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Here's Some of the Best Stuff I Saw at This Year's Berlinale

Including Pablo Larraín's El Club, Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth and Sebastian Silva's Nasty Baby.

by Ross McDonnell
17 February 2015, 6:20am

Still from Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence

For ten near-zero-degree days this February, the 65th Berlin International Film Festival opened the city's countless scattered kinos up to the public. Jafar Panahi's clever collapsed-allegory Taxi took the Golden Bear prize at last night's closing event, and was an exception to a bleak, mean slate of films elsewhere in the festival. Still, harrowing can be good. Sort of. Here's some of the best films out of the somewhat depressing bunch that I saw.

NASTY BABY

The burst of hooting and hollering from the audience as the end credits of Nasty Baby rolled made it quite clear that everyone in the cinema was affected by this film. Written and directed by Chilean filmmaker-cum-musician-cum-painter Sebastian Silva (Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, Magic Magic), it's a tense, tricky and frequently baffling black comedy.

The primary plot of the film unfolds in Brooklyn, New York, and follows performance artist Freddy (Silva) striving to conceive a baby with his boyfriend Mo (TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe) and his friend Polly (Kristen Wiig). Its script is dominated by semen jokes and syringes and is perfectly funny and fine until it's really, really not. The meandering, easy lives of the film's hipster trio (think dinner parties with friends gathered around the Netflix-fireplace, everyone drinking from jars) comes skidding to a stop in a calculated third-act tailspin .

Exhausting and frustrating and brilliant, Nasty Baby is that rare film that feels obligated to correspond only to its own insane logic, and like some kind of filmic equivalent to a fistfight, eventually delivers an unquestionable knockout – eliciting successfully shock, awe and animated rounds of applause from its agape audience.


QUEEN OF EARTH

Alex Ross Perry's psychological thriller Queen of Earth is another anxious, neurotic and superb film. Perry's last, Listen Up Philip –which topped some recent year-end lists and also starred Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss – foreshadowed Queen of Earth's similar brand of selfish solipsism; Jason Schwartzman's author and creative writing professor too busy projecting his own thoughts to the page to read and critique the work of his students. Here, Perry's retro aesthetic shifts from 70s New York and the overtures of early Woody Allen visible in Listen Up Philip, to that of a more glimmering European midnight-movie, with Roman Polanski's Repulsion a clear influence.

Queen of Earthcentres around characters Catherine (Moss) and Virginia (Inherent Vice's Katherine Waterston) as they leave New York City on an ill-fated excursion upstate. With a non-linear narrative that restlessly resets itself, this disorientating film shuffles between two consecutive summers and the alternating pitch-black depressive episodes (the type where, for example, one might sleep with a knife under their pillow) of our passive-aggressive, antagonistic BFFs.

The film is overwhelming and nauseating, its themes – exorcism, transference and possession – aided no doubt by Keegan DeWitt's menacing, eerie original score. Its scratching violins are complemented by disconcerting camerawork of claustrophobic chamber-play framing and tight close-ups. Expect egomaniacal monologues – lots of them.


THE LOOK OF SILENCE

Joshua Oppenheimer followed the perpetrators of the 1965/6 mass killings in Indonesia and had them recreate their crimes for his camera in 2012's The Act of Killing. Taking the same genocide as its subject matter, The Look of Silence acts as a companion piece and standalone film. It's not the confounding blinder that its predecessor was, but nonetheless is an important thickening of the plot, and drafts a dialogue that realises some obscured potential in The Act of Killing.

In The Look of Silence, authority over the story shifts from perpetrator Anwar Congo to the personal tragedy of victim Adi Rukun. Rather than looking at the return of the repressed, The Look of Silence explores the importance of perspective, spooky Lacanian gazes and the dynamic that exists between viewer and subject.

Oppenheimer's uncompromising, even stupefying film forgoes any irreverent winking-to-the-camera, recounting solemnly the harrowing stories of massacred, slaughtered "subversives" buried alive and beheaded. It'll leave you dumb, silent and unable to recoil from its grip. The perfect date movie.


EL CLUB

Pablo Larraín's drama of body and blood, El Club, bluntly and brutally begins with a quote from Genesis 1:4 – "God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness" – before revealing in the dim 98 minutes that ensue such a lofty claim as utter bullshit.

Larraín previously directed the historical drama No, a similarly political film that looked at Chile's Pinochet dictatorship in 1988, and the public referendum that challenged its rule. In El Club, he tackles the struggle to divvy out the good from bad in a country under the authority of the corrupt Catholic church.

Living remotely and comfortably in a house down by the water in Santiago, four ex-communicated and criminal priests are sentenced to a life of retirement. As penance for their transgressions (disgraced in the wake of clerical sex abuse scandals), the club are kept in line by a strict prison guard nun Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers) who forbids the group from any self-pleasure, self-flagellation and communication with the town's community. But community and piety are two Christian virtues nowhere to be found in this conniving, cunning club, who go to sadistic lengths to ensure their survival when their protection is threatened by a new arrival (Marcelo Alonso) on his own mission to shut them down.


45 YEARS

Breaking out with 2011's Weekend and the HBO show Looking, UK writer-director Andrew Haigh has, in 45 Years, graduated from bold portraits of amorous youth in flourish, to a more rigid, prismatic examination of a lifelong marriage in a moment of crisis.

Norfolk is overgrown and fog-filled, and the happy Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling – both co-stars awarded Silver Bear acting honours) are looking forward to their impending Saturday night, which also happens to be their 45th wedding anniversary. And then, unexpectedly – and rather improbably – the frozen body of Geoff's first love, Katya, is discovered in the Swiss mountains.

One might be tempted to reduce 45 Years to an unlikely Mike Leigh reimagining of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, but the off-screen Alpine subplot works well to magnify the film's otherwise clinical and too-vivid realism, and in turn, that realism's too-real sorrow. External humdrum domestic scenes contrast with the more quietly devastating internal advance of plot; Kate's who-loves-who metastasis of worry expressed tremendously by the shattering, sublimating Rampling. Sure to sting eyes everywhere on its wider release this Autumn.

More recent film stuff:

Talking to the Guys Behind the Vampire Mockumentary, 'What We Do in the Shadows'

Sifting for Gold in the Shit Heap That Is Rotterdam Film Festival

Jafar Panahi's Tehran Selfie: 'Taxi' Arrives at the Berlinale

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