Granted, this piece is almost a month late – in fact I think it’s almost one month to the day when I started writing it – but it’s been a pretty busy time for me lately.
This year’s BFI London Film Festival was one of the biggest and best ever. Here I’ll be offering an overview of my favourite movies from my time there, though if you want to read a little more about the festival itself and see the full selection, head over to the BFI website.
London Film Festival has typically tended to be a good barometer of the year’s best films and 2016 has been no exception – a number of the films screened will be deservedly gracing numerous end of year lists, and it also showcases the main contenders for awards season next January and February. Unfortunately though I wasn’t able to see all of them; this isn’t my full time job after all. What I’m going to give you here are 15 films I think deserve special mention out of the selection of screenings I was able to attend while there.
Screenings that I missed and are therefore not featured here, but films that will inevitably feature in awards season, included: Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (expected in the UK early next year), Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams (which I have since seen and will review separately), Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom with David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike (opening night gala), and Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (Brie Larson looks excellent in it and will be a Best Supporting Actress nominee for sure – closing night gala).
So, not including the above four, here are 15 of the best from this year’s BFI London Film Festival:
15. Le Mechanique de L’Ombre (Scribe)
A French espionage thriller that takes the genre in an unexpected direction, feeling fresh and original because of it. The story of Monsieur Duval, a depressive alcoholic with little else to distinguish him from the average middle class office clerk, who loses his job and is forced to take on work transcribing secret telephone conversations on behalf of a shady employer. When he seemingly overhears a murder on one of the conversations, Duval finds himself getting sucked deeper into a mysterious plot despite his unassuming nature… This one likely won’t be getting much of a wide release in the UK, but it’s worth checking out on DVD or Blu-ray. I won’t claim Scribe is anything spectacular, but it’s one of the more entertaining thrillers I’ve watched in recent times.
A cool, crisp documentary on the life and sharp rise of Norwegian chess prodigy and current chess world champion Magnus Carlsen; as a big fan of the game and of Carlsen’s unpredictable, ‘intuition’-based playing style, this one appealed to me straight away.
At a brief 75 minutes, the film never drags and in fact may be considered too short by some. But for me that length is perfect. Carlsen himself is a reserved figure, an unashamed introvert who has no problem being rude in social situations to read about chess and further his mastery of the game. Often, in fact, he’ll seem lost in the space of his mind, his ‘own world’ – and we see how lonely a place it can be as well, with even the family and friends who he personally values so much unable to comprehend what goes on in his head. A bite-size gem of a movie.
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu shared Best Director at Cannes this year for this family drama focusing on the socio-political environment of Romania. It also provides an insightful look into parenting and the notion of how far one is willing to bend their integrity in order to give their children the best life possible (which, in this case, is ‘escaping’ Romania via a scholarship to Cambridge). A typically masterful European movie made with skillful insightfulness, and unbridled honesty pertaining to the often-curious patterns observed in human behaviour.
Sequel to 2013’s Mystery Road (one of the more underrated movies of the past few years – check it out), Goldstone sees the return of aboriginal detective Jay Swan as he attempts to solve a missing persons case that inevitably turns out to be linked to a larger plot.
This is a smart sequel, possibly an even smarter movie than its predecessor. It doesn’t simply pick up where Mystery Road left off; rather, Jay Swan has changed considerably as a character due to certain things that have happened in his life since his last outing. The film doesn’t rush into revealing these details too quickly, instead settling into a groove dealing with this movie’s independent storyline, which also means anyone who’s never seen the first movie can enjoy this film without needing to. For those who have seen its predecessor, trying to work out what’s changed with this central character – you may not recognise him to begin with, such has been his change – adds an extra element of intrigue.
Otherwise, Goldstone deals with themes like human trafficking, capitalism, and aboriginal natives being driven off their land by rich white men for the sake of (what else?) expansion and profit. When all’s said and done, this film is probably deserving of a higher place on the list, if it weren’t for the emotional connection I had with certain others to come.
11. Queen of Katwe
Just released widely in UK cinemas, Queen of Katwe is set to be, I hope, Disney’s biggest hit of 2016.
Based on the true story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, Queen of Katwe is another film that first jumped out at me because of its subject matter. It turned out to be much more than just another movie about chess, though. Yes it has the feel-good vibes one would expect from a movie of this nature; yes, it is undoubtedly one for the entire family to enjoy (and probably my favourite ‘family movie’ of the year). Having said that, there’s still a ‘rare’ quality about this film; considering it’s a full-scale Hollywood Disney movie set in Uganda, with an exclusively black cast.
I shouldn’t say “if there’s only one film you see this week, make it this one” in a week when I, Daniel Blake is also released, but I certainly want to at this moment.
Francois Ozon has made some of my favourite films over the past few years – In the House and The New Girlfriend were two of the best movies of 2012 and 2014 respectively.
Frantz is another departure for the talented director; filmed predominantly in black and white, it’s an unconventional romance set in France in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Uniquely the character of Frantz himself only appears in flashbacks, the story revolving around a German man who knew him during the war travelling to France to meet his family. French-German relations of the time period are examined from both sides, as the film begins in France from the perspective of a German, then ends in Germany from the perspective of a French character. Colour is used sparingly in the film, but is effective when a transition takes place. This is another great outing from Ozon.
Adam Driver hasn’t been short of attention in Hollywood since starring as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s found a role here that would define him, if he hadn’t already played one that inevitably will instead.
He plays title character Paterson in this film, a poet who lives in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. A bus driver by day (a trade that allows him to overhear some interesting conversations as the hours tick away), Paterson and his wife live a rather idyllic yet simple existence that feels right out of the American blue-collar storybook. In the evenings and at weekends, Paterson works on his poetry, which, while somewhat unspectacular, helps make him increasingly endearing as the film goes on. We end up connecting closely with this character despite his otherwise uninteresting lifestyle.
His dog in this film also gives an admirable performance; having won the Palm Dog award at Cannes for ‘best performance by a canine’. Paterson is due for its UK release in late November and may well be one I revisit soon.
8. Ma’ Rosa
A strong contender to pop up in the ‘Best foreign language film’ category as an entry for the Philippines, Ma’ Rosa is a stark portrayal of the struggle people have with everyday poverty. Central character Rosa is a mother and wife who casually sells hardcore drugs from her corner shop – out of necessity to ‘get by’. She comes across like a mother to the small, intimate surrounding community and so magnetic is lead actress Jaclyn Jose’s performance (for which she won Best Actress at Cannes) that at no point can you bring yourself to judge her from a moral high ground. Set during rainy season in the Philippines, the film has a kind of eccentric beauty about it, though a good portion of it you spend inside a police station over the course of a night in which police corruption is also exposed. Look out for this one next year.
It seems inevitable that Denis Villeneuve is set to become this generations Spielberg, Kubrick and/ or Ridley Scott all rolled into one. His previous work has shown similarities to them – he’s set to inherent the Blade Runner franchise with his next project – and Arrival feels like the sci-fi Spielberg and Kubrick would have made if they had worked on one together (A.I. doesn’t count).
Arrival isn’t my favourite Villeneuve movie; that mantle still belongs to the lesser-known Enemy, and I admittedly preferred Sicario to it as well, personally. But let that not take away from the overall quality of this film. It is one of the best, and one of the smartest of 2016. It also has a global theme about different countries and nationalities working together to avoid catastrophe, which should resonate particularly well with people when it is released this week considering our current socio-political climate.
6. The Handmaiden
Korean director Park Chan-wook (of Oldboy fame) returns with a film containing scenes that may rival Blue is the Warmest Colour in their raw, visceral portrayal of lesbian sex.
Obviously depending on your point of view, that could make or break the experience. But The Handmaiden really isn’t about that; rather it’s a winding love story that follows anything but the traditional narrative path, in which characters and their relationships are constantly in question. At least two major twists take place that change your perspective on what came before, giving the film an “I have to see that again” effect. It’s one of the best films of the year, without a doubt. It may even be Park Chan-wook’s best film to date.
Christine is set during a time (the early 1970s) when knowledge of mental health in America was still at an alarmingly primitive stage. The result is an experience that is at once sad and tragic, while you’ll also breath a sigh of relief that we no longer live in such times. Rebecca Hall gives the performance of her career as news anchor and journalist Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself live on air in 1974. The footage hasn’t been available anywhere – presumed destroyed – for some time, resulting in the story becoming somewhat of a modern myth; but it did actually happen, and at the time was as shocking as the portrayal here of elements leading up to the event. Christine herself was suffering from something; whether it was bipolar or a similar disorder is unclear, as though it is heavily hinted at, such diagnoses were non-existent at that time. This film is essentially the story of a woman who battles with demons yet is ultimately unable to defeat them. There was no happy ending for Christine Chubbuck, but thankfully nowadays there is for many who suffer as she did.
4. Chasing Asylum
An eye-opening look at Australia’s rather brutal anti-immigration policies in recent years; a documentary for which its makers took a genuine risk of two years in prison to release. Seeing its content, it’s not hard to work out why.
Honestly, this is a film that I believe everyone needs to see. Not a comfortable experience, especially considering the building anti-immigration sentiment in our own country, but you owe it to yourself to check out this documentary, regardless of the opinion you bring in or take out of it. This kind of thing is what can prevent mass stupidity in our own population and/ or government.
3. Personal Shopper
Kristen Stewart continues to defy critics who have lamented her acting ability by giving one of the best performances of the year in Personal Shopper – a different kind of ghost story in that it’s not part of the horror genre. There are a couple of potentially frightening scenes for sure, though they will intrigue rather than unsettle you. In general that’s what this film does; set out to intrigue its audience rather than spoon-feed them some cheap popcorn thrills. Stewart plays a young woman whose brother is recently deceased, and whom she believes is attempting to contact her from ‘the other side’. She and her brother were previously psychics, supposedly able to communicate with the dead, though Stewart’s character brings a healthy, refreshing skepticism to the story, preventing the whole thing from becoming eye-rollingly cheesy. Instead there’s an understated quality running throughout this film, right up to an ambiguous ending, that I loved. Others may feel differently depending on taste, but it’s one of the most original movies I’ve seen this year.
2. My Life as a Courgette
Forget what anyone else says – this is the best animated film of 2016. A French-Swiss stop motion that comes in at a compact 67 minutes, it’s the story of a little boy who is sent to an orphanage after the accidental death of his alcoholic mother, where he meets a group of other small children who’ve all lost their parents in various tragic circumstances. Like any top quality animated movie (indeed as 2015’s Inside Out also did very well), it grants the respect to children that they’re able to ‘handle’ serious issues such as the death of loved ones, loneliness, love, and there’s even subtle – yet entirely innocent – references to sex. It’s equally hilarious and incredibly sad. The stop motion on display is also an excellent work of art. Nominated as the Swiss entry for Best foreign language film, I’ll be shocked if this isn’t one of the favourites to pick up that award in February.
1. George Best: All By Himself
Admittedly this is a somewhat sentimental choice – I’m allowed one occasionally! – but George Best: All By Himself is also one of the most insightful documentaries I’ve seen in recent years. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything new about one of the world’s best footballers, but it shares an emotional, engaging account of the boy from East Belfast who became football’s first celebrity superstar in the midst of the ‘swinging sixties’ in Britain, and you’ll likely come away from it feeling you know him better as a person than before.
I emphasise that because in recent years it feels like people don’t really look at Best as a normal person – rather, as a flawed genius who ruined his career on the football field because of his obsessive love of alcohol. And that he certainly was – but there was more to the man. All By Himself showcases a boy no different from any of us, who became swept up in a celebrity culture that the football world itself was unprepared for, and one in which he was unable to find any guidance or help, being the first to have experienced it. Growing up in East Belfast myself, this documentary obviously resonated with me, and while I wouldn’t hold any objective claim to it being the best film overall, it was my most memorable experience of this year’s festival.
Now I had been planning to write more in-depth reviews for some of the films here; as we’re at the stage where a few of them are being released widely – Arrival this week, and Paterson coming up as well – I’m instead going to post larger reviews of those films as they come. A notable exception from the above is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which I did see at the festival, and I did point out beforehand as a potential contender for Best Picture at the Oscars… Well I’ve changed my mind on that and will be writing a longer review in this case, as I think this film and the context surrounding its production raises some interesting issues worth a larger discussion.