Streaming Spotlight - Silver Bear stars

As Berlin Film Festival moves to gender neutral awards, we recommend some of the festival's best performance winners to stream at home

by Amber Wilkinson

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years.
Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years. Photo: Agatha A. Nitecka © 45 Years Film Ltd

Earlier this week, the Berlin International Film Festival announced that it will be switching to gender neutral acting awards from its 2021 edition. Whether the pitting of women directly against men will lead to more parity is a matter of debate - although the festival has a strong record on equality in its programming and staffing - but it got us thinking about some of the great performances, both male and female that have been rewarded down the years. Not all are available to stream - including Nina Hoss' magnetic performance in Christian Petzold's 2007 metaphysical thriller Yella, Requiem (2006), which put Toni Erdmann's Sandra Hüller on the map and Sidney Poitier's breakthrough role in The Defiant Ones in 1958 - but here's some of the best that are.

The Heiresses, MUBI and available to rent on other platforms

Ana Brun's Silver Bear-winning performance in Paraguayan director Marcello Martinessi's 2018 debut is all the more remarkable for the fact that it marks the first screen role for Brun, who is a lawyer by trade. She slips effortlessly under the skin of Chela, a woman from a wealthy family but facing mounting money problems, who is forced to redefine her life after her long-term love Chiquita (Margarita Irún) is jailed for debt. Themes of oppression and self-suppression run through the film, which gives a matriarch's view of the country from behind closed doors. At the heart of it all is Brun's performance, concentrated but with subtle undernotes, like the liqueur Chela has on a tray as part of her routine in the film. Read what Martinessi told us about working with Brun, here.

A Separation, Amazon, GooglePlay and other platforms, from £2.49

In what might be considered an early indication that Berlin are happy to adjust their rules when it suits, the Silver Bear acting prizes in 2011 were awarded to the actor and actress ensemble in Asghar Farhadi's film about a trial separation. That decision is a testimony to the complexity of Farhadi's film, which sees the problems between central couple Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) become increasingly complicated through the interactions with their various family members. Nader moves in his Alzheimer's sufferer father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), hiring a religious young woman Razieh (Sareh Bayat), with her four-year-old daughter (Kimia Hosseini) in tow to help him, while Simin goes to live with her mother (Shirin Yazdanbakhsh). Morality becomes fluid and secrets start to bleed out once Nader's hot-headedness sets him on a crash course with Razieh's husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), as Farhadi builds the tension, neatly exploring gender issues and societal traditions along the way.  Each member of the cast is called upon for depth of performance - keeping them poised between what might be considered the morally right and wrong sides of the argument - and each delivers. We wonder which one of them got to keep the statuette.

45 Years, MUBI and available to rent on other platforms, from £2.49

The festival jury also awarded both acting prizes to the same film in 2015, when Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay took home the honours for their portrayal of a long-married couple whose marriage is thrown into turmoil. Andrew Haigh's film adaptation of David Constantine's short story In Another Country  - which went on to see Rampling nominated for an Oscar - explores the run-up to Geoff (Courtenay) and Kate's (Rampling) 45th wedding anniversary. Events are knocked off kilter when news arrives that the body of a long-dead old flame of Geoff's has been found in a glacier. As things that once seemed concrete to Kate suddenly become fluid beneath her feet, she struggles to cope with the ghosts of the past, while Geoff finds himself increasingly at sea in the present. The performances strike a compelling balance between Courtenay's understated portrayal of the sincere but hapless Geoff and Rampling's subtle unravelling of Kate. Read what Haigh and Rampling told us about the film.

The Marriage of Maria Braun, BFI Player

Hanna Schygulla appeared in 23 of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film and telly works but she is arguably never better than here, as a determined post-war newlywed on the rise - which won her the acting honours in Berlin in 1979. Schygulla, whose career had been in a bit of a slump, sharply returns to form as she gradually sheds Maria's vulnerabilities to become a self-confident success, at least in economic terms. Schygulla brings an enigmatic edge to her performances, always seeming to withhold a little something about what makes her characters tick - which only makes her all the more compelling. The actress was also given an Honorary Golden Bear in 2010.

The English Patient, Amazon, GooglePlay and other platforms, from £2.49

French star Juliette Binoche continues to pick up lifetime achievement awards and will add to her silverware collection when she picks up the Golden Icon award at Zurich Film Festival next month. Back in 1997, she took home the Silver Bear for her role as a nurse who believes she is cursed in Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's novel, which would also win her a best supporting actress Oscar (something neither of her co-stars Ralph Fiennes or Kristin Scot Thomas could match, despite being nominated). Her nurse, Hannah, is in an Italian monastery caring for the patient of the title (Fiennes), who we learn about in flashback, along with the tale of his affair with Katharine (Scott Thomas). Switching between the two time periods, Minghella crafts a complex melodrama - shot with immaculate precision by John Seale - while Binoche plays Hana with a gripping volatility, with emotions running so close to the surface you never know which one will break through next.

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Microsoft, Amazon, from £2.49

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation is a typically sumptuous affair that has no time for the stuffiness of most Shakespeare adaptations. Here DiCaprio - who won the Silver Bear for his troubles in 1997, the same year as Binoche - has his Romeo transported to modern southern California, alongside Juliet (Clare Danes). There, Luhrmann emphasises the youthful passion of the play with visual extravagance, while both Danes and DiCaprio tap into the mercurial energies and sexual chemistry of teenage life, while still delivering the Shakespearean language without missing a beat.

Jackie Brown, Amazon, GooglePlay and other platforms

While you might rightly have expected Pam Grier to make off with an award for Quentin Tarantino's tale of an air hostess involved in a smuggling plot, it was actually Samuel L Jackson who walked away with a Silver Bear in 1998 (they would both go on to receive Golden Globe nominations). He plays Ordell Robbie, a ruthless drug dealer who, after arrest, Jackie decides to play off against the cops in the hopes of getting out of things in one piece. Jackson had already proved adept at playful delivery in Tarantino's previous Pulp Fiction and he gets plenty of choice lines again, but the director's skill goes beyond one-liners to craft memorable characters, while handling the intricacies of Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch plot with care. Fact fans might be interested to note that Matt Damon was also honoured in Berlin the same year - for "outstanding single achievement", no less - for his co-writing (with Ben Affleck) and acting honours on Good Will Hunting.

Milk, our short film selection this week, won the Golden Bear for short film in 2005. Directed by Peter Mackie Burns - who has gone on to make features Daphne and Rialto - it features two excellent performances, from Kathleen McDermott and Brenda Fricker, as a young woman and her grandmother gradually who find tension between them thawing on bath night.

Milk from Autonomi on Vimeo.

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