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Berlin film festival looks east, hot topics in frame

By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - The Berlin film festival looks east this year with six of 19 competition entries either made or based behind the old Iron Curtain, while two star-studded U.S. movies tackle big business - energy and pharmaceuticals.

Iran's record on human rights will be in the frame during the two-week cinema showcase starting on February 7, while the Flintstones make way for "The Croods", a prehistoric family at the center of a new 3D animation from DreamWorks.

The annual Berlinale, now in its 63rd year, is one of Europe's most important film festivals, and alongside it runs a large-scale marketplace for trading new features and documentaries and discussing those under development.

While unable to attract the number of stars and blockbusters as similar events in Cannes and Toronto, Berlin is an early introduction each year to what global cinema has to offer and enjoys a reputation for tough films tackling hot topic issues.

"When you come into the New Year, it's important that there be a major international festival that lays the groundwork for the year," said Michael Barker, head of Sony Pictures Classics which has "Before Midnight" in Berlin.

"I don't think it's a conflict with the Oscars or with Sundance, because Sundance is a very different type of festival," he told Reuters, referring to the festival held in Utah in January that has a greater emphasis on U.S. cinema.

Eastern Europe is in the Berlin spotlight, with competition films from the region including "Child's Pose" which examines corruption and class in Romania through the story of a wealthy mother seeking to buy her convicted son his freedom.

"Harmony Lessons" is Kazakh filmmaker Emir Baigazin's feature drama debut, while "In the Name of..." from Poland broaches the sensitive topic of homosexuality in the Roman Catholic priesthood.

U.S. actor Shia LaBeouf plays Charlie in "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman", about a young man who travels to Romania and gets embroiled in a dangerous rivalry with a mafia drug cartel.

POLITICS, BUSINESS ON SCREEN

Among the topical movies in Berlin in 2013 will be "Promised Land", about the controversial drilling technique for extracting gas known as "fracking" which stars Matt Damon and is directed by his "Good Will Hunting" collaborator Gus Van Sant.

Steven Soderberg's "Side Effects" is in part a critique of the pharmaceutical industry, although online reviews stress it is as much a murder mystery and boasts Jude Law, Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the cast.

Soderbergh, an Oscar winner for his 2000 narcotics drama "Traffic", has announced it will be his final big-screen feature film, at least for the foreseeable future.

Arguably the most politically charged picture at the festival will be "Closed Curtain", co-directed by acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi who made it in defiance of a 20-year ban on film making imposed by authorities at home.

Convicted of making anti-government propaganda, Panahi has nevertheless managed to make two movies since being placed under house arrest in 2010.

In 2011 "This Is Not a Film", about a day in his life, was transported out of Iran on a USB stick hidden inside a cake, and has since been shown to the world.

"Before Midnight", the third part in Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's long-running love story, is not eligible for awards at the festival's closing ceremony on February 16, when the coveted Golden Bear for best picture is handed out.

Also in the main lineup but out of competition is "The Croods", featuring the voices of Nicolas Cage and Ryan Reynolds, and "Dark Blood", which River Phoenix was filming when he died aged 23 in 1993.

Nearly 20 years later, after saving the footage from being destroyed, director George Sluizer decided to finish the film by reading aloud off-screen the missing scenes from the screenplay.

The Berlinale opens on February 7 with the international premiere of martial arts epic "The Grandmaster" directed by Hong Kong's Wong Kar Wai, who is also president of this year's jury.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

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