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Unknown pleasures at the Berlinale, the young upstart of the film festival world

Ryan Gilbey reports from the Berlin Film Festival 2014, where a viscous thriller about a soldier separated from his unit in 1970s Belfast rubs shoulders with a tender comic-drama starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.

Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a newly-married couple who find themselves homeless in "Love Is Strange".

This is Part 1 of Ryan Gilbey’s report from the Berlin Film Festival – Click here to read Part 2.

As the youngest in the triumvirate of European film festivals, the Berlinale, which has been running since 1951, is easily overshadowed by its elder siblings, Venice and Cannes. We all know how difficult it can be for stragglers to make their mark when the trailblazers have achieved so much. (I’m the eldest of three children. Why do you ask?) So it was a coup for the festival to secure as its opening film the world premiere of Wes Anderson’s candy-coloured caper The Grand Budapest Hotel, which has a delicious turn from Ralph Fiennes as a dandyish concierge embroiled in wartime intrigue. And the first half of Lars von Trier’s sexually explicit odyssey Nymphomaniac was shown in a slightly extended director’s cut – another premiere.

Having seen the two-part, four-hour-plus theatrical version (which I’ll be reviewing next week), I skipped this. Colleagues could be heard puzzling over what precisely had been added. The consensus seemed to be that there was a touch more chat and a few more of what Teri Garr in Young Frankenstein calls Schwanzstückers.

Talking of Schwanzstückers, one of the film’s stars, the volatile 27-year-old Shia LaBeouf, stopped by at the Nymphomaniac press conference briefly to repeat Eric Cantona’s gnomic quote about seagulls and sardines. He also appeared on the red carpet outside the Berlinale Palast with his face obscured by a paper bag on which was written the words: “I am not famous any more.” I was reminded of Peter Cook as Greta Garbo being driven through the streets proclaiming through a loudhailer: “I vant to be alone.”

Celebrity meltdowns aside, Berlin does not always sport the most tantalising line-up. “We complain about Cannes because it always has the same old names,” a friend observed, “then we moan about Berlin because it never has anyone we’ve heard of.” The upside is that any pleasures are all the richer for being unheralded. Remember, the likes of Gloria and A Separation made their initial splashes here.

Five days in and nothing yet has been quite that revelatory. I enjoyed La Marche à suivre, a documentary about a provincial Canadian school. The film places equal emphasis on discord and fun, dropping in on tense teacher-student powwows but also incorporating stylishly shot sequences of teenagers at play. Think of it as Être et avoir: the High School Years.

The tender comedy-drama Love Is Strange features heartfelt performances from John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a Manhattan couple who get hitched almost 40 years into their relationship, only to find themselves forced to lodge separately after they become unexpectedly homeless. While the lead actors are together, the film feels alive and vital; these characters deserve their own miniseries or chat show. Their rejuvenating reunion in a bar near the end of the movie is bliss for them and us alike.

The most encouraging hit of the festival so far is ’71, which played in the main competition. Yann Demange (whose TV credits include Top Boy and Criminal Justice) directs this sinewy thriller about Gary (Jack O’Connell), a squaddie separated from his unit in 1971 Belfast. The plot could be engraved on the nose of a bullet – hunted by foes and supposed friends alike, Gary must stay alive – but the film is lucid about the tribal complexities of the Troubles. The pace is expertly calibrated, too. There is a terrifying riot sequence and a brilliant breather in which Gary is “adopted” by a 12-year-old Protestant urchin who’s cock-a-hoop at finding a soldier. Genre pictures rarely bag festival prizes but at the time of writing, ’71 is the most complete and well-crafted film I’ve seen here.

Also gripping is History of Fear, Benjamin Naishtat’s elliptical portrait of Argentinean society in which the poor are feral and oppressed, the wealthy contemptuous and paranoid. A string of disorienting vignettes and tableaux amplify the sense of dread, Michael Haneke-style. Alarms howl, children vanish, military choppers loom sinisterly over a shanty town grid. The tension was weakened slightly by the suspicion that the scenes could have been arranged in any old order to little detrimental effect.

Thrillers in general are making a good showing. Lee Yong-seung’s Ship Bun (“Ten Minutes”) concerns a hard-working intern who goes from rising star to scapegoat, outcast and bullying victim after he is passed over for a staff position. Less convincing but similarly occupied with claustrophobic economic pressures is Things People Do, in which Wes Bentley (the kid from American Beauty with the cliff-ledge brow) becomes a moralistic, Robin Hood-style criminal. The New Mexico locations remind you that, while it’s not exactly bad, it isn’t Breaking Bad, either. One of the stars of that series, Aaron Paul, turns up in an inept adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel A Long Way Down. He plays one of a quartet of wacky misfits (Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette and Imogen Poots are the others) who arrive coincidentally on the same rooftop to commit suicide. Friendships are forged, tears shed. My body ached by the end. Not through laughing or crying but because I was rigid from cringing at each ingratiatingly zany line, flat joke and misjudged appeal to our sympathies.

Hossein Amini, the Iranian-British writer of Drive, makes his directorial debut with a fat-free film adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January, about a US tour guide (Oscar Isaac minus his Inside Llewyn Davis beard) working in 1960s Athens. There, he is drawn to a con man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst). It’s as elegant and creepy as a Highsmith adaptation should be. And all those sun-dappled ruins and linen suits were bound to have a replenishing effect on those of us barricaded behind scarves and bobble hats around the concrete plains of Potsdamer Platz.