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The 61st BFI London Film Festival

Venue: Various cinemas in London

Date: 4th - 15th October 2017

By Andrew Kay | 10 November 2017

So this year’s London Film Festival (LFF) took place in and around Central London, with selected venues such as the Rich Mix in Shoreditch and Hackney Picturehouse - not to mention the bespoke Embankment Cinema - being used to fan out the festival from the circular mile of Leicester Square. As with previous festivals, this was mostly an opportunity to see films that you may never seen anywhere else - depending on their distribution deals and rights’ issues - and, for that, it’s often an invaluable experience - an antidote to the often anodyne weekly releases.

For sure, there are the tentpole movies; the galas that make the London Film Festival still an in-vogue and credible festival. The stars come out to press the flesh; copy is generated across the world and these films take on a life of their own, until, often, the Oscars the following March.  But the London Film Festival has had a glorious tradition of championing films that you might not see anywhere else.  Besides this, there is an economic reason for having the festival - it improves the coffers of the British Film Institute; it often means capacity attendances at big cinemas; and it’s a showcase for films not bought yet, to be snapped up by industry executives and buyers for future release.  

The pleasure of discovery is one joy of film going that lost in a saturated Internet marketing mix. I’m not anti-marketing of any film - it’s a business like anything else - but the LFF doesn’t saturate the marketing. It puts the film out there, often teasingly, and invites an open-minded film fan to take a punt. So mostly the joy of discovery is made in the gamble of paying for something that might give off the whiff of an elixir of discovery.  Of course, in doing so-and if the film gets traction or a buzz within the 11-days of the festival - then the person who has taken this punt can have bragging rights over a piece of cultural capital that, having seen months in advance - or never again-is their splendid opportunity of discovery and social kudos.

The LFF, as in previous recent years, was compartmentalized into different strands such as Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Create & Debate, with two competitions and a documentary strand. Of course, there were several galas, each given their own reason for being, mixing the big blockbusters and films of acute interest.  Having not attended for twelve years, there were several moments of misremembering the last LFF I attended and what I experienced this time around. One thing I do remember: there were a lot less journalists in 1999-2005. Now the proliferation of the Internet has meant more opportunity for critics to get their opinions out there. Laudably, too, was the admittance of students on film study courses to be a part of the press screenings, which should keep alive the practice of film criticism for future generations. Press shows for the LFF began two weeks before the actual festival, so there was already a buzz to this veritable smorgasbord of a cinematic feast before it all officially begins.

Beast - a terrifically ambitious British-made serial killer and love story with a beautiful air of laconic menace, made this one of the highlights of the Festival. Possibly too ambitious in some ways - the film does pack in a lot of different kinds of strands - but the dull Jersey setting is given a shot in the arm by a mysterious, good-looking stranger, who penetrates the stale environs of an oppressed and oppressive family headed by a Mother Hen matriarch and a wayward, sexually awoken teenager, smitten by the bearded bit-of-rough, who seems good with his hands (he’s handy at fixing broken furniture.) It’s thanks, mainly, to the performance of relative newcomer Jessie Buckley as teenager Moll that this film works so well. At once prissy and coy, she’s soon taken on an air of confidence and defiance, which sets up some conflicts of interest.  There’s elements of Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) in the way that a charismatic stranger slowly seduces and gains the confidence of some of those in this oppressed family unit.  But Buckley’s performance is powerfully nuanced, always holding something back for the audience to figure out. She has a spellbindingly assuring and arresting presence whenever she’s on screen.

Ex Libiris: The New York Public Library - On one level this documentary-from the doyen of contemporary documentary film, Fredrick Wiseman, who has been documenting people and institutions for over 50 years, and is still going strong - is a testament to the vital role libraries play in communities, even diverse communities as dense and chaotic as those found in New York City.

We get nearly 200 minutes of a fascinating glimpse into what makes libraries tick, dispelling the notion that they only lend out books, When, instead, they exist for people without access to the Internet; they’re a resource for remembering history; and they stop people from being cut off from the day-to-day activities of a city. They also provide a cultural hub for music and dance and are an invaluable research tool. Wisemen never lets us forget that fiscal public budgets are tight and, at times, were given to being a fly on the wall of how public officials justify their ever so dwindling budgets.  When the Bronx outpost of a mainly African-American library, situated near a run-down expressway, decries the lack of funding, it brings home the idea of community mobilisation and collective action, and the heart warms.

Blade of the Immortal - LFF stalwart Takashi Miike brings his latest film, his 100th (he’s only in his late 50s!) Ever since his eccentric output back in the early 2000s, he’s been steadily becoming more and more mainstream, with his most accessible, “13 Assassins” (2010) also being his biggest commercial and critical success. A bloody samurai film is often a tried and tested formula for a movie. This has an added element of fantasy in that the protagonist Manji (Takuya Kimura) is badly injured and left for dead after a particularly blood battle, but is saved by a mysterious witch who feeds him sacred bloodworms, which repair his vital organs and keep him immortal. As he embarks on another mission, closer to his heart, as it relates to the death of his sister, he finds chopping down his foes and repairing his organs a distinct advantage to being successful in his quest.

As beautiful as this film is; as balletic the blood sprays are and how skillfully the sword choreography is rendered, the film suffers from repetition, which becomes exhausting, and ultimately self-defeating.  Perhaps it would have worked better with some judicious cutting and re-editing, because at 140 minutes, this becomes hard work, despite, at times, being a kinetic experience. But there are only so many times you can see an angry mission-led samurai managing to kill and maim twenty of his foes with quick dispatch. Obviously, this film has Manga film origins, and when they’re writ large as narrative cinema, their weaknesses come to the fore.

Pickups - A wonderfully clever, self-reflexive, somewhat autobiographical serial killer drama from the criminally underrated British director, Jamie Thraves, was another of this year’s Festival highlights. Adian Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire) stars as himself going through a fictional divorce, whilst playing a serial killer in a new film. There’s ample pleasure to be had when the film explores the nature of fame and stardom, with some tense and well-directed moments of black comedy. The film’s originality and edginess come from the desire to push the envelope ever so slightly. A scene with a female fan - that goes from cordial to downright sinister - to a great two-man riff on the truths of masturbation shows the quality and uncompromising nature of the writing. Adian Gillen puts himself out there, and the result is a gem of low-budget British filmmaking, that puts contemporaries to shame.

Call Me By Your Name - After the runaway success of “Moonlight,” films about young gay men are in vogue and this is a more tender and less fraught and chaotic a love story than “Moonlight”, thanks, in large part, to the film’s picturesque setting somewhere in Northern Italy. This is Arthouse cinema of a bygone era, updated to or crystalised in a non-specific past (early 1980s?) and written by James Ivory, a man no stranger to creating love stories in places you can’t quite place, but seem quite idyllic and seductively romantic.

17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) lives with his professor father and his French wife and spends his summer transcribing piano notes on his Walkman.  His world is about to change with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer,) an assistant to Elio’s father. He’s brash, arrogant, super-confident, dismissive and not a little bit intriguing to Elio, especially with his chiseled looks and curt rudeness.  What begins as annoyance on Elio’s part-and indifference on Oliver’s-soon turns into a blossoming romance.

What unfolds is one of the most sensual films in many years; a film that seduces with romantic interludes that aren’t played out to their logical narrative conclusion, thereby spinning out the mysteriousness of these two lovers. It keeps the audience occupied too, which doesn’t allow for the film to become predictable. There’s a wonderful scene with a peach that beautifully captures the relationship between food and sex. “Call Me By My Name” is destined to be a great cinematic story in the months and years to come.

Lean On Pete - lonely 15-year-old Charley Thomas (Charlie Plummer) lives a somewhat estranged existence with his father somewhere in the barren Mid West of North America and finds a part-time job with a horse trainer (Steve Buscemi).  Finding kinship with a tired old nag - Lean On Pete - the film develops into a touching relationship between boy and horse and an overall richly poetic road movie across the backbone of America, where it’s difficult, at times, to bring a horse to water when you’re too young to be financially independent.

Thoroughbred - Another horse connection, but not quite. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) are brought together so Amanda can have help to study for her college entrance exams in Connecticut. Lily’s stepfather, Mark, is suspicious about the two’s scheming and carrying on and wants to put a stop to their friendship. Unfortunately, what turns out, at first, to be a joke, spins into something much more serious, especially when the two girls enlist the help of a hapless drug dealer (the late, great Anton Yelchin, in this his last role.)

This is a terrific debut film that is so beautifully acted with pitch-perfect nuance and accuracy, complementing the direction that has these astonishingly powerful pregnant pauses, which reveal surprising details about the girls’ personalities and predilections.  This is all the more astonishing when it’s been made by a major studio, Universal, where the time given over to tease the audience wouldn’t really be a priority. Here, those moments are the essence of the film, and they’re a delicious, deadly pleasure.

Wajib - One of the joys of the London Film Festival is discovering films that offer a window into a world and another culture we’re probably not familiar with. Continuing that tradition, we head to Nazareth where Shadi returns home to hand-deliver wedding invitations along with his father, Wajib. Trouble is, that father and son don’t really get on, and the film is devoted, lovingly and fractiously, in exploring their relationship, however strained it is, and however many antagonisms and niggles come to the fore.  With political and cultural traditions unpacked and often criticised, Wajib is nonetheless a tender, if at times jagged, road movie of recrimination and reconciliation.  

Dark River - A British drama of foreboding that promised much, but I felt disappointed. Ruth Wilson plays Alice, who comes back to her late father’s Yorkshire farm to keep it going. But it’s been left to rack and ruin, and, besides, her brother, Joe (Mark Stanley) has designs on the farm, thereby ensuring the film’s theme of sibling conflict.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t much rise beyond the usual tropes of these kinds of films.  The flashbacks to Alice’s late father feel stagey and well worn and there’s too much of the over-familiar for anyone to really care. It’s directed with sensitivity and the forbidding milieu of rural Britain is accurately rendered, but the central conflict isn’t much to get enthused about.

Happy End - Celebrated Austrian director Michael Haneke explores the dark side of human nature with his trademark sardonic humour. This time he focuses on a French construction dynasty, which is now in the hands of Anne (Isabelle Huppert).  Anne’s father, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), has a hard time relinquishing control to Anne. Meanwhile, Anne’s brother (Mathieu Kassovitz) is trying to rekindle his relationship with his teenage daughter.  The film lacks the kind of scathing observation that Haneke is famed for. It has some interesting moments and scenes of characteristic brilliance, but it’s all a bit flat and lacking in bite and insight.  Huppert is criminally underused and the film’s socially commentary regarding the migrants of Calais is awkwardly shoe horned in and it feels unnecessary and a bit embarrassing. When I was watching “Happy End”, I kept thinking that Huppert’s last film, “Elle” was directed by Haneke, such was that film’s blackly comic and subversive tone, but, alas, that was directed by someone else. It’s the film Haneke could and should have made instead of “Happy End”.

Ava - This is a quality coming-of-age drama set in Southern France, concerning Ava, who is suffering from a degenerative eye condition. As she tries to cope with her illness, her rebelling against her mother, and her sexual awakening shift the film’s tone, from one of freedom and joyfulness, to something a bit darker.  There’s a mesmerising and kaleidoscopic aesthetic throughout the film, as if to suggest the audience is in the privilege position of seeing the lead character’s wonderful, serene and beautiful environment, contrastingly, as she is gradually is unable to because of her condition.

Bobbi Jene - a fascinating documentary about a dancer with the Israeli Batsheva dance company. As Bobbi Jene returns to the U.S to choreograph her own performances, you get the sense of this talented performer wanting to push boundaries; to test herself and take new forms of dancing to great heights, which culminates in her, literally, baring her all in a nude recital that shakes off any inhibitions and removes any of the usual stuffiness and stereotypes about traditional forms of dance.  

Bobbi Jene, herself, is wonderfully rich subject matter, allowing us to witness her processes and even letting us into the intimate world of her long-distance relationship with her Israeli boyfriend, whom she left behind before returning to the U.S.

Grey House - This is a fascinating documentary, in that it’s about loneliness and the relationship between that very human condition and the physical surroundings people find themselves in. Comparing and contrasting someone fishing (French actor Dennis Levant) to the isolation of an oil rig and the issues surrounding long-term prisoners, the film uses a variety of vistas and spaces to convey this idea that we, as humans, are often prisoners of our own created environment. Whilst there’s closed-off, isolated feelings that one can experience on an oil platform or a prison cell, the human brain often has ways of coping and transcending these enclosed physical spaces. The film makes powerful connections with larger spaces absent of human beings leaving the audience to make whatever imaginative connection they wish to.

The Grown-Ups - Chileans Anita and Andres attend a school for those with Down’s syndrome and want to lead as normal a life as possible - including possibly getting married, but Chile doesn’t allow for marriage between those with Down’s syndrome. This is a touching romance against the odds, with a window on the world to a country’s narrow-minded views on relationships and the persistence and idealism of those who wish to improve their lot.

Roller Dreams - In the mid-1980s in Venice, California, a phenomena took hold called roller dancing. The organic nature of this form of expression would be the greatest type of something out of nothing, usually accompanied by a soundtrack of electro hip-hop. In fact, it’s featured in the 1984 film “Breakdance” - which also has a blink-and-you-miss-him snapshot of campy Jean-Claude Van Damme strutting his stuff before he became an action film star.

This energetic documentary is an historical snapshot of Los Angeles in the 1980s and follows the kings of the artform from its antecedents to its thwarted cancellation and ultimate disbanding by the LAPD with more than a little hint of racism (the main players were Black and Hispanic.)  There’s moving testimony from at least two of the mainstays - especially with how they’re now living a hand-to-mouth existence, with another moving away from Los Angeles altogether.  There’s archival footage and some engaging talking heads, but mostly you’ll remember the music and the moves.

Stronger - Based on a true story, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Boston resident Jeff Bauman who is rendered paraplegic after being caught up by the explosion at the finish line of the Marathon after waiting for his girlfriend, Erin, to complete the race. Jeff’s general lack of commitment to anything frustrates his recovery and puts a strain on his relationship. Hailed as a hero by the media and for all of Boston, he finds fame difficult and has a hard time adjusting to his life-changing injuries. Gyllenhaal gives a sterling, moving and believable performance.

It’s the illustration of Boston that’s not so well though out, neither are the characters on the periphery - too often they’re lazy stereotypes. Once the film has enough of that and can’t get any more engaging mileage out of Jeff’s story, it somewhat alienates foreign audiences by going to town on a wave of jingoism, as if it hasn’t got the courage just to tell one man’s remarkable true story.

A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot - Journalist Sinead O’Shea gets access to a family in Derry under the threat of post-Friday agreement Republican paramilitaries, who want to teach a mother’s drug-dealing son a lesson with a punishment of knee-capping and banishment.  This is stark and hard-hitting documentary about a Northern Ireland most would have thought was outmoded since 1998, but clearly isn’t. It’s tense, eye-opening and disturbing.

This is Our Land (Chez Nous) - In the era of Brexit arguments and government incompetence, this is a timely drama from France about Pauline (Emile Dequenne) a left-wing politically-minded nurse co-opted by the local branch of a far right-wing party to stand for election. Going against her own political beliefs while being railroaded by spin and rhetoric, Pauline has a fight on her hands to remain true to herself and have her idealism tempered and put in perspective. Whilst the scummy tactics of politicians have been the stuff of satire and scorn for many years,  “This is Our Land” is a timely reminder of the dangers of not remembering history, lest to be doomed to repeat it.

Ingrid Goes West - A “Single White Female” for the Millennial generation.  Socially inadequate Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) goes to California in search of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen,) a social media darling.  Ingrid does her best to ingratiate herself with Taylor, slowly burrowing into her superficially glamorous and vapid existence. But Taylor is not all she seems and Ingrid realizes that she’s not as socially inept as she might first think. A wittily observed and nicely played black comedy, it should strike a cord for people to get off their phones once in a while and use their personalities.

Breathe - From director Andy Serkis comes the true story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) who is struck down with polio and given only a short time to live. His wife, Diana, (Claire Foy) is more optimistic than the doctors’ diagnoses and so is Robin. While making sure that Robin experiences as good as life as possible, both he and Diana become closer. Whilst a cure isn’t found, a way for Robin to live a more comfortable life that was first thought possible is found, through the invention of a wheelchair with a respirator.  Serkis creates a sincere portrayal of battling against adversity, but it would have been more helpful to concentrate more on the condition of polio, rather than skim the surfaces, with, what is, essentially a conventional love story.

Battle of the Sexes - The story of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Unfortunately, the mixture of humour and the more serious aspects of the film-such as the sexual politics and King’s bisexuality - left me cold and bewildered and quite alienated by the end. It would have worked better as either a drama or a comedy. Trouble is, the drama wasn’t that interesting and the humour was forced and tiresome, especially Carell’s mugging around with prosthetic teeth.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool - A credible attempt to illustrate the (somewhat0 implausible relationship between 1950s film star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and her much younger lover Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) in 1981. Despite the low budget, there’s much to enjoy here. It’s funny and quite touching with how the relationship unfolds and how Grahame was able to navigate 1980s London and Lancaster when she was an Oscar winner with a hugely colourful past.

Downsizing - Alexander Payne’s latest film was full of anticipation - and whilst it has a wonderfully inventive and imaginative opening forty-five minutes-it descended into a very odd film about climate change and the environment; a preachy and obtuse lengthy infomercial that undoes the brilliance of the first part. Paul (Matt Damon) wants to live a better life by sizing down, literally, to ant-size, which has its own rewards. However, Paul’s wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) backs out at the last minute, forcing Paul to adapt to his new and irreversible existence. I appreciate the ambition of the film and the high-concept thought behind it, not to mention the astonishing special effects, but it can’t sustain these ideas. Not unlike the film’s message about respecting the environment.   It might be that this film requires multiple viewings to really appreciate it.  So I’ll remain open-minded. But, on first viewing, I was astonished and befuddled in equal measure.

Mudbound - Adapted from Hilary Jordan’s novel concerning two families in the Deep South, whose lives intersect because of racism and issues surrounding ownership of land and the need to sharecrop to maintain and make money off of the land.  

This film skillfully weaves the complex narrative between the white McAllans and the black Jacksons. At times, it’s quite heavy in terms of tone and execution. It is also often a fascinating and timely reminder of America’s dark past and challenging present.

The Shape of Water - Guillermo Del Toro’s wonderful Cold War adult fairytale is truly one of the year’s highlights. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is mute and works as a cleaner in a top-secret government facility where a creature from a lagoon is being observed. Elisa strikes up a friendship with the creature, while head of security, Strickland (Michael Shannon) wishes the creature destroyed, but still has to protect the government’s interests. However, Elisa has other ideas.  

A truly wondrous piece of cinema, this takes on a magnificent journey that combines fantasy and 1950s American history.  Hawkins coveys so much in her expressive face and body language, including a tender compassionate nature, that makes the central relationship both pathos-laden and quite romantic. Of course, the creature represents the ‘other’, but the obvious nods to xenophobia, Russia or black people aren’t as poignant as the idea of love against the odds. Thins is such a film of rare beauty and poetry - wonderful!

Last Flag Flying - This very belated sequel to the classic “The Last Detail’ could have been a car crash, but director Richard Linklater has made a loving and respectful film. Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell - much better here than in “Battle of the Sexes”), Sal (Bryan Cranston), and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) go on a road trip to accompany Doc’s recently deceased son’s coffin after a tour of Iraq.  The film has some of the best, salty dialogue you’ll hear all year and the chemistry between the three is both believable and seductive-it’s also very, very funny. Possibly a little too blokey at times, it still packs an emotional punch, as we get to hear three middle-aged men spill out their confessions, memories and regrets in bittersweet fashion.

You Were Never Really Here - Probably my film of the year and the best film of the London Film Festival - a really muscular, pumping, powerhouse of a thriller. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) plays a Gulf War veteran and former FBI agent tasked with rescuing Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) - the daughter of a U.S senator - from a New York child sex trafficking ring.  While the film contains some jarring violence, it’s not gratuitous, as the film is more concerned with the trauma Joe has suffered, which is told in spare flashbacks. The film has inspiration from “Drive” and “Taxi Driver”, but owes more to the New York conjured up by the film’s of Abel Farrera, specifically “Bad Lieutenant.” There are some beautifully raw moments of narrative perspective to Illustrate Joe’s state of mind.

It’s filmed as if it’s all hell on earth, an urban Dante’s Inferno, religiously symbolized by the zeal of the mission Joe undertakes - to his trauma of not completing the mission as well as he could.

The score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood throbs every accompanying moment of the film’s haunting power. Sequences where the lone figure of Joe drives on anonymous and seemingly endless roads with this pulsating electronic soundscape are breathtaking and wracking to the brain.  Lynne Ramsey’s spare, stripped-down, almost documentary quality direction, only adds to the film’s immense power.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Another highlight of the film festival - saving the best for last, in many ways - is this black comedy drama, with an Oscar-baiting performance from Frances McDormand.

She plays Mildred Hayes and it’s been seven months since her daughter has been murdered, and the police are no nearer to finding the perpetrator. So she sets about shaming the police into doing something about it by paying for a series of three messages on disused billboards just out of the town centre of Ebbing.  This brings Mildred into a series of very public spats with the local police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his sociopathic junior college Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell).  

This is black comedy-as black as molasses-with a biting screenplay that is never predictable, often brutally funny. The underlying premise of a mother losing her daughter in such hideous circumstances is never trivialsed. However, there’s much to admire in all the absurdity of the police and Mildred making life difficult for each other, escalating into some sort of cynical crescendo.  The film doesn’t do easy answers or provide the kind of resolution you’d expect, hence why it’s so good. It has the courage of its convictions, and open-minded audiences will be richly entertained and rewarded.

The Florida Project - Director Sean Baker’s follow-up to the inventive “Tangerine” is a doozy of a film. Set on a colourful motel in Orlando, it concerns the daily goings-on of Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Kimberley Prince) who lives with her wayward mother, Halley. Moonee uses the motel as her freewheeling version of an amusement park (the real Disneyworld isn’t far, but literally and figuratively a world away from this motel.)  Her and her friends get ice cream for free by charming tourists into their playful ruses.  They spit on a car windscreen in some sort of unhygienic unison, and then swear denial when caught out.

The motel’s manager is Bobby (An Oscar-worthy Willem Defoe) who indulges Moonee’s child exuberances, realising it’s not her fault she was brought into this world by a mother not much older than a teenager, and with a child-like sense of responsibility. It’s only when things with Halley get out of hand - prostitution and theft - that the film takes a more tragic turn.

The film’s approach of a child’s height view of the freedom of being young coupled the prescient and troubling possibilities of adulthood started in disenfranchisement, of a hand-to-mouth existence is a conceit that is pulled off with rare sensitivity.

The film makes brilliant use of the two worlds as they collide. All the while, the last scene is thought-provoking and quite stark in its ordinariness in how it convey a message about the gulf between the haves and the have nots. Even in 2017.

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