Northern Exposure

Amanda Matlovich/Headless Films Inc.

Seven Veils (2023)

If you’ve even seen a man on social media ask the woman who wrote the article if she’s ever read it, then you know exactly how “Seven Veils” feels. There’s a naivety here about how men in positions of power have exploited the women around them, both in the hallowed halls of opera and in the Bible, that feels somewhat unwarranted from a writer-director as attuned to sexualized bad behavior as Atom Egoyan. He’s directed more than one opera production of “Salome” himself, so this project is a meta attempt to analyze the text while also performing the text. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially at the Berlinale. But his attempts to address how the world is no longer willing to tolerate sexualized violence needed less righteous indignation and more maturity.

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A Himalayan Blunder

Aditya Basnet/Shooney Films

Shambhala (2024)

It must be easy to be a cinematographer in Nepal. You take a camera outside, point it at nearly anything, and let the astonishing mountain scenery do the rest of the work. It’s so gorgeous it’s a surprise “Shambhala” was the first Nepalese movie in competition at the Berlinale, although that rather minimizes Aziz Zhambakiyev’s beautiful work. But in face of such beauty it can be tough not to lose sight of the plot.

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Mountainish Inhumanity

Philistine Films

The Strangers’ Case (2024)

A lot of people do not give a lot of thought to immigration except to wonder why all these people are suddenly here when they could just stay at home. What “The Strangers’ Case” does is walk us, step by painful step, through the awful things that lead to a small boat in desperate trouble arriving in Greek waters. It does this with perfect staging and acting, an enormous sense of urgency and a pointed beginning and ending that could make you cry. The title is even a quote from Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake. Unfortunately, “The Strangers’ Case” is too calculated in how it tugs at our heartstrings and it tries so hard to make its point that it backfires.

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Spider Sense: Far From Home

Larry Horricks/Netflix

Spaceman (2024)

After “Gravity” came out, Tina Fey famously quipped that it’s about how George Clooney would rather die in the blackness of space than spend time with a woman his own age. Along those lines, “Spaceman” is about how Adam Sandler would rather die in the blackness of space than spend time with his pregnant wife. Deep space is a long way to go to learn that your wife’s feelings are just as valid as your career; and a talking space spider is one hell of a therapist, but hey, whatever works.

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Return to the Shadows

Travis Wilkerson

Through the Graves the Wind Is Blowing (2024)

It’s time to become acquainted with the filmography of Travis Wilkerson. In “Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing,” his 10th film, he manages to combine a personal experience of life under fascism, a history of the fight against fascism in Croatia, the complicated history of its city Split as expressed by its soccer team and the life story and recent career history of a local policeman named Ivan Perić. Originally he planned to make a movie about the disintegration of Yugoslavia, but as he says in his introduction, “How in the world can you do a thing like that.” The answer is, like this. And the cherry on top is it’s very, very good.

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The Tea Is Piping Hot

Olivier Marceny/Cinéfrance Studios/Archipel 35/Dune Vision

Black Tea (2024)

What “Black Tea” should have been is an exploration of how an Ivorian woman is able to be herself only once she leaves home. But instead “Black Tea” is an interesting failure about the limits of the masculine imagination. It’s also a demonstration of the importance of structural consistency if you want an audience to stay with your characters. This is such a shame, because director Abderrahmane Sissako, who also cowrote the script, has a reputation for attentive movies about how people’s lives are shaped by global forces outside their control. But based on this movie, unfortunately he is also only a man. It’s really irritating when a movie misses its own point.

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On the Hip

Monte & Culebra

Pepe (2024)

There was a major theme running through several different movies at this year’s Berlinale: restoring lost things to their rightful place and/or providing lost things with their own voice. The lost thing here whose voice was restored to it was a hippopotamus. And not just any hippopotamus, but one of the ones smuggled into Colombia by drug lord Pablo Escobar for his own private zoo. And not just any of the hippos in the drug lord’s private zoo, but the one who escaped and was the subject of a hunt by the Colombian army. He was nicknamed Pepe, and the movie is largely told from his point of view. As a concept this is insane, but so is this little story, and (big breath) writer-director-cocinematographer-editor-music-cosound designer Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias made it something big and beautiful. And Mr. De Los Santos Arias did it so well he won the directing prize at the Berlinale for it. He also threw in every possible related subplot, and while he was at it, some jaw-droppingly beautiful cinematography too. It’s a lot of weight for one creature to carry, but Pepe carries it off.

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Watch Your Step

Claude Wang/Homegreen Films

Abiding Nowhere (2024)

“Abiding Nowhere” was commissioned from director Tsai Ming-liang by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art; and once you know this the movie makes complete sense. For it is less of a movie in the traditional sense and more of an art installation, the kind that could easily play on a loop in an exhibit. And while this will absolutely limit its appeal, “Abiding Nowhere” also offers a chance for reflection that is the film’s entire point.

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Past Lives


Matt and Mara (2024)

There’s a huge difference in cinema between half-baked and uncooked. A film being largely improvised by its cast is fine, unless the improvisation is not built around a fixed plot. You can have all the talent in the world and the movie still won’t work if it isn’t sure of the story it is telling. “Matt and Mara” could have been delicious. But in this form we are not even being served the cookie dough. All that's here is some raw ingredients with the hope we'll mix them ourselves.

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Locked Down

Carole Bethuel

Suspended Time (2024)

As the longest year any of us ever lived recedes into memory, we all have a decision to make. Do we forget the way 2020 made us feel the way people who survived the Spanish flu did a century ago, or do we try to figure out how we can remember the most painful year of our lives (so far) without going completely crazy? It's an impossible question of course and everyone will have a different reaction to it; and certainly there are people who will not be able to bear “Suspended Time's” depiction of a lockdown year on principle, but it certainly helps that the version of the Covid pandemic shown here was suffering on the lowest possible setting.

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