Like this year’s Rotterdam film festival, the 2005 Berlinale offered only a few inspired new films, instead presenting a mixture of fine releases from other festivals and a variety of productions that ranged from solid to forgettable.

Regis Wargnier’s woefully inept Man to Man opened the festival. Based on a script by William Boyd, it features Joseph Fiennes as Jamie Dodd, an anthropologist whose attempts to find the link between apes and man lead to the capture of a pygmy couple and their transportation back to England. With his two colleagues (Iain Glenn and Hugh Bonneville), Dodd records every detail of his captives’ physiognomy and behaviour, in the hope that the results will bring fame and fortune.

Featuring exotic shots of deepest, darkest Africa, the film never manages to shake off the feeling that, intentionally or not, it is inherently racist. Although Dodd soon realises the error of his ways and denounces his colleague’s theories, accepting that the ‘visitors’ have an intelligence higher than he had originally thought, he still treats them as freakish objects to be marvelled at. The sad history of Sarah Baartman – the ‘Hottentot Venus’ (a subject both Wargnier and Boyd must surely have encountered in their research) – who was paraded around Europe in the early 19th Century to expand theories of eugenics and the dominance of the white race, should have informed this film more, offering the opportunity to expose genuine savagery; those scientists who believed that their research was in the best interests of mankind. Dodd’s change of heart implies that his two colleagues were alone in their belief, as opposed to the truth, which encouraged regressive, ‘scientifically proven’, attitudes well into the twentieth century. Wargnier’s new project is entitled Have Mercy on us All. One could be forgiven for thinking it was a documentary about audiences who sat through Man to Man.

Equally disappointing was Small Town Italy. An unconvincing drama about the breakdown of a relationship, its descent into the amour fou histrionics more commonly associated with French cinema resulted in laughter from the audience. Redeemer also failed to engage in any way. Unlike the cinemas of other Latin American countries, Brazil appears to have become stuck in a rut where violent crime and prison scenes are a steday staple. The film’s pyrotechnics also failed to impress, covering up a lazy script and an ending that beggared belief – for those that managed to stay till then.

The latest film from David MacKenzie was something of an oddity. Based on the novel by Patrick McGrath and adapted by Patrick Marber, Asylum details a torrid affair between an inmate at a mental hospital and the wife of a senior doctor. The excellent performances of Natasha Richardson and Hugh Bonneville aside, MacKenzie’s film is an anachronistic piece of work that offers little relevance outside of its closeted world.

In Thumbsucker, Justin Cobb finds himself unable to give up his habit of sucking his thumb. When his new-age orthodontist hypnotises him into abstaining, the effect almost causes a breakdown. He is prescribed medication, which transforms him into an outgoing overachiever. Only his addiction to public speaking competitions appears to keep him sane, although his teacher believes he has groomed an overly self-conscious teenager into a monster. Like Donnie Darko, Mike Mills’ debut is a strange affair whose many narrative strands make the film difficult to summarise. However, the sum is a mostly engaging (if wilfully offbeat) comedy drama. Berlin prize winner Lou Taylor Pucci conveys the angst of being a misunderstood teenager, while Vincent D’Onofrio, Tilda Swinton and Vince Vaughan offer solid support as his parents and eccentric teacher. The film also features two hilarious comic turns from Benjamin Bratt as a strung-out soap star treated by Tilda’s nurse at a rehab clinic and Keanu Reeves as the unorthodox orthodontist.

With the controversy still raging over the way Hitler’s last moments were presented in Downfall, Mark Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl– The Final Days comes across as a more traditional, but no less important, approach to WWII. Fresh from her excellent performance in The Edukators, Julia Jentsch is galvanising as the single female member of the White Rose group to be executed for high treason. Found distributing anti-Nazi propaganda in her university, Sophie, her brother and a friend were tried, sentenced and executed within six days. Rothemund’s intelligent and moving film reconstructs the events of these last days. Most impressive are the scenes between Sophie and the police chief interrogating her. As the truth of her culpability in the treasonous act becomes clear, Sophie’s resolve becomes stronger and her unwillingness to repent more pronounced. In contrast, the interrogator becomes more human, pleading for her to offer him some way of saving her life, before realising the futility of his actions and retreating behind the cold facade of officialdom.

Tickets is that rare thing – a portmanteau film that mostly works. Written and directed by Ermannio Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami and Ken Loach (whose script was penned by frequent collaborator, Paul Laverty), the various dramas unfold on a train heading for Rome. An elderly professor ponders over a moment of intimacy; a boisterous woman alienates her young charge and everyone around her; three young, Scottish football supporters suspect an Albanian boy of stealing a train ticket. Olmi’s film is the most complex, employing a more complex narrative structure, whose temporal ellipses gradually reveal a growing affection between two characters. Kiarostami’s segment almost feels like an homage to Fellini. Dominated by an archetypal Italian matriarch, it sees the director at his most playful (a stark contrast to his minimalist Five, which screened at Rotterdam and opens in the UK in Spring). Using the same actors who appeared in Sweet Sixteen, Ken Loach’s contribution is both moving and very funny. That the film falls short of each of the director’s own works is more a fault of the format than the contributions. That said, one would be hard pressed to think of another effort by a collective that works so well (Eros, the Antonioni/Kar-wai/Soderbergh collaboration, may offer an interesting counterpoint, when it opens later this year).

For me, the best films of the festival were the two new works by American film-maker James Benning. Formally rigorous, Ten Skies and Thirteen Lakes feature ten minute static shots of the chosen land/sky/waterscapes. Experimental in the sense that they refuse to veer from the basic concept of film and photography – recording an image – the films bridge the divide between gallery and cinema. Unwilling to show his films outside of the cinema space, Benning believes that his work is not to be experienced for only a few minutes, before the spectator moves on to another installation or gallery, but should be approached like a mainstream film (although he does concede the choices available to the viewer: you can concentrate on the minutiae of each composition, drift in and out of the film, or just fall asleep).

The effect is startling and, surprisingly, filled with drama. This is particularly true of Ten Skies. In one sequence, filmed in late 2003, the raging Californian bush fire (every shot took place within 100 miles of Benning’s Val Verde home) is reflected in a white cloud, transforming the sky into shades of gold and brown, before being consumed by a black smog. In another, a dark cloud that enters the bottom of the screen at the opening of the shot gradually consumes the screen before disappearing again. What the lakes lack in drama, they make up for in beauty and an almost ethereal strangeness. Benning’s strength, as was seen in his Californian trilogy (Los, El Valley Centro and Sogabi), is to make the viewer look at the world with fresh eyes. And after five long days at the festival, any film that can do that is a minor miracle.