BFI 60th London Film Festival Part 1: Stroll down the red carpet, as we usher you into the best seats in the house for our exclusive, three-part round-up of the very best movies at the BFI 2016 London Film Festival. For the 60th festival there are some notable trends and themes, including dozens of true stories. After years of bubbling under, that old staple – the boxing movie, breaks through again in the shape of two dramatised biopics, with a sweaty boxing gym also a key location for a gritty Spanish thriller. Second theme? Chess. Yes, chess. Again in two true stories – one a documentary, one a drama – and both proving that you really can make a boardgame as tense to watch as it is to play. There are lots of strong female performances and directors around, too. Quite a treat.
We start, of course, with Part One of our exhaustive, sleep-deprived, yet highly-informative overview of what’s cooking for the year ahead. This is the bit where you’ll find all the Really Big Names and the Really Big Films from the US, UK and Ireland, plus Australasia – pretty much anything in the English language, in fact. You’ll also find the smaller, more indie fare here too. In Part Two, the best of the rest of the world will get its moment in the spotlight. And finally, Part Three will look at the cream of the documentaries on offer, and bring the much-coveted and entirely virtual DVDfever Awards for 2016.
Don’t spill your popcorn or your unfeasibly large beverage, but the lights are going down now, and the main feature is about to start. so here we go…
It’s an honour to be selected as the opening night gala film, and this time A United Kingdom, from director Amma Assante, plunges into the true tale of a love across the racial and class divide in post-war England and Africa. Clerical worker Rosamund Pike reluctantly joins her sister at a stuffy London party, where she claps eyes on gorgeous David Oyelowo, and their future together is sealed. They go dancing together and cannot be prised apart, despite her parents’ protestations. For he is black and she is white. and she even has to look up his homeland, Bechuanaland, on a map. The further complication is that he’s the future King, and must return. Every obstacle is put in their way to prevent them being there together, from red tape in London to unrest from his people, and hostility from both families. Assante helms with a light touch, and both Oyelowo and Pike are radiant and entirely credible in their roles. Spurned by everyone, with apartheid bubbling around them, the couple’s love and marriage is tested. but can they ever be accepted?
Festival favourite Ben Wheatley perhaps didn’t hit the heights of Sightseers with last year’s High-Rise.
So it says a lot about his still-rising reputation that his latest, Free Fire, closed the entire festival. If you imagine Reservoir Dogs set during the Troubles, with Irish militants buying weaponry from American gangsters in 1970s Boston, then you get a fair idea of its look and feel. But instead of Stealers Wheel as the soundtrack, here it’s John Denver playing on a tape deck in an old transit van. And much like the way The Fast Show only includes the punchlines of every sketch, here we get almost zero backstory. So with no exposition, we cut straight to the chase. Or in this case, the arms deal and the inevitable shootout, all in one big warehouse. “Fuck the small talk,” as one character says, “let’s buy some guns.”
The film is purely this final act played over an hour and a half. And, again, like The Fast Show, the inevitable gunfight goes on and on and on, mainly played for laughs. And as it’s a gun deal, there are lots of guns. Pretty much no-one dies straightaway; everyone dives for cover, rolls behind barrels, crates and pillars, drags themselves upstairs towards the one telephone, runs out of ammunition. Racial epithets and personal abuse fly around, characters even forget which side they’re on. The cast list is fantastic: Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley batting for Ireland, Brie Larson (Room) as the deal broker, and Armie Hammer and the superb Sharlto Copley as gangsters. Throw in Sam Riley, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor and you have a storming ensemble. In a digital world, it feels like Wheatley has gone analogue. And it feels rather good.
One of Wheatley’s graduates, Sightseers‘ star Alice Lowe, makes her highly promising directorial debut with the pitch black comedy Prevenge. Lowe herself takes the main role of a recently bereaved and heavily pregnant woman, Ruth, who is set on revenge. And the plot echoes the escalating violence and narrative arc of Sightseers. One by one, she confronts a pretty sleazy bunch of individuals, usually at their workplace, from pet shop owner to dodgy DJ to recruitment manager. Which leads to ‘scenes’, many of them grisly. Definitely one to watch.
Purely by coincidence, two of the best films at this year’s festival feature outstanding performances from Amy Adams. In Denis Villeneuve‘s thrilling drama Arrival, she’s a linguistics professor recruited (along with physicist Jeremy Renner) to communicate with extra-terrestrials, and interpret whether or not they’re a threat to the world, having simultaneously landed across several continents in a dozen locations. Based on Ted Chiang’s novel, Story of Your Life, it’s a tale that asks many questions. And thanks to film’s clever, circular structure, the luminous Adams (and the viewers) can only piece together a solution when she has vivid memories of the future. or is it the past?
In Tom Ford‘s initially fleshy, then stylish and shocking Nocturnal Animals, Adams plays a successful, but reclusive LA art gallery owner. She is suddenly thrust back into her own past when her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her the manuscript of his novel, dedicated to her. As she reads it and reacts to the horrific, disturbing scenes it describes, we watch the novel’s action unfold, with Gyllenhaal undergoing the worst experience imaginable, along with a fictional wife and daughter who look uncannily like Adams and her daughter. But is it really their life that he’s writing about? Intense and magnetic as ever, Gyllenhaal is matched by the brilliant Michael Shannon as a weatherbeaten, dying cop who wants to help get justice, whatever it takes. The vast Texas skies and scapes feel threatening, with the Bernard Herrmann-esque music from Abel Korzeniowski adding to the Vertigo-era Hitchcock atmosphere, as we cut back and forth from Adams reading the book proof to seeing the action it describes. Definitely a major step up from Ford’s first film, A Single Man.
Kenneth Lonergan is better known as a playwright, but quietly gained many fans with his previous films, You Can Count On Me, and Margaret. Now he gets to stretch himself further, directing his own script in Manchester By The Sea, this time with Casey Affleck (in a career-best performance) as his muse. Filmed entirely on location in cold, windy Massachusetts, we are never far from Affleck as the tortured, easily-provoked outsider whose reputation goes before him. His family ties pull him back to the one place he doesn’t want to revisit (where his ex-wife, Michelle Williams resides). But we don’t learn how he ended up so alienated and raw, until one devastating passage finally reveals the moment when his world collapsed. Lonergan explores grief so thoroughly and unflinchingly, starting with the untimely death of Affleck’s brother, that it’s hard not to succumb.
Dev Patel will always be a festival favourite since starring in Slumdog Millionaire, and in director Garth Davis‘ Lion, he transports us to the sub-continent again in another true story. He plays a smart, young man who becomes separated from his family as a child (the irresistible Sunny Pawar), and flees dangerous characters and situations, like Oliver Twist crossed with Pilgrim’s Progress. Raised through his teens by loving, adoptive Aussie parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), he suddenly becomes obsessed with the idea of returning to his birthplace to track down his birth mother. Luckily he has a great set of mates, particularly his patient girlfriend Rooney Mara, who all recommend he use the internet and especially Google Earth to help him. And he becomes a man possessed, who gives up almost everything in his pursuit of his elusive past.
Go to page 2 for more films from the festival.
Not content with starring in festival opener, A United Kingdom, David Oyelowo plays another inspirational character in Queen of Katwe, one of the festival’s two chess features. This is the story of an amazing young Ugandan chess player born into poverty, but raised by a fiercely stubborn mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and trained by ‘coach’ Oyelowo, alongside his teacher wife. Every part is perfectly cast, and the competitive streak that takes over the chess queen, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), is intoxicating and uplifting to behold. Stick around for the end titles too. One to check, mate.
Executive Producer Martin Scorsese calls this ‘the greatest story never told’, and he may be right. This is Bleed For This, a true-life boxing biopic starring Miles Teller – who previously rocked our world in Whiplash – as world champion fighter Vinny ‘Paz’ Pazienza. Surrounded by an dodgy entourage who wouldn’t look out of place in The Sopranos, and a family that smothers him, Paz is drifting into irrelevance until he gets a new trainer (Aaron Eckhart with truly bad hair). Director Ben Younger and his crew evoke the gaudy 1980s perfectly, with big glasses, loud fashion and lots of man-made fabric ready to combust, so when Paz makes his way to the top again, all flash cars, fast women and gambling, it all feels entirely in keeping with the era and his character. So far, so familiar. Then the plot makes a swerve, just like Paz, when his neck is broken in a car wreck. He’s written off by pretty much everyone, much like his vehicle, and told he may never walk again. Put in a HALO neck brace with no anaesthetic, Paz has only grit, determination and his trainer to keep him going. For he doesn’t just want to walk again, he wants to box his way back into the ring and towards another world title. Gripping and emotional, and filmed with crunching noise and lots of blood, this makes for a classic sports movie. And it’s remarkable to think that it’s all true.
Lower-key, real-life individuals, like whistleblower Edward Snowden also make great subjects, as Oliver Stone proves in Snowden. The director illustrates that the secret to keeping the pace and suspense moving when the story involves computers and hacking is to just keep on cutting from shot to shot, never lingering for long. And as Snowden himself, coolly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a contained, internalised character, Stone assigns the more extrovert, ‘action’ role to Shailene Woodley as his girlfriend, Lindsay. Ripped from the pages (and websites) of today, it’s a story that poses all sorts of questions about loyalty, privacy, bravery and transparency in the 21st Century – but is structured like a thriller, complete with chase.
Adapted from Sebastian Barry’s novel, and directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), The Secret Scripture contains all the ingredients of a buttoned-down, rural Irish drama. There’s deference to the church, hatred of the British – and especially any Irishman choosing to fight on their side in the Great War, and much diminished chances of happiness if you’re a young, independent woman. All that’s needed is for love and hope to be crushed by the claustrophobia and cruelty of the time and place. Rooney Mara is Rose, a girl who is trapped by convention, and banished to the wild outdoors, where she falls for flyer Jack Reynor (also in Free Fire), then has his child. Meanwhile local priest Theo James is entirely bewitched by Rose, and brutally adddresses his own passion by consigning her to an asylum. Everything is light or dark and every scene packs an emotional punch. The bonus is that we get the tale told in parallel through the letters and memories of Rose fifty years later, still in the same asylum, and beautifully played by Vanessa Redgrave.
Irish comedy, A Date For Mad Mary, is the polar opposite, one of the most enjoyable films of this or any festival year, and set resoundingly in the present. Debut director Darren Thornton and his screenwriter brother Colin Thornton based the story on Yasmine Akram‘s acclaimed one-woman play, but changed many key elements of the plot. The action starts with the remarkable Seana Kerslake as a bolshy young woman, Mary, newly released after a six-month stint inside. Her reputation precedes her, hence the ‘Mad’ prefix, but she must at least try be on her best behaviour, as her closest friend Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) is getting married, and Mary’s meant to be in charge of the arrangements. Worst of all, though, she needs a date for the wedding, so we see all her uncomfortable and entirely fruitless dates come to nought as she scrambles for someone acceptable, with the clock ticking. Can she pin down the preferred wedding photographer, Jess (Tara Lee), who’d rather be playing with her band that day? And by the end of this entirely lovely, funny, rude (and occasionally crude) gem of a film, will Mad Mary find love in a hopeless place? I highly recommend you find out.
Based on Lissa Evans’ fab novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half, wartime Britcom Their Finest gives Gemma Arterton another chance to show her comedy chops, playing plucky Catrin. And it sees An Education’s Danish director Lone Scherfig turn in another perfect period piece. The plot follows a bunch of filmmakers doing their bit for the war effort, by churning out endless uplifting World War 2 propaganda films, close in tone and style to Mrs Miniver. Quite by accident, Catrin is enlisted as a scriptwriter, with zero experience, though she does possess a vivid imagination, steely determination, and a knack for storytelling. She also has an unreliable artist husband, while her head is turned by fellow wordsmith and full-time cynic, Sam Claflin. The actual film they’re crafting is the least important part of the film. The real riches are found in the supporting cast, from the likes of Bill Nighy (above-right with Gemma Arterton) as a past-his-best matinee idol, Eddie Marsan as his agent, Helen McCrory as Marsan’s sister, not to mention Jeremy Irons, Richard E Grant, and especially Rachael Stirling. One to just sit back and enjoy.
Mike Birbiglia is something of a standup god on the US comedy circuit – I’ve been lucky enough to see him three times now – and Don’t Think Twice is his much-anticipated movie debut as writer-director-actor. Generously, he gives many of the best lines to the rest of the ensemble cast in a story that’s perhaps close to his own heart. The ensemble are a bunch of budding comedy writers who constantly audition in the vain hope that they’ll be picked for a show that’s rather similar to Saturday Night Live. By day they have a variety of bicycle courier and waitress jobs, and by night they strut and fret for hours on stage as cult improv act, The Commune. Camaraderie galvanises them through adversity. until one of them gets the golden writing gig and everyone else seethes with jealousy. A promising debut and an insight into the business of improv, that’s reminiscent of Christopher Guest’s under-the-radar am-dram comedy, Waiting for Guffman.
Christopher Guest, himself, serves up another too-close-for-comfort comic ‘documentary’ in Mascots. This time, he’s getting under the skin and inside the ridiculous costumes of cheerleading characters as they arrive from all over the world for the 8th World Mascot Association Championships. The Guest gang are all here, from Jane Lynch and Fred Willard to Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Don Lake, Michael Hitchcock, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge and, making a guest appearance, Christopher, himself, as Corky St Clair (from …Guffman). Bitchy, deluded, pumped and entirely lacking in self-awareness, all the competitors and judges are nevertheless a delight, with perhaps Chris O’Dowd (of The IT Crowd fame) as a drunken Clenched Fist ice hockey mascot, stealing the show – if not the contest.
Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, the 19th Century Russian novel which inspired an opera, is now a low-budget, but highly dramatic film, Lady Macbeth, set in the North East of England. Starring the shockingly good Florence Pugh (above-right) as the young, anti-heroine, Katherine, and helmed by debut director William Oldroyd, each contained scene is shot in sombre hues with splashes of colour from Katherine’s gowns, much like a Vermeer painting. The plot is like a bloody version of Lady Chatterley crossed with Wuthering Heights, in which Katherine’s marriage of convenience is loveless and unconsummated, her moral compass is entirely absent, and she is driven purely by lust for her unpolished groom (Cosmo Jarvis). It feels like there’s nothing she won’t do to achieve her goals. Coolly and calmly acted and directed, this film feels like a precious and promising glimpse of things to come.
Go to page 3 for more films from the festival.
Humphrey Bogart’s starry turns in highly memorable 1940s films noir like The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not saw him slice through the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. Now we have our own homegrown version of a Raymond Chandler gumshoe, in City Of Tiny Lights, set in the throbbing heart of 21st Century multicultural London, and wittily scripted by Patrick Neate from his own novel. The always-watchable Riz Ahmed stars as private detective, Tommy, who gives it the full Bogie-style voiceover as he walks down those mean streets, and uncovers a web of crime and deception very close to home. Director Pete Travis uses flashbacks to gradually reveal how compromised and conflicted Tommy is by the friendships of his youth, and the torch he still carries for his old flame, Billie Piper (aka the Bacall to Ahmed’s Bogie), as his past keeps on resurfacing. Also worth watching for supporting roles from Cush Jumbo and Roshan Seth.
A Moving Image is also resoundingly a portrait of contemporary London, and more specifically Brixton, seen through the eyes of its youth. They want to know what’s happening to their neighbourhood, who’s moving in and taking over, with Nina (Tanya Fear) as the catalyst, who is also our interpreter. Can the residents reclaim their place of belonging while intercut with real-life people and events that fuel the action, including constant gentrification, development, and even Ritzy Cinema staff protests. So is East London really “Ground Zero for the Hipster Apocalypse?”
Controversy around director-producer-writer-star Nate Parker has inevitably clouded judgement of his incredibly personal project, The Birth Of A Nation. Based on the story of Nat Turner, who famously led a slave revolt in 1831 Virginia, this is a sweeping, epic film, highly emotional and frequently painful to watch. Learning to read as a child becomes a blessing and a curse for young Nat (Tony Espinosa, superb) who as he matures (and is played by Parker), is chosen to be a preacher for the slaves and their owners, calming down insurrection, but meanwhile witnessing and experiencing unbelievable brutality and ignorance. For some time he looks the other way as his master (Armie Hammer) increasingly turns to drink and turns against him, but finally Nat reaches a tipping point that challenges his faith and loyalty. Planning a violent uprising seems like his destiny, and it seems like Parker felt it was his destiny to tell Turner’s tale. The film is faithful to the era, yet arguably compromised by shorthand cliches like playing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot over cotton fields, and Strange Fruit over lynching scenes, songs respectively written a decade and a century after the film’s action. It’s also hard to argue with a feeling that he’s underwritten all the passive, female characters, but you can’t fault Parker’s ambition.
But what of the African American experience today? Spike Lee is never one to duck an issue, and much like Ava Duvernay, who brings the festival her excellent documentary The 13th, Lee is motivated by spiralling violence and incarceration in America, plus the Black Lives Matter movement and its cause. So what does Lee do? He makes Chi-Raq (above-right), a hip-hop musical set in Chicago, and based on Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata. Once you relax, suspend your disbelief, and get used to the rhyming couplets and the explicit lyrics, this is quite a ride, driven by a dapper chorus figure, Samuel L Jackson, and warring opponents Wesley Snipes as Cyclops (with glitter eye-patch), and Chi-Raq himself (Nick Cannon), leading the Trojans and Spartans respectively. And they’re expertly matched by Angela Bassett‘s Helen and Teyonah Parris as a Beyonce-like Lysistrata as the strong women who propel the plot, and have the men under their spell.
Andrea Arnold reeled us in with Fishtank, Red Road and even Wuthering Heights, peopling them with credible British characters living on the margins, with accents and flaws. Now she’s gone across the pond for American Honey, an almost three-hour road trip movie of fleetingly memorable scenes, which is at least an hour too long (much of the audience didn’t make it to the end in my screening). There are several positives, however, especially in the outstanding performance of newcomer Sasha Lane, who feels entirely believable and natural as the not-quite-innocent abroad, Star, who hooks up with a gang of feral youth, piled into a camper van and hitting the highways of America, to scam rich and poor alike, accompanied by an occasionally brilliant soundtrack. She is seduced by the questionable charms of gangmaster and all-round Artful Dodger, Shia Labeouf, and the Fagin-like head of the entire money-making, ethics-free scam, Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s actual granddaughter), but can Star’s conscience act as a wake-up call to stop her becoming just like them?
Young Adult is the fastest growing fiction ‘genre’ right now, outstripping almost everything else, and one of the best of the current YA bunch is Patrick Ness, writer of A Monster Calls. But what makes his fiction – and his own screenplay – work in this film is the extraordinary performance of Lewis MacDougall as 12-year-old Conor, bullied at school, troubled by regular, vivid nightmares and worried about his mother’s health (Felicity Jones). His escape comes in drawing the most beautiful pictures, while the world spins and churns around him, haunted by the violent fairytales told by the yew tree monster of his nightmares (Liam Neeson in fine voice) and his strict granny (Sigourney Weaver channelling Theresa May).
Described as Marmite by a fellow viewer, Personal Shopper, will not be top of my shopping list to watch ever again, though I did at least get through the entire film, unlike Goldstone
(with dodgy Aussie racists, miners, and minors) and Brimstone(with mute midwife Dakota Fanning‘s husband’s entrails neatly wrapped around his neck by murdering preacher Guy Pearce), which both promised much, were both unaccountably in the festival’s Official Competition for best film, yet both forced my early escape. Personal Shopper is another Kristen Stewart vehicle, which combines at least three of my least favourite, lazy movie cliches: endless dressing up, texting as a key plot device, and ooooh, a ghostly presence from the spirit world. Some nice scenes of Paris, a bucolic French house, and even St Pancras International can’t save the noodling plot, and if you haven’t guessed ‘whodunit’ way before the low-energy Stewart does, then you must have drifted off. It’s a ‘non’ from me.
Before Eleanor Catton wrote her Booker-winning work, The Luminaries, she wrote the novel that Alison Maclean’s The Rehearsal is based on, revolving around a group of budding New Zealand actors who need to find something dramatic to interpret for their end-of-year student performance. They are desperate to impress their fierce head teacher (Kerry Fox), who pushes them to the edge, professionally and personally. So when Stanley (James Rolleston) and his friends hit upon the idea of reenacting exactly what’s happened to his girlfriend’s 15-year-old sister, who was seduced by her tennis coach, they don’t seem to realise that they are transgressing, and crossing a line themselves. Collateral damage is dreadful, and all sorts of moral questions are raised, but the clever ending may not satisfy everyone.
Episodic in structure, and filmed in documentary style, Lovesong is So Yong Kim‘s portrait of a love story that won’t quit, told over two acts, three years apart. Sarah (American Honey‘s Riley Keough) is basically a shy single mom with toddler daughter and absent Skype-partner, who suddenly finds a past passion rekindled when her old, extrovert friend Mindy (Jena Malone, also in Nocturnal Animals) drops by. Diners, rodeos and endless skies provide an Americana backdrop for their growing intimacy. Then, just like that, Mindy’s gone, until the second act, where she’s found a husband and is getting married, with Sarah smiling through her disbelief before the ceremony. And you get the lingering sense that this might not be the end of the story. Look out for a great turn by Rosanna Arquette as Mindy’s mother too.
Sometimes, for no reason, you get two films on the same subject in one year. At this festival we had Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine documentary, exploring the true story of Christine Chubbock, the TV journalist who killed herself live on air back in 1974. But on a different level altogether, we fortunately also get Rebecca Hall in a jaw-droppingly good performance in the title role of Antonio Campos‘ dark drama, Christine. Her Chubbock is alienated and frustrated; she cannot connect with anyone in her personal life, and cannot get a break in her broadcasting career – until it finally breaks her. With a dream supporting cast, including Michael C Hall and Tracy Letts, the story explores the nature of news, sensationalism and voyeurism, but also loneliness, thwarted ambition, alcoholism and isolation, all revolving around a potentially award-worthy turn from Hall.
COMING NEXT: Part Two of our London Film Festival round-up gathers the best of the foreign-language movies from all across the globe. potentially including the best film of the year…