Serious Subjects, Strong Women Stir Golden & Silver Bear Buzz – Berlin

The Berlin Film Festival will hand out its prizes tomorrow evening after 10 days of politically-inspired drama, documentaries and a few more mainstream offerings. While Berlin is a key date on the festival calendar, its track-record for honoring movies that will compete in the next awards season is spotty. Last year’s breakouts included Charlotte Rampling’s winning turn in 45 Years, for which she is Oscar nominated, and Pablo Larrain’s The Club which took the Grand Jury Prize here and went on to other fest nods and a Golden Globe nomination. The Golden Bear winner was banned Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. It was in 2014 that Berlin last made a major splash, with both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood scoring Bears and going on to BAFTA and Oscar glory; as well as commercial success. So what’s hot this year as activity winds down in Potsdamer Platz?

fire at seaWhile the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! opened the festival to a warm reception, it debuted out of competition so we won’t see any laurels from the fest. Rather, political topics highlighted by the refugee crisis and a documentary about cyber warfare seem to have been top of mind here this week. Word on the ground is that the frontrunner for a Golden Bear from the Meryl Streep-led jury is Italian documentary Fire At Sea. A study of the island of Lampedusa, which has become a metaphor for the flight of refugees to Europe, it is commentary-free and embodies a theme which was raised at nearly every press conference. Gianfranco Rosi directed the film; he won the 2013 Golden Lion in Venice for Sacro Gra, his documentary about life on the ring road outside Rome.

Midnight Special 2Elsewhere, Mia Hansen-Love’s Things To Come has also been raved about by critics with special notice for Isabelle Huppert’s portrayal of a woman suddenly unmoored. Should she take a top prize, it would be part of a trend that has honored women over 50 in recent years including Rampling and Paulina Garcia in 2013’s Gloria. Competition could come from Tomasz Wasilewski’s 1990-set, female-led Polish drama United States Of Love which screens today. There has also been praise for Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, the story of a father who will go to any lengths to protect his gifted son. It drew some comparisons to E.T. and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind at its press conference and buzz for Michael Shannon’s lead turn. Warner Bros releases the sci-fi/family saga hybrid on March 18.

Alex Gibney’s documentary, Zero Days, has found supporters. A look at cyber weapons purportedly used by the U.S. government to avoid military conflict with Iran, it sent chills through the press corp here and did well with critics. Magnolia and Showtime acquired it domestically just ahead of its Berlin debut.

There’s also love for German drama 24 Weeks; Oscar-winner Danis Tanovic’s Death In Sarajevo; and Lav Diaz’ A Lullaby To The Sorrowful Mystery, despite an eight-hour running time that came with a lunch break.

Some of the higher-profile entries here, Emma Thompson-starrer Alone In Berlin, Michael Grandage’s Genius and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune, have had mixed reactions. But juries, of course, are fickle. And, sequestered from reviews. Streep even instructed her panel members not to read any information about the films which was provided in their hotel rooms upon arrival. The awards ceremony is tomorrow from 7PM local time.

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