Best of Berlinale 2022

Our highlights from the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival included new features from heavyweights Claire Denis and Peter Strickland, and striking debuts from Emma Kawawada, Natalia López Gallardo and Colm Bairéad.

This past February, the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival found itself taking place right on the cusp of the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In a sobering time, the idea of celebrating films could feel odd to some. However, on February 24, four days after the festival ended, the Berlinale press office released a statement that put things into perspective.

“One week ago, the Berlin International Film Festival was celebrating a complicated yet successful edition. Filmmakers, artists and journalists from all over the world gathered in Berlin to enjoy a collective and joyful experience. The feeling of being together again, with no distinctions of nationality, religion or culture, transported us in a way that film festivals can accomplish,” the message began.

It was an appraisal of the ability of films—and festivals—to bring folks together from all across the globe, championing the importance of empathy and learning from the paths charted by others. The statement ended: “Films cannot change the society and the course of history, but they can help in changing the minds of people. Films are telling us that the world is already in a too-precarious condition to add even more suffering and destruction.”

This year’s Berlinale came at a complicated time, with some films feeling alarmingly prescient. But, in one way or another, heightened times make the best work even more resonant—and in many cases, as our correspondent Alicia Haddick writes on our Festiville HQ, point humanity in the right direction.

With the help, as always, of Letterboxd members in attendance (both online and—hooray!—in-person), our Berlinale team brings you, in no particular order, our ten best premieres from this year’s festival.

Words by Leo Koziol, Alicia Haddick and Gemma Gracewood.


Alcarràs

Directed by Carla Simón, written by Simón and Arnau Vilaró

This Catalan tale of a family farm under threat took home the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale, making it the first Catalan-language film to receive the award. Director Carla Simón made an impression previously at Berlinale with the well-received Summer 1993, Spain’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.

In Alcarràs, the children (a daughter and twin boy cousins) are at the heart of an epic family tragedy. The neighboring landowner moves in on the family’s orchards after it’s discovered that their grandfather’s land-lease handshake is only that. The future arrives to sweep away the past as bulldozers head for the peach trees to put in solar farms. Many louche family escapades ensue in a mix of pathos and dark humor. The elder child keeps taking figs and dead rabbits to appease the neighbor, alas to no avail as the land dries up in the baking sun.

“Carla Simón delivers another impressive directing work by extracting the best out of the whole family, which is central for the film,” writes Fred in the Movies, while Robert talks of the film’s quiet journey and its political relevance: “Plenty of small stories that work towards an ending that will leave you in shreds. Throughout Europe farmers have protested about the pains of the rapid adaptation required of them in the face of climate change. Alcarràs makes their plea tangible.” LK

Before, Now & Then (Nana)

Directed by Kamila Andini, written by Andini and Ahda Imran

Fans of Yuni (the third-highest-rated film of 2021 by Letterboxd members!) won’t have to wait too long for the follow-up from writer-director Kamila Andini, one of the most exciting directors working in South East Asia today. Co-written by Ahda Imran, Before, Now & Then is a slow rumination on a life devastated by the turbulent post-independence years of Indonesia in the 1960s. It’s a time when political turmoil and the uncertainty of this new world has not only cost current relationships, but resulted in the loss of many people to whom our protagonist Nana (Happy Salma) cared for. Far from recapping the trauma of this era, the film is a reconciliation of and coming-to-terms with this collective pain on a personal level.

Before, Now & Then is a very introspective film for both the character and the director (ending with the tribute: ‘For our ancestors and mothers in the land of Sunda’), and it’s one that really stuck with many viewers. It received more than a few comparisons to Wong Kar-Wai’s work due to its pace and the way it frames the environment around its characters, as pointed out by Ekagany (“an explicit tribute from a very promising director”) and Thomas (“In the Mood for Arranged Marriage”).

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have something to offer of its own. “The scenes are shot with so much passion and an eye for the details, the story feels right and the feelings are honest,” observed Aleceiffel22. AH

The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin)

Written and directed by Colm Bairéad

“A love letter to the Irish language,” writes Nils of writer-director Colm Bairéad’s debut feature, The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin), his attentive, loving adaptation of Claire Keegan’s short story, which was an all-around favorite for our Berlinale crew. Despite being the Native language of the Irish Republic, Gaeilge is the first language for only a small percentage of Irish folk, rarely heard as more than a line or two in Irish cinema. Bairéad, who was raised speaking both Irish and English and is raising his own children bilingually, is one of a new generation of filmmakers working to fold the language beautifully into his work.

The Quiet Girl follows Cáit, the dreamy, wandering child in a poverty-stricken, emotionally withdrawn family that has yet another baby on the way, which makes her the obvious one to foster out for a spell. Played by the wonderful Catherine Clinch, “Cáit is an intriguing, intelligent kid who chooses not to speak when nothing is needed to be said,” writes Jor. At her foster family’s rural home, Cáit discovers more than just nutritional sustenance; there’s the sustenance of affection, space, self-worth, and her language, readily spoken.

In spite of an odd decision to screen the film with a German dub, Berlinale audiences adored it. “My absolute highlight of the 72nd Berlinale,” writes Benny (auf Deutsch). “It is wonderful to see how loving care can transform Cáit.” Many reviewers defy you to get through it without a handkerchief (at its recent Glasgow Film Festival premiere, one man was heard to ask ”is everyone crying?!” as the credits rolled). The Quiet Girl picked up the Grand Prix for Best Film from Berlinale’s Generation Kplus jury, and is up for ten Irish Film and Television Awards on 12 March. Tuillte go maith! GG

Fire (Avec amour et acharnement)

Directed by Claire Denis, written by Denis and Christine Angot

Off the heels of her existential sci-fi High Life, Claire Denis returns to a more grounded drama with Fire (at Berlinale as Both Sides of the Blade), aiming to capture the breakdown of a relationship not too dissimilar to the seemingly endless collapse of the status quo in our modern reality.

Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon (fresh from his memorable father-figure turn in Titane), as long-time lovers Sara and Jean, so eloquently establish a seemingly unbreakable love in just a single opening scene, gracefully swept into each other’s arms in the idyllic seaside waters of southern France. It’s only when they return home to the everyday reality of isolated work—and masking up to prevent Covid on a trip to the shops—that their decade-long romance comes into doubt. The return of Sara’s former partner François (Grégoire Colin) complicates matters and sees their love triangle spiral out of control.

Fire established itself as a firm favorite of many attendees at this year’s Berlinale. Marc compared the tension of the relationship drama to being something “like a psychothriller”, with JonasUnofficial proudly proclaiming the film to be “French cinema at its best”, heralding that “it’s so impressive how Claire Denis conveys feelings and atmospheres”. There were downsides to the film for some, such as luke_sne, who noted “this ranks below Titane as it doesn’t have enough ass shots of Vincent Lindon”. A valid objection to an otherwise-superb film. AH

Flux Gourmet

Written and directed by Peter Strickland

Flux Gourmet takes you into a bizarre world where high art comes in the form of a techno-smoothie, flatulence is the bane of one reporter’s existence, and you never know when the menace of a jealous culinary concerto will throw a rogue dessert through your window. It’s as surreal as it sounds, yet it’s also surprisingly considered in its satirical approach to the art world and how we treat bodily disorders. I raise a toast to the film’s creativity.

‘Sonic cooking’—the art of making avant-garde music and performance art from the sound of blenders and cooking utensils—is one thing. For this to be inspired by the real-life experiences of its writer-director is perhaps even stranger. Or maybe that’s something we should expect from Peter Strickland. “It’s an all-you-can-eat menu allowing you to dive deep into the greater subconscious of collective dynamics and individual mindsets,” proclaims Shookone. For a film with so much going on, including tributes to creators like Argento and others, it’s also refreshingly hilarious. As Sean Erickson concurs, “Every joke and every gesture felt so damn perfect.” AH

Stay Awake

Written and directed by Jamie Sisley

Programmed in the Generation 14plus section of Berlinale, where it received a Jury special mention, Stay Awake takes an unflinching look at the lives of two teenage brothers who have to grow up quickly as they care for their prescription opioid-addicted mother. The film takes a sensitive, nuanced journey with the brothers who have dreams of their own (acting and university life), but all hope seems dashed as they are stuck in the stasis of caring for their mom. Plaudits are necessary for an outstanding supporting performance by This Is Us star Chrissy Meitz.

Josh praises the “trio of phenomenal key performances” at the heart of the film, while our own Alicia Haddick calls it “heartbreaking and powerful,” applauding its refreshing approach to the subject matter as such: “​​Often stories of addiction place the person tackling addiction as a pitiful figure, someone not in charge of their own story... But the mother here shows genuine love and compassion, and at moments where they’re not under the influence, cares for their kids.” LK

My Small Land (マイスモールランド)

Written and directed by Emma Kawawada

Drive My Car has swept the world with its devastating, powerful adaptation of a Haruki Murakami story about grief. With this renewed focus on Japanese cinema, it’s worth noting how many Japanese films, including the most critically acclaimed, center on personal plight and struggle, rather than looking at systemic issues or the country’s problematic political underbelly. What makes My Small Land, the feature debut of Emma Kawawada, so unique and devastating is a rejection of this typical approach. She crafts a story about the Japanese refugee system with debut and non-professional actors who are rarely encountered within the sphere of Japanese cinema.

The reality is that Japan takes in some of the lowest numbers of refugees in the world, accepting just 47 out of almost 4,000 applications for asylum in 2020. My Small Land uses accounts taken from interviews with named and unnamed Kurdish refugees in Japan for a tale centered on a Kurdish family seeking asylum in the country. For this family, the wait for news on their application has been so long that Japan is undeniably their home: Sarya (Lina Arashi) is seventeen years old and seeking to apply to Japanese universities after spending most of her life in Japanese schooling, with her younger sister having never seen her home in Iraq or knowing any Kurdish. The news of an asylum rejection—preventing them from work and putting them at risk of deportation—is a devastating reality check.

It’s a film that lingers long after the credits roll. As Fly eloquently surmises, “My Small Land … overwhelmingly captures human displacement.” It’s a triumph to see a film so empathetic yet considered from a debut director, and one that feels so rare within the country’s national cinema. AH

The Passengers of the Night (Les passagers de la nuit)

Directed by Mikhaël Hers, written by Hers, Mariette Désert and Maud Ameline

A movie defined as a series of emotions that wash over the viewer like waves, The Passengers of the Night is a dreamy exploration of Paris in the tumultuous 1980s, as a small family faces the crossroads of the future. After her husband leaves her, Élisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is facing the need to work for the first time in many years in order to support their two children. With everything about her old life now in flux, a job at a radio station gives her an opportunity to reassess, and she extends this second chance out to the houseless Talulah (Noée Abita) as the entire family and this stranger find their footing in a changing world.

There’s a nostalgic yet contemporary tone to the film thanks to the calm and soothing look at the everyday problems of life interspersed with archival and 8mm footage of the political events dominating 1980s France. It grounds the film in a sense of place, while never distracting from the emotional core of this family and the almost-ethereal presence of Talulah as a person with a reciprocal effect on them.

Simon heralded The Passengers of the Night as a “heartwarming and soulful family portrait”, with particular praise for the music and editing, while Levslivnik writes “this felt like a hug, a memory of days gone past”. AH

Rimini

Directed by Ulrich Seidl, written by Seidl and Veronika Franz

Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy notoriously held nothing back in showing love’s physical interactions in all its permutations. He does so once again with this tale of middle-aged former pop star “Richie Bravo” (Michael Thomas) chasing after faded fame in wintry Rimini. Bravo has made his name in the sugary sentimental schlager music genre (the soundtrack includes numerous covers of genre-master Udo Jürgens as well as a sparkling appearance of ‘Theme from Winnetou’).

The first act of Rimini follows our pop stallion stumbling around drunk, singing half-hearted gigs to older lady fans who pay for time and “company”. In act two, a long-lost daughter arrives. The plot twists and turns, with Syrian refugees huddling frozen on Italian streets overshadowing the story throughout, but somehow it all makes sense by the end.

Numerous reviewers have compared Rimini to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Shookone writes that it is pretty much a remake of the film “carefully dosed with spicy Seidl sauce and Austrian Kaiserschmarrn. The fabulous Michael Thomas even has the same presence, looks and gazes like Mickey Rourke.” Zombaid puts it well: “The deepest abysses of human existence, that is the place where Ulrich Seidl is at home, and I’m sitting right next to him, gasping and aweing about the fascinating mannerisms of human beings at the edge of society.” LK

Robe of Gems (Manto de gemas)

Written and directed by Natalia López Gallardo

The piercing, meditative Robe of Gems earned its writer-director Natalia López Gallardo the Silver Bear Jury prize at Berlinale, a lofty achievement for her feature debut. The film follows four Mexican women as they fall down a deep, deep well of despair looking for those lost in the drug war. Robe of Gems’ stunning cinematography (“delivers one of the strongest shots this year,” says Aleceiffel 22) and a gripping, slow-cinema feel earned comparisons to the work of López’s husband, Carlos Reygadas, whose films López edited.

Clemens praised the way the director “traces, entirely poetically and impressively, the voids left by the many missing people and deaths in Mexico’s rural area, dominated by violence and drug trafficking. Cryptic in its narrative style, it gradually reveals a poignant panorama of a society burning.” Jared cautions that Robe of Gems “isn’t an easy film. Its harrowing content is devoid of optimism and its pacing ensures we wallow in the resulting suffering even if very little of it is actually shown on-screen.” LK


Honorable Mention

Klondike (Клондайк)

Written and directed by Maryna Er Gorbach

While our top ten were all Berlinale premieres, attention is merited for Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike, which we missed during its debut at the Sundance Film Festival where it earned the Best Director World Cinema Dramatic Competition prize.

The Ukranian film is set on the day of the 2014 crash of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 that was shot down over Ukraine, in which a family fights over the Ukraine-Russia conflict and a heavily pregnant mother just deals. Amidst the plane wreckage, Russian soldiers show up and farm animals are slaughtered to feed the troops. Piercing and horrifically dark, real horror in our world outscares any fiction.

Brendon best sums up the story and tone: “When an explosion rips through their home and forces them into survivalist mode, the walls both literally and figuratively begin to close in, inch by inch, until their options for escape fade into the ideological and murderous pall of the abyss.” Matt writes: “The cinematography is the crowning jewel of the film, though I couldn’t help but also be mesmerized by Oksana Cherkashyna’s performance. Such a dominating presence in a chaotic world… A tough watch but one that was more than worth it,” while Katie gives attention to the “most viscerally intense ending to a film I’ve seen maybe ever. Bleakly beautiful, as you might expect.” LK

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