Berlin 2014: Our picks of the programme

The Berlin Film Festival has a reputation for exhibiting an eclectic mix of challenging and thought-provoking films that engage with sociopolitical ideas and promote independent cinema throughout the world. The highlights from this year's programme are suitably varied. From the festival's opening film, Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, to Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's poetic Nick Cave hybrid-doc 20,000 Days on Earth, there's certainly plenty to whet the appetite. One of the most highly anticipated films to screen this year has to be Richard Linklater's twelve-year-in-the-making Boyhood - an ambitious cinematic photo album of youthful adolescence that's gone down a storm since its Sundance premiere.

Other notable works from directorial luminaries includes George Clooney's The Monuments Men, Christophe Gans' reimagining of La Belle et la Bête (starring Vincent Cassel and Léa Seydoux), Diego Luna's Cesar Chavez and new work from a diverse selection of auteurs such as Rachid Bouchareb, Denis Côté, Errol Morris, Alain Resnais, Pierre Salvatore and Ira Sachs. There are also special uncut screenings of Bong Joon-ho's train-based sci-fi Snowpiercer and the first chapter of Lars von Trier's controversial Nymphomaniac (review here) - proving there's certainly something for everyone at this year's Berlinale.

Despite finding itself out of competition, Hossein Amini's directorial debut The Two Faces of January should still fall under the festival spotlight. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Dunst and Oscar Isaac (fresh from his lead turn in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis), Amini looks to have entangled the gripping prose of Patricia Highsmith's original novel (one of Hollywood's most fertile sources of inspiration) and the high calibre of acting talent he has at his disposable for this crime thriller. Another English-language highlight is A.J. Edward's The Better Angels, a laconic recital of Abraham Lincoln's childhood in the harsh rural climes of Indiana starring Wes Bentley, German Diane Kruger and Brit Marling.

John Michael McDonagh follows up 2011's The Guard with Calvary, with regular collaborator Brendan Gleeson cast as an Irish priest left to shepherd a flock of criminals. The film's rambunctious prose has already evoked praise from American critics, with this post-modern, pious twist on whodunit Clue promising a welcome dose of comedy in an international film festival renowned for its more sombre and troubling narratives. However, if things do start to feel a little too serious there's always Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch's directorial debut (and Scottish musical) God Help the Girl. Berlinale has long been a sanctuary for independent Chinese cinema; a place where controversial directors can come and have their work exhibited. This year's lineup sees an abundance of Chinese films on show - an eclectic mix of independent, state-funded and non-censored independent efforts. Suzhou River director Ye Lou's Tui Na, about a blind boy forced to perceive beauty and desire through sound and touch alone, is perhaps the most anticipated of the competition films.

Tui Na is joined in competition by Yinan Diao's Bai Ri Yan Huo and Hao Ning's Wu Ren Qu, making for an unprecedented high volume of Chinese films in the running for the festival's coveted Golden Bear top prize. From China also comes Shadow Days, a fictional tale about rural displacement and the one-child policy by Zhao Dayong, a pioneer of his nation's new independent documentary movement. It'll be interesting to see how Dayong's vérité approach to filmmaking will transfer to a fictional narrative, yet promises to be a nuanced, yet caustic swipe at China's new global identity. However, it's  Zhou Hao's Ye (The Night), the fictional debut of 21-year-old Zhou Hao, that could be the best received amongst critics.

Other global highlights include Corneliu Porumboiu's Al Doilea Joc (The Second Game) a film in which the director and his father narrate in real-time over a 1988 football game between Dinamo and Steaua Bucharest. Then there's Vietnam's Nuoc, an atmospheric dystopian sci-fi in which flooding has left society dependent on floating agrarian rafts for sustenance. However, the most exciting film lurking in the festival's sidebars has to be the latest from Stray Dogs director Tsai Ming-Liang, Xi You (Journey to the West). Xi You stars Denis Levant and continues the director's series of short films that expand Lee Kang-sheng's thirty-minute slow-walking performance at Taipei's National Theatre - although it's unclear as to whether Levant will portray the story's mischievous Monkey King. Regardless, it's certainly not one to be missed.

The 2014 Berlin Film Festival takes place from 6-16 February. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble


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