Best of Berlinale 2021

Céline Sciamma does it again, a demented, anthropological A-to-Z of Romanian pornography takes the Golden Bear, and Indigenous sci-fi breaks new ground as Letterboxd’s Festiville team awards its Berlinale bouquets for 2021.

This year, the 71st Berlin International Film Festival has been split in two. In early March, the festival’s traditional calendar spot, a press and industry program was held, while this coming June, the festival will hold a Berlinale Summer Special. That’s when wider film lovers will be able to see the majority of the selected films—with, fingers crossed, the filmmakers present.

Our Festiville correspondents Ella Kemp, Kambole Campbell, Leo Koziol and Gemma Gracewood attended the first instalment of the Berlinale virtually. Comparing their notes against our member ratings for the festival program, we’ve rounded up the eleven best films they saw for adding to your watchlists.

Petite maman

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

In Petite maman, Céline Sciamma delivers a gem of a film led by tiny queens Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, in which we hold the hands of the women we love and process grief with a playful song in our hearts. It’s intimate, tender and literally magic. Also, as Kambole points out, it plays in the same forest as great Japanese filmmakers Miyazaki, Yonebayashi and Hosoda. NEON has picked up Petite maman; expect more top work along the same lines as for its release of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. And, expect more people to be able to watch it; as Sarah Williams, instigator of the #PortraitNation fanbase, writes of Sciamma’s “radical act of kindness”, Petite maman is “able to remain personal while feeling protective, taking care of an audience so she can make a film about children that children can watch now, a film as a labor of love that feels like more of a hug then trauma therapy these days.” EK

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Babardeala cu bucluc sau porno balamuc)

Written and directed by Radu Jude

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn starts with the leak of a graphic sex tape involving a respected history teacher, and winds its way to the trial of that school teacher by the school’s PTA, via “a mosaic of different episodes,” writes Mikkel, “that attempt to deconstruct the history of Romania, political issues, the story of the penis and the cunt (seriously), the corona pandemic and basically everything you ever thought about or wanted to know.” Aferim! director Radu Jude delivers an unconventional, unhinged satire that snapped up the Golden Bear for Best Film for its genre-spanning bonkersness and demented A-to-Z of anthropology and pornography. It’s a lot to take in. It’s also, writes Sean, “one of the first great Covid movies.” Mask! KC

Language Lessons

Written by Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales, directed by Natalie Morales

Grief, trauma, patience and a Covid-set story that manages to avoid the pandemic itself. “Natalie Morales’s directorial debut Language Lessons, written with co-star Mark Duplass, ironically left me speechless by its conclusion,” writes Jordan King. “Platonic love in cinema is so often neglected, but in ‘these times’, to watch Duplass’s widower Adam and Spanish teacher Cariño (Morales) find solace and some joy in one another over a series of Zoom calls is nothing short of soul-soothing.” Morales utterly impresses with her smart, screen-set directorial debut, and Duplass is a raw and vulnerable match for her firecracker performance. EK

The Last Forest (A Última Floresta)

Directed by Luiz Bolognesi

In The Last Forest, the plight of the Yanomami is told in the best way possible—their own voice. Brazilian anthropologist and filmmaker Luiz Bolognesi continues his exploration of the Indigenous communities along the Amazon (his 2018 film Ex-Shaman focused on the Paiter Suruí), this time meeting the people who have long lived in the area that has become the Brazilian-Venezuelan border. The observational documentary plays with convention as villagers tell stories, forage, hunt, hold shaman rituals and lament the threat to their forest from the white man’s lust for gold and things. “É o cinema que se adequa ao real, e não o contrário” [Cinema adapts to the reality, not the other way around]”, writes Bruno. LK

I’m Your Man

Directed by Maria Schrader, written by Schrader and Jan Schomberg

I’m Your Man is the latest iteration of the ‘robot-learns-humanity’ tale, and a good one at that. “I am normally a bit undecided when it comes to robot comedies,” writes Nabeel, “but this is by far the best film I have seen from that genre (I don’t even know what to call it).” While the film’s visual language doesn’t always light the brain on fire, it occasionally assists in its mocking of romantic sincerity, sometimes replicating the dreamlike haziness of archaic love-ballad music videos. Even if the camerawork doesn’t always excite, it’s anchored by fantastic performances: Stevens is simply extremely funny and even heartbreaking to watch—a perfectly uncanny mixture of exaggerated self-indulgence and utter obedience/earnestness, in something of the same mode as in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. KC

Introduction (인트로덕션)

Written and directed by Hong Sang-soo

“I’m fascinated by how Hong is still stripping down his cinema to its very flesh and bones,” writes Ayeen of Hong Sang-soo’s Introduction, which is infused “with the simplest joys of being”. The Hong template remains unspoiled (as ever, expect family arguments over glasses of soju), more small-scale and sparse than his last. Oblique, elliptical observations of characters in limbo, but no less personable for it. Sergei’s three-word review sums it up nicely: “Minor but major.” KC

Night Raiders

Written and directed by Danis Goulet

Out of Toronto and its annual imagineNATIVE Indigenous festival scene (the “Native TIFF”), deep connections have been made between Indigenous creatives from around the world. This is no better illustrated than in Night Raiders, a groundbreaking Indigenous sci-fi from Cree filmmaker Danis Goulet that delivers as a genre flick with an original take mirroring Canada’s stolen-children history. It’s clearly targeted at YA fans, who will lap this up; as Kathia writes, “this movie really made me miss all those dystopian worlds I read when I was a teenager. I love the fact that an Indigenous woman leads the story.” Though the dystopian scenario feels underdeveloped and the enemy state remains (purposefully?) faceless, this still kind of works in a Kafka-esque manner, reflecting a history of anonymous bureaucracy in the vastness of cold Canada. With Taika Waititi attached as EP, audience interest will be piqued. LK


Directed by Monika Treut

Monika Treut made the vibrant and groundbreaking documentary Gendernauts: A Journey Through Shifting Identities in the late 1990s, profiling pioneer trans queer activists, and sex-positivity advocate Annie Sprinkle in a San Francisco that Sprinkle called “the clitoris of America”. With Genderation she revisits the city and people some twenty years later, finding the sheen on its “queer Mecca” status fading, the tech boom erasing any sense of affordability and space for art and experimentation. The city, however, remains a strong center for a surviving community; the world has changed, their brave first steps made it so, and their concerns are now mortgages and mortality. While the revisit, according to Daniel, “does nothing radical” with the documentary form, it “becomes something quietly radical anyway… in its matter-of-factness about its (incredibly smart, interesting, well-spoken) subjects”. LK

Celts (Kelti)

Directed by Milica Tomović

“Even in times of war, you want to drink, chat and romance,” writes Marcin of Milica Tomović’s Celts. In the vein of The Ice Storm, Swinging Safari and other parents-gone-wild scenarios, a middle-aged mother’s malaise expands to a queer panoply as kids play Ninja Turtles while adults drink, flirt, and more, in a suburban 1990s Belgrade kitchen. Tomović is a veteran assistant director with a season of Serbian 30-something television drama Morning Changes Everything under her belt as a director. With this, her directorial feature debut (written with Tanja Sljivar), one plot turn fails the believability test but the rest is a fun, raunchy ride as Grandma watches telly downstairs. LK

Taste (Vị)

Written and directed by Bao Le

You’re in mesmeric, hypnotic ASMR heaven in Bao Le’s completely original, surreal tale of a Nigerian soccer player lost in Vietnam with four middle-aged women. A suckling pig and a swordfish each play major roles in Taste, though only one gets eaten. “There are traces of Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang, but Le is mostly faithful to himself,” writes Marko. “A wonderful, raw slow cinema, with precise, haptic cinematography and sound design,” agrees Bartek. It’s mundane life as mystical dance. LK


Directed by Yngvild Sve Flikke, written by Flikke with Johan Fasting and Inga H. Sætre

It’s not until you see a film that truly traverses the honest, tricky question of whether parenting is an inevitability that you realize how much nuance and frankness we’re missing from movies about this complex decision. Trust the Norwegians to pull it off in a warm and loopy treat of a story. When Rakel, portrayed incredibly well by Kristine Thorp, discovers she’s six months pregnant in Ninjababy, a cartoon version of her unborn child helps her navigate the impending birth and its immediate aftermath. Rakel’s dilemma and what she makes of her choices sing to your heart. “Smart about gender roles, pregnancy and casual sex, and also a stealthily sweet rom-com,” writes Orla. Also contains Dick Jesus, Kings of War figure painting, and a boyfriend who smells like butter. #BlazetheLord. (See also: Curtis Vowell’s Rose Matafeo-starring Baby Done for a slightly sillier, but no less affecting, take on the same quandary). GG

Follow the Festiville team on Letterboxd for coverage of SXSW Online 2021 and other upcoming festivals.


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