Best Berlin Bets: Top 10 Picks at the 2014 Film Festival

by HFPA February 7, 2014

The 64th Berlin International Film Festival kicks off today and runs through February 16, bringing international premiers, a slew of sales and acquisitions and the world premiere of Wes Anderson’s much-anticipated The Grand Budapest Hotel. As the first major fest of the year after Sundance, the Berlinale plays host to the European Film Market, sure to be buzzing with business.

We’ve picked 10 films – ranging from sensual thrillers to dramatic biopics to action comedies – worth singling out at this year’s fest. Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (which was on our Sundance picks list) are both screening this year, as is the in-competition Life of Riley, from 91-year-old world-cinema master Alain Resnais.

There will also be special tribute screenings in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Maximilian Schell.

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer

Synopsis: In the year 2031, tensions rise among a group of travelers stuck on a train in a snow and ice-covered world.

SSN Insight: Korean director Bong has a big fan in Quentin Tarantino, who praised him at last fall’s Busan International Film Festival. Tarantino went so far as to call Bong’s films like The Host, Mother, and Memories of Murder “masterpieces.” Snowpiercer is based on the graphic novel series Le Transperceneige, written by Jacques Lob & Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. Its intriguing title and eclectic cast alone are enough to get us interested. The Weinstein Co. is releasing the film stateside.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan

Synopsis: Andersons’ latest follows the adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

SSN Insight: This Fox Searchlight release is Berlin’s opening night film. If you aren’t in Berlin, you can catch it in the States when it opens in early March. With each film he makes, Anderson seems to immerse himself—and his audience—more deeply into his very specific, modern fairytale world. We’re looking forward to seeing where he takes us this time, and also how Fiennes fares in the director’s fanciful milieu.

A Long Way Down
Director: Pascal Chaumeil
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots

Synopsis: On New Year’s Eve, four people turn up on the same roof planning to commit suicide. Instead of jumping, these four strangers make a pact to stay alive and stay together at least until Valentine’s Day.

SSN Insight: Because this one is based on a Nick Hornby book, we’re giving it the benefit of the doubt. If you loved High Fidelity and About a Boy, you’ll understand why. Based on its trailer, the film looks like it could be one of the festival’s more commercially viable offerings. There’s romance, drama, comedy and plenty of feel-good moments, but what we hope for are the heart and soul of High Fidelity. The project was previously set up at Warner Bros. with David Heyman, Graham King and Johnny Depp attached to produce.

Director: Claudia Llosa
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, Melanie Laurent

Synopsis: When an estranged son finds his mother, they must both face the past and themselves.

SSN Insight: Aloft is the English-language debut of Peruvian director Llosa, and based on the cast and her past work, we’re keeping our eye on this one. Llosa’s second feature The Milk of Sorrow won Berlin’s Golden Bear in 2009 and was nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar. Llosa’s first feature Madeinusa was a Sundance standout in 2006. The strength of Connelly’s lead performance could determine this one’s prospects, and it bodes well that Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film on the first day of the fest.

Cesar Chavez
Director: Diego Luna
Cast: Michael Peña, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, Wes Bentley, John Malkovich

Synopsis: Torn between his duties as a husband and father and his commitment to bringing dignity and justice to others, Cesar Chavez embraces non-violence as he battles greed and prejudice in his struggle for the rights of farm workers.

SSN Insight: Produced by Luna’s Canana Films and Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd Productions, Lionsgate and Participant are bringing this biopic into U.S. theaters. Luna’s feature directorial debut, Abel, won two awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival, and, while he’s made his name as an actor, he’s also a noted producer (Canana is quickly becoming a powerhouse production company). If the love that audiences’ had in 2013 for biopics continues, Cesar Chavez could do well internationally. It’s out this spring, and we’re excited to see the always-fantastic Peña playing Chavez. Maybe this time next year, he’ll be part of our Oscar discussion—time will tell.

Beauty and the Beast
Director: Christophe Gans
Cast: Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel

Synopsis: 1810. After the sinking of his ship, a merchant is forced into exile in the countryside with his six children. Among them is his youngest daughter, Belle. While on a journey, the merchant ventures into a magical realm and is condemned to death by the Beast for stealing a rose from his garden. Belle offers herself up in her father’s place, but, at the castle, it is not death that awaits her but a strange and beautiful new life. Over time, Belle learns of the Beast’s tragic past as a prince and courageously sets out to release him from his curse.

SSN Insight: Like A Long Way Down, we’re a little skeptical about this one—but that doesn’t mean we’re not curious. Gans is a visually striking director (check out Silent Hill and Brotherhood of the Wolf), but his films tend to sacrifice performance and story for surface thrills. The trailer gives the impression the film’s aiming to be a dark fantasy crossed with Disney elements—so there’s the danger of running into kitsch. What really has us interested is the cast: Seydoux was transfixing in Blue Is the Warmest Color as was Cassell in Black Swan. If their chemistry can outshine the silly CGI, this one could have potential.

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Director: Josephine Decker
Cast: Joe Swanberg, Sophie Traub, Robert Longstreet

Synopsis: Inspired by East of Eden and set in rural Kentucky, this thriller centers on a father and daughter whose world is turned upside down upon the arrival of a young farmhand.

SSN Insight: Actress-turned-director Decker (she was in the cast of Swanberg’s films Autoerotic, Uncle Kent and Art History) has two features playing at Berlin: Her Forum sidebar film Butter on the Latch is in the mix as well. It’s impressive for anyone to have two features playing the fest (and one in competition), so hats off to her. Thou Wast raised funds via Kickstarter, and, though we’re not sure about Swanberg’s ability to carry a film, he and this film could have many surprises in store.

In Order of Disappearance
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Cast: Stellan Skarsgard, Bruno Ganz

Synopsis: Norway, winter. Introverted and hard-working Nils drives the snowplow that keeps the roads and mountain passes open during inhospitable weather. He has just been named citizen of the year when he gets the news that his son has died of a heroin overdose. Refusing to believe this explanation for his son’s death, he begins to search for the boy’s alleged murderers before a surprising turn of events causes him to become an unidentified but feared hero.

SSN Insight: This action comedy, which goes by the Norwegian title Kraftidioten, has the potential to be a wintry version of In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths. Moland worked with Skarsgard on the comedy A Somewhat Gentle Man, and whether the actor is doing comedy or dark drama, he’s a blast to watch. In Order of Disappearance also has a “vegan gangster” named The Count so … there’s that.

History of Fear
Director: Benjamín Naishtat
Cast: Jonathan Da Rosa, Tatiana Giménez, Mirella Pascual, Claudia Cantero, Francisco Lumerman

Synopsis: During a chaotic summer of power outages in the suburbs, the social order reveals itself to be fragile and on the verge of unraveling.

SSN Insight: Going by its trailer, Naishtat’s feature directorial debut—playing in competition—promises a film of slow-burning tension that may or may not erupt in violence. It’s eerie, mysterious and unique, and if it has a wide enough appeal, Naishtat’s thriller could be a breakout for the director.

Director: Yann Demange
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Richard Dormer

Synopsis: During the early years of “The Troubles,” the political conflict in Northern Ireland that raged from the 1960s to the ’90s, a young soldier has to survive a night on the dangerous streets of Belfast.

SSN Insight: There’s already buzz over Jack O’Connell’s performance in 71, the feature debut from British director Demange. O’Connell nabbed the lead in Angelina Jolie’s second feature as director, Unbroken, and he’s also in the upcoming 300: Rise of the Empire. Prior to 71, Demange worked on TV dramas like the BAFTA nominated miniseries Top Boy, about the underground drug trade. With his stellar TV track record and O’Connell’s rising-star status, this is definitely one to check out.

The Berlin International Film Festival runs February 6 to 16.