With all the Oscar focus, it's a welcome relief to see a fresh crop of films at the Berlin Film Festival along with some of the American awards season standards like "The Iron Lady," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "In the Land of Blood and Honey," and "Young Adult." Thanks to Berlinale Director Dieter Kosslick and his band of programmers, the mammoth festival had a number of surprises, high and low, American, French, English, and Portuguese and beyond. Here are thumbnail sketches of some notable new films:
"Iron Sky" -- They had me at Nazi's in space! In this Finnish sci-fi spoof that recalls "Starship Troopers," or should we say "Starship Storm Troopers," a group of Nazi's (including perennial sourpuss villain Udo Kier) has been laying low on the dark side of the moon. But now, they're coming back and they're boot-stomping mad. With a Sarah Palinlike American president -- pre-empting Julianne Moore's upcoming cable TV Palin -- the English-language comedy has fun FX but doesn't quite keep the laughs up to match the wacky premise. Still, entertaining -- and full of Finnish foot-stamping, as in 'Why do we have to behave when the superpowers don't!' (Answer: Because they're Finns.)
"Tabu" -- The Portuguese movie from Miguel Gomes is bound to make the rounds of the festival circuit -- and land in a best-foreign-language film slot next February. An elliptical black-and-white story set in Portugal and Africa, it's both a sexy story of forbidden love and a reminder that we may never truly know our neighbors. With terrific performances and beautiful cinematography, what makes it stand out is its playfulness wedded to melancholy. To say it's my favorite film of 2012 may not hold much weight, but I liked it more than anything I saw in 2011, too.
"Farewell, My Queen" -- Another opulent vision of Marie Antoinette's last days (I'm one of the few staunch defenders of Sofia Coppola's version) has Diane Kruger ("Inglourious Basterds") as the doomed queen. Lea Seydoux carries the narrative weight as the loyal lady in waiting who serves as the whimsical queen's reader. Krueger stands out in a role that could be static and old-school BBC; she's trapped in her wigs and limited free will, even before the French Revolution puts her in its crosshairs. While this Marie doesn't say "let them eat cake," she does moon over her favorite female pet as if she were a sugary slice. Directed by Benoit Jacquot with a voyeur's eye, the girl-on-girl action is more swoony than explicit but raises the question: Is there any historical basis for the notion that Antoinette figuratively lost her head over girls?
"Caesar Must Die" ("Cesare deve morire") -- It was no surprise to those on the ground in Berlin that the Taviani brothers' Shakespeare-in-jail docudrama was a Golden Bear contender -- and then won that top honor. The themes of "Julius Caesar" gain new urgency when it's a bunch of real-life felons in an Italian prison playing the parts -- and contemplating justice, betrayal, and power within the walls of Rome. Et tu, you criminal brute.
"Francine" -- Oh, this is a hard one to watch, but contains another truly brave performance from Melissa Leo as a cat-and-dog lady who leaves prison but can't quite navigate the rules of human interaction on the outside. Enter husband-and-wife filmmaking team Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky for creating a tactile, sparse, almost dialog free drama that never sentimentalizes Francine's plight, while drawing her with incredible empathy and compassion. The couple are definitely among the festival finds.
Brief mention also to "Barbara," "Home for the Weekend," "A Royal Affair," and the documentary "Marley."
"Jayne Mansfield's Car" -- Billy Bob Thornton wrote and directed this tepid Southern-fried family saga set in Alabama circa 1969 when pot-smoking was on the rise along with anti-war sentiment. Based partially on his family history of military service, the movie features an excellent cast, including Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Shawnee Smith, and Frances O'Connor. The problem is that not a single moment is believable, nor are the emotional crescendos earned. Duvall can't seem to make his car-crash obsessed, emotionally shut-down patriarch have even a note of grace and -- spoiler alert -- having his iced tea spiked with LSD doesn't help! In a festival that included a film by Thornton and one by his ex, Angelina Jolie, this round goes to Jolie hands-down.