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For all of its well-documented troubles, the Berlin International Film Festival is still a veritable smorgasbord for adventurous distributors who might be willing to take a chance on some exciting arthouse cinema. Most of the approximately 400 movies that play at the massive annual showcase will never see the light of day in the United States, either in theaters or even on streaming platforms, but the ones that are scooped up for domestic release tend to make an outsized impact once they land on these shores. Two of the current nominees for Best Foreign Language Film premiered at last year’s Berlinale (“On Body and Soul” and “A Fantastic Woman”), while other standouts from the 2017 edition like “Félicité” and “The Other Side of Hope” eventually became highlights of the fall movie season.
As always, the 2018 festival was completely overwhelming, and offered a handful of buried treasure that American audiences deserve to see. And, as usual, those films went home without key distribution deals in place. Here are the seven films that should be at the top of buyers’ lists as they sift back through the Berlinale and look for the ample business opportunities that it leaves on the table.
“3 Days in Quiberon”
One year before she died at the age of 43, Austrian actress Romy Schneider — who spent much of her adult life torn between her very different fanbases in Germany and France — made herself available to an extensive interview while detoxing at a spa hotel in the seaside French commune of Quiberon. She spent the time drinking, pretending she wasn’t drinking, engaging in a tense conversation with a German journalist, and flirting with a photographer who she once knew rather intimately. Emily Atef’s gently mesmeric biopic revisits that long weekend, rendering it as a sumptuous, black-and-white drama about the craggy nature of celebrity and the self-doubt that goes along with it. Featuring a transportive lead performance by lookalike Marie Bäumer, a memorable cameo from the great Denis Lavant (he dances!), and cinematography that’s as striking as the photographs that first inspired the film, “3 Days in Quiberon” is a frequently engrossing time capsule that doesn’t require any sort of Schneider fandom to enjoy. —DE
Sales Contact: Beta Cinema
After more than 150 years of waiting, we finally have a bonafide Western set during the Irish Potato Famine. Trading Monument Valley for miles of pestilent farmland, and six-shooters for jerry-rigged muskets that can only fire one bullet at a time, director Lance Daly has reached back into one of the darkest chapters of his country’s history and found it to be a ripe setting for an impressively grim oater (or “spud?”) about the cost of pyrrhic victories and the virtues of running away from unwinnable fights. It’s 1847 and Ireland is starving to death, so when Martin Feeney (a blank and bearded James Frecheville) comes back after deserting the fight in Afghanistan, he isn’t in store for much of a homecoming: His parents are dead, his brother was hanged, and his sister-in-law is living in squalor with her kids. His first thought is to take them all to America, but that plan goes up in smoke when English constables murder the lot of them. From there, we’re treated to a bleak revenge saga that’s punctuated with short blasts of brilliantly staged action, and rich supporting roles from Jim Broadbent, Barry Keoghan, and — best of all — Hugo Weaving as the man tasked with bringing Feeney down. While the musket blasting deserves to be seen on the big screen, it’s easy to imagine “Black 47” becoming a very solid VOD hit. —DE
Sales Contact: Altitude Films
“Daughter of Mine”
Set on the island of Sardinia with an artful intimacy that feels both posed and naturalistic in equal measure, Laura Bispuri’s “Daughter of Mine” is gripping from the very first scene. This elemental maternity drama tells the story of a well-composed woman (Valeria Golino), her pre-teen daughter (Sara Casu), and the little girl’s disastrous birth mother (a feral, phenomenal Alba Rohrwacher), who’s just starting to realize the value of the relationship she forfeited all those years ago. Shot by gifted cinematographer Vladan Radovic, the film vividly conflates these characters with their terrain, infusing the handheld reactiveness of a Dardenne brothers’ movie with the windswept gusto of the Italian New Wave. The result is a strange and sensitive love triangle, one that leverages its palpable sense of place in order to tell a broadly universal story that should resonate for parents all over the world. A well-established distributor with experience catering to older audiences could do quite well with something that so elegantly marries an engaging scenario to a traditional arthouse vibe. —DE
Sales Contact: The Match Factory
“Notes on an Appearance”
Berlin’s Forum section is often an ideal place for discoveries, including a lot of experimental narratives that make up for their lack of commerciality with genuine creative risk. “Notes on an Appearance” is one such example. Ricky D’Ambrose’s second feature runs a concise 60 minutes and never wastes a frame, exploring the measured story of a cultured young New Yorker named David who promptly vanishes, leaving a series of fragmentary details in his wake. His pals (including perennial indie face Keith Poulson) search for him across the city, while riding the wave of their ephemeral lives in coffee shops and high-minded literary events. D’Ambrose imports the precision of Robert Bresson into an acerbic, cosmopolitan milieu, resulting in a fascinating little movie about people trapped by the details of everyday life and searching for a bigger picture that constantly eludes them. Its brief running time might make it a tough commercial sell, but paired with some of the director’s shorts, it could muster a solid response in limited release (especially after it plays at New York’s New Directors/New Films showcase in March). —EK
Sales Contact: Partisan Films
The best and most harrowing addition to the quickly growing sub-genre of movies that take place entirely within the space of a computer screen, Timur Bekmambetov’s “Profile” brings a new and much-needed dimension to its conceit by using it in the service of a semi-realistic story. That’s uncharted territory for a type of filmmaking which — like so many cinematic innovations before it — was born out of shlock. “Profile” is different. Very loosely based on a true story about a French journalist who essentially catfished an ISIS recruiter for a story, Bekmambetov’s latest is never going to be confused for a documentary, but there’s nevertheless a gripping verisimilitude to watching desperate freelancer Amy (Valene Kane) flirt with and develop feelings for a Syrian jihadist (Shazad Latif) via Skype.
As broad as it is unnerving, “Profile” has every chance of connecting at the multiplexes, but it’s also one of the only films that will be a categorically superior (and taxonomically different) experience when watched on a computer monitor rather than a movie screen. Seen in theaters, “Profile” simply indicates something we all know to be true; watched on a laptop, and it inspires you to instinctively click on Amy’s Skype windows, as though the movie is being shared on your screen in real-time. That’s a terrifyingly immediate sensation, and one that points to a new kind of interactive storytelling in which a guy like Bekmambetov might be able to physically meld with audiences in a way that the worst of his previous work (“Wanted,” “Ben-Hur”) has always wished that it could. In other words, this could potentially be the rare Netflix acquisition where everyone wins. —DE
Sales Contact: Endeavor Content
“Searching for Oscar”
An inscrutable film that unfolds like a remake of “Casablanca” as written by Franz Kafka and set in 2018, Christian Petzold’s follow-up to “Phoenix” tells a story that’s unstuck in time. Boldly adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel of the same name, “Transit” takes an existential romance about a man (Franz Rogowski) who’s trying escape from Nazi-occupied Europe via Marseille, and transplants it into the present day — sort of. While the film was clearly shot on the streets of modern France (the roads hum with electric cars, and the cinematography isn’t aged in any way), digital technology is also nonexistent, and the bureaucracy our hero encounters is decidedly old-fashioned. As our desperate hero assumes the identity of a dead writer and begins an oblique flirtation with the late author’s wife (Paula Beer), Petzold’s beguiling new feature loses itself somewhere between reality and allegory, blurring the two together in order to create something that belongs to both and neither. The result is a strangely compelling whatsit that reflects on the current refugee crisis while also tracing the specter of fascism across the centuries — never extinguished, always waiting to exhale. While “Transit” is too aloof to match the kind of money that “Phoenix” earned at the U.S. box office, this urgent and slyly brilliant conversation-starter deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. —DE
Sales Contact: The Match Factory
An almost unbearably harrowing recreation of the 2011 massacre on Norway’s Utøya island, Erik Poppe’s “U-July 22” is a fraught proposition for any American distributor: Does a film like this trivialize the atrocities of gun violence, or does it help to re-sensitize viewers to a tragedy so common that the country typically grows numb to it after a few weeks? It’s a question worth offering to the public, and one that Poppe’s real-time recreation frames in the most tense of terms.
Shot entirely in a single long-take and possessed by a you-are-there verisimilitude that’s capable of reincarnating a grim tragedy as a gripping entertainment, it’s hard to judge if this film is appropriating genre tropes for cheap thrills, or using them to more viscerally communicate the terror of that day. And yet, 21st century massacres like these have been gripped by a sickeningly cinematic sensibility that might render the distinction irrelevant. Regardless, stretching the massacre into one linear strip of time allows a lizard brain level of appreciation for how quickly the world can be turned upside down; how much trauma can be packed into just 72 minutes. There may be no right way to depict an atrocity — it’s possible there are only an infinite number of wrong ones — but it’s worth exploring if this one might help close the gap between the unimaginable and its victims. —DE
Sales Contact: Trust Nordisk