Wednesday, 2 November 2011

London Film Festival 2011 Round-Up

This year’s London Film Festival drew to a close last week with the UK premiere of Terence Davies' Deep Blue Sea after just over a fortnight of stellar programming from outgoing Festival director Sandra Hebron. The familiar grumbles centring on the unsuitability of the bomb site that was Leicester Square itself (and more specifically the aesthetic nightmare-in-plastic of the Vue cinema) were soon cast aside in favour of animated discussions on the wealth of extraordinary titles that comprised the programme, Hebron’s last after ten years as director, one on the strength of which her successor Claire Stewart, former head of the Sydney Film Festival, has quite the pair of boots to fill.

This year I caught 65 titles from the main programme, amidst the usual run of weekly screenings, the vast majority of which having at least something with which to recommend them. There were some high-profile disappointments, but very few disasters, and the stand-outs meant deciding upon just ten titles with which to make up a ‘best of’ list has proven especially difficult this time round.

In respect of which, I’ve decided to leave out of my top ten those films already honoured by the Festival itself in favour of including others that perhaps don’t already have such well-deserved praise and publicity lavished upon them. Three of the four major award winners would have made it into my top ten, so three places are freed up for others that equally impressed. Two of the prize recipients I agree with absolutely and wholeheartedly; Lynne Ramsay’s magnificent We Need to Talk About Kevin (reviewed here) scooping Best Film and Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss taking the Grierson Award for best documentary, a typically incisive but more unusually objective and restrained examination of the death penalty in Texas. If the Sutherland Award recipient (for best debut feature) proved a somewhat peculiar category given the lack of clarity regarding its nomination procedure (which led to the bizarre exclusion of Sean Durkin’s excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene), the ultimate winner Las Acacias was a slight but beautifully performed gem and a clear favourite for me until I caught Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown; a nerve-shattering Australian thriller which cast a monstrous shadow over much of the programme, and set the bar especially high for the rest of the competition in my estimation. That said, Snowtown was never going to be to everyone’s taste (as the multiple festival walkouts attested) and Las Acacias ultimately proved a winning compromise, and could arguably benefit to a greater degree than the genre leanings of Kurzel’s picture from the kudos bestowed by the award. The only category for which I entirely bemoaned the result was that of Best Newcomer, Junkhearts being quite the preposterous mess, especially given the towering achievement of the cast of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, a film which I missed during the Festival itself but was able to catch up with this week; out on Friday, it’s without doubt one of the best British films of the year.

So below is an oft-revised list of the ten films which ultimately proved the most rewarding for me; We Need to Talk About Kevin would have pinched the number two spot had I included it, whilst Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan and Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri : Death of a Samurai, a 3D remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 original that incorporated the added dimension of the Z-axis into an equally meticulous mise-en-scene to remarkable effect, both proved very near misses. Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st, a follow up to his brilliant Reprise demonstrated outstanding technical assurance and development as it followed a recovering addict determined to end his life that day, whilst Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness was a disorienting take on first and third world relations that consistently bypassed expectations and featured a doozy of an ending and the coolest hippopotamus of the Festival. Another animal star was born in the form of Iggy the Iguana in Jafar Panahi’s poignant docu-collage This is Not a Film, made whilst under house arrest and smuggled out of his native Iran, the letter read out by Sandra Hebron prior to the screening really bringing home quite how privileged we were to be celebrating an art form in which such important voices are banned from making theirs heard.

A few films stumbled at the final hurdle, most notably Hans Weingartner’s The Hut in the Woods, delightful right up to its disastrous third act spontaneous combustion, whilst Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (Michael Shannon’s brilliant performance aside) suffered to a lesser extent from a weak, showy ending. Two pictures which came out of nowhere for me to deliver a gut-punch of power, deriving from a pair of extraordinary performances, were Oliver Hermanus’ Beauty and Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Volcano, the Foreign Oscar entries for South Africa and Iceland respectively, both dealing with personal confrontation in one form or other, with both leads undertaking transformative journeys that culminate in acts both brutal and tragic.

There were a number of high profile titles I was unable to see due to either lack of press screenings or early buzz meaning the public screenings were sold out well in advance, and admittedly a few that screened early enough in the day to lose out to ‘festival fatigue’, easily done when one is trying to see up to ten or twelve films in two days. Judging from reactions elsewhere, it seems I missed little in skipping Fernando Mereilles’ opener 360, and I’m happy to wait a couple of weeks to catch The Deep Blue Sea on its general release later this month, along with Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena at its Russian Film Festival screening this weekend. Those I’m especially disappointed at missing included Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps, Polanski’s Carnage, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and Alexsandr Sokurov’s Faust, all of which hopefully high profile enough to be able to catch at a later date.

Fortunately, only three films of those I saw could I really class as disastrous. Miranda July’s The Future, whilst certainly not without its admirers, had me grinding my teeth from the outset, whilst Madonna’s astonishingly misguided take on the marriage of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, W.E. seemed to reduce most critics’ faculties of expression to apostrophised, italicised acronyms of disbelief on Twitter straight after the screening, myself included. One thing that can at least be said for Madonna’s film is that it’s rarely dull (if still completely bonkers), something one can’t attribute to Kim Kyung-Mook’s soporific ‘provocation’ Stateless Things, which I’m surprised I lasted the duration of.

There were also three films that, whilst containing more than enough to admire, failed to live up to my (perhaps overly) high expectations of them. Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place proved a film bursting with ideas that rarely gelled in any cohesive form; visually impressive and featuring a winning performance from Sean Penn, the character driven charms of its first half soon gave way to a rambling road-movie-cum-Nazi-hunt through the quirks of Americana, a series of episodic vignettes and platitudes that culminated in a finale of questionable judgement. I was also looking forward to Steve McQueen’s Shame, a tale of sex addiction and social dysfunction that centred around a pair of excellent performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, but despite its icy gaze and undeniable craftsmanship, remained entirely superficial, hampered as it was by a weak script that failed to penetrate beyond the surface of its examinations, and paled in comparison to the similar dissections of modern malaise in David Cronenberg’s Crash. Perhaps it was having said film by Cronenberg so firmly entrenched in my mind after seeing Shame that made his latest film, A Dangerous Method feel quite so, well, tame; for all the spanking and talk of molluscs invading Keira Knightley’s dreams, it struggled to escape its theatrical origins and was the first of his films that I could even begin to classify as generally rather dull. There was plenty to admire in its production and art design, but for a filmmaker so exquisitely skilled in literalising and physicalizing internalised concepts, A Dangerous Method reigned in style in favour of an exchange of words and ideas, barely delving into the corners of the id that his best works find their seed.

I found a lot to like in Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut Coriolanus, a Balkan-set modern dress interpretation that benefited as much from Hurt Locker collaborator Barry Ackroyd’s photography as it did from Vanessa Redgrave’s phenomenal performance. Andrea Arnold’s eagerly awaited adaptation of Wuthering Heights proved something of a frustrating experience; entirely intoxicating for the first hour or so but becoming victim of its own choice of narrative focus in the second, the repetition in its imagery meaning visual motifs found their power diminished through overuse as the film progressed, not helped by some performances perhaps not quite up to task. Another British disappointment arrived in the form of The Awakening, a gothic ghost story in the vein of The Innocents or The Orphanage, whose initially atmospheric set-up quickly succumbed to nonsensical plot devices and ‘surprises’ in the loosest sense of the word. There was a lot more fun to be had in Scandinavian thriller Headhunters, a barking mad thriller that entirely embraced its own sense of the ridiculous; any ten minutes of which offered more enjoyment than nine-odd hours of dragon tattoos, an image of a bald man covered in shit escaping from a bad guy on a tractor, a dog impaled on the front, has to be one of the lasting images of the Festival.

If Nick Broomfield’s Sarah Palin –You Betcha! was sparsely amusing, it resulted more from another opportunity to see clips of the former governor doing what she does best, namely making a fool of herself in public, rather than through any real insight from the filmmakers. The lack of access to Palin herself made the final result somewhat anti-climactic; seemingly content to reiterate what we all knew when we went in. Nominated for the Sutherland award, Mark Jackson’s Without succeeded in building an air of menacing ambiguity around its central character’s slowly fracturing psyche, aided by an excellent performance by newcomer Joslyn Jensen, but ultimately failed to resolve itself in a way that satisfied its early promise, a problem shared by the similarly well-performed Like Crazy; an American Indie from director Drake Doremus; styling itself as a kind of teenage Blue Valentine. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones charmed as the young couple trying to keep their love alive despite being thousands of miles apart, it certainly had its moments but ultimately floundered under the insistence of its director’s need to remain a visible presence.

One of the fortnight’s most genuine pleasures came in the form of the restoration of Georges Méliés’ A Trip to the Moon. Made in 1902, this colour restoration returned the film to its former glory; a film that had audiences queuing round the block to see an imagined world more than a hundred years before Avatar. Despite the new score by Air, which didn’t really work for me, it remains a breaktaking technical marvel for every one of its fourteen minutes. An absolute delight.

What follows are the ten films that made this year’s London Film Festival for me, only two of which (including my number one choice) have yet to secure UK distribution. I couldn’t recommend every single one of them more, and a few will most certainly be making it into my end of year top ten next month.

1.       I Wish (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

Kore-eda’s tale is one of beautiful simplicity, one of adapting to change, growing up, and believing in miracles. Working again with a large cast of children, not a single note feels forced or untrue. Simply one of the most joyous cinematic experiences of the year; I left floating on a cloud, grinning from ear to ear.

2.       Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/Bosnia-Herzegovina)

Framed as a cryptic police procedural, this exquisitely crafted nocturnal investigation into ethics, mor(t)ality, language and hierarchies of male relationships evokes Porumboiu more than Leone, but it’s still definitely something to do with death.

3.       The Kid With a Bike (Jean Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy)

A modern-day fairy tale from the most consistently brilliant filmmakers working today. Outstanding performances and lean, efficient direction make every shot count. Emotion mainlined.

4.       Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, Australia)

A monster of a movie about monsters, formal excellence amidst sea of brutality transfixes from the start. Confrontational, punishing, riveting. Just don’t take a first date.

5.       Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers, United Kingdom)

Rivers experiments with the very fabric of cinema through textures and landscapes, beautifully evoking Thoreau in his portrait of one man’s self-imposed, isolated exile.

6.       Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico/USA)

Expertly styled, kinetic ballet of bullets through Mexico’s borderlands. An arthouse rollercoaster ride of breathless, heart-stopping tension.

7.       Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France)

Intoxicating Conradian fever dream channels Aguirre, Wrath of God, Terrence Malick and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The astonishing intricacy of the opening shot almost topped by the static simplicity of the last.

8.       Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA)

Stunningly photographed, Durkin’s is a film of creeping power; its games with temporal elusiveness anchored by a brilliant performance by Elizabeth Olsen. Dark, foreboding, pregnant with latent menace.

9.       Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, USA)

Seemingly divisive judging from the post-screening reactions, Stillman’s return after a thirteen year absence exceeds all expectations, delivering a wonderfully funny self-reflexive oddity that could well prove the comedy of the year. Delightful.

10.   The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France)

A marvel of jaw-dropping technical brilliance, Jean Dujardin gives the performance of the year in this wonderful homage to cinema past. Plenty to love, even if it struggles to transcend pastiche. This one’s gonna explode.

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