Identity Crisis

Gariza Films, Inicia Films

20,000 Species of Bees (2023)

“20,000 Species of Bees” is about an 8-year-old child coming to the realization that they are not the gender assigned to them at birth, and whether or not the child’s family will be able to accept and adjust to this news. As the child, Sofía Otero, who is 8 herself, has just won the gender-neutral Silver Bear for Best Actor prize at this year’s Berlinale. This is an achievement on par with Quvenzhané Wallis’s Best Actress nomination for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the age of 6. But a film about a child whose gender identity is being questioned is such a hot-button topic that first-time writer/director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren had 20,000 different ways to mess this up. It’s delightful to report that none of them happened.

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Missed Connections

Lu Films

The Shadowless Tower (2023)

The White Dagoba is a thousand-year-old temple in Beijing, built on the orders of Kublai Khan, that was, according to this movie named after it, carefully designed and built so as to cast no shadow. In the streets around the temple, whether or not you cast a shadow yourself is not guaranteed. It's quite a striking visual metaphor, but the movie is so overwrought it doesn't quite know how to make the best of it.

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Twist of Fate

Films Grand Huit

Disco Boy (2023)

Sometimes the best thing to do is just to dance. Aleksei (Franz Rogowski) got a raw deal; a Belarusian orphan doesn’t have many ways to make a better life for himself. His childhood dream with his “comrade in misfortune,” Mikhail (Michał Balicki), was to make their way to France, enlist in the Foreign Legion, and after five years depart as French citizens with French names and the slate wiped clean. But dreams can curdle into nightmares, as Aleksei finds out firsthand in the Nigerian Delta, of all places. It’s not the plot the “Disco Boy” title leads you to expect, but for writer-director Giacomo Abbruzzese that’s the point, how the expectations and prejudices of others limit your own life.

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Boys' Club

Wyatt Garfield

Manodrome (2023)

If the pitch for “Manodrome” wasn't “ ‘Taxi Driver’ meets ‘Fight Club’ ” someone should be fired. What movies have better depicted a crisis of American masculinity than those two? But the key difference is that both of those movies knew what they were fighting for. “Manodrome” doesn't. It doesn’t know what it wants. It doesn't even know who to blame for the mess it’s in. Its incoherent hatred is an accurate reflection of the sickeningly violent and misogynistic ethos that is flooding social media and the minds of teenage boys all over the world. But real-world accuracy and production values worthy of the Berlinale don’t necessarily make a movie good.

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Passing Down the Family Business

Benjamin Baltimore

The Plough (2023)

A movie about three generations of a family running their own puppet theater in Paris is an unusual setting for exploring how a person chooses their life. Of course the multiple metaphors, starting with the title, play their part, but so do family expectations, the limits of the body, and who a person falls in love with. Philippe Garrel won the Best Director prize at this year’s Berlinale for his work, a startling choice since there’s nothing overtly flashy here, which is the entire point.

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Smart Phonies

Budgie Films Inc.

BlackBerry (2023)

Countless American movies about capitalism make it look fun and sexy, and worth all the hard work. But “BlackBerry” is Canadian, about the lacunae of capitalism, which despite being good enough for the Berlinale unfortunately includes too many of its own. It’s the based-on-a-true story depiction of the rise and fall of Research in Motion, the Canadian company which basically invented the mobile phone. The company’s fall is not a spoiler; this review is not being written on a BlackBerry and you aren’t reading it on one either. It’s an investigation into how personalities can combine to build incredible success; and how that same combination can lead to downfall. Unfortunately it never quite reaches what it is capable of.

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Triptych Pictures

The Survival of Kindness (2022)

This is one of a very few movies that is without language (absolutely not the same thing as being silent), which means “The Survival of Kindness” is to be recommended on that basis alone. The lack of language is a crucial part of the film's message, which is about the brutality of racism, especially as that manifests in Australia. And for the most part it works extremely well, until it doesn't.

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Hope Floats

TS Production/Longride

On the Adamant (2023)

In 2002 Nicolas Philibert scored a major international hit with “To Be and To Have,” a documentary about a year in the life of a small rural school. That film took pains to disguise that the school was small because it was for children who needed greater care and individual attention. Now Mr. Philibert has outdone himself and won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale with “On the Adamant,” but here the people needing greater care and individual attention are adults. The Adamant is a day center for patients at a mental hospital serving central Paris, built on a repurposed barge permanently tethered on the Seine; and the atmosphere is one of gentle growth and support. Adults are not as inherently sympathetic as little children, of course. But over the course of the film sympathy for the tribulations of the attendees only grows. As a practitioner of gentle empathy Mr. Philibert is a master.

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Get Along Like a Forest on Fire

Christian Schulz/Schramm Film

Afire (2023)

He wears all black to the beach, so you know without being told that he’s a writer. An insufferable one at that, too. His name is Leon (Thomas Schubert) and he is beside himself with anxiety about his new book, which is expressed through childish sulking and rudeness, as well as an irritating tendency to see the worst in everything. Over the course of the movie – the German title of which literally translates to “red sky” – Leon learns the hard way about the importance of the social graces and the value of human kindness. But the way in which these lessons are taught leave a great deal to be desired.

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