Tomorrow afternoon, I head off to a below-freezing Germany to cover the Berlin International Film Festival -- or the Berlinale, as you prefer -- for the third year running. As with Sundance, critics will be counting on the movies to provide a little heat against the February chill, even if they don't yet know which ones. Berlin is among the hardest of major festivals to second-guess in terms of highlights: though it ostensibly forms an elevated triad of European festivals with Cannes and Venice, it can no longer compete with its sunnier counterparts for major arthouse blockbusters. As Cannes hogs the holiest auteurs and Venice claims some of the fall awards hopefuls, the Berlinale programmers have to dig a little deeper -- and in turn, the critics there have to look a little harder.
After a slight slump at the start of the decade, the fest's quieter approach is beginning to reap rewards. Not that many people were anticipating Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" before it premiered in last year's Berlin Competition; even during the first press screening, however, the electric ripple of surprise and excitement in the audience was palpable, as it was clear a major arthouse story was being born.