Farewell, then, to an all-time great edition of the London Film Festival. In the 13 years I’ve been attending the festival, this is by far the best programme of films selected, and given the festival’s innovative changes to the screening schedule (such as building an entirely new venue), there were opportunities to get tickets to most of the big items, especially for members.
It’s rare for so many of the high-profile Gala screenings to deliver so strongly, but the quartet of A Monster Calls, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea and La La Land are all outstanding films, amongst the finest of the year, and you’ll see them all, hopefully, in awards contention in the early months of 2017.
Here are my top 13 films of this year’s festival.
- Manchester by the Sea
- A Monster Calls
- Heal the Living
- Toni Erdmann
- Certain Women
- La La Land
- The Autopsy of Jane Doe
- After the Storm
I’d like to talk a little about Heal the Living, which is the third film from director Katell Quillévéré. It’s a difficult film to go into detail on, because it depends a little on its freshness and the surprises it has in store. It reminded me at times of the work of the Dardennes brothers and particularly of Mia Hansen-Love’s excellent Father of My Children. It boasts an excellent cast, including Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner, Bouli Lanners and the great Anne Dorval. It is a heartbreaking film, one which forces the audience to confront the themes of grief, guilt, salvation, love and generosity. It caused me to have a near-breakdown in the screen, juxtaposing genuine, devastating sadness with one of the most straightforward, uplifting and charming scenes in the entire festival. I could not recommend it highly enough.
I’d also like to give a shout out to André Øvredal’s outstanding The Autopsy of Jane Doe, an accomplished, nasty and very frightening horror movie set in a mortuary run by father and son (played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch). It’s a very, very effective film, and one that seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by everyone in the audience.
Kudos to the festival’s awards juries, too. A year after awarding the excellent Chevalier the Best Film award, they followed suit with Kelly Reichardt’s slow, angry, brilliant Certain Women (which featured another brilliant performance from Michelle Williams) and saw fit to give the Sutherland Trophy for Best Debut to Julia Ducornau’s vibrant, horrifying Raw. Two outstanding choices to top off an outstanding festival.
My top five films were
- A Monster Calls
- An Insignificant Man
- The Handmaiden
- The Worthy
- Tickling Giants
All I want from a film is to see a story well told in moving images. My entire top five did that; A Monster Calls did it in the most visually beautiful way possible. The Handmaiden was lush, in a different way, but did suffer a little from the male gaze treatment of female sexuality. Tickling Giants and An Insignificant Man were excellent documentaries, both political, both made by people from the countries they were set in, but otherwise quite, quite different. The Worthy was so different from any Arabic language film I’ve ever seen that I don’t even know where to start. I wouldn’t watch it again (too much gore) but I would encourage anyone with a strong stomach to see it.
What I found less satisfying were stories where people told each other about things that had already done together (The Reunion and Porto), or structurally imbalanced stories (Birth if a Nation and Dog Eat Dog). Biopics like Neruda and A United Kingdom also didn’t hit the mark, but none of that matters, because all of these films have people that love them.
Alice’s Lowe’s intensely creepy 2014 short Solitudo showcased an acutely visual, intimate filmmaking style that is almost confrontational in its directness. In Prevenge, her first feature, Lowe pairs that wide-eyed creepiness with her well established comedy chops to produce a film of startling elegance, whose smart writing deftly mixes laughs and gore to reveal unexpected heart.
Ruth, a single pregnant woman, finds that she can hear the voice of her unborn daughter, and that the child is issuing her with certain instructions. Traumatised, alone and afraid, Ruth listens to the voice inside her head and carries out its instructions in a series of set-pieces that are beautifully written and realised, with each laugh-out-loud or gasp-out-loud moment (and there are plenty of both) balanced with poignancy and, running underneath the whole thing, something that is very much like a love letter, both to Ruth’s lost love and to their child.
Lowe has written herself a gem of a part here; one that allows her to indulge her evident love of vintage horror cinema at the same time as showcasing her mercurial and vivid acting talent. We meet Ruth, but we also meet the many other characters whose personalities Ruth briefly inhabits, and each of them is realised flawlessly, even if we only see a few seconds of them. At times sweet, at times entirely grim but always pitch-perfect, this is a peach of a film with an ending to die for.
The Bacchus Lady
Youn Yuh-jung, who plays the eponymous heroine of The Bacchus Lady, is a well-respected 69-year-old Korean actor with a film and television career stretching back to the 1960s. This might make the opening scene, in which her character pitches up at an STD clinic with a detailed description of her gonorrhea symptoms, even more surprising to Korean audiences than it was for the polite, scarf-wearing, middle-aged LFF audience with whom I saw it.
If a retiree talking about vaginal discharge makes you feel uncomfortable, you might want to look away now. This is a tough film to watch, with its unflinching hundred-watt-lit inspection of sex, death and everything in between, and its ultimate message of despair amidst the hope. If you are old or ill, or you love someone who is old or ill, or if you might one day become old or ill, there are some difficult moments here. But there are also moments of light, of joy and of sparkling beauty.
The plot is minimal; a vessel for themes which transcend storytelling. So-young’s trip to the doctor is interrupted by a fracas from which she emerges, eventually and complicatedly, in charge of a small boy who speaks no Korean. Suddenly responsible for another human, So-young is forced to rely upon the goodwill of her acquaintances, a motley crew with nothing in common except that they are all living somewhere on the edges of society; and for all that Youn’s performance is the lifeblood of this film, the ensemble scenes are where it comes most to thrilling life, until it throws pleasure aside for its final act in favour of a cold-blooded look at mortality. If you loved The Station Agent and you’re not feeling too emotionally fragile, this is one to seek out. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
La La Land
La La Land doesn’t come out in the UK until January 2017 but it is already suffering from Blair Witch Syndrome, which is to say it is being so over hyped that it doesn’t stand a chance of living up to expectations. Which is a great shame, because taken on its own terms it is a sweet and charming film with plenty going on.
You may already know that it is a musical, set in present-day Los Angeles but with a hefty dollop of The Golden Age of Hollywood swirling around its fairly fuzzy edges. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling reprise their electric pairings-up in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad to dazzling effect, playing, respectively, aspiring actress Mia and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian, the moments where the film works best being those where the music fades into the background and the two leads get to do what they’re really best at, which is being charismatic and adorable.
The music is very good; the singing less so. But I loved Moulin Rouge!, so it doesn’t take an operatic soprano to win me over. What La La Land lacks is ballsiness; the willingness to forgo taste and elegance in favour of gutsy, heart-and-soul human feeling. It is, as my viewing companion wisely noted, an Instagram musical, very carefully designed to look good, but without much going on below the surface. My primary criterion for a really good musical is that it should make me cry, and La La Land didn’t. But it did make me happy, if only for 128 minutes, and there are worse things than spending 128 minutes feeling good, even if you can’t remember all that much about it a day later. It is not going to be the film that heralds a new golden age of Hollywood musicals, but La La Land is going to be 2017’s The Artist, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Even by the LFF’s high standards, the line-up was exceptionally strong this year. At the programme launch there were lots of people saying it was the best line-up for ages, and in terms of the big-hitters delivering the goods, I’d have to agree. I saw a total of 65 films (only two of which were seen outside of the festival screening period) and only disliked a small handful of them, so picking the top ten was really tough.
- Manchester By The Sea
- Personal Shopper
- My Life as a Courgette
- La La Land
- Toni Erdmann
- Ethel & Ernest
Special mentions to: All this Panic, A Date for Mad Mary, Lady Macbeth, Mindhorn, Prevenge, Free Fire, Moonlight, Nocturnal Animals, The Handmaiden, The Young Offenders, American Honey, Your Name, Chi-Raq, Two Lovers and a Bear, Zip & Zap and The Captain’s Island.
Of the top ten, Paterson (aka Adam Driver, Bus Driver) is likely to be my favourite film of the year, whenever it comes out. I thought it was just perfect, a moving blend of character, dry humour and poetry with a striking sense of place informing art. I hope Adam Driver and Jarmusch work together again, because this was something really special.
My only real disappointments were It’s Only the End of the World (though, to be fair, Xavier Dolan was well overdue a “difficult second album” movie), Into the Forest, Planetarium and something I can’t name because it’s under embargo.
I have to say, it was a particularly exhausting experience this year, partly because of the intensity of the press screening schedule, which is effectively a second LFF running parallel to the main event. This year I didn’t do a single interview (I was down for a couple but they got cancelled) or go to a single party and yet it feels like I haven’t had an LFF-free moment in four weeks. I sadly didn’t get to go to any of the Screen Talk events either, though I did pass Werner Herzog on the Picturehouse escalators. Does that count?