This past week the 73rd Berlin Film Festival took place in, you guessed it, Berlin. And since that is where I happen to live, I’ve had the pleasure of attending the festival. While I didn’t get to watch even close to every movie at the festival, I still managed to watch a solid 12 movies. With the Berlinale coming to an end, and the awards winners already announced, I figured to wrap it all up I’d rank the movies I got to watch, so you know which ones to keep an eye out for the eventual release, and which ones you can forget about without remorse.
12. Perpetrator directed by Jennifer Reeder
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about this movie, because I don’t enjoy being overly mean. But this movie truly had barely any redeeming qualities. There are plenty of bad Shudder Originals, but this one stands out as particularly bad even within that crowd. Jennifer Reeder attempts a radical feminist take on trashy teen horror mixed with body-horror, and while that might sound interesting, she fails on almost every level. Even Alicia Silverstone can’t save this one.
11. Green Night directed by Han Shuai
When you hear there’s a new movie about two lonely women who venture into the underworld of Seoul to liberate themselves from their husbands, starring Fan Bingbing, there are certain expectations. You expect bright neon lights and dark synths, you expect a tense, maybe even oppressive, atmosphere with tender moments to break it up, you expect to fall in love with these two women as they fight their oppressors. You get very little of that. Instead you get characters that lack depth, mostly bland cinematography, and one overused K-drama trope after the other. There’s also an instance of sexual violence that feels unnecessary, especially in how it’s depicted.
10. Infinity Pool directed by Brandon Cronenberg
I was SO excited for this movie. I’m a big fan David Cronenberg, one of the best to ever do it if I may say so myself, and similarly, I enjoyed Brandon Cronenberg’s previous movie Possessor (2020) a lot. Sadly, I was rather disappointed by Infinity Pool. My biggest complaint with the movie is that, for all of the very explicit content it has (even warranting a separate “Uncut” release), it just didn’t go far enough. Maybe there was more in the script that the studio wasn’t ok with, or maybe Brandon Cronenberg didn’t go far enough with his ideas to begin with. Either way, to achieve what it wants to achieve, it needed to go a bit further. On top of that, I’d argue that his previous movie Possessor (2020) deals with a lot of the same themes, but better. This isn’t to say Infinity Pool is all bad though. There are plenty of scenes where he gets that visceral reaction from the audience regardless, and Mia Goth is unsurprisingly fantastic and carries much of the movie. But in direct comparison to his previous work (and his father’s), it isn’t quite up to par.
9. Bad Living directed by João Canijo
Bad Living is conceptually a very interesting movie. It’s part of a duology by João Canijo in which movies take place at the same time at the same hotel. But while this movie is about the owners, the other one, Living Bad (2023), is about its inhabitants. The winner of the Silver Bear Jury Prize is a clear case of a movie that I respect more than I enjoyed it. The images conjured by cinematographer Leonor Teles are breathtaking. I know it’s a bit cliché (and probably a bit pretentious), but she shoots the hotel as an additional character, with panoramas that reveal a multitude of things happening at different corners of the hotel. There’s an interesting story here about Depression, and generational trauma, but ultimately I was never quite able to fully connect with the movie.
8. Suzume directed by Makoto Shinkai
This movie is everything you’d expect from a Makoto Shinkai movie. It’s beautifully animated and seeing it on the big screen elevated that even further. The story, however, is just sort of fine. There’s a lot going on in Suzume, arguably too much. One of the better plot points is that the male love interest is turned into a chair very early on (and no I’m not joking), and ironically, I would argue that he has more personality as a chair as well. Suzume is at its best when it embraces its silliness, but to its detriment, it has ambitions to be more than that. Makoto Shinkai needs to stop remaking slightly different versions of Your Name (2016), because while they’re individually good, they’re starting to lose their impact.
7. Here directed by Bas Devos
What’s so beautiful about Here, the best film award winner in the category Encounters, is how much emphasis it puts on the little things. One close up of moss, leaves, a tree stump, anything, follows the other. Each frame is a dedication to the small details of the larger landscape too beautiful to miss. Similarly, the story that unfolds between the Romanian construction worker and the Belgian-Chinese doctorate student of moss is one of small moments, rather than big events. This isn’t the kind of movie where either person goes through some life-changing event, it’s a movie about two lost souls connecting for just a moment in this big world. Here reminds us that it’s the little things that matter.
6. Samsara directed by Lois Patiño
Essentially, a guided meditation on reincarnation according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Excruciatingly slow, but due to the meditative nature of the movie, that’s not a bad thing per se. This is easily the most “pretentious” movie I saw at the festival. Of course, there’s the slow pace that in itself will alienate some people, but then there’s the section in the middle that will really alienate some people. I don’t want to say too much, but it’s very experimental and it involves a text appearing on the screen that asks audiences to close their eyes. As I said before, the kind of thing plenty of people will point out as highly pretentious. I thought it was kind of genius to be honest.
5. White Plastic Sky directed by Tibor Bánóczki & Sarolta Szabó
White Plastic Sky is the best kind of science fiction in my opinion. Starting with a simple what if, it takes that idea further and further until eventually every single aspect of this world has been altered in some way, by this one simple what if at the beginning. In this case, what if we could guarantee enough resources to survive, despite the lack of resources on our planet, by turning every person into a tree once they reach the age of 50. It’s a silly idea, but one the movie takes very seriously. The first half features some incredible world-building, with stunning animation to support it. The second half then concentrates on the personal conflict within that world, telling a beautiful story about our will to live.
4. Past Lives directed by Celine Song
Comparing this movie to In the Mood for Love (2000) feels almost too easy, and it wouldn’t be an entirely fair comparison either, but it’s one that kept coming back to me after watching it. Watching these two people who are so clearly in love, and yet can’t be together hurts in the best way. The screenplay by first time writer/director Celine Song is outstanding. The relationships feel so real, due to not in small part the chemistry of the actors as well, and the way the movie looks at communication within a romantic relationship is pretty incredible. It’s very funny as well, without any joke ever feeling too forced. This A24 production is sure to be a big hit this year.
3. Afire directed by Christian Petzold
I consider myself a big fan of Christian Petzold, and with Afire he has delivered once again. It’s a simple story, one we have seen many times before. A group of people meet in a small house next to the sea on their summer holiday, and romance ensues. But while this might be a familiar story, it’s extraordinarily well executed. It’s a bit of a cliché thing to say, but Afire makes you feel the heat in the air, the sand between your toes, the cool water of the ocean, and so on. Then there’s the element of the surrounding forest fires that keep appearing, which creates an interesting additional layer to the story. But the strongest aspect of the movie is its characters. These are people who you either know, or see yourself in, and the actors do a fantastic job bringing them to life, in particular Thomas Schuber, and Paula Beer, are phenomenal.
2. Talk to Me directed by Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou
When this movie premiered at Sundance last month, A24 immediately picked it up for distribution, and it’s easy to see why. It’s hard to say when I had this much fun while watching a horror movie for the last time. Seeing this in the theatre was an incredible experience. There was such a palpable sense of dread during the movie that made even the bravest soul in the cinema tense up in anticipation of what might happen next. What’s impressive is how effortlessly the movie can jump back and forth between silly fun and genuinely terrifying horror, without making either feel lesser. This will be the big horror hit of 2023, and the earlier you get excited for it, the better.
1. The Teachers’ Lounge directed by İlker Çatak
This is the kind of movie that you hope for at a film festival. The one that you watch without any expectations because it just happened to fit in a time slot nicely, and then proceeds to completely blow you away. It starts with a simple conflict of a teacher trying to figure out who stole money from her wallet, but the way this conflict escalates over the course of the movie is masterful. The Teachers’ Lounge managed to create the same level of anxiety and stress in me that Uncut Gems (2019) did. On top of that, the movie is a brilliant, and incredibly scathing, critique of the German school system. I will admit that, due to this fact, it might not resonate in the same way with people who are not familiar with our school system, but I think you will be able to take something from it anyway. For me, it was the kind of movie that makes you mad, as you recognize all the things wrong with the institutions under which you grew up, and I mean that in the best way possible, of course.
As you can tell, while I didn’t love everything I watched, there was plenty of great stuff I got to experience at this year’s Berlinale, and there’s plenty more I sadly didn’t get to watch. Between the Golden Bear winner On the Adamant, the Chinese animated movie Deep Sea which looks to feature some breathtaking animation, and the Beau Travail (1999) inspired Disco Boy with Franz Rogowski in the lead, there’s still much left for me to catch up on as the year progresses. For now, I’d have to say that this was a pretty decent year here in Berlin.