Berlin 2021: The 10 Most Exciting Films at This Year’s FestivalFebruary 26, 2021
These days, the only thing constant is change itself, and that extends to the wild world of film festivals. While the pandemic has forced some festivals to go entirely virtual, move dates or outright cancel, or line up ambitious hybrids, this year’s Berlinale is opting to do something totally new: a little bit of all of the above. While Berlin usually follows Sundance with a February festival, the pandemic has forced organizers to develop a brand-new festival format for 2021.
The 71st Berlin International Film Festival is set to take place care of two different events in the coming months: the “Industry Event” from March 1 to 5, which will include the European Film Market (EFM), the Berlinale Co-Production Market, the Berlinale Talents, and the World Cinema Fund in online forms, which will then be followed by the June-set “Summer Special” with numerous film presentations in Berlin, both at indoor and outdoor cinemas.
Included in the March event is the traditional film festival slate, which includes the main Berlinale Competition lineup as well as sidebar sections such as Berlinale Special & Berlinale Series, Encounters, Berlinale Shorts, Panorama, Forum & Forum Expanded, Generation, Perspektive Deutsches Kino, and Retrospective. You can check out the full lineup right here, with our ten most-anticipated picks available below.
David Ehrlich and Ryan Lattanzio also contributed to this article.
“A Cop Movie”
Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios broke out of the festival circuit in 2014 with the stylish, black-and-white “Güeros,” an inventive portrait of youth adrift in Mexico City. Next came Berlinale Silver Bear screenplay winner “Museo,” a veterinary heist movie starring Gael García Bernal.
Now, Ruizpalacios will turn inward to examine the institutions that make up Mexico City, specifically the police force, as the filmmaker asks two professional actors to immerse themselves in uniform, and on the field, in a unique twist on the “cop movie” genre. “A Cop Movie” is Ruizpalacios’s first feature since catapulting to the world of globe-spanning TV after directing episodes of “Vida” and “Narcos: Mexico,” and you can always count on him for a bracing point of view of Mexican life that’s also accessible to those outside it. —RL
“I’m Your Man”
“I’m Your Man”
German actress Maria Schrader is etching her name into the international directing scene since helming all four episodes of Netflix’s adored series “Unorthodox,” about a young Jewish woman fleeing Brooklyn for Berlin. Her work earned her a Primetime Emmy, but Schrader, an actor best known for the “Deutschland” series, has several prior directing credits, including the films “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” and “Love Life.”
Now, she’s primed for an even more ambitious canvas with the science-fiction entry “I’m Your Man,” starring Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens, and Sandra Hüller. Tickling both left- and right-brain sensibilities, the film centers on a Berlin scientist participating in a research experiment that pairs her with a humanoid AI designed to be her ideal life partner. What could go wrong? The man in the machine is Stevens, of course, whose arrival spins the tale into tragicomic directions. —RL
The next great wave in indie cinema must might be the “secret COVID movie,” but the sub-genre already has some big-time competition in Natalie Morales’ “Language Lessons,” which has already lined up berths at both Berlin and SXSW. The first-time feature filmmaker — she’s previously directed both shorts and TV episodes — pulls triple duty in the charming-sounding drama, starring in it and writing it alongside co-star (and producer Mark Duplass). It was Duplass who first conceived of the idea, telling Variety that he cooked up the idea after forming “an interesting rapport” with a Spanish teacher who began tutoring him in lockdown. Duplass’ spark of an idea — a “platonic love story” — delighted Morales, and the pair set about shaping a dramedy that’s informed by the pandemic, but not beholden to it.
While the pair are mum on the big details, the festival’s official synopsis hints at plenty of real emotion to come, explaining that it follows Duplass’ character Adam after his husband “surprises him with weekly Spanish lessons, [that] he’s unsure about where or how this new element will fit into his well-structured life. … When an unexpected tragedy turns his life upside down, Adam decides to carry on with the lessons and develops a complicated emotional bond with his Spanish teacher, Cariño.” Sign us up. —KE
“Mr. Bachmann and His Class”
Clocking in at nearly four hours, filmmaker Maria Speth (“Daughters”) has made a movie that might sound daunting on paper, but the project promises enough sophistication and fun to make the journey worthwhile. Blending the intricate documentary stylings of Frederick Wiseman with an educational figure straight out of “School of Rock,” the German director’s non-fiction saga unfolds in Stadtallendorf, a German city tainted by xenophobia.
It’s here that the defiant teacher Deiter Bachmann works to engage pre-teens who have immigrated there from a dozen different countries, using everything from music to classroom debate to enlighten them about the wonders of the world. A paean to the value of a committed education system, “Mr. Bachmann and His Class” is especially well-timed to engage its subject at one of the most perilous moments for school systems around the world. —EK
“Nebenan” (AKA “Next Door”)
Celebrated German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl is taking a risk with his directorial debut, which follows…well, a celebrated German-Spanish actor named Daniel. Still, early buzz for “Nebenan” posits that Brühl, a multi-faceted star who has appeared in everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to “Good Bye, Lenin!,” is ready to poke some serious fun (and maybe a few holes) in that sort of billing.
Per the festival’s official synopsis, the film is “tragicomic” and “based on an idea by the director and written by Daniel Kehlmann, [and] script combines razor-sharp dialogue with oddball bar-room banter.” As Daniel, Brühl interrupts his jet-setting lifestyle to pop into the local bar, only to find himself seated next to a (seeming) stranger who has been plotting this run-in for some time. What follows promises to be both a battle of wits and words, and perhaps something even darker. Either way, it sounds like a delicious dramedy, and perhaps the pronouncement of a thrilling next chapter for Brühl. —KE
How do you follow-up a Palme d’Or-worthy masterpiece that was instantly recognized as one of the best films of the 21st century and has since become a gif-able language unto itself for cinephiles the world over? If you’re “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” writer-director Céline Sciamma, you do it quickly, and without psyching yourself out. An intimate story that was shot during the pandemic (which, according to Berlinale Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian, provided Sciamma the time and space required to make “a personal story” before cashing in the blank check “Portrait” should earn her), “Petite Maman” would seem to harken back to the pint-sized perfection of “Tomboy,” as it concerns an eight-year-old girl who discovers a treehouse in the woods behind her late grandmother’s house — a treehouse that may or may not be unstuck in time.
Singed with Claire Mathon’s richly autumnal cinematography and richly autumnal cinematography from Claire Mathon and built around the aching memory of pasts both real and imagined, “Petite Maman” should find Sciamma returning to the coming-of-age genre with a master’s confidence and creating yet another indelible portrait of girlhood in motion. —DE
“The Scary of Sixty-First”
Dasha Nekrasova may be best known as co-host of the edgy “Red Scare” podcast, but that could very well change with this thriller set in the aftermath of Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide. Yes, really: The movie stars Besty Brown and Madeline Quinn as two apartment-hunting New Yorkers who inadvertently rent Epstein’s former Upper East Side lair. With time, a stranger shows up, as the pair fall into a conspiratorial plot that drives one of them to the point of insanity.
Inspired in part by “Eyes Wide Shut” and early Polanski thrillers, the movie promises an eerie descent into the sheer terror and disorientation of the modern disinformation age. Expect a provocative extension of Nekrasova’s public-facing sensibilities, with a movie that challenges mainstream media narratives as well as the impact they have on a chaotic moment when reality itself has become suspect. —EK
Tina Turner, “Tina”
While film fans might have to wait awhile to check out some of Berlin’s other offerings, no need to worry when it comes to Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s latest documentary, which tracks the highs and lows of Tina Turner’s remarkable career and hits HBO and HBO Max at the end of March. Drawing on a wealth of never-before-seen footage spanning 60 years, audio tapes, personal photos, and new interviews with Turner herself, “Tina” promises an intimate and fresh look at the notoriously private icon.
While bits and pieces of Turner’s life and career have been on display before, from her 1986 autobiography “I, Tina,” and the 1993 film “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” “Tina” represents the first authorized feature documentary on Turner. The documentary features interviews with Angela Bassett, Oprah Winfrey, journalist Kurt Loder, playwright Katori Hall (“P-Valley”), and Tina’s husband Erwin Bach, among others. —KE
“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”
Berlin’s competition section has a tendency to position newcomers alongside more established names. To that end, Georgian director Alexandre Koberidze’s second feature stands a good shot at becoming one of the discoveries of the section. Following his sleeper hit “Let the Summer Never Come Again,” Koberidze’s intriguing new romance offers a fresh twist on the “love at first sight” concept, with a would-be couple discovering that every day they wake up looking like different people, forcing them to undergo new challenges to find each other all over again. Think “Groundhog Day” by way of missed connections — a movie designed to interrogate the nature of intimate bonds and their potential to transcend precise physical characteristics.
The bizarro concept may be its selling point, but “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” is the kind of movie that needs a sophisticated blend of filmmaking trickery and calibrated performances to hold together. In a most unusual year for the Berlinale, here’s hoping a tale of companionship amid existential disorientation fits the zeitgeist as much as it sounds like it could. —EK
“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”
After emerging on the world stage with his epic “Happy Hour” and the 2018 Cannes headliner “Asako I & II,” Hamaguchi Ryūsuke is back with another Rohmerian and playfully structured tale of everyday women being refracted through the shimmers of modern life. Billed as a collection of “short films about coincidence and imagination,” “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is split into three lo-fi episodes that flow into each other and resonate together like a piece of music.
One chronicles a seduction gone wrong, another an uneven love triangle, while the third supposedly hinges on a sci-fi inflected chance encounter that finds a certain musicality in life’s strangeness. Promising to be as buoyant yet beguiling as the films that established Hamaguchi as a major talent (if perhaps a touch smaller), “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is poised to shine a ray of light into a dour Competition lineup, and will likely be making its way to the U.S. later this year considering the warm reception the director’s last two movies have received in the States. —DE
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