BFI 63rd London Film Festival Part 2 Review: Hope you enjoyed reading about the towering masterpieces and headline releases at the 2019 London Film Festival in Part 1 of our customary annual round-up.
Now in Part 2 we look at the very best of the rest – some in detail, some in brief – plus we explain why you might want to avoid some of the others. And we give you the lowdown on the competition winners (and also-rans) in the festival’s prestigious Debut and Documentary contests. These films may not get the same number of column inches elsewhere, but here we’ll make sure you’re in the know about all of them. We are very equal opportunities here.
There was a refreshing feel to this year’s festival – especially as the odd debut filmmaker made it into the main competition shortlist. And lots of women featured both behind and in front of the camera. At DVDfever, we pride ourselves in spotting new talent, so the First Feature Competition is understandably one of our favourite slots. Watch out, these people are going places.
Winner of the main First Feature prize was Mati Diop’s Atlantics (above), which grabbed me for the first half, with its dreamy, yet gritty portrait of work, life and love in Dakar, Senegal. It looks sensational, but then it becomes another zombie-esque movie, which feels like something of a cop-out. Lots of promise nevertheless.
I simply loved the German movie Relativity, from Mariko Minoguchi, cleverly flipping back and forth with time, yet romantic at its core. There’s a shocking start, and charming performances from Edin Hasanovic, Julius Feldmeier, and especially Saskia Rosendahl as Nora, who was so fabulous in Lore at LFF 2012, in fact, at the time we said: “this is very much Saskia Rosendahl’s film in the title role”. Stories converge and the audience must put the pieces of the plot together themselves – much like the ‘Schrödinger’ pre-broken plates balancing in the cabinet. No more spoilers here though, apart from that I wouldn’t have minded if Minoguchi had won the top prize!
Watching Claire Oakley’s debut as writer and director, Make Up, was hugely nostalgic for me, as it’s set in my homeland of Cornwall, out of season among the windy sand dunes of a neglected holiday resort on the Atlantic north coast. Molly Windsor is the naïve young visitor, Ruth, all at sea when she arrives in the midst of a tight community of workers in the holiday park, just as it’s being put under wraps for the winter. Supposedly idyllic, the mothballed resort is actually swimming with secrets and intrigue, rivalries and toxic masculinity. Ruth is frightened by the noises of foxes and sudden bangs, and drawn to all the wrong people as she tries to navigate the claustrophobic location, and Oakley creates an intense atmosphere.
Along with those in competition, there were plenty of other assured debuts around, including Billie Piper directing and starring in Rare Beasts (above). Probably her wisest decision is casting first-rate child actor, Toby Woolf (from Summer of Rockets) to play her son, Larch, with Kerry Fox and David Thewlis as her indulgent, embarrassing parents. By night she’s hedonistic and almost nihilistic, and her day job is TV development, and I’m sure I recognised some familiar scenes of pitching far-fetched concepts. The truest sections of the film, however, are those where Piper and her female friends just drink and gossip and it almost feels like eavesdropping. Hard to see how her character falls for Leo Bill’s character though, a rather needy guy who comes from a religious and altogether nutty family. Also fun playing spot-the-locations, with the South Bank and Ally Pally dominating proceedings. Again, much promise, and it’ll be great to see what Piper comes up with for TV in league with her pal, feted playwright Lucy Prebble.
Belen Funes’ debut, Thief’s Daughter has the grafting Sara (Greta Fernandez, superb) juggling her brother, who is in care, her ex-con father (played by her own dad), and just getting by as a single mum. Sara pulls the viewer through the daily grind of her existence towards the hope that’s just out of reach. And it’s aptly filmed in the style of a fly-on-the-wall doc, with zero music. Yet another impressive Spanish director to watch.
Pick of the Docs
A solid bunch of documentaries were vying for the top prize at the festival this year – and any of them would have been a worthy winner. But in terms of the music, the quality of archive and access, plus the urgent timeliness of the politics, it’s hard to argue with White Riot (above) grabbing the top spot. “We are black, we are white, we are dynamite!” it declares. Rubika Shah’s film has a handmade feel, much like the fanzine it’s based around, taking us on a heady journey into the movement that countered the racism of Enoch Powell and the likes of Eric Clapton – with activism, organisation and sweet, sweet music from black and white youths against the National Front. Tom Robinson, X-Ray Spex, the Clash and Steel Pulse are all here, as the film builds to the climax of their big gig in Victoria Park. Do try to see it.
Overseas, from Sung-A Yoon, is an eye-opening, slow-burn doc that shows exiled Filipino domestic workers toiling away, crying as they clean bathrooms, quietly and dispassionately observed. It also includes set pieces where they’re taught how to lay tables, bathe a baby and behave with aggressive employers – the take-away advice being “never cry in front of them”.
Three of my other favourite docs in competition are all remarkable for revealing secrets that might have stayed under the radar if their makers hadn’t stumbled up on them. No big spoilers here, though. The Kingmaker is Lauren Greenfield’s follow-up to Generation Wealth and The Queen of Versailles, and is ostensibly a study of another material girl, Imelda Marcos. Opening with a scene of her giving out banknotes to poor Filipino citizens, like a modern-day Marie Antoinette, it gradually reveals the rampant narcissism, money and power-grabbing of Imelda. She pushes her offspring into the limelight, most notably her son Bongbong, especially once they approach the election that propelled ‘strong man’ Duterte to the presidency. Her jewellery is hidden in diapers, valuable paintings on the wall are replaced with photos of herself with her late, unfaithful husband Ferdinand when an inventory is carried out. More light and shade comes from interviews with those who were cast out and tortured under the past regimes, but Greenfield’s most effective technique to tell the story is placing Imelda front and centre as the unreliable narrator and subject. Job done. Absolutely jaw-dropping and a must-watch for your list.
Cold Case Hammerskjold is another Russian doll of a doc, with each revelation more staggering than its predecessor, including sabotage, corruption, and destabilisation methods at the highest levels of government. Made by and featuring Mads Brügger, with his distinctive, dry, matter-of-fact voiceover, it’s a technique familiar from many Werner Herzog documentaries. So emotionless is it, that the viewer and participants and witnesses are forced to do the heavy lifting to make their own interpretation of events. The bald fact is that UN Secretary General Dag Hammerkjold’s plane crashed back in 1961. But was it plotted by those who wanted to bring down the progressive, anti-apartheid, anti-colonialism leader? Or is this entire thing a strung-out, mad conspiracy theory? By the end, Brügger has stumbled across some massive revelations of what was really going on and who was implicated. Gripping stuff.
In Mystify: Michael Hutchence, we get a proper, in-depth picture of what the charismatic, shy yet outgoing lead singer of INXS was really like. His demons, his family, friends and lovers, and his fellow band members all speak up, and it’s also a reminder of what a charismatic live performer he was. Nudging away throughout is the realisation that his life ended abruptly in tragedy, but even this is confronted, and there are revelations about the cause of his deteriorating health. Makes a great companion-piece to the INXS: Live Baby Live Wembley Stadium remastered film, where you can witness Hutchence in full flow.
Not in competition, but three more music documentaries are wonderful gifts for their fans. Western Stars follows the making of Bruce Springsteen’s 16th album, where the Boss admits “I’m still writing about cars. They’re a powerful metaphor for me.” He speaks directly to camera, explaining his mythic music and the landscapes it’s set within, with open roads and freedom beckoning. Evoking the image of a fading western star, his country-flavoured album is brought to life when Springsteen, his wife Patti Scialfa, and their band, complete with string and brass sections, perform the entire record in their magically lit barn, before an invited audience.
The extra special part in Stanley Nelson’s film, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, isn’t just the access to the jazz greats and other players in Miles’ shadow, and the fabulous archive, gorgeous stills and insight that put you right there in the hub of something genuinely fresh as it’s being created (and his addictions aren’t glossed over either). It’s the previously unheard stories of his romantic entanglements in all their warm and messy detail, recounted by the women themselves to camera, that make the legend of Miles seem more human and authentic.
In the wake of Renée Zellweger’s triumphant turn as Judy Garland in the movie drama, Judy, we now have another part of the story in the documentary, Sid and Judy. Where original tapes don’t exist, Jennifer Jason Leigh narrates Garland’s words, and Jon Hamm reads those of her husband, Sid Luft. There’s excellent archive, both black and white and colourised, supplemented by pen and ink drawings and stills, plunging us into the heart of the story of Garland and her third husband. There’s a great feel for the glamour, pressure and stress, with odd shafts of light occasionally breaking through. And as a bonus, we learn about the unique difficulties of filming A Star Is Born.
Right up there with the top docs this year is the extraordinary Tell Me Who I Am (above), from Ed Perkins. This is the mesmerising, haunting, unforgettable and true account of a twin who wakes up from a coma and only recognises his twin brother. As the years go by, he remembers bits and pieces of his past, and like Capturing The Friedmans, this turns into another, far darker story.
Matt Wolf’s film, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, seems to be focusing superficially on the story of a woman who obsessively accumulated thousands of hours of videotaped footage from her multiple TVs, getting family and staff to help her. It also tells of an African American woman who was an outlier, an intellectual and socialist who found her soul mate, then lived as a virtual recluse when she focused on her taping project. But this is much more than a simple look at the legacy she left behind – which nobody initially wanted to preserve – as it forces us to stare at how history is conveniently erased and then rewritten, and how incessant 24/7 media has become our norm.
Lost Lives, from Dermott Lavery and Michael Hewitt, is about those who have died in the Troubles, as documented in one book of the same name, which has the stories of every single one of the 3,700 to have perished. It starts with nine-year-old Patrick Rooney, the very first victim, and through archive, stills, plus new footage, each story is coolly related, then updated. Voices of famous actors from the region – including Branagh, Neeson, Rea, Brennan and Gleeson – narrate crisply and unemotionally, making it all feel both haunted and haunting. Underpinned by strings and piano, this is enormously affecting filmmaking, and the stories seep into your bones.
Making Waves: The Art Of Cinematic Sound is a total joy for those who yearn to know the secrets of the great filmmakers, in this case the audio wizards. And the gang’s all here: Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Barbra Streisand, who insisted on stereo sound for A Star Is Born, plus pioneering directors, from Lucas and Spielberg to David Lynch and Ryan Coogler. You must experience this Midge Costin doc with surround sound though!
Hope Frozen, from writer-director Pailin Wedel, shows a Buddhist Bangkok family who believe that we are heading towards ‘deathlessness’ and wish to preserve their beloved daughter’s brain, so she will awake into a future world without diseases. Her rare brain disease has put her in a coma, and their quest takes them to Arizona where she is cryogenically frozen. Numerous questions, moral, ethical and medical are raised, as science and emotion clash, and we also watch their very-much-alive teenage son going along with the plan, and starting on his own journey of discovery. Fascinating.
Not quite a doc, but close, is Family Romance LLC from Werner Herzog. Nothing is quite as it seems in his retelling of a genuine Japanese phenomenon, where individuals from a dedicated ‘rent-a-relative’ agency are hired to pretend to be family members to encourage reconciliation. Family secrets emerge, of course, and everything feels morally askew, especially the main man pretending to be an estranged father of a vulnerable girl. Even though they’re providing a service, the nagging question remains: what if it all goes too far?
Go to page 2 for more from the BFI 63rd London Film Festival Part 2!