Richard Linklater's Boyhood leads the pack in Berlin

As the Berlinale draws to a close, Ryan Gilbey savours a couple of gems, while questioning how some films earned their spots at the festival.

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

In Berlin for this year’s film festival, it was easy to marvel at the city’s architecture, its myriad bars and clubs apparently secreted in the brickwork and accessible by password, its diverse restaurant culture where you might at any moment happen upon serious contenders for the juiciest burgers or most succulent sushi you’ve ever tasted. As for the films that played in the Berlinale ... Well, did I mention the bars and clubs and restaurants?

Not that I didn’t see some fine work ranging across the different strands, from the Official Competition to the Panorama, Forum and youth-oriented Generation 14plus. Some of these I have written about in this week’s NS, in a round-up surveying my first five days at the festival. As for the final three days I spent there, this had a sprinkling of gems too, including my two favourite films from this year’s line-up: Boyhood and The Second Game. The former was more than a decade in production. While its writer-director Richard Linklater has been simultaneously adhering to a more orthodox filmmaking schedule—he shot other films in the interim including A Scanner Darkly, Me and Orson Welles and Before Midnight—he has also devoted time over the last 11 years to shooting pieces of Boyhood along the way. The result is the nearest that fiction cinema has ever come to the scope of Michael Apted’s ongoing Up television series (which began in 1964 with 7 Up.) This is what gives the film its intrinsic richness: when it starts, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is seven years old, but through the course of the movie we see him—and his family, including his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke)—age before our eyes. When the movie ends almost three hours later, he is 18 and we have witnessed the complete span of his childhood and adolescence.

This device alone is enough to provide Boyhood with a surfeit of poignancy and resonance, but Linklater doesn’t get complacent. Sculpting the picture as he went, he fused developments in his young actor’s life with scripted material; the result feels entirely organic, with the exception of the occasional bum note from peripheral characters. There is a layered richness to each scene that could not have been achieved with ageing make-up or flash-forwards. The musical cues are also expertly chosen. You might groan at the opening use of Coldplay’s “Yellow” or the appearance in the final scenes of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, but it would be hard to argue that they didn’t carbon-date the picture for now and all time every bit as effectively as the on-screen progression from Bush to Obama, Gameboys to smartphones. Sharpest of all was Linklater’s choice of lead performer. Intuition must have told him that Coltrane would continue to be as bewitching a presence once beer and dope and girls enter Mason’s life as he was at 7, when all he wanted to do was sharpen rocks into arrowheads or play on the trampoline. But Linklater’s judgement was sound. So too is the film. The temporal experiments he carried out in his Before trilogy, which returned to the same characters at nine-year intervals, have been taken a step further with the triumphant and uniquely attentive achievement of Boyhood.

The Second Game, which was in the Forum section, is also concerned with the tension between past, present and future, though even this fan of the picture would have to concede that ambition and scope are not high on its list of defining characteristics. The Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu (who made 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective) is the son of the soccer referee Adrian Porumboiu. The conceit of the film is that they settle down to watch a videotape of a match that Porumboiu Snr refereed in 1988 between Dinamo and Steaua on an increasingly snowy pitch that turns the colour of dirty tennis socks as the match progresses. All we see throughout is the original 1988 TV broadcast in its grainy, pre-digital splendour; at times it’s hard to tell whether the fuzzy visuals are down to the falling snow or the imperfect technology. With the sound turned down, father and son muse over the game as we watch it in real time, with no breaks, no edits, no camera movement: just the match. This sounds deathly dull, and it is only fair to say that some colleagues were of that opinion. But this viewer, no lover of either football or directors’ commentaries, was drawn in by the droll father-son banter, the glimpses of social history (the composition of the football teams at the time effectively meant that the police were playing against the army) and the underlying self-deprecation of the whole affair. “This match is like one of my films,” Porumboiu says during one lull. “It’s long and nothing happens.”

Those highlights aside, there were times when I sat in the Palast watching pictures competing for the Golden Bear and thought: This simply isn’t good enough for an international film festival. One of those, Jack, was a sketchy social-realist tale about a young German boy who escapes from care to try to find the mother whose caricatured fecklessness landed him there in the first place. Given the proper love and attention, Jack might have grown up to be a Dardenne brothers film. Under-powered and inchoate, and making unreasonable demands on a young cast unable to convey the necessary intensity, it would have felt mediocre even if this were not the year that the festival was screening a Ken Loach retrospective and awarding that director an honorary Golden Bear.

Praia do Futuro, a German-Brazilian co-production, also reached for a weight and significance that it hadn’t earned. It’s the story of a gay lifeguard falling into a relationship with a soldier whose partner he failed to save from drowning; when that affair ends, the lifeguard moves to Berlin to be with a new lover but discovers that—what do you know?—the past catches up with him. Praia do Futuro found greater favour with critics than Jack, but I didn’t spot much in it that wasn’t bogus; the groundwork hadn’t been laid to prepare us for its emotional crescendos. (A film also has to earn the right to use David Bowie’s “Heroes” over its end credits. This hadn’t.) Divided into three chapters, it featured a motorcycle motif and a character who appears as a child in the first third before reappearing as an adolescent in the last part: call it The Praia Beyond the Pines.

A pick-me-up arrived in the form of God Help the Girl, a bittersweet musical which marks the directing debut of Belle & Sebastian’s frontman Stuart Murdoch. Surprisingly, the songs were the weakest part of the film. More doodles than actual numbers, they felt too ethereal to have sprung from the lips and instruments of such forceful characters: a chirpy anorexic girl (Emily Browning), a buoyant but shambolic musician (Olly Alexander) and a piano student (Hannah Murray) whom they enlist for their band. For all its abundant charm and delicacy, the film could have withstood a touch more grit—if you’re giving one of your characters an eating disorder so advanced that it has put them in hospital, it’s a good idea not to pretend it can be waved away by pop songs, boating and snogs. But for the most part, I found God Help the Girl polished, poised and endearingly confident, driven by editing and performances every bit as precise as the wordplay in Murdoch’s lyrics. I wouldn’t advise him to give up the day job, but on this evidence moonlighting is to be recommended.

The Berlin film festival ends on Sunday.

A young Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater's "Boyhood".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times