And so it’s over for another year. I think I’ve banged on myself quite enough over the last couple of weeks, so I want to largely hand this wrapup piece over to our other contributors, and also to some regular MostlyFilm Contributors who weren’t able to chip in during our daily reports.
There were a lot of abandoned kids in this year’s programme, most of my top films either tried to honour the power of love to rescue the forsaken, or the bleak possibility that they might encounter evil rather than love. It might just be me, but it started to feel like a theme, wrapped up in the larger theme of the atomised consciousnesses of people in the modern world, seeking some kind of connection with each other, or just with reality. My top films of the festival: Snowtown, I Wish, The Giants, Alps, The Kid With a Bike.
The worst film of the festival was the Russian sci-fiasco Target, which seems to have a cult following on the internet among pretentious assholes: Londoners will have another opportunity to see it at the upcoming London Russian Film Festival. But the biggest disappointment for me was Sean Durkin’s artschlock cult-escapee drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was all beautifully shot (really beautifully shot, it should be said) sizzle and no steak, with a side order of completely spurious “ah, but who’s really been brainwashed into conformity here?” sauce. Phooey.
Over to the team now, make sure you read to the end to find out what our Twitter followers voted for as the best films of the festival.
As most of the Festival’s exciting and interesting offerings were crammed into the first week and a half, the last couple of days were a bit of a damp squib. Late-screening cinematic atrocities like Target, Where Do We Go Now? and Drifters threatened to sour the whole LFF experience, but on the whole this year’s event was a successful one, offering a strong collection of movies from both new and established directors.
In fact, the most pleasing aspect of the festival for me was the number of excellent debut films included in the programme. Abbas Kiarostami protegé Morteza Farshbaf directed Mourning, a gorgeously composed film that made ingenious use of subtitles and sign language, while Pablo Giorgelli deservedly collected the festival’s Sutherland Award for his touching road movie Las Acacias. Other first-timers who impressed include Rúnar Rúnarsson (Volcano), Markus Schleinzer (Michael), Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Dexter Fletcher (Wild Bill) and Alice Rohrwacher (Corpo Celeste), with the boldness of their direction often freshening up potentially stale subjects.
The two films that stood head and shoulders above the rest, however, came from two reliable sources: the Dardenne brothers and Hirokazu Kore-eda. The Dardennes are incapable of making a bad film and The Kid With a Bike is yet another riveting, emotionally honest, flawlessly played drama, the kind of thing these siblings do better than anyone else. UK audiences will see that film sometime in 2012, but when will they see I Wish, the latest film from a director whose last picture Air Doll still hasn’t reached these shores? The tale of two brothers who believe they can make a wish that will reunite their estranged parents, I Wish is a true crowdpleaser and it was the most uplifting, satisfying experience I had at the festival, but anticipating what foreign-language films will receive UK distribution has become increasingly difficult in these troubling times for arthouse cinemas. I can only hope, and wish, that Kore-eda’s beautiful film will eventually find the audience that it deserves.
Finally, here’s my pick of the best and worst films that the 2011 London Film Festival had to offer.
1) I Wish
2) The Kid With a Bike
4) Miss Bala
5) Las Acacias
7) The Artist
2) Where Do We Go Now?
6) Let the Bullets Fly
7) We Have a Pope
10) Lawrence of Belgravia
Spank the Monkey
If you really want to know my thoughts on the best and worst of this year’s festival, I’m sure they’ll turn up somewhere eventually. But what I’d like to do here is focus on the documentary strand of the programme, which was supernaturally strong this year. Over one quarter of the forty-odd films I saw were non-fictional, and I didn’t even have time to consider the rockumentaries that Michael Hayden traditionally programmes on a Saturday night.
Why has the documentary form taken off so much in the last decade? Lucy Walker, who was here with The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom, thinks it’s down to the rise of non-linear editing tools, a godsend for the sort of film that’s effectively written in the cutting room. For films like Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad And The Politician, it also helps that everyone’s a cameraman these days, so that a study of the Egyptian revolution has a huge pool of cameraphone footage to draw upon.
Tsunami and Tahrir were both last-minute additions to the programme, made as direct responses to the big news events of the year. But we had vintage documentaries from the archives too. Point Of Order! was a thrilling 1964 example of taking existing footage, from the hearings which brought down Joseph McCarthy a decade earlier, and cutting it into a compelling narrative. Closer to home, the collection of Wonderful London silent travelogues were more fascinating for what they revealed of the filmmakers’ mindset than what they told us about 1920s London.
A couple of this year’s films blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction in a fascinating way. Simon Pummell’s Shock Head Soul mixed dramatization of the life of a schizophrenic with testimony from modern experts. Richard Linklater’s Bernie mixed dramatization of the life of a murderer with testimony from the fellow inhabitants of his small Texas town. Pummell’s film is Art, and therefore classed as documentary. Linklater’s isn’t: it’s a piece of entertainment with Jack Black in the lead. But the way Bernie deliberately mixes up real people and actors actually makes it a more cerebral pleasure, albeit a morally confused one.
There were plenty of other fine documentaries this year: but for me, Carol Morley’s Dreams Of A Life was the best film of any sort that I saw at LFF 2011. Using dramatization in this case to give a human face to its story, it looks at how one person can touch many lives, but do it in such a glancing way that when they die, nobody notices for three years. It’s a film that forces you to re-assess the way you deal with the outside world after you’ve seen it: but rather than wallowing in gloom about how disconnected society has become, Morley celebrates what Joyce Vincent did with her life while she was here. One of Vincent’s sisters apparently made the well-meaning comment “it could almost be a real film”: well, it’s the most real I’ve seen this year.
For me, it was a mostly disappointing LFF, with many of my top 10 being films I’d caught (and written about) earlier in the year at Cannes. However there were a handful of real pleasures, first and foremost Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish. A charming and captivating paean to childhood, Kore-eda’s movie provided a real sense of joy to the festival. The Artist, which continues to play without a backlash, charmed the pants of another audience, and remains as thrilling a cinematic experience as one can have.
The biggest two surprises for me were Headhunters and Wild Bill. The latter, in particular, defied expectations, by being a heart-warming, moving and exciting London crime movie. There were great performances by Charlie Creed Miles and Will Poulter, and Dexter Fletcher could barely have made a more promising directorial debut. Elsewhere, I would expect Giorgios Lanthimos’ Alps to grow in my memory, like his previous effort, Dogtooth.
My favourite performances came from Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin in The Artist; Michael Fassbender in Shame, Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones in Like Crazy, Aggeliki Papoulia in Alps, and, finally, Oshiro Maeda in I Wish.
1=) The Artist
1=) I Wish
3) The Kid With a Bike
4) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
5) Oslo, August 31st
6) Wuthering Heights
7) Wild Bill
10) Like Crazy
2) The Future
4) Hors Satan
7) Dark Horse
8) We Need to Talk About Kevin
9) Sarah Palin – You Betcha
10) This Must Be the Place
I feel a bit silly talking about my LFF highlights; unlike other commentators, I didn’t get to see that many films; my bank balance stretched to six, which is hardly comprehensive. So, let’s just call this “Adam’s overview of six films he saw lately.”
Obviously, whittling down what I considered to be a pretty killer programme to only six films meant that I picked ones that I was pretty certain would be fantastic. I was only unsure about two of my final lineup: Hong Sangsoo’s The Day He Arrives, which I was worried would be too wry or obtuse, and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, which I was worried would be too stagey. Thankfully, the former turned out to be a delightful, intelligent waltz through the backrooms of Seoul, and the latter turned out to be my favourite film of the festival by a very wide margin. It’s hard to overstate how much I loved Weekend – it’s a simple, small little movie that becomes something so much more purely by the virtue of its directness and verisimilitude, anchored by two sensitive, entirely truthful performances and a deep understanding of the world they inhabit.
In fact, my only real disappointments were Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, which was fine but not particularly special, and Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala, which I’d heard great things about but found to be self-indulgent and psychologically shallow. I can totally understand why others like it – Naranjo is clearly a whiz at creating complicated and bracing action sequences, and this film has them in abundance. But when you’re not predisposed that kind of showmanship, as I’m not, then the story just doesn’t have legs on its own. On the other hand, I loved Martha Marcy May Marlene precisely for its showiness – there may not have been much to it beyond its disorienting approach to editing, but it still managed to get under my skin.
If I was going to recommend one film from my LFF though, I’d have to do for Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, not least because I’m worried no one will see it if I don’t. Not only does it have a killer premise – one split-second moment leads a hiking couple to completely reassess everything they knew about each other, and watches them as they try and figure it out from moment to moment – but the things it does with sound and colour are often extraordinary, and the way it depicts what these characters are going through without using dialogue is expert. It has plenty of flaws, sure, but it’s indicative of a truly talented director, and certainly worth seeking out.
I saw 72 LFF films in total, 57 of them at the Festival or Festival press screenings and the rest beforehand. Very strong line-up this year, I thought – I only saw a small handful of duds. So few, in fact, that I’m not going to bother with a worst list.
1) We Need to Talk About Kevin
2) The Artist
3) The Kid With The Bike
4) Martha Marcy May Marlene
5) Miss Bala
6) Wild Bill
8.) The Descendants
10) Damsels in Distress
Special mentions go to the following ten, which could just as easily stand as an alternate top ten, since the films have been of exceptionally high quality this year: Take Shelter, Beauty, Weekend, She Monkeys, Pariah, Alps, Nobody Else But You, The Dreileben Trilogy, Wreckers and Into the Abyss.
I didn’t keep count of the films that I saw, but at least two, and ofte four, each day for fourteen days. I didn’t start walking out of stuff until the second weekend when I was tiring, and it made me wonder what makes a good festival film for me. It isn’t always about whether I’m enjoying it or not, but I think more about whether it’s what I expected. 360 wasn’t good, but I lasted the course because I had already read the reviews from Toronto, and I wanted to see how bad it was. A film that didn’t deliver what I was expecting (although I did stay the course) was When the Night which was described on the festival website as an “Intense bittersweet romantic melodrama…” with a still of three intense, bittersweet individuals gazing into the camera, one of whom didn’t appear in the film, and the only adjective that was accurate was melodrama.
As a venue the VUE West End leaves a load to be desired. The smaller screens in particular, the limited rake often meant visibility was poor, and the air conditioning was usually set to Arctic. I had to leave HERE because it was so cold in VUE3. I will say in the VUE’s favour that their junior staff are delightful, patient and enthusiastic.
Thinking about HERE brings me on to Q&As. I know that that one went on for 40 or so minutes because I was queuing outside in the building site that is Leicester Square, waiting to go into Drifters. Q&As are dreadful. While it’s interesting to get a look at who made the film, without exception, they just serve as an excuse to make long rambling statements that have nothing to do with the film: sometimes the culprit is the director. Kudos to the Italian translator for keeping up with Andrea Molaioli at the Q&A for The Jewel. The Spanish translator was something special too: not only could she simultaneously translate, she also offered her own little asides, which were always pertinent. Sadly, Pablo Giorgelli, the director of Las Acacias (which won the festival’s Sutherland Award for most original and imaginative feature debut) spoke good English, so was perfectly able to understand the first question rudely put to him; “why was your film in this festival? You could have told that story in 30 minutes.”
I’m not sure that I saw any great films this year. I admired We Need to Talk About Kevin as an adaptation that stands as a piece of work in its own right (and there is no way I will ever read the book), I liked Once Upon a Time in Anatolia but it broke my rule that no film needs to be over 110 minutes long, I avoided mumblecore, and marvelled at how This is Not a Film might have been smuggled out of Iran. What I did see is plenty, good bad and indifferent, that I would never have been able to see had it not been for the London Film Festival. Here’s to next year.
thanks to everyone who voted…
Best Film – Shame
Best UK Film (tie) – Wild Bill and Weekend
Best actor (tie) – Sean Penn (This Must Be the Place), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)