Monday, April 22, 2024

The Best Of Berlinale’s Winners

After Sundance, the next important film festival is the Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale for short, held every February. Since 1951, this has become a major place for international releases, equal in stature to Cannes and Venice during the year. Among the films making their premiere are Seven Veils from director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), Spaceman starring Adam Sandler and Carey Mulligan, and Treasure starring Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry. It is almost forgotten because it is at the beginning of the year, but several films have carried on from Berlin towards the end of the year as a major awards player. Here are a few notable winners from the top prize, the Golden Bear.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Sidney Lumet’s debut film took home the top prize with his single room drama of a jury debating the fate of an accused killer and a single man (Henry Fonda) holding out on convicting him that easily. With Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, and Ed Begley, Lumet makes a hot day even hotter inside with a passionate discussion of presumption of innocence contained in a small room. It’s an actor’s film where everyone is on their A-Game and it is a pressure cooker which the young Lumet was able to make in the beginning of his illustrious career. 

The Ascent (1977)

The last film in the short career of Larisa Shepitko before her tragic death is an astonishing piece of work set in the harshest winter during the Second World War. It follows two Soviet partisans who are captured by Nazi collaborators and pressured to give them information, one who is willing to die keeping quiet and the other being more willing to talk. Nearly banned for its semi-religious undertones, The Ascent is about integrity and patriotism in the face of the enemy and in such a desolate state in war. 

Veronika Voss (1982)

Native director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was finally given his due at home with this story of a former German actress, once a star, and her new relationship with a journalist. When the journalist discovers that Veronika is under the influence of a doctor who gives her countless drugs to take all her money, the journalist tries to break Veronika from the doctor’s spell. It is the last of Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy with The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, and was the penultimate film of his career before Fassbinder’s sudden death that same year, age 38. 

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Oddly, the film was part of Berlinale 1999, so it won after its release in the United States. It worked out well since Terrence Malick’s comeback after twenty years was shut out from winning any Oscars and it is a much worthy win for this deeply philosophical story during the Battle of Guadalcanal. A major ensemble cast featuring Sean Penn, John Travolta, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, John C. Reily, and Woody Harrelson deal with the horrors of war, the beauty of nature they fight in, and whether personal glory is worth it, with Hans Zimmer’s mesmerizing score, John Toll’s lush cinematography, and Malick’s timely direction that makes Red Line a standout.  

Bloody Sunday / Spirited Away (2002)

Two films shared the Golden Bear that year, one introducing us to Paul Greengrass as a film director and one anointing the legendary career of Hayao Miyazaki. 

In Bloody Sunday, Greengrass gives us a docudrama about the tragic events of January 30, 1972, in Derry, Northern Ireland when British soldiers shot upon a protest crowd, killing 14 people. Using his background in making documentaries, Greengrass pieces together the moments leading up to the tragedy and its aftermath with an incredible force of power, now more than 50 years after the tragedy. 

With Spirited Away, it became Miyazaki’s magnum opus that led him to his Oscar victory for Best Animated Feature and made Miyazaki a truly international star. His fairy tale is a mix of Buddhism, the spirit world, and traditionalism versus modernism which catapults us to another level of imagination only he could have created. For an animated movie to get the top award at an international film festival, no less one of the big ones, is a testament to how great and beloved Spirited Away is. 

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