New Discoveries & Innovative Cinema at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival | FirstShowing.net

New Discoveries & Innovative Cinema at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

by Alex Billington
May 15, 2024

Another year, another Cannes Film Festival. The 77th Festival International du Film de Cannes has begun this week in the South of France in the lovely beach city of Cannes on the Mediterranean coast. We’re back again, along with thousands (and thousands) of film critics, journalists, cinephiles, industry members, filmmakers, students, and more. Cannes remains the BIGGEST film festival in the world, not only with the most prestigious line-up and the most attendees. It’s always an exciting time, just to be here in the midst of it all. In the weeks leading up to Cannes, it’s particularity challenging to gauge whether everyone is actually excited about coming back, or if there’s some other controversy or snag that will disrupt the festival… With its pandemic years now in the rear-view, Cannes is powering forward with another full-on, fireworks-filled two week celebration of the power of cinema. Artistic director Thierry Frémaux also stated during the announcement of the official selection that due to the strikes in Hollywood last year, there are not as many American films, but there are plenty of other new discoveries and surprises ready to shine on the big screen.

Every year when I return to Cannes (or Venice or Sundance) I always wonder, is it still possible to innovate anymore in cinema? With limitations on production, budgetary problems, changes in the industry, many major crises around the world, can cinema still remain relevant and reinvent what visual art can be? Yes, of course! Cannes is the place to be in May every year because they still have the power to program and screen some of the best films that really are innovative & exhilarating. Of course, they’re showing George Miller’s Furiosa and Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis, two new creations made by Cannes veterans already well known as masterminds of cinema. Yet here they are, returning again decades later to the Croisette, still challenging cinema as we know it with movies that are visually stunning and hard to pull off. It’s important to be in Cannes because it’s the right place to be to get a first look at all this fresh new cinema. Maybe that small film from India might be the most innovative creation? Maybe some other film from no one expected to matter will blow us all away? Better to be here now and find out before any of the marketing kicks in, to go in with an open mind and hope Cannes has brought some truly great filmmakers from around the world.

There’s an interesting quote in a very dour Cannes postmortem article published by Roger Ebert in 2010. He ends his wrap-up saying: “I’ve been to 35 festivals in Cannes. I’ll tell you the truth. I doubt if there will even be a Cannes Film Festival in another 35 years. If there is, it will have little to do with the kinds of films and audiences we grew up treasuring. More and more, I’m feeling it’s goodbye to all that.” Well, first things first, it’s 14 years later and Cannes is still going strong. However, he does bring up a good point – is Cannes moving in a good direction, are they still playing these kind of films that “we grew up treasuring”? Or have they drifted off course? Everyone seems to have a different answer. One thing is for sure – there’s absolutely way too much French control over Cannes these days, with the country’s films dominating the line-up but also everything else about how the festival runs (e.g. no Netflix films because of archaic, oppressive laws about films playing in cinemas in France). However, I do believe that Cannes does still make its mark by having first dibs on incredible movies and giving them a chance to reach audiences by showing them to the huge number of attendees these two weeks. I do hope they don’t drift too far off course in the next decade…

In terms of my most anticipated films at Cannes 2024, aside from Furiosa and Megalopolis, there’s a handful of others I cannot wait to watch. I have high hopes for the two big horror films in the competition line-up: David Cronenberg’s The Shrouds (teaser trailer here) and Coralie Fargeat’s The Substance. I’m always looking forward to animation in Cannes, including Claude Barras’s Sauvages, Yôko Kuno & Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Ghost Cat Anzu (teaser trailer here), Michel Hazanavicius’ The Most Precious of Cargoes, and Gints Zilbalodis’ Flow. As a big fan of her 2017 film I Am Not a Witch, I’m excited to watch Rungano Nyoni’s On Becoming a Guinea Fowl. I’ve also got a really good feeling about all of these films playing at the festival this year: Jacques Audiard’s Emilia Perez, Zhangke Jia’s Caught by the Tides, Ali Abbasi’s The Apprentice, Mohammad Rasoulof’s The Seed of the Sacred Fig, Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine as Light (teaser trailer here), Sean Baker’s Anora, and Paolo Sorrentino’s Parthenope (which was already picked up by A24). The rest we’ll have to wait and see and find out if they’re any good (or not).

I invite you to please follow along as I make my way from screening to screening at #Cannes2024, watching films from all kinds of different countries, catching up with friends and colleagues. And please make sure to follow updates, read reviews, and keep an eye on all of the film critics / journalists in Cannes this year. One thing I love about this festival is that it brings us all together! We fly in to be here at the same time. There’s different voices, different takes, different kinds of coverage, different reviews, always more to read, always more to consider. As strange as it is to say this out loud, I do love arguing about films here! Sometimes it’s fun to have a healthy debate, sometimes it’s fun to disagree about a new film, sometime it’s interesting to think about what someone else saw in a film, and how their interpretation is different (or similar). Festivals should always be about this kind of intriguing discussion, encouraging a vivacious discourse, where any/all voices can participate in the conversation about cinema. Thankfully the Cannes Film Festival is a beautiful place where conversations happen on every street, in bars, in restaurants, in apartments, and yes even in queues for the next screening. I’m ready to start watching, dedicating myself fully to two full weeks of films.

You can follow all of my Cannes 2024 coverage and reviews right here and on my Letterboxd with ratings and thoughts posted daily. I’m also still on Twitter @firstshowing. The festival begins on May 14th and runs until May 25th, and I’ll be watching as much as I can while the films are still playing on the screens in town.

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On the Philosophy of ‘Dune: Part Two’ – Power, Control, Fate & Love | FirstShowing.net

On the Philosophy of ‘Dune: Part Two’ – Power, Control, Fate & Love

by Alex Billington
March 14, 2024

“Consider what you are about to do, Paul Atreides…” Be wary of the path you are headed down, Muad’Dib… As with the two biggest movies of last year (Barbie & Oppenheimer), the biggest movie of 2024 so far is also an extremely dense, philosophically compelling, morally complex work of cinematic art. It’s exhilarating and fascinating to ponder its epic story of control over the planet Arrakis, and even more exciting realizing that audiences are eating this up. Even if the philosophical ideas may not land as deeply with each viewer, it’s proof that truly believing in moviegoers as smart people is actually the right path to take nowadays. Dune: Part Two is playing in theaters worldwide and after watching it three times at the cinema, I must dig into its philosophical side. The most obvious themes are power & control, along with fate & destiny. However, it also makes me wonder about a bigger quandary: what does it really take to overthrow an oppressor and is there actually a successful way to achieve peace & freedom for all? Or will it always lead to more oppression?

One important note before going on – I have not read Frank Herbert’s books. I am familiar with where the story goes and the general ideas within the books, however my thoughts in this article are based entirely on what we’re shown in Denis Villeneuve’s two movies. Dune: Part Two is adapted by Denis Villeneuve along with sci-fi screenwriter Jon Spaihts. I also agree with this point made in Clint Gage’s editorial on Dune: Part Two and the differences from the book published on IGN: “The bigger philosophical point about adaptations though is that they should be different… Villeneuve and Spaihts wrote the two parts of Dune with an eye on the past and future that would make the Kwisatz Haderach proud, by adapting the source material through space, time and a dose of spice.” Even if there are certain philosophical ideas brought up or explained in the books, my conversation is based purely on what Villeneuve and Spaihts have chosen to show on screen, and how Paul’s arc progresses over these two movies so far. Of course, I’m familiar with where it leads with Paul (it ain’t good) which reminds me to indicate that there will be full-on spoilers from here on out. Obviously.

Dune: Part Two continues a modern sci-fi trend where it asks a whole bunch of intriguing questions, brings up plenty of fascinating ideas and concerns for viewers to contemplate, while refusing to provide more clear or useful answers to these concerns, or an optimistic path to follow (in our real world or imaginations). It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that our planet is not in a good place right now – with wars and tumult and troubles on nearly every last continent. An epic sci-fi movie like this, while obviously based on books that were inspired by the oil-obsessed days of the 1950s & 60s, is commenting on our life as humans on Planet Earth and is telling a story that we can relate to as we fight for freedom and peace – just as Paul & Chani do in the first half of Part Two. However, as much as it might be a good story about Fremen fighting back on Arrakis, it turns into something else and becomes a cautionary tale. Unfortunately this means it is not a guide for how to achieve peace and equality. And many of the philosophical ideas in it are questions rather than answers. I can’t provide definitive answers either, but I am still enticed by the questions anyway.

The two main philosophical themes found within Dune: Part Two are: fate / destiny, your chosen path as an individual, how much control you have over it, and how much you just should succumb to and follow it. Along with power / control, the obsessive pursuit of it, the “calculus” of power (as referred to in a line of dialogue), and how chasing power can cause those pursuing it to lose all control or humility. The question of fate and fatalism is most prominent, a common theme in many, many sci-fi films. The Matrix is also about this exact same philosophical conundrum as well. Does Neo have free will – even if he decides to leave his predestined path behind? What does free will even mean? Can he exercise that free will? Is he destined to become “The One”, the hero of Zion and humanity? Can he decide to become that hero or not? What control does he have over his own life if it is a prophecy he will fulfill simply by existing? Paul Atreides deals with these kinds of heavy “hero” questions as well throughout both of Villeneuve’s Dune movies so far. With an extra caveat thrown in – the Bene Gesserit: whispering & plotting & planning & controlling the galaxy for millennia. They “planted” him generations ago and thus he doesn’t have power over his destiny. Or does he?

Dune: Part Two - Paul Atreides

There is one aspect of Dune: Part Two that I’ve been arguing about ever since my very first watch. Viewers who have read the books know he is about to become an evil “Space Hitler-esque” oppressive leader in the next story. “He is not the good guy!” they proclaim. “Will audiences understand this?” Yes, of course, but he has to become the bad guy first. In this movie we only see him confront the Emperor after drinking the blue water to gain clarity with his visions. In the final act, he starts veering towards being the evil bastard that he’s destined (perhaps? perhaps not?) to become. Thanks to the Bene Gesserit’s whispers & plans. However, up until that moment, up until he drinks the “worm piss”, he actually is a “good guy.” Really. Take a closer look when you watch Part Two again. He refuses to go south knowing it will take him to a very bad place. He fights for the Fremen, with the Fremen, adopting their ideals and mindset. He expresses his desire to help them and be an example of an important fighter, even if he is killed, so the next generation may follow in his footsteps. He wants to do good. He admires the Fremen and their ways. He is trying his hardest not to turn evil – but the Bene Gesserit get the best of him and he falls for their whispers. And, well, the rest is history…

This is when the movie digs deeper into the darker side of the galaxy. My third viewing brought a harrowing question to mind: Can someone wield this much extraordinary power (e.g. control over Spice) and be good? Or will they inevitably always be evil? Essentially, is oppression required in a sense to successfully exploit, sell, and manage an extremely valuable resource? This is the core of Dune: Part Two overall. The opening phrase uttered in this dark, guttural alien language before the Warner Bros logo comes up states: “Power over Spice is power over all.” Yes, this means that power & control are intertwined, and there really is no way to control the Spice without having way too much power (since it’s a vital resource needed for intergalactic space travel). There is even a moment in this movie where Paul quietly mutters that he is not worried about gaining control over Arrakis, he is worried about having too much power and this power will corrupt him. Let’s not forget the classic quote: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” stated by British historian Lord Acton. Even on Earth, it seems to be an absolute truth, thus extended into the Dune universe, it does make you wonder: is there really any way Paul could gain enough power to free the Fremen and Arrakis and not be corrupted by that much power? Herbert’s novels say: no.

Those familiar with the books know that the story is essentially a breakdown of the savior trope, showing there is no practicality of a real hero. It is impossible for there to be a holy savior on Arrakis. The Fremen believe in one, because of course, as Chani states in Part Two – the Bene Gesserit have planted this thought and it gives them some false hope to hold onto and wait for. Even if that means waiting centuries. Once you step back and examine Paul’s arc in Part Two, it really is a great tragedy, akin to Shakespeare’s tragedies of great men falling into spirals of despair & insanity. One compelling reaction from a viewer on Twitter states: “Dune: Part Two has left me in artistic euphoria, and also philosophical heartbreak. THAT is what true art is for. To remind us what it is to be human.” Referring to what happens as “philosophical heartbreak” is interesting because it’s trying to reckon with Paul’s great struggle in this movie: attempt to save the Fremen, take down the Emperor, change the galaxy forever; but to do that strategically he must marry the Emperor’s daughter, which means betraying Chani, which means betraying the Fremen. This is slightly different from the book, but it’s still an emotional wallop and quite overwhelming when you sit through it for the first time.

As spectacularly entertaining & awesome as Dune: Part Two is as a sci-fi blockbuster, it’s also chock full of heavy emotions and fascinating philosophical implications. I am in awe of what I’m seeing on screen, while also in awe of all that is racing through my mind with regards to the Fremen and their fight on Arrakis and the control of Spice. In the first movie, I loved seeing Paul rise to the call to lead a revolution, going down a path he was not expecting to take. In the second movie, I’m rocked by his turn, and how his fate seems to be out of his control, no matter how hard he tries. I don’t like this idea that our fate isn’t ours to control, much like Neo in The Matrix. Unlike The Matrix, though, Paul’s path leads him to darkness no matter what hope I have watching his story. The Emperor explains near the end that Duke Leto Atreides ruled from the heart, and that made him “weak”, ergo he had to be eradicated. I want Paul to rule from his heart, to be a leader who brings good to the galaxy. But perhaps that is not possible when half the people on a planet look up to you as a God. At the end of this second movie, we’re left wondering what will happen next when Paul decides to start a Holy War against the other Houses of the galaxy. Alas, the books tell us his future isn’t a good one.

Chani is right all along: “This ‘prophecy’ is how they enslave us!” No one wants to listen, or accept it, but she knows the truth. Even though she loves Paul and even though she knows him well, the scary truth is that his path will lead them farther from where they want to be, towards even darker times for the Fremen. This tragic story continues to make me wonder: how do we actually defeat oppressors and achieve peace and freedom for all? Can a violent revolution even result in peace in the end? Or will it always lead to more war?

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Hey Filmmakers – Stop Selling Your Audience Favorite Films to Netflix | FirstShowing.net

Hey Filmmakers – Stop Selling Your Audience Favorite Films to Netflix

by Alex Billington
February 20, 2024

Every month there’s another headline: Netflix buys that great film that everyone loved watching together for an excessive amount of money. Everyone loves to grumble about the headline, and talk about the film when this news hits, but will they actually watch it whenever it’s released on Netflix? Will Netflix even (properly) promote it? Will they even tell their ~260 million subscribers worldwide about the film when they debut it streaming on their platform? Why does Netflix love buying these great theatrical films and dumping them streaming without any fanfare or celebration or anything at all that connects with the audience experience? Why do care so little for the actual audience? I’m so tired of this routine. I’m not so foolish as to tell Netflix to change their ways – apparently they have no interest in this anyway. Instead, I think it’s up to filmmakers to realize that it isn’t a good idea to sell your movie to Netflix anymore – no matter how much money they want to throw at you. Choose a reputable theatrical distributor first, then let Netflix get the streaming rights later after it becomes an even bigger success. That is the best path to take when your film is a hit at festivals.

The debate about Netflix has been raging for years and years. Old Hollywood doesn’t really like them much, but they’re here to stay whether we like it or not. Netflix’s success means they can continue to do whatever they want and make money and be disruptive – no matter the complaints. However, are they actually being “disruptive” anymore? I don’t think so. They are just being annoying. And everyone knows it – to be frank. What has driven me to write this editorial now is watching Netflix buy three of the best films in the last six months that are three of the best theatrical experiences I’ve had at any film festival. It began with Netflix buying Richard Linklater’s Hit Man out of the 2023 Venice Film Festival – I have never seen an audience of curmudgeonly European critics in Venice go THIS wild during a screening. Pardon my French, but they lost their shit for the film, which was exhilarating. It continued a few months later with Netflix buying Greg Jardin’s It’s What’s Inside and Josh Greenbaum’s Will & Harper at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in January. Once again, two of the most rapturous and exciting audiences I’ve watched films with during any of the 18 years I’ve been going to this fest. That tangibly warm reception, the crowd going nuts, the applause, all of that really, truly matters with cinema. We need to stop ignoring this truth and pretending otherwise…

Netflix doesn’t seem to care anyway. There’s a quote every few months wherein some executive talks about how the theatrical experience is irrelevant or uninteresting to them as a brand. Most recently, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Bela Bajaria stated that Netflix will never do theatrical as “our members love films and they want to see films on Netflix.” Do they? Does she even know what she is saying here? I doubt it. In a big THR article from April 2023, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos offered another frustrating comment: “Driving folks to a theater is just not our business. Having big new desirable content drives value for our members and drives value for our business. There are no major changes in play.” What he seems to not understand is that the way you make your “content” (btw – fuck this word) into “big new desirable content” that drives value is by letting it play in theaters first. There is research on this that confirms it’s beneficial – the most successful streaming titles all opened first in theaters. Huh. Go figure… At what point will Netflix wake up and realize that it will actually benefit their business, and their pathetic “hours viewed” metric (because they’re afraid to release all the other statistics they collect – like how many folks actually watched a film from start to finish).

My rant, this article, or anyone’s rant, won’t change Netflix either. The company recently parted ways with Scott Stuber, who was running their film division for years. Apparently even Stuber was frustrated with their lack of interest in theatrical runs and despite arguing with Sarandos and other execs, they would not budge. In another recent THR article from January 2024, they included this nugget which is pretty telling:

“Even as the pipeline has slowed, Stuber has not been shy about his greatest frustration: Sarandos’ continuing refusal to offer any film a full theatrical release. Hope flickered when the streamer agreed to give Glass Onion, the 2022 Knives Out sequel, a broader run in cinemas than any previous Netflix film, putting it in about 600 theaters for a week. The movie grossed $16 million in that brief window and Stuber dreamed that Sarandos might develop a taste for cash.”

This falls in line with most of the way the extraordinarily stubborn corporate world works right now (see: David Zaslav at Warner Bros). If there’s someone smart on the team who might challenge archaic concepts and wants to make things better: get them out! Kick them out, lay them off, fire them, by whatever means necessary, don’t let anyone with think-outside-the-box “maybe we should try this” thinking in your company anymore! Instead, fill the roles with mindless drones & corporate robots who say exactly what the stubborn CEO wants to hear and never anything else (e.g. Bajaria). If Scott Stuber couldn’t change Sarandos’ mind, why do I (or anyone else) think they could instead? It’s a lost cause, unfortunately. And despite experiments like Glass Onion, or even the facade of Netflix buying classic one-screen cinemas (the Paris Theatre in NYC and the Egyptian in LA), they’re so obsessed with being anti-theatrical they have turned into an anti-cinema company. They’re so obsessed with their “content” and “hours viewed” data that they forgot to actually build awareness and excitement around their “content” to begin with. If they were any smarter, they might realize all of this is connected – and that showing films theatrically does not in any way hurt their numbers, it only boosts them. The proof is in the pudding! It will build them into a better brand. When will they realize this?

This brings me to the point I want to make here and now: filmmakers and sales agents and producers and creators need to stop selling their films to Netflix. Yes, it’s a scary prospect, rebellious (and perhaps a bit disruptive) to even say out loud, especially when they’re the highest bidder. But it’s a better move – for them, for the film, for the industry, for cinema itself. Greg Jardin and Richard Linklater shouldn’t have agreed to the deal that was made for their films It’s What’s Inside and Hit Man, respectively. They should’ve said “no” and waited it out, gone with someone else that would actually give their films a proper theatrical release. I’m sure it’s an irresistible pitch: we’ll give you tons of money and your film will also be available in over 190 countries around the world! We’re a big platform! Everyone will have the chance to watch it! Yes, sure, but there’s more to cinema than just that. And here is the kicker – if you play your cards right, and go with a proper theatrical release first, Netflix will eventually want the rights to play the film anyway. Of course they will! Especially once it becomes a huge theatrical hit and everyone is talking about it and telling their friends – maybe there is an even more lucrative deal in the cards if you wait it out. This is how things used to work. But that means resisting a tempting initial offer, and resisting the highest bidder to go with the right bidder.

I honestly don’t have a problem with Netflix in general, I just wish they’d do the right thing and partner with a theatrical distributor before putting it on Netflix because that will actually boost them and their brand and their films – but they just don’t get it. Let me reiterate that I really like Netflix as a platform – it is amazing that they can release a film and it will be viewable in over 190 countries around the world (without worrying about local distribution rights, which is a whole other industry problem to discuss another day). However, they’re not the right place to go if you really care about cinema, or if you want your film to have an impact in the world. Maybe one or two of Netflix’s big films every year go on to have a cultural impact because they have good PR teams handling their marketing & publicity. Most of their films don’t have this enthusiastic support. If a filmmaker sells their film to Netflix right out of a festival because they offer the most money – will that film ever be available on physical media, will it ever get a theatrical release down the line? Is that even possible with Netflix? What if you want to show it in theaters one day in the future – will Netflix allow that to happen? What if Netflix ever shuts down (unlikely, but let’s just go with the hypothetical) – how will you get your film back and how will you show it to your family & friends? Aside from harddrive copies, it’s not available on DVD or Blu-ray (or VHS) anywhere. Does it exist in the real world or only on their servers?

What I find particularly strange is that even when a filmmaker has a bad experience with Netflix, and even if they know they are bad at promoting films, they still end up selling to them anyway. This is exactly the case with Linklater. Netflix released his latest rotoscoped film Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood in April 2022 and told pretty much no one it was out. Most people didn’t even know it was released. Linklater later expressed frustration in an interview: “Then one day it showed up on a platform with no fanfare. It’s always kind of sad when you realize even your friends don’t know your film is out. To me, if anything good happens from this stage on, it’s just lucky.” Yeah that is the same for most films dumped onto Netflix. I don’t buy the claim that Linklater had nothing to do with Hit Man selling in Venice and instead it apparently was entirely handled entirely by sales agents & producers. Even if it that is the case, why could he not express a very strong opinion and do everything to resist selling to Netflix if he isn’t happy with how they handled his last film. Again, it’s more important that a good film finds an audience eventually, and that’s best achieved by a distributor believing in their stellar “content” and supporting it fully (with proper marketing and publicity).

For those who believe there is still importance in what Netflix does for cinema and how they support indie films and filmmakers who usually don’t get this kind of exposure, that has recently been mostly debunked by a study with Netflix connecting with Africa. A report was recently published from Nigeria and the Nollywood movement, which Netflix stepped into and tried to participate in by sponsoring and investing in filmmakers and the local industry. Good thing to do, right? While it did achieve some success, it didn’t have much of an impact overall, mostly because Netflix doesn’t really know how to actually support cinema and the culture. “On the critical streaming side, the report suggests that Netflix in Nigeria might not be fully tapping into its potential market, given low subscriber numbers relative to population.” Why, exactly? Their findings: “[It] critiques the reliance on streaming rankings as mere marketing tools rather than actionable insights that could drive the industry forward. It proposes using rankings as a prompt for better conversations on audience preferences and using these metrics alongside other data points to develop and market Nollywood projects more effectively.” Almost as if Netflix doesn’t really care about anything except their own internal “hours viewed” numbers and not the industry it’s supposed to be involved with & the artists that inhabit it…

The film industry is in a bad place right now, yet the film industry doesn’t like to admit this or talk about it. They want business to proceed as usual… They want to focus on making money. For much of the industry, that means if Netflix is going to pay the most for a movie, it’s a “good” thing. It’s time that we challenge this belief and confront the frustrating reality that Netflix releasing these audience favorite films is actually quite bad for cinema and for the industry overall (and audiences, even if they don’t quite understand it). Simply selling a film for tons of money is not an objectively healthy thing for the film industry, despite what many profit-driven minds think. Sundance is infamous for many films selling for high prices and failing after the festival (yes, from a few theatrical distributors, but this is a much different conversation). I’m a huge fan of Hit Man and Will & Harper and It’s What’s Inside and I guarantee at least one of (if not all of) these films will be released without much pomp & circumstance. They’ll drop it on Netflix, send a few emails out, buy a few billboards in Los Angeles, and call it a day. Netflix needs to evolve and innovate and disrupt again. That means disrupting the theatrical world by participating in theatrical distribution. Apple knows how to do this correctly with Apple TV films. I hope Netflix ends up realizing their mistake… Until then, filmmakers shouldn’t sell their hit films to this streaming company until they can actually prove they care about cinema.

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Berlinale 2024 Begins – What Will the Big Discoveries Be This Year? | FirstShowing.net

Berlinale 2024 Begins – What Will the Big Discoveries Be This Year?

by Alex Billington
February 15, 2024

Wir sind wieder da für mehr Kino. The 2024 Berlin Film Festival, known locally as Berlinale celebrating its 74th year, kicks off today in the capital city of Germany. With every year, the festival continues to fade further & further into irrelevance (read my report from last year), with an unimpressive line-up and staunch refusal to make any changes to the way the festival runs. Most major film festivals nowadays need to evolve, adapt, update and improve in so many ways right now. Berlinale is one of the most defiant, standing firm in its badly positioned slot in February (right after Sundance, and just before SXSW & Cannes) focusing on so many bleak and boring films. Not much ever makes it out of his festival anymore… Much like Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, Berlinale is becoming a fest where films go to be forgotten, where they have one big premiere and then are never get talked about again. Many of my colleagues get really grumpy when they hear me say this, but it’s how I feel about this festival and their film selection. But I am always watching new films anyway – hoping for a few discoveries. There’s always a few surprises to be found in any fest’s line-up.

As a participant in film criticism, I do believe it’s important to always be honest and clear when offering criticism – including criticizing a festival and the films they program. Berlinale is a big festival with a big ego that has lost its way, though they do try every year to feature some good films. And I’m happy to encounter them! I do want this festival to program better films again. At the 2023 Berlin Film Festival last year, there were a handful of stand-out discoveries from the selection: Femme (watch the trailer) which opens soon in the US; The Teacher’s Lounge (watch the trailer) which ended up being nominated for an Oscar this year – rightfully so; Samsara (watch the trailer) which many cinephiles describe as an incomparable cinematic experience, Tótem (watch the trailer) one of the best films about family from Mexico; BlackBerry (watch the trailer) the amusing Canadian tech story with Jay Baruchel & Glenn Howerton, and Past Lives (which really is a Sundance film anyway). I’d also name Kiss the Future, the U2 + Sarajevo doc that I really loved (watch the trailer), but my press screening of this was entirely empty (it literally was only me and one other guy) and no one else has talked about it since then. Sadly another (good but) forgotten film from Berlinale…

So what will be the worthwhile discoveries from the 2024 festival? Will there at least be another 3 or 4 great films playing here? Much of the Berlinale 2024 is filled with plenty of Sundance discoveries (and a few from 2023 festivals as well), which is what I recommended in my article from last year anyway. Bring in good films even if they aren’t world premieres! My favorite film from Sundance 2024, The Outrun, is also in the Berlinale line-up. Along with other important Sundance premieres including A Different Man, Love Lies Bleeding, Sasquatch Sunset (watch the trailer), Between the Temples, I Saw the TV Glow, Brief History of a Family, and Reinas. All of these are good films and I am glad they’re showing up at both fests. In the “weird” realm, I’m curious about The Box Man, and Cuckoo (a new supernatural film from the German director of Luz previously). There’s also this very strange Netflix sci-fi film Spaceman starring Adam Sandler and a giant space spider voiced by Paul Dano. Sure, why not. In the Main Competition, Black Tea (watch the trailer) and La Cocina are high on the list of my most anticipated premieres to see. Pepe, the film about a hippopotamus, also sounds like good fun. As usual, the best discoveries are often surprises.

Despite my frustration with this festival and its bland selection the past few years, there are some films that I am happy to have discovered here. Some of my other favorite films from the last few years include Mogul Mowgli with Riz Ahmed, the exhilarating Jóhann Jóhannsson documentary feature Last and First Men, the German family drama System Crasher (from the same director as The Outrun), the Chilly Gonzales music biopic doc Shut Up and Play the Piano, the Norwegian comedy Ninjababy, and the super sweet Language Lessons with Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales (here’s my interview with the two of them). I just really miss the days when films like Snowpiercer and The Grand Budapest Hotel were premiering at Berlinale. But those days are over, that era of this festival is long gone. Next year, a brand new director will be taking over Berlinale – the former head of the London Film Festival, named Tricia Tuttle, will begin her next era running this fest instead. What changes will she make? Or will she not change anything? How will she steer this ship through troubled waters? Only time will tell… The festival doesn’t need to show big Hollywood movies, that isn’t the right choice either, but it does need to figure out how to be relevant again.

For now – it’s time to start watching while keeping an eye on the festival buzz. The best part about Berlinale is how accessible & open this festival is. Anyone can buy tickets for screenings in the city at various cinema venues all over. They borrow many of the city’s best movie theaters (Zoo Palast 1, Cinemaxx, Colosseum) to show festival films during these two weeks and they encourage locals to buy some tickets to see something interesting & different. This is what makes Berlinale great! It’s a festival for everyone! The tickets are still affordable (15€ for most, 18€ for Palast premieres – more info here) so that you can wander in to something that might just blow your mind. Or it might bore you so much you get a nice nap. You never know! I’ve been to both of these kind of films at the festival, and I’ve experienced everything here: empty cinemas, sold out shows, snoring audience members, rapturous crowds. It’s what makes big city festivals so much fun. My goal as a cinephile is still the same: be on the lookout for the best of the best – the real breakouts, go to as many interesting screenings as I can, and engage in conversations with colleagues as much as possible. Viel Spaß.

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A Quick Visit to the 2023 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia | FirstShowing.net

A Quick Visit to the 2023 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia

by Alex Billington
November 21, 2023

Awooooo!! There’s a charming festival up in the Baltic country of Estonia called the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. Also known locally as PÖFF (which stands for Pimedate Ööde Filmifestival in Estonian) the festival just celebrate its 27th year with a 2 and 1/2 week cinema celebration. It kicked off on November 3rd and ran through November 19th in downtown Tallinn, with tons of screenings & premieres every single day. It’s much longer than a regular festival because they like to let the films play and give locals a chance to come watch them in the evenings, with hundreds of films in the line-up to choose from. There’s also a big industry event at the end of the fest, which is when I was in town for a visit. PÖFF flew me up to Tallinn this year (from Berlin) and offered me a hotel room so that I can experience the festival in person. It was a very nice trip and I’m glad I could visit to watch some more films, though I arrived a bit late and couldn’t catch as many as I really hoped to watch. It’s a well-run festival overall, with a great selection of the year’s best films.

For anyone curious, the reason it’s called the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival is Estonia is located very far in the north in Europe – just across the Baltic Sea from Finland, and next to Saint Petersburg, Russia. At this time of the year, in the dark of winter, there is very little light – the sun rises around 8AM & sets just before 4PM every day. Most of the screenings take place in the afternoon & evening, so most of the fest is set during the “black nights” of November. While the fest is known for premiering a lot of Eastern European, Baltic, and Scandinavian cinema, they’re open to anything. There isn’t really a specific theme with regards to what they play. However, my favorite thing about the Tallinn Black Nights Film Fest is the logo – a howling wolf. Even their awards are howling wolves. There was a gigantic bronze statue sitting in front of the hotel that I wanted to “acquire” and stuff into my carry-on luggage and bring home so he could keep me company in my living room while I watch movies at home. Alas, don’t think it would make it through airport security.

Most of the screenings (that I attended) take place at big multiplex movie theaters downtown where the festival HQ is based (at the Nordic Forum Hotel). They have events in other Estonian cities, but the venues are not as unique as one might expect. It’s pretty much just going to a big movie theater every day to watch. Here’s a few of my photos from the trip – one of a cinema, the other showing a sign that’s promoting the fest:

Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

The impressive 2023 selection for the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival includes new films in a variety of different competition sections (First Feature, Critics’ Picks Comp, Rebels With a Cause, Baltic Films, etc) as well as additional various Out of Competition, Critics’ Picks, Special Screenings, Gala Premieres, and more. It’s a diverse and engaging line-up, there’s no question about that. One of my favorite Estonian films that I already watched at Sitges called The Invisible Fight (here’s my full review) received a big gala screening, along with the excellent Estonian documentary film Smoke Sauna Sisterhood that initially premiered at Sundance (here’s the full trailer). I highly recommend watching both. These two are excellent examples of Estonia’s growing prominence in cinema, but of course they have plenty of other films to offer. During my quick 5 day trip up to PÖFF, I was able to watch 8 films in total. Here are my quick thoughts on these films:

Death Is a Problem for the Living (dir. Teemu Nikki) – A superrrrrrrr dark, superrrrrrrr dry Finnish black comedy. Quite draining to watch if I may say. Not quite my tempo… It’s about these two shady hearse drivers who get involved with an underground Russian roulette ring to help get rid of the dead and, yeah, it gets extra bleak. Doesn’t quite come together, feels a bit empty and emotionless despite the best intentions of telling this extra dark buddy story. I wanted to like it more.

The G (dir. Karl R. Hearne) – Despite a fantastic lead performance by actor Dale Dickey, I really did not care for this film. It’s way too dark and unsettling and just plain boring, with strange twists and turns that don’t really work. It could’ve been a more lighthearted yet thrilling comedy (similar to I Care a Lot) without all the crime and gangsters and wannabe Taken vibes. Already want to forget about this film…

All of Us Strangers (dir. Andrew Haigh) – A really beautiful film about loss and grief, it’s one of the best films of the year addressing these themes. Touching and tender and endearing, it’s a wonderful look at how memories can be both healing and haunting; and how memories can comfort us but also hold us back. Even though I wasn’t emotionally affected by it, I still admire and respect this film and all that it accomplishes with its illustrious cast – Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell, and Claire Foy.

The Peasants (dirs. DK Welchman & Hugh Welchman) – This hand-painted follow-up to Loving Vincent is gorgeous to look at, every single frame is literally a spectacular painting. However, it’s just so depressing to watch. A town full of spiteful, angry, gossip-addicted, aggressive people who torture the only good soul around. It’s hard to watch because it just gets worse and worse and there’s so little hope… I don’t know why we need to tell stories like this when it all just feels so awful and I don’t feel better by the end.

Close Your Eyes (dir. Víctor Erice) – The best of what I saw during my visit. This Spanish film premiered in Cannes earlier this year, and was acclaimed by many there as one of the best films of that fest. I missed it during Cannes, but caught up with it here and was completely enamored. A long film that’s entirely worth sitting through. Absolutely breathtaking cinema. As rich and layered as Drive My Car, as moving and lovely as Cinema Paradiso. An instant classic. Seek out this film and watch it as soon as you can.

Pelikan Blue (dir. László Csáki) – A great discovery from this festival. An animated documentary about a group of young Hungarian teens who figure out how to create fake train tickets and travel all around Europe in the early 1990s after Hungary became an independent nation (and no one had any money). It’s a simple story told so well by charismatic characters with great enthusiasm. A reminder that everyone just wants to get out and see the world and we should all learn to embrace that desire rather than stifle it.

Light Falls (dir. Phedon Papamichael) – Solid thriller. Legit film about tourists visiting a Greek island who get into some trouble with locals. Though it makes me sad seeing what happens to them. But well done, very well done. Minimalistic but it works – effectively gripping. Great performances. I was caught up in this.

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World (dir. Radu Jude) – This Romanian satire is fun and captivating, while also being quite messy and boring. It’s way, way too long… I enjoyed most of it, but not all of it. Jude is trying to do way too much in one film, even though he is getting good commentary with Angela & Bobita. It loses all of its steam at the end, shifting the focus right when it’s getting really good.

Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

🐺 This is the huge wolf statue sitting in front of the HQ hotel that I wanted to bring home. It’s beautiful! I’ve always loved wolves, I have so many stories about my obsession with wolves. There are currently around 150 to 300 wolves living in Estonia, and the grey wolf has been officially chosen as the “national animal” symbol of the country. This nice statue is also what the awards look like when filmmakers win a prize at the festival. I would go to this fest as a filmmaker just to win one of these! As for the vibe of the fest itself, it’s a bit lackluster, to be frank… There wasn’t much energy or excitement at the screenings, the audiences rarely ever clapped or cheered, even at the end of wonderful films. Is this how it usually is there? Perhaps this is what Estonian society is like, perhaps the festival needs to work more on cultivating greater enthusiasm for cinema. Some of my screenings were sold out, while others were barely half full. It seems to be more of an event for locals to attend, with an industry conference on the side, though it’s hard to say if it’s worth flying all the way up to Estonia when many of these films are also playing at other film festivals around the world.

Nonetheless, I am happy to have made the trek up to Tallinn and attended my very first PÖFF. I am thankful and grateful that the festival offered to bring me and show me what the experience is like in Tallinn. And as always, I’m happy I had the chance to watch some good films. For me personally, when I go to film festivals, the films are what matter the most. Not parties, not industry meet-ups, not red carpets, not sponsor events, nothing like that. I want to watch some of the best new films each year with excited audiences interested in all of the stories being told on the big screen. I want to dive into cinema and be immersed in the lively world of visual storytelling, discussing these great films and how they move us, entertaining us, enlighten us, and inspire us all. Would I recommend going to PÖFF? Only if you’re in the area, or only if you have the time to travel up to Tallinn to watch some superb films. The A-list selection makes it worth the trip. Other favorites including Poor Things, Daaaaaali!, Past Lives, La Chimera, The Holdovers, The Pot au Feu, Fallen Leaves, Perfect Days, The Old Oak, The Promised Land, The Teachers’ Lounge, Theater Camp, and many others, also played in Tallinn this year. No matter what it’s most important to relish all this top notch world cinema.

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Why Can’t the US Try Japan’s Marketing for ‘The Boy and The Heron’? | FirstShowing.net

Why Can’t the US Try Japan’s Marketing for ‘The Boy and The Heron’?

by Alex Billington
September 27, 2023

It’s the year 2023 and for the first time in 10 years we’re being graced with the presence of a new Hayao Miyazaki movie. The animation legend has directed his 12th feature, known in English as The Boy and the Heron, originally titled How Do You Live? (or 君たちはどう生きるか) in Japanese. The film already opened in Japan in July right in the middle of the summer, and it’s set to open in US theaters nationwide in December this fall. Described as a “big fantastical film”, it follows a boy named Mahito Maki, who discovers an abandoned tower in his new town and enters a fantastical world with a talking grey heron. The release in Japan was a fascinating experiment – because it opened without any marketing other than one poster and the title. Yet it did quite well – playing #1 at the Japanese box office for two weeks in a row in July. Though the initial reception in Japan was lukewarm with mostly positive reviews (no one called it a “masterpiece”), Western audiences are going crazy for it ever since its premiere at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival. But I’ve been wondering – why can’t the US distributor also open it without any marketing? And why did they cave?

Anyone that has been following FirstShowing for the 17 years we’ve been around knows I have always been super critical of Hollywood marketing, in a brutally honest way that bothers some who don’t dare mess with Hollywood. Sometimes they do brilliant things (e.g. The Dark Knight & Tron Legacy viral campaigns) but more often than not they make some mistakes or stick to the most generic, tried-and-true tactics. Nowadays, Hollywood marketing has relapsed into following some of the most boring, never-take-a-single-risk, follow-every-old-rule strategies. There used to be a time when marketing ideas would be so smart and fresh they’d influence pop culture and establish trends that others would follow, however nowadays they’re all controlled by existing trends and pop culture and mindlessly follow the latest fads like lemmings. Which is why I’m not surprised that GKids, the US distributor of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron, decided to throw out the original Studio Ghibli no-marketing tactic and go with a conventional campaign. Perhaps they had no choice? Of course they had a choice. It seems they got cold feet, and decided they had to go back to old ways.

About a month or two before the movie’s initial Japanese opening on July 14th, 2023, reports from Japan quoted Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki saying they would release the film without any marketing material or plot synopsis or any images or anything else. Everyone knew about the movie anyway. “Over the years, we’ve done various things to get audiences to come see our films,” Suzuki told Bungei Shunju. “But I thought, ‘That’s enough of that.‘ It’s no fun doing the same thing over and over.” On the same day as the Japanese release in July, GKids in America (who has handled many Studio Ghibli & anime films) announced they will be releasing this movie in the US. Their initial press release included this fairly vibrant statement:

GKids states: “In an unprecedented decision by Studio Ghibli, no images, trailers, synopses, advertisements, or other information about the film have been made available to the public prior to its release in theaters in Japan. In keeping with this policy, GKIDS will not release any further details or marketing materials at this time.

Something happened between this announcement in July and the movie being selected to premiere at TIFF in September. For months there were rumors and speculation that How Do You Live? (what it was known by at the time) was going to premiere at Cannes or at Venice. It wasn’t ready for Cannes because, true to their word, Ghibli wanted the Japanese to experience the film first before any international audiences at festivals. After the Japanese release in July, then came more questions – will it be released internationally by the end of 2023 and by whom? When exactly? How long do the rest of us have to wait? Will it show up at film fests? Which ones? It’s showing at tons of other festivals this fall – after TIFF, it’s screening at San Sebastian, New York, Sitges, London, Chicago, Lyon; with release dates around the world set throughout the fall. Of course, the festivals MUST always have at least ONE photo for a film for its premiere. This is standard practice. But a few days before the TIFF premiere, GKids dropped a teaser featuring around 60 seconds of actual footage. No longer a surprise… It’s the same standard marketing tactic as most festival films that have a distributor.

While reading other articles about the Studio Ghibli marketing decision for The Boy and the Heron, I came across one that couldn’t understand the original Japanese strategy, claiming that “no one would even know about the film?! How would they know it exists?!” 🤦 🤦 Goodness. This is a blatant misunderstanding of marketing and how the world works, how people communicate with each other. Miyazaki’s film is a unique case. Of course it doesn’t make sense to try and open an indie film that no one has heard about without any marketing. But Hayao Miyazaki is a cinema legend! Yes, it’s true, he’s known around the world and beloved around the world. It’s also a complete misunderstanding to claim only Japanese people are familiar with his name and could be excited about a film just because he made one. Especially after Miyazaki announced he was “retiring” after The Wind Rises in 2013, followed by Studio Ghibli (historically one of the finest movie studios to ever exist) announcing they were also shutting down / no longer making anything new. The fact both came back and went into production in 2018 on a new Miyazaki film already put this on most people’s radar. Everyone knows it’s coming, they’re just waiting to see it. Which is why this innovative tactic worked.

The Boy and The Heron Trailer

Many movie fans are tired of trailers that show too much, and marketing overload that leads to exhaustion before a movie even arrives in theaters. This is all too common to encounter these days… Despite entirely bogus Hollywood marketing research claiming that “most” people are only interested in watching a movie (that isn’t some major franchise/IP they’re already familiar with) if they show them most of the movie in the trailer to hook them. I’ve never met or talked with a single person who agrees with that. Most cinephiles are tired of trailers like this. Even casual moviegoers will say, oh now they don’t need to waste their time/money watching a movie because most of it was shown in the trailer already. Why does Hollywood ignore all these voices and instead rely on some random market research they wasted money on? This is a common mistake within the Hollywood marketing system. Thankfully, Ghibli picked up on this vibe with audiences in 2023. Explaining why they made this no-marketing decision for the release, this is the quote that Suzuki provided:

“So, no trailers or TV commercials at all. No newspaper ads either. Deep down, I think this is what moviegoers latently desire. In my opinion, in this age of so much information, the lack of information is entertainment. I don’t know if this will work. But as for me, I believe in it, so this is what I’m trying to do.” –Toshio Suzuki

He’s right. Most importantly, it did work. Miyazaki’s highly anticipated new movie opened at #1 at the Japanese box office. I will let Wikipedia report the facts: “In Japan, The Boy and the Heron grossed $13.2 million (1.83 billion yen) in its opening weekend, becoming the biggest opening in Studio Ghibli’s history and surpassing Howl’s Moving Castle’s 1.48 billion yen debut in 2004. The film earned $1.7 million from 44 IMAX screens, setting a new 3-day record. It attracted 1.35 million viewers and exceeded 2.14 billion yen ($15.2 million) in box office revenue in its first four days.” It stayed in the #2 spot at the box office in Japan throughout all of August, only dropping to #4 after it had played for 7 weeks. That’s quite an achievement for a movie that had no marketing. Which is the point. It wasn’t their goal to maximize revenue, it was their goal to release a new Miyazaki movie and let fans experience it fresh, without anything guiding them before they go in to watch. This is an exciting experience. (It’s what I love about watching films at festivals, too.) Hollywood could & should learn from this, and I thought GKids would follow suit. Though apparently not… I guess fear took over and led them back to the safe comfort of their old tactics, which I think is depressing.

This is when someone usually exclaims, “well, Alex, that would never work outside of Japan! It only worked there because they know Miyazaki and Ghibli and love them already.” Yeah, not true. Not at all. Miyazaki is absolutely adored worldwide just as much as he is in Japan. No question about it. Ever since the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes took over Hollywood earlier in 2023, I’ve been lamenting how Hollywood has generally refused to try different marketing. They’re stuck on this archaic notion that actors doing interviews is the only real way to market a movie (or at least turn it into a box office hit). I was hoping some studios would try something new, try some clever ideas that might still get moviegoers’ attention. Every movie is different, and some require different campaigns, but Suzuki is right: “in this age of so much information, the lack of information is entertainment.” Even if it didn’t turn out to be a good movie in the end, the bold marketing tactic of releasing a surprise trailer for The Cloverfield Paradox during the Super Bowl (in 2018) at the same moment the movie is available on Netflix worked well (“According to Nielsen, nearly 785,000 viewers watched on the night of Super Bowl LII; by three days, over 2.8 million watched, 5 million after a week.”)

Why is Hollywood so afraid of doing anything different with marketing? Where have all the bold marketers gone? Why is doing something unique and innovative so scary nowadays? Especially if it has a proven track record of working. And why is GKids going against their own claim that they will follow what Studio Ghibli did and not release any info or marketing material? Maybe they were pushed by the festivals and by other distributors trying to release it worldwide. Maybe they got afraid that “no one would know about it” without marketing (which, for the record, is complete & utter nonsense, especially with these festival premieres). Whatever the case, I’m disappointed to see them give in and go back to the usual ways. Indiewire posted an article with the headline “The Boy and the Heron Is Studio Ghibli and GKIDS’ Biggest Marketing Challenge Yet” featuring quotes from GKids’ president of distribution, Dave Jesteadt, who claims “he’s not worried about the economics of the film and is confident audiences will show up.” The rest of his quotes sound like a stodgy old professor reading from his dusty textbook in Marketing 101 class at university, while students are trying to jump in with “but” & “well”, he just waves them off with his hand and points to the book. “This is the way, and we will never try anything different.” At least that’s what it sounds like from his quotes there…

I’m just tired of Hollywood never, ever having the courage to try something different, to do something new, to take a risk, and to let it pay off in the long run. There’s a simple strategy they could’ve followed – release nothing but one or two images during the festival run, create one new poster for the US release, let it open first in early December as they have it scheduled already. THEN release a trailer, THEN kick in marketing, THEN let the movie build to become a hit through December and January. This is even the perfect time to use that post-release buzz to get young generations who are not as familiar with Studio Ghibli to watch more of their films. They’ve already done this for years with Ghibli Fest re-runs. This is where real innovation in Hollywood marketing can come from – making bold choices. But I guess 2023 is not the year they want to try anything new. Suzuki’s quotes are still the best. He knows moviegoers want to watch good movies: “They’ll want to see for themselves what the film is about. And to do that, they’ll have to go to a theater.” Yep.

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Making Sense of Life – On the Philosophy of ‘Barbie’ & ‘Oppenheimer’ | FirstShowing.net

Making Sense of Life – On the Philosophy of ‘Barbie’ & ‘Oppenheimer’

by Alex Billington
July 24, 2023

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.” –Proust. Two of the best movies of 2023 are now playing in theaters worldwide: Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Yep – they’re both outstanding movies deserving of all the praise, both ambitious and unique and creative, both made by exceptionally talented filmmakers who understand the terrific power of visual storytelling. They may differ in many ways, especially in tone, but they’re actually quite similar in many other ways. I am in awe and delighted that we have two of the most philosophical movies I’ve seen in years, both big budget studio projects, both intellectually stimulating, showing on big screens and drawing big crowds. This is an invigorating moment for cinema that we should relish. What I appreciate the most is how much each film relies on intellectual storytelling, with no desire to pander to audiences or be accessible to everyone. There is so much to discuss about each, and I want to dig into the philosophy present in both films. To borrow a quote on Twitter: “It’s not Barbie and Oppenheimer. It’s Barbie, and it’s Oppenheimer.”

I’m elated these films are damn good and especially so smart. I’ve watched both Barbie and Oppenheimer twice already; the second viewing is so much more fascinating, as I can observe in closer detail everything these filmmakers are doing and how this works wonderfully in the movie. Intellectual filmmaking is rather uncommon these days and yet we have two big movies pushing boundaries again. Nolan’s Oppenheimer isn’t just a story about the man who led the team that created the atomic bomb, it’s about the moral implications and existential struggles that come with that. It’s about how hard it is to handle the guilt and sadness that comes with knowing your creation killed so many people, then lead into a world perpetually fearful of death. Gerwig’s Barbie, on the other hand, also deals with existential worries. What happens when you go out into the “real world” and learn that who you are, and the world you come from, are not actually representative of the real world. It was just a utopian fantasy, and the real world is much more sexist and greedy and careless. Both films ask similar profound philosophical questions: what does it mean to be you, how do you make sense of your life, specifically in relation to how your life has impacted the world – in both good & bad ways.

Watching Oppenheimer is like watching a horror movie (though critics are arguing about whether it’s horror or something else) – at some point we realize this well-respected, optimistic scientist is going to encounter some of the darkest darkness ever when confronted with the horror of what he built – even with the context of stopping the other great darkness threatening the world at the time. There are scenes in the second half that play like a psychological thriller, with visions of the dead appearing, the room shaking violently, bright light taking over. Nolan has artfully visualized this remarkably hard-to-describe feeling of dread and guilt and death. Oppenheimer is a biopic, it’s not about what the bomb did, because he wants to tell the story of this man and put us in his shoes. There are questions posed about whether he’s really a bad guy, because all he wanted to do was save the world. There’s also questions about – once you’ve created this deadly gadget, what next. How do you respond, how do you handle it, how do you move on, how do you even live? Everyone knows Oppenheimer’s famous quotes borrowed from the Bhagavad Gita, and the film shows us that he dealt with frighteningly existential dilemmas: is he death? Is he now the destroyer of worlds? What has he done?

One of the best analysis I’ve read is an examination of ending of Oppenheimer written by my colleague Bilge Ebiri for Vulture. In his analysis, he connects the opening shots and ending shots of the film and goes on to explain how it is a clever visual metaphor for Oppie’s obsession with a scientific understanding of the world. Ebiri points out how the ripples that he sees in the pond mirror the circles being drawn on maps at the end of the film, measuring the size of nuclear explosions atop cities in Russia (and elsewhere). The film’s editor, Jennifer Lame, explains: “Science to him is beauty and art and poetry. It just makes the movie so much more devastating at the end.” After going on this three hours journey with Oppie, he realizes his fascination with science and knowledge about the universe we all exist in has crossed over into the “real world” with devastating consequences. Perhaps he doesn’t realize it yet, at that point, but humanity is forever changed. He is responsible, in theory, but we can’t blame him (alone) nor can we blame his fascination with science. There are, of course, other conversations on the inevitability of atomic weapons – if it wasn’t Oppenheimer, someone else would’ve figured out how to use fission for a bomb. His article ends with a potent realization:

“Nolan’s closing images do serve as a warning and a portent of doom, and they are enormously moving as such. But they’re also one final glimpse into this character, revealing that in his mind at least, he has destroyed the world: He has destroyed his world, his very conception of reality. Where once he saw the astonishing connections that lay at the heart of all matter and even human relations, now he sees only horror and fire, of the destructive power that lies beneath the shape of all things.” Via Vulture

It’s an intricately complex film that asks – is one man truly, solely responsible for what he makes if others misuse our creations in nefarious ways, especially when it is simply unlocking the scientific secrets of our universe? Oppenheimer hits hard with this profound, overwhelming realization. It’s a grand examination of a life – that’s also an examination of humanity, of our real world, of men and war and the power they crave.

Barbie & Oppenheimer

Barbie actually digs much deeper into the philosophy of meaning and existence than Oppenheimer (strange, but true). It borrows from the Pinocchio story of a perfect, plastic woman who enters the real world and discovers what it means to be a “real” woman. Not just a perfect Barbie. One of the most beautiful scenes is when she first has a moment to herself in the real world: she’s sitting on the bench and suddenly breathes and takes in the world around her. She looks at the trees and sky, and notices both happiness and sadness, and the anger and depression and joy all around her. She sees kids playing, a couple arguing, happy and sad people and realizes this is the grand, magical complexity of life. It is everything all at once. It’s a visceral and visually stunning moment of existential clarity. Later on she literally meets her creator, and must confront the very idea of what it means to be Barbie and if she is free to be herself and live in this “real world” in the way she wants to live. She doesn’t even know what that is exactly, she’s on the road to figuring that out. All of this is played against the eye-opening, Plato’s cave experience of stepping out of Barbie Land for the first time and realizing the world isn’t this idealistic, glossy, pink reality. This is as close as movie can get to The Matrix narrative of “free your mind” and, as she does, escape into the real world for a “voyage of discovery”.

They even mention Proust Barbie at one point. (And there’s talk of philosophy books on Oppie’s shelves in one scene as well.) Barbie’s ultimate thesis is this question of who she is, how does she navigate and exist in the world, how her experiences and her understanding of the world changes who she is as a person. Ruth Handler, the original Mattel creator of the Barbie Doll, explains to her that the idea of Barbie is also more important that the actual perfect definition of or image of Barbie, that is what truly matters. It’s almost a direct reference to V for Vendetta, and V’s empowering speech that “beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof” – ideas can go beyond a person, ideas live beyond an individual person, or an individual Barbie. This is something profound she must contend with as well… Has the “idea” of Barbie she embodies become toxic, more harmful to the world than helpful? How can she free herself from that, confront the patriarchy, and re-establish an idea that truly represents how empowering she feels. It’s weird that an expensive Barbie movie made by Mattel dares to dip into this kind of philosophical discussion, but that’s part of the genius of this movie. It’s what makes these two Hollywood movies invigorating, so exciting, because they both dare to be intellectually provocative when so few contemporary Hollywood movies are…

It’s no coincidence that both films feature their main characters having mental breakdowns, trying to figure out who they are and what their place is in a world. The parallels are fascinating, in that they’re so different yet so similar in their exploration of existence and meaning and how one person (or even one idea) can have have a great impact on humanity and on our “real world”. Did Barbie change the world for the worse? Is she actually a harmful representation of toxic feminism? Did Oppenheimer change for the world for the worse? Is he actually a harmful representation of dangerous science? Thankfully both filmmakers are talented and intelligent enough to not provide one clear, definitive answer to these kind of questions – both movies are an exploration of ideas; conversation-starters, thought-provoking works of art. Barbie, even though it is pink and glossy and bright and fun, is also examining the same darker sides of the world as Oppenheimer. “Is one woman truly, solely responsible for what she [causes] if others misuse our creations in nefarious ways…?” Funny enough, referencing what I wrote earlier about Oppenheimer, Barbie is also “a grand examination of a life – that’s also an examination of humanity, of our real world, of men and war and the power they crave.”

As a lover of philosophy, of big ideas and big thinking, and of cinema that can make wonder about all these big ideas, I am delighted that these two movies are so profound and stirring and successful. The cliche idea of what “going to the movies” means has been getting louder & louder in these past few years: “shut off your brain and just enjoy it,” they love to say. However, real cinema, real intelligent storytelling, is about turning on your brain. It has the power to make you think, even make you re-examine your life, your choices, your identity. And maybe, just maybe, it may make you question who you are. Once again, there’s a perfect Proust quote for this: “If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less, but to dream more, to dream all the time.” A rejuvenating reminder that movies can do this. One of my favorite lines in Barbie is near the end when she’s talking with Ruth. She explains, maybe the things that you think make you you, are not actually the things that make you you. We all need to stop & think about this, process this conundrum, to truly understand ourselves and understand what makes us us, what defines humanity. We need to decide whether we truly want to make the world a better place, or if we all just want more power and/or perfection.

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Yep, The Karlovy Vary Film Festival is Still One of the Best in the World | FirstShowing.net

Yep, The Karlovy Vary Film Festival is Still One of the Best in the World

by Alex Billington
July 7, 2023

If you know, you know… If you’ve been, you’ll always want to go back… At least that’s how I feel. There is a wonderful film festival in Czechia called the Karlovy Vary Film Festival – they’re celebrating their 57th year, making it one of the oldest festivals in the world (it was originally founded in 1946). This is my fifth year attending KVIFF (as it’s known – the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival), returning to this lovely little spa town in the middle of the summer to watch more films and enjoy the full-on cinema lovers party ambience. Karlovy Vary is a famous town in the hills of west Czechia, right near the border of Germany. It’s only 6 hours by train from Berlin, where I live, and even less if you go directly from Prague. They’re an A-list event and the first major festival after Cannes in May to play the best of Cannes’ selection, including all the awards winnersAnatomy of a Fall, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, Perfect Days, and many others. I write about KVIFF every year nowadays, because this humble festival really is one of the best in the entire world.

What makes this particular film festival stand out from so many others is how much it really feels like going to cinema heaven. In addition to the picturesque town where it takes place, as well as their always-amazing selection of films from around the world, the audience at every screening at KVIFF is full of genuine film-loving fans. No matter what time it is or what film may be showing, every screening is completely packed. Sometimes they even let in extra people who sit on the floor or stairs just because they’ll sit anywhere and don’t want to miss whatever is showing. These audiences are also respectful of the experience, very rarely ever taking out their phone or chatting, and they always seem completely engaged in and focused on the film on the screen in front of them. It’s actually kind of awe inspiring to see, especially since phone use in movies has been getting really bad again post-pandemic. This festival is Czechia’s chance to dive head first into the world of cinema, with tons of Czech people pouring in from every corner of the country to watch new films.

My biggest complaint – the chairs suck. After spending a few days the festival, my back starts to hurt because the chairs in most of the venues are terrible. There are about four venues at the festival that are actual movie theaters they takeover and use for screenings. The rest of their key venues are gorgeous old hotels (like the Grandhotel Pupp) or vintage spa palaces (like the Lazne III) or big conference rooms. Unfortunately they put the cheapest plastic chairs in these places and it’s tough to sit in them. This year I went to watch the three-hour-long Argentinian film The Delinquents (which I loved) at a venue with chairs that barely have a rigid back on them and it was tough to make it through. I doubt my complaining will make them change the chairs, but I hope one day they’ll put some better seating in. At least the “Grand Hall” (which is their version of Cannes’ Grand Théâtre Lumière), located inside the famously clunky Hotel Thermal, is a nice place with nice seats and a huge screen. All that really matters is that I can get tickets & get in to watch all these films.

Karlovy Vary Film Festival

I was first introduced to the Karlovy Vary Film Festival by a film critic friend years ago. Ever since I started attending in 2017, I’ve been passing the torch and doing my best to introduce it to more people. I also follow film critic Robert Daniels, who went for his first time in 2022 and is back again in 2023. I love his writing anyway, but his coverage of KVIFF is especially invigorating. He opens his first review article from this year with this lovely intro: “oh, how I have missed its winding cobblestone streets, its canals, and its resplendent Renaissance style. But most of all, I’ve missed the jubilant crowds and bountiful movies.” Indeed, Robert, indeed. Even if you don’t believe me, I’m not the only one going on and on about how delightful this Czech film festival is. His wrap up article from 2022 also eloquently captures what makes KVIFF so unforgettable once you attend: “I was struck by the jubilant mood of the event, and the graciousness shown by the heads of the festival—the Festival President Jiří Bartoška, Executive Director Kryštof Mucha, and Artistic Director Karel Och—along with a film community so eager, so passionate to share their festival with the world.” Yep.

In addition to coming to Karlovy Vary to watch the Cannes films I might’ve missed, or a few world premieres of something that might be the next big international breakout, their retrospective selections every year are always remarkable. I caught a total of 11 films over the five days I was in town, with a few more screeners to catch up with this weekend as the fest winds down. I always make sure I watch at least one old film on the big screen – this is one of the most important aspects of great film festivals. This year’s key retrospective is a tribute to the movies of the Japanese master Yasuzô Masumura. Most have probably never heard of this filmmaker or seen his movies before, and I admittedly only learned about him from the festival itself. I was lucky to catch one of the 11 films they showed, called Kisses (from 1957), and it was splendid. Of course, as soon as it was over I checked the schedule to see if I could catch any more of Masumura’s films before leaving, alas, there was no way to fit them in. In the past I’ve watched some Czech classics on the big screen and it’s always a delight. It’s a refreshing experience to watch old films this way with an entranced audience.

There’s only so much I can write in a post like this before I start to sound too arrogant. Above all else, if you love film festivals, you have to book a trip to KVIFF one year and experience it for yourself… As long as it’s possible, I’ll continue to return. It feels so surreal, escaping from my apartment to visit this cute spa town to watch some excellent films every summer. It’s an enriching experience that feels vital to my yearly routine nowadays, reaffirming why I love doing this (talking about movies for a living) and reminding me why I am still so addicted to film festivals. Even if the seats suck, even if it’s hard to get good vegan food in Karlovy Vary, it’s still worth it. The films matter, the audiences matter, the festival matters. Cinema still matters. And it still has the power to pull us into unforgettable stories, to bring us all together, to teach us about the world, and different cultures, different perspectives. KVIFF is a testament to the true potential of festivals and how important they are in the world of cinema. For more info or to view their line-up, visit kviff.com.

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The Evolution of Film Festivals – Back at the 76th Cannes Film Festival | FirstShowing.net

The Evolution of Film Festivals – Back at the 76th Cannes Film Festival

by Alex Billington
May 16, 2023

Tonight in the lovely beach resort town of Cannes, France, the 76th Cannes Film Festival is kicking off with the world premiere screening of Maïwenn’s Jeanne du Barry after the opening ceremony. This is my 13th year attending and covering Cannes, starting back in 2009, and I am always happy to return. I skipped the opening film because it’s just not my jam, but I am excited to watch plenty more films over the next 11 days in France. I come to Cannes year after year, spending more than I have in my bank account to be here, because I am here for the films. For the love of cinema. For the spirit of discovery and for all the hours of watching and discussing new films with my friends and colleagues. This is why I always come back. Yes, it can be annoying and frustrating to deal with. Yes, it the festival has problems like EVERY festival does. But I come anyway and make the most of it. It makes me happy that we’re ALL here together to celebrate cinema.

The Cannes I attended in 2009 is not the same Cannes in 2023. The festival has been evolving and growing and changing, in good and bad ways. The pandemic caused a major disruption which lead to major changes which each & every festival is still dealing with. The biggest problem is the digital ticketing system – which every festival adopted in 2021 after the pandemic forced them to get rid of physical box offices and tickets, and shift entirely to tickets we scan from our phones. It doesn’t always work well: the site had errors the first few days, then they fixed the problems. Many colleagues have been having difficulty booking tickets for most screenings, but that’s unfortunately what happens when a festival outgrows itself. Thanks to Parasite winning all the Oscars after premiering in Cannes in 2019, they’re the indisputable #1 festival in the world – which means more people (press + industry + cinephiles) come to this festival than any other. Their venues haven’t changed, and they can only seat so many in each cinema. There’s no easy solution to this dilemma…

The prominent question at this festival is: what is cinema? Is this what cinema looks like, or is that? Or is it all of this? Perhaps the more pertinent question is: what can cinema be? Has it evolved again, and if so, can we appreciate what is has become now? Cannes prides itself on programming and premiering the best new films from anywhere they come from – innovative, edgy, fresh, groundbreaking work from old and new filmmakers alike. That means that there can be thrilling, rollicking adventures from Hollywood like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny screening alongside of contemplative, slow burn three hour dramas from the other side of the world. Some people appreciate new cinema that is slow, while others prefer films that are more energetic and lively. Some prefer films that are abstract and artsy, while others are more engaged with traditional narratives that have great performances and vibrant storytelling. All of this is cinema, and all of it can be exciting, and now we get a peek at where cinema will be headed next. Which filmmaker will make their mark, which films will emerge from France and find their audience everywhere else around the world?

Documentaries have been winning the top prizes at major festivals recently (All the Beauty & the Bloodshed at Venice last fall, and Sur l’Adamant at Berlinale a few months ago) and this has been shaking up the film festival world. Of course, everyone knows documentaries absolutely are cinema but it is not often they win the top prize. For years, Cannes was known as a place where they never showed docs in their main selection – especially in the competition. Nowadays, a few are playing. In the festival this year they have Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring) playing in the main competition, plus The Mother of All Lies in the Un Certain Regard category. There’s also an intriguing new film called Four Daughters that apparently blends narrative with documentary by casting two actors to play the two daughters who have disappeared from a Tunisian family. Cannes describes this one as “a unique cinema experience that will lift the veil on Olfa and her daughters’ life stories.” Will it be any good? Only time will tell… But this is what we are all here for – to dedicate our time to watching what they’ve decided to show us and find out what will change cinema forever. At least I hope this will get more people to start watching more documentaries, no matter what they might be about.

The other question on everyone’s mind this year – what about all of the protests? In addition to the Writers Strike in Hollywood (which I fully support), there are also ongoing protests in France – which began earlier this year when the government attempted to increase the retirement age. At the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, directors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut lead a protest at the start of the festival. They showed up with an impassioned argument that because students and many other people in France were out protesting, it wouldn’t be right to ignore that and let the festival go on as normal. They were successful. The festival was cancelled that year (the Criterion Channel is featuring a selection of the films that were chosen that year but never got their chance to play) – along with 2020, it’s one of the only times in the festival’s 76 year history it has been cancelled. There’s now a number of major protests and progressive movements all over the world, and with the spotlight on Cannes for the next two weeks, they might want to borrow some of that attention as well. I’m all for it! But clearly the festival isn’t – and doesn’t want any disruptions to their event in 2023.

The spirit of Cannes is to be edgy and disruptive and progressive. I wish they’d embrace that more, but now it just seems they want to show to go on with all the celebrities and red carpets and premieres. They don’t want anything to get in the way of that glitz & glam, which is what matters the most to them. I’d prefer if festivals would focus primarily on the films and filmmakers instead… I rarely go to parties much anymore anyway, and I don’t have time for casual dinners – I just go to films all day, then come back and write. I just want to enjoy all these films and talk about how amazing the discoveries are. The best moments in Cannes are those when you watch something amazing, and emerge from the cinema to ecstatic people that want to chat about how amazing it was for hours & hours. I fondly remember emerging from screenings of films like Drive, Parasite, You Were Never Really Here, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Lighthouse, The Florida Project, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Inside Llewyn Davis, Burning, and many others. I’m ready to queue up and watch and see what Cannes has in store for us this year. Follow all my updates on FS here.

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How the Mighty Fall: Berlinale is No Longer an A-List Festival Anymore | FirstShowing.net

How the Mighty Fall: Berlinale is No Longer an A-List Festival Anymore

by Alex Billington
March 7, 2023

This has been bothering me for the past few years, and it’s finally time to get this off my chest. I have been attending the Berlin Film Festival (known as “Berlinale” locally) for 10 years, it’s one of the oldest film festivals in the world, and I’m bummed out by how this fest has lost their way and . Berlinale is no longer an “A-list” festival, and should stop being considered one of “the most important film festivals in the world.” They’ve lost that title. They’ve lost their relevance, they’ve lost their importance, and they need to wake up and realize this is happening instead of go on pretending nothing is different. The 2023 edition of Berlinale was its 73rd, the festival has been around for a long time, but that doesn’t automatically make it A-list. Ever since they hired the most recent directors – executive director Mariette Rissenbeek & artistic director Carlo Chatrian starting with the 2020 edition – things have gotten much worse. The line-up has become extremely niche, more obscure, filled with mediocre-to-bad films (and a very limited selection of good ones), which is the key factor in their demise. If they wish to be relevant again, they need to completely rethink the festival.

I believe it is an important part of art analysis to criticize festivals – not just their line-up. However, this is considered a huge taboo within the film community – critics especially are afraid of being honest or critical about the festival experience. We can talk all day about the films, but don’t dare say anything bad about the festival itself – unless their ticketing website doesn’t work. I have been running FirstShowing for 17 years so far, and I have been attending festivals for 17 years as well. My first trip to Sundance was in January of 2007 (driving from Colorado / sleeping on my brother’s couch), my first trip to Cannes was in 2009, my first trip to TIFF was in 2007. I have spent almost 20 years of my life dedicated to traveling around this planet to the world’s greatest film festivals to watch world premieres of the world’s best films. I have seen the industry change first hand; evolving with the times, with good & bad decisions. I have participated in conversations, I have spoken with others in the community, and most agree – Berlinale is no longer an important or relevant festival. They are – and I would like to emphasize this – still a very successful big city festival and should be compared more accurately to the Rome, Zurich, Vienna, and London Film Festivals – not Cannes or Venice.

I also have a deep personal connection with this city and this fest. In 2014, I was invited by Fox Searchlight (as they were once known) to fly to Berlin to cover the press junket & world premiere of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. We had to get a press badge to be able to attend the screening, so I also caught a few other screenings while I was in town. I wrote a glowing recap of my experience, raving about it so much that Berlinale invited me back again as a “guest” of the fest – offering me a comp hotel room. After returning for a few years, I fell in love with the city of Berlin. It was these trips to Berlin every February that convinced me to finally move to Berlin in 2016, leaving New York (I could not afford it on my blogger budget). Ever since, I’ve been attending Berlinale as a “local” and it’s different. Not only do I go home to my own apartment and sleep in my own bed every night, I also don’t have to spend any extra money to attend. Over the years, my excitement has faded watching so many bad or forgettable films. I keep wondering why they keep making bad picks. I see people spending money to come to Berlin and I want to tell them: don’t, it’s not worth it. But I always hold my tongue – many cinephiles do find good films at this festival and do enjoy coming here. I love Berlin and really, if they want to enjoy a trip to the city and catch some new films, by all means go for it.

Berlinale was struggling for years before the current leadership, too. German film critic Dieter Kosslick was running the festival from 2001 to 2019, and while they tried to bring some major films to the festival, they could never maintain any momentum. I remember being at Berlinale to cover the premieres of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2014), Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special (2016), James Mangold’s Logan (2017), Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018), Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2020). Nearly everything else at the fest in the last ~10 years has not gone to any major prominence. This German festival used to be a place for major works of cinema to premiere. Did you know all these films were major premieres at the Berlin Film Festival: the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (in 1998 – after first premiering at Sundance), Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (in 2014), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (in 2000 – after it already opened in the US), Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (in 2011 – after originally premiering in Iran), Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (in 2002 – after it already opened in Japan), Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (in 1989 – after it already opened in the US). This era is over, however, and Berlinale is now insistent on programming mostly bland, forgettable artsy films that rarely make an impact on cinema outside of their very small festival runs.

At the end of 2017, a powerful group of German filmmakers published an open letter in German newspaper Der Speigel (read it here) criticizing Kosslick and his leadership. They were worried the fest was losing its prominence and its reputation was dwindling. In their letter, they stated they wanted to find new leadership that could “lead the festival into the future on an equal footing with Cannes and Venice.” Sadly, they failed to achieve this. Under the current leadership, the festival has faded even more, year after year burying itself with its selection of niche cinema rather than making ambitious picks. They hired the wrong directors. I would be very curious to talk to any of these German filmmakers (a list including Maren Ade, Fatih Akin, Ulrich Köhler, Volker Schlöndorff, Christian Petzold, Franz Müller, Margarethe von Trotta, Julia von Heinz, Christian Wagner) nowadays and ask if they feel if the festival has improved. The sad thing is that Berlinale was still somewhat meaningful and relevant when it was run by Kosslick, now they have drifted further from any importance. Among the many reasons they didn’t gain any new ground is a refusal to change anything regarding the fundamental structure or timing of the film festival. The various categories at the fest make no sense, and hosting the festival in February is no longer a good idea – but I’ll get into this issue more later on.

Most of the problems that Berlinale had, still exist with its current directors – Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian. They are wrong for this festival and it was a mistake to hire them. I sincerely hope that they do not extend their contracts, as it will only doom this festival further into irrelevance. Get them out… jetzt! Carlo Chatrian comes from the Locarno Film Festival, located in Switzerland – I’ve been once before in 2014. The Locarno and Rotterdam Film Festivals are both outstanding festivals within the world of cinema, but they’re not right for most people. They show extremely artsy, super strange, very weird, mostly experimental films. They are niche festivals for niche cinema lovers. They are minor in the grand scheme of things. It just so happens that the film critics that love these niche films also work for mainstream outlets, so they rave about these extremely niche films in a way that makes it seem like they’re important. But most people won’t ever watch these films, and that’s totally fine. Let them run as these niche fests, let the films play to niche audiences, but it isn’t worth trying to argue and defend Locarno and Rotterdam as if they’re that important. Letting Chatrian run Berlinale the same as he ran Berlinale is turning it into an unimportant, niche festival.

Berlin Film Festival 2023

The best film at the 2023 edition of Berlinale was Past Lives, which already world premiered at Sundance a month before. The festival’s position in February is becoming a hindrance. They’re right behind Sundance, which is an A-list fest that gets all of the best films; and they’re just a few months before Cannes, with most filmmakers choosing to wait until Cannes (or later until TIFF / Telluride / Venice) rather than premiering too early in February. None of the Golden Bear winners from the last 5 years have gone to become a success outside of the film festival circuit. Stop referring to the Golden Bear as one of the big three prizes – it’s not that major. The top festivals in the world are: Sundance, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Toronto, Telluride, Venice, New York, Busan (in Korea). These are the only fests that can truly be considered A-list in 2023. There are tons of other great festivals that run each year – SXSW, AFI Fest, Sitges, Fantasia, Fantastic Fest, Tromso, Tallinn Black Nights, Melbourne, San Sebastian, Santa Barbara, Seattle, Tokyo, IDFA, CPH:DOX, True/False, Marrakech – but none of them are as prominent as the A-listers. Neither is Berlinale anymore.

“Berlinale is a festival where films go to die,” one friend remarked. Another colleague who has covered the festival for more than 20 years and studies German cinema is also tired of the lack of quality and worthwhile films year-after-year. This review of a film in the competition this year includes a line that sums up the fest: “a glum piece which feels like a relic of a European cinema that is no longer really attuned to the times.” Perfectly said. While there are always a few good films that can be found at any festival, much of the line-up from 2020 onward has been annoyingly mediocre, if not downright bad. Why do they choose these films? Where do they even find them? And why are they so opposed to playing better films instead of trying to highlight so much “artsy” trash? Most film critics agree – I spoke to many during the festival this year and they all feel the selection is consistently lackluster, nothing really stands out, save for one or two gems. It has become disheartening to talk about Berlinale without addressing the elephant in the room: it’s just not a top festival anymore. Yes, I adore “foreign films“, innovative indies, and artsy cinema – but I also want to watch good films, no matter where they’re from. Experimental cinema isn’t as good as it used to be.

My main suggestion on how to make Berlinale “A-list” again: move the festival to June or July. And most importantly, get rid of Chatrian as soon as possible. Replace him with an ambitious leader who can focus on more than obscure, niche films that a few people will ever watch or enjoy. All film festivals go through good times and bad times, and Berlinale needs to admit: they are going through a bad time… The best Berlinale experience I’ve ever had was in 2021 during the pandemic. They canceled their in-person event in February, and only let critics and jury members watch online screeners. Then waited until the summer and hosted a series of screenings at a number of gorgeous, outdoor venues around Berlin. I bought tickets to see a few of my favorites again, and a few others I missed, and it was wonderful. (Here is my full recap of that summer event.) It would be so much better if Berlinale moved out of the snowy, cold February timeframe and instead played the best of Sundance & Cannes in June, showing better films that aren’t world premieres, because that is what is most important – getting all the great films. This is why the Around the World in 14 Films event in December is now Berlin’s best festival. They are the ones who show all the best films, not Berlinale.

I certainly expect some critic colleagues to get angry and tear me down for saying this. I also expect the fest to get upset. Though I do think it’s important that the festival reflect on their prominence. If cinephiles want to fly in and see some experimental films, that’s great. However, Berlinale needs to step back and recognize that they aren’t an A-list fest and instead position themselves next to Locarno and Rotterdam. The European Film Market (“EFM“) drives a lot of the buzz during Berlinale – many industry members fly in to schmooze, take meetings, go clubbing, sell films, and maybe catch one or two of the main festival’s selection. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s worth coming to the Berlin Film Festival – there is not much worth seeing there, most of it truly is uninspired and insignificant. Even the best films won’t be talked about outside of Berlinale. Did anyone see Alcarràs? What about Synonyms? Everyone knows showing Tar months after it opened in every other country and celebrating Steven Spielberg with a German premiere of The Fabelmans even though it’s already out on Blu-ray in the US was an obviously desperate attempt to feign some relevance. It won’t help. Until the fest improves, there is a German word that nicely describes the relevance of Berlinale now: egal.

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