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.

Ditto Wim Wenders's "Pina": hopes weren't stratospheric for a specialized dance film from a director whose best days were seemingly far behind him, but from the film's first gliding 3D steps, it was clear something special was in store -- even if one couldn't necessarily have predicted that either of these films would be in line for Oscars a year later.

Some of my favorite discoveries of the last two Berlin fests weren't easily seen coming: two years ago, "The Illusionist," my eventual #1 of 2010, was buried so deep in one of the sidebars that only a handful of critics even knew to pitch up at the press screening. One of my 2011 Top 20, "Sleeping Sickness," I caught on a whim at a late-night screening; it turned out to be my top film of the fest, but only because I hadn't even spotted "Tomboy" in a separate sidebar, and wouldn't see it until months later. Meanwhile, some of the festival's most heavily advertised films often come to nothing. US indie "Yelling to the Sky" landed in last year's Competition with much advance fanfare; a year later, the interesting but ungainly coming-of-age drama is still unreleased.   

All of which is to say that, while I've called this post a Berlinale preview, actively previewing the festival is something of a fool's game: far better to arrive, rifle through the telephone directory-sized programme, and go where the wind (or at least the promise of heating and coffee) takes you.

With that in mind, there are a few familiar names in this year's Competition -- and not just in the jury, which will be presided over by the august Mike Leigh. Billy Bob Thornton isn't a name we've thought much about in recent years, but he's back with his first narrative feature in 11 years, "Jayne Mansfield's Car," a 1960s-set ensemble piece in which he stars alongside Kevin Bacon, Robert Duvall and John Hurt. On the world cinema front, the Competition also offers new works from Christian Petzold ("Barbara," which reunited him with "Yella" star Nina Hoss), Ursula Meier (whose "Sister" features the odd combination of Lea Seydoux, Martin Compston and Gillian Anderson) and the veteran, Palme d'Or-winning Taviani brothers ("Caesar Must Die").

Meanwhile, my most anticipated film of the Competition -- and indeed the whole festival -- is "Captured," which promises the firebrand pairing of Filipino director Brilliante Mendoza and reliably fearless French star Isabelle Huppert. Mendoza's "Kinatay" outraged many at Cannes in 2009, where Huppert's own jury controversially handed him a prize, but I remain one of its, and his, comparatively scarce admirers.

Elsewhere, the confusingly classified bracket of Competition films that are nonetheless out of competition includes "Bel Ami," an evidently lush Guy de Maupassant adaptation starring Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman and Kristin Scott Thomas -- it emanates a worrying aroma of "Cheri," which was also unveiled in Berlin three years ago, but we shall hope for the best. Also in this limbo prestige category is "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate," a 3D historical epic from Tsui Hark, and James Marsh's "Shadow Dancer," which earned strong notices out of Sundance for star Andrea Riseborough.

As usual, a couple of Sundance highlights are having their European premiere in Berlin: Ira Sach's acclaimed gay drama "Keep the Lights On" shows up in the Panorama sidebar. In the same section, we find "Cherry," a debut feature from US director Stephen Elliott set in the San Francisco porn industry, starring James Franco, Heather Graham and Dev Patel; "Dollhouse," the latest from Oscar-nominated writer Kirsten Sheridan (daughter of Jim) and "Elles," starring Juliette Binoche -- as well as "The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears," which I know nothing about, but has to take the "Milk of Sorrow" Memorial Award for most self-parodically artsy title.

The Berlin sidebars are many, varied and yet not always distinct from each other, though this year's Berlinale Special section is perhaps the tastiest  of them on paper. Among the potential high points are Werner Herzog's three-hour "Death Row" documentary, something of a companion piece to his recently acclaimed "Into the Abyss"; Guy Maddin's "Keyhole," which reunites him with Isabella Rossellini and promises all manner of gorgeous weirdness; British director Barnaby Southcombe's "I, Anna," which advertises itself as a tribute to 60s and 70s noir and stars Charlotte Rampling and Eddie Marsan; and Kevin Macdonald's eagerly anticipated music doc "Marley."

Plenty else besides -- I've barely glanced through the Forum, Generation, Retrospective and other chapters of the programme -- but that seems more than enough to be going on. So alongside the regular seasonal business, look out for daily festival dispatches (plus the occasional tweet) on what I've seen and, hopefully, liked. (For the first time, I'll also be contributing festival reviews to Variety.) Things kick off on Thursday with the curtain-raiser, French director Benoit Jacquot's costume drama "Farewell My Queen," starring Diane Kruger and, busy woman that she is, Lea Seydoux. Berlinale openers haven't the greatest reputation, but we have to start somewhere.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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