed to immigrate to America. In this nostalgic slice of docu-fiction by New York-based husband and wife team Sherng-Lee Huang and Livia Ungur, the way-out power of art and the grey zone between fairytale and reality are explored with great enthusiasm and wild abandon (I mean, former Dallas star Patrick Duffy even turns up). But the icing on the cake would be an actual replica of the Dallas mansion, built in the 90s in southeastern Romania by a ruler who styled himself after the show's cutthroat oil baron. At once unorthodox and mesmerising.


Text Michael-Oliver Harding

films we loved