Left: Ira Sachs, Keep the Lights On, 2012, still from a color video in HD, 101 minutes. Right: Ann-Kristin Reyels, Formentera, 2012,* still from a color film, 93 minutes.

IN RETROSPECT, 2011 was a great year for cinema. That year’s Berlinale memorably served as a barometer for bold statements, which ranged from Béla Tarr’s stark essay on finitude, The Turin Horse, to the sweeping AIDS documentary We Were Here. The prospects for 2012 are rather more humble, if the current edition of the Berlinale (or at least what I’d seen by its halfway mark) is any indication.

One of the more pervasive trends is a shift away from the macro (large, worldly issues) and toward the micro (personal, domestic crises). Is this to be the year of the Relationship Movie? Two films that both happen to star Thure Lindhardt—Formentera and Keep the Lights On—epitomize this direction. The former, directed by Ann-Kristin Reyels, analyzes a young professional couple from Berlin vacationing among aging hippies on the eponymous Spanish island. He wants to run away from it all and relocate there with their young child; she feels content with their life back home and fathoms that his desire to flee is grounded in his secret unhappiness with their marriage. In Ira Sachs’s Keep the Lights On, Lindhardt plays a gay documentary filmmaker attached to a young lawyer whose struggles with addiction threaten to implode their relationship. The plot is fairly rote and at times hovers dangerously close to cliché—though I suppose it serves a political purpose, showing, in the raging topical arena surrounding gay marriage, that queer couples can be just as miserable as their hetero counterparts.

Of course, with a program as vast as the Berlinale’s, which features several hundred films in ten sections, there are always surprises. Finding them is often a matter of luck. So far, the Zellner Brothers’ Kid Thing tops my list of fortunate accidents; its prepubescent, white trash antiheroine sorts through the refuse of the American heartland and contributes her own bit of pitiless violence to the pile. When Annie (Sydney Aguirre) discovers a woman trapped in a hole in the ground in a remote forest, she runs away, believing it to be the devil. Eventually she must grapple with whether it is in her moral fiber to help another person. The film is, in many ways, disgusting and difficult to watch; its few characters (cripples, drunks, sadists: human derelicts) and their crude, pointless activities are all as unsympathetic as the protagonist herself. At the same time, the film’s stylistic cunning makes it hard to look the other way: Conjure a world populated with living Duane Hanson sculptures and photographed by Jeff Wall. Kid Thing could very well be the scariest slice of Americana Ugliana since Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997).

Among those making their feature debuts this year is Zainichi Korean director Yong-hi Yang. Her previous documentaries explored her estrangement from her brothers, who as teenagers were sent by their parents to study in North Korea and were never able to return to Japan. Kazoku no kuni (Our Homeland) uses this fascinating autobiographical material to animate the story of a son who is permitted to come home after twenty-five years to seek medical treatment for a brain tumor. The film owes its success to an ensemble of powerhouse performances, headed by Iura Arata as the traumatized son.

Other worthwhile endeavors include flashy festival opener Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen), director Benoît Jacquot’s chronicle of the last days of Versailles from the perspective of Marie Antoinette’s reader; timely documentaries on Marina Abramović and Ai Weiwei; and a handful of cinematic installations included in two of the four Forum Expanded exhibitions I managed to attend, “Kritik und Klinik” and “Gutschow-Haus.” We’ll see what the remaining days hold in store.

Travis Jeppesen

The 62nd Berlin International Film Festival runs February 9–19.