Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, both of which publish special daily issues at the major international festivals, may be the most famous movie trade magazines. But every morning at any of these festivals, including Berlin, most critics I know – and probably plenty of industry people, too – turn to the jury grid at the back of Screen, the festival print publication put out by ScreenDaily.com. Eight or so international critics — from Serbia to Germany to Brazil, and chosen by Screen's staff — rate each of the competition films as they see them, using a star rating of 1 to 4. A film also can receive the dreaded “X,” which means, according to Screen's scoring system key, just plain “Bad.” The star ratings for each movie are totaled up, and the average appears in the chart's far right column.
There's something retro-riffically awesome about reading movie news at breakfast from a publication you can hold in your hand — kind of makes you feel like an old-school studio mogul having a cigar and a Pepto-Bismol with your morning (old daily version) Variety. The Screen grid, in particular, is the quickest way to get a bead on which movies just might be the chief contenders for the top prizes. In the case of the Berlin Film Festival, those would be the Golden and Silver Bears.
This year, with the festival winding to a close on Saturday, the Screen grid is perhaps more essential than usual: That's because among the many critics with whom I've chatted in the past week, no one has a clear favorite, a movie that he or she simply loved — in other words, there are no obvious compass points pointing toward either of those shiny Bears. As I write this, this festival's final edition of Screen has been published, and 13 of the 20 competition films have received grades. Thus far the film with the highest average, a score of 3, is German director Dietrich Brüggemann's Stations of the Cross, about a young teenager growing up in a family of Catholic fanatics. It's a thoughtful and succinctly constructed picture, which some critics have compared to the work of Michael Haneke, though I think it's better than that: While stark, it's far from chilly — Brüggemann has a sense of humor about his subject matter. And unlike Haneke, he has clear sympathy for his characters. He doesn't just hold them up like petrified specimens gripped in a pair of tweezers, examples of the eternal coldness of the human heart, or whatever it is Haneke is so hung up on.
The Screen critics also have awarded high marks to '71, Yann Demange's drama about the conflict in Northern Ireland, which screened in the early days of the festival (and which, unfortunately, I missed), and to Wes Anderson's hyper–art directed sigh of nostalgia The Grand Budapest Hotel. But in addition to Brüggemann's film, I have a fondness for an even more modest picture, Praia do Futuro, from Berlin-based Brazilian director Karim Ainouz. Wagner Moura, whom American audiences might know best for his starring role in José Padilha's 2007 Elite Squad, plays a Brazilian lifeguard who falls for a German tourist (Clemens Schick), eventually giving up the sea for a life in landlocked Berlin, and for love. The picture has a slender plot, and there are implausibilities even within its minimalist framework. But Ainouz, with very little dialogue and straightforward but evocative visuals, captures what it means to separate yourself from a landscape you love and insert yourself into a new one, even when it's not a perfect fit.
Perhaps the week's biggest disappointment was Peruvian director Claudia Llosa's Aloft, starring Jennifer Connelly as a mother who can't muster up enough love, or at least enough empathy, for her young son (Zen McGrath) — he grows up to be Cillian Murphy, and by that time, the rift between mother and son has become even greater. The story is forced and pretentious, and Llosa relies far too much on tight, oblique close-ups. Yet the movie contains what may be the most beautiful image I've seen in my week at the festival.
Murphy's character breeds falcons, and at one point he coaches a friend and possible love interest, played by Melanie Laurent, in the basics of falconry. The two are traveling through a snowy landscape in the far North; Murphy sends his beloved bird into the sky and then, before calling it back, slips the all-important protective leather gauntlet onto Laurent's forearm. The bird returns, seemingly soaring straight into the camera, his wings spread wide and still — no noisy flapping here. Those wings are so powerful-looking and downy at once — the science of bird flight may be scientifically sound yet still seems impossible. The sequence is extraordinary, a small fraction of an otherwise forgettable picture, but a fraction I don't think I'll ever forget.
We all have films we love from start to finish, but what do we take away from the experience of watching movies, really? So often, there's greatness nested inside the inconsequential — a good reason to keep your eyes open at all times, because you never know what you might see.