This is how we usually finish off a London Film Festival: summaries of the highlights and lowlights from your 2013 reviewing team of me, The Cineaste and The Belated Birthday Girl. We also have special guest appearances from Lesley and Chris, with their own film-by-film thoughts on how it all went. (Films being reviewed here for the first time are highlighted in bold.)
Vicki Zhao's So Young doesn't appear in any of our lists, but the photo on the left is the only celeb picture I took this festival, and it looks nice, so it stays.
The following day I caught Fred Wiseman's latest effort At Berkeley [official Facebook], a four hour look at Berkeley University today, and its issues with funding, work and student protest. I'm a fan of Wiseman's examinations of institutions and other activities, and I really enjoyed his Boxing Gym recently, so was pretty engrossed. The man himself appeared for a Q & A, but the topics raised by the audience were mainly about the current situation at Berkeley rather than Wiseman's filmmaking, so I slipped away to my next film, Borgman [trailer], a nice little Danish-Netherlands modern horror story, and rounded off the day with The Wishful Thinkers [official site]. This was again a decent film, by young Spanish filmmaker Jonas Trueba with Javier Lafuente, focused on daily life and romance among the idle youth in Madrid, victims of the economic 'Crisis'. Especially interesting as they had filmed it using old black and white film stock they had found, without being sure of whether it had deteriorated irrevocably.
Tuesday brought my first WOW film, though an anguished and thoughtful one. My Fathers, My Mother And Me [official site] was a recollection by Paul-Julien Robert of a childhood spent at Friedrichhof during the '80s, a commune in Austria run under the authority of Otto Muehl, controversial founder of the Viennese Actionist Art movement. Everything had been filmed at the time on a daily basis, the free love, the residents' activities and participatory entertainment, and the filmmaker used these extensive archives to carefully build his case as to why his upbringing had been so damaging, including present day interviews with others who had been his childhood companions. I was pleased to see it had won the documentary competition, though at the Q & A after the screening it was evident that the filmmaker was still searching for resolution and healing.
It was interesting to come from that film to the following day's Let The Fire Burn [official Facebook], a re-examination of a notorious incident in Philadelphia in 1985, when in the process of evicting a seriously antisocial radical organisation MOVE, related to the Black Power movement, the authorities managed to cause the destruction of several blocks of housing, in which had lived mainly black blue-collar families who had begged those in power in the city to get rid of the obnoxious cult in their midst. If I hadn't seen My Father, My Mother And Me I'm sure I'd have viewed the film as a pertinent examination of recent history of conflict between the US authorities and the various sectors of the black community - which the film is. As it was, I was additionally hyper receptive to the situation of the children living in the headquarters of MOVE, and far more inclined to judge negatively the ringleader's claims to their right to live by their political and religious beliefs.
Thursday and Rigor Mortis, Night Moves, and 11.6, which have been reviewed elsewhere, I have little to add, though I disliked the ending of Night Moves, finding it hysterical, and over the top. I was unconvinced.
Friday - Kill Your Darlings [official site], Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg! though the story was interesting and based on real circumstances. I liked the guy who played William Burroughs. Then in the evening my second WOW. The Past by Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), a brilliantly handled and acted tale of complicated relationships among the inpoverished Iranian exiles living on the outskirts of Paris - a location I had trundled through just a few days previously on the train from the airport, and had wondered who lived in those houses, those streets. Well now I have been given a possible scenario. The characters were handled so sympathetically, initial harsh behaviour was carefully revealed to be understandable, and mitigated by plot development. I loved the film. One complaint, I saw the film at the Curzon Mayfair, and the screening had the subtitles as low as possible on the screen. I didn't need a giant in front of me not to be able to read them. IMO the brain adjusts to subtitles, they don't have to be projected so low, hoping to minimise interference to the action.
And on to Saturday, and my only red carpet moment for Half Of A Yellow Sun [trailer], screen adaptation of the book by Chimamanda Adichie (which I have read and enjoyed) set in Nigeria at the time of the Biafra war. A great turn-out of the cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor and the author - and I had a seat in the front row. I was a little confused by the plot at certain points early on in the film, and the leading womens' changing hairstyles didn't help, but then settled into the story telling, and some great acting. The film makers had taken the brave decision to film in Nigeria, a country notorious for its ability to present obstacles and make things difficult, as pointed out in the Q & A by Nigerian expats themselves. I would have loved the Q & A to be longer, as there was a really good exchange of views going on, but the film had started nearly half an hour late, and we had to be out for the next film screening. A shame as it was the best Q & A of the week (maybe excepting Paul-Julien Robert).
Then Parkland [official site], to wrap. An interesting, and informative reconstruction of how the people of Dallas, the police, politicians and security services reacted to the immediacy of the Kennedy assassination. I'm old enough to remember the day Kennedy was shot, and it was strange to relive that time - so long ago! Assuming it gets a general release it will be interesting to see how critics and general audiences react to what for many of them will be a piece of ancient history.
To sum up, my first few films were decently put together, but the stuff which really hits the mark came later in the week - My Fathers, My Mother And Me, Let The Fire Burn, A Past, and Half Of A Yellow Sun - and I look forward with anticipation to any general release they get.
Becoming Traviata [official Facebook] - loved it, but it possibly only has a niche market. I just happen to adore Natalie Dessay and to have this film on her work with Jean-François Sivadier recorded was terrific. Philippe Béziat who made the film was present at viewing.
Le Grand Cahier [trailer] - János Szász's adaptation of Agota Kristof's heart-rending The Notebook. Story of twin boys during war, and how from innocent children they became so cruel in order to survive. Thought provoking, and moreso when I saw...
A Touch of Sin. Essentially, to me, what A Touch of Sin showed is the brutalising effect of capitalism, and for all its early violence the worst moment was the boy committing suicide. Both films were about lost innocence. And I thought both were worth seeing, giving albeit a rather depressing but honest view of the human condition.
What ultimately developed into a thrilling finale couldn’t hide the fact that most of this year’s festival was rather disappointing. It was, so to speak, a festival of two halves. The first half lasted about a week. With one or two exceptions (Eliza Lynch, Tracks, Norte etc) there weren’t many films that really thrilled me – in fact in some time slots, despite there being ten or more simultaneous screenings, I was scratching my head trying to find an appealing film. Then, from the end of the second week, things took a terrific turn for the better and ended with that memorable final day (not entirely all of which was memorable for the right reason). So anyway, when all’s said and done, here’s the General Classification, in no particular order.
Worst Film: A Long and Happy Life. A dreary and forgettable effort that really had nothing to redeem it.
Special Mention 1: Norte, The End of History. Like a child opening a popular present at Christmas time, discovering an unknown director and then enthusing about his film makes for a big at the LFF. Diaz’s leisurely story-telling and cinematography were wonderful.
Special mention 2: The Past (Le Passe). Director Asghar Farhadi’s classy and intelligent drama about modern-day family life was an engrossing pot-boiler that continually ramped up the tension all the way through.
Best Film: they kept the best till last, and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears was simply head and shoulders above anything else. With the measured perspective of assessing the LFF a week later, I wondered if this film really was as brilliant as it appeared on the day, or if it was just the sharp contrast with the rest of the (as I say) rather disappointing LFF. Yes, it really was that brilliant. I still can’t help laughing thinking about it, it was so inventive, imaginative and audacious. Bravissimo.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
The Great Passage
Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys, We Are the Best!, Picture Snatcher, Why Don't You Play in Hell?, The Epic of Everest, Tell Me Lies, Nine Lives
Not my cup of tea:
As I Lay Dying, A Touch of Sin, Rigor Mortis, The Eternal Return Of Antonis Paraskevas
Each of the films in the top 5 would have a claim to being best of the films I saw in this year's festival, and in the end I went for Elaine Stritch mainly because it was the only film I saw which I felt emotionally affected by (as an aside, if I hadn't decided to see Like Father, Like Son outside the festival on release, that would have been a clear winner of the top spot, and certainly was very affecting). I don't think I had realised just how much of Elaine Stritch's frailty would be on show in the film, which took quite a different approach from more standard biographical documentaries, and was all the more interesting and impressive for that.
The Great Passage was the first film I saw in this year's festival which actually impressed me, and while it probably holds a special interest for students of the Japanese language, it was a warm and affectionate film, and just left me with a good feeling. Our Sunhi was wonderfully funny, and it is all the more a mystery to me why the slightly underwhelming Nobody's Daughter Haewon got the honour of being the first Hong Sang-soo to get a UK release (albeit limited), when this was so much better. Night Moves, while not as great as Meek's Cutoff, confirmed to me that I really should check out Kelly Reichardt's back catalogue, and might have been alone at the top of the list if it weren't for one particular plot decision which I thought unnecessary. And Locke was a terrific piece of acting from Tom Hardy (who also impressed in the post screening Q&A) and a fascinating and successful exercise.
Of the "Honourable mentions" 4 were archive films, which is symptomatic of the continuing - possibly growing - strength of the Treasures strand: I am sure I see more in the strand each year, and although that may partly be a result of the shorter festival meaning I choose concentrate even more on films less likely to be seen on release, I think it is largely a testament to the wonderful work of Clyde Jeavons and especially of the archivists and restorers working around the world. Of the other 3, Aatsinki I think might have made it into the Top 5 if it had engaged emotionally with its subjects: you really didn't feel you knew the people through the film, the way you knew the shepherds in last year's Winter Nomads. For a while I thought Why Don't You Play in Hell was going to be the best thing I saw, but unfortunately it couldn't quite keep it going at the same level of entertainment throughout. As for We Are the Best, it was just nice to have the old Lukas Moodysson back.
I'm not sure any of the films I saw were actually bad - well, maybe Rigor Mortis, although even that had its moments - and although there were a couple of other underwhelming films, only the 4 listed there feel worth calling out as ones where I'd probably have preferred to be elsewhere. That's not bad out of 36 films (counting Doorway to Hell and Picture Snatcher separately - mainly because I thought Picture Snatcher good enough to be singled out).
I only went to one screentalk, at that was the Kore-eda. In spite of deciding not to see Like Father, Like Son in the festival - because it was getting an immediate release, unlike the last few which have generally taken 2 years to come out, if at all - I've seen enough of his other films to want to see him talk about them, and it turned out to be an excellent event, with Kore-eda proving an interesting and engaging interviewee.
I have seen other people say how this year's festival was particularly strong. Maybe my decision to concentrate on things not getting a release gave me a different perspective (and certainly the best festival film I saw was one I caught after the festival was over, as mentioned), but I don't know whether I would say that: I'm sure I've been more impressed at some of my previous festivals. But I did see some very good films, and no really bad ones, and enjoyed quite a few filmmaker Q&As, so I think I count it as a success. One small complaint is that with the various competition screenings, they seem just to have given themselves an excuse for a hike in the ticket prices. And I was disappointed at the lack of an Animation programme this year - let's have that back for 2014. And please don't muck about with the Treasures strand (or maybe give it its old name back: some reference to "Archive" would be nice!). Anyway, I'll be back in 2014 for more.
(Technical note: The Belated Birthday Girl and I are currently sitting at opposite ends of a sofa, writing our Wrap Party summaries independently of each other on separate computers. Any perceived overlap between the two is just a consequence of our hanging out together a lot: we haven't had any detailed discussions about how our lists are going to look.)
A few days into this festival, I was complaining that the best films I'd seen so far were either archive restorations or documentaries. By the end of it, that seems to have been less of a problem: a few movies late in the run managed to surpass everything else I'd seen to date, although one of those also turned out to be a documentary.
There's one other important thing to note: although we attended Hirokazu Kore-eda's Screen Talk, we didn't get to see his film Like Father, Like Son until a week after the festival, and it stands head and shoulders above the majority of things we caught at LFF performances. Kore-eda is a world leader at this sort of delicate family drama by now, and as usual he sketches out the conflicts between people without ever demonising either side. Like Father, Like Son is currently on release in UK cinemas: last Friday at the ICA, it played to an audience of six people. SORT YOURSELVES OUT, LONDONERS.
Keeping all that in mind, here are the five best films I saw at the 2013 London Film Festival:
1. Locke, a technical exercise that remembered to be entertaining as well, thanks to a tightly-constructed script and a staggering lead performance.
2. We Are The Best!, because some of us have been waiting for over a decade for Lukas Moodysson to remember that he used to like people.
3. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, whose intimations of mortality hit a little too close to home for me to place it higher, but there's no denying the balls of that woman.
4. The Great Passage, although I hope that Yuya Ishii isn't permanently sucked into the mainstream as a result of the success of this delightful comedy.
5. Our Sunhi, which has largely evaporated from my mind a week or two after seeing it, but charmed the very pants off me at the time.
Because it was another great year for the Treasures programme, I'll add one more to the top five: Picture Snatcher, an 80-year-old Jimmy Cagney movie whose gags, thrills and moral dilemmas still hold up today.
As my top five sort of has six films in it, I hope that justifies my bottom five only having four entries. In descending order of annoyance: Rigor Mortis, A Time In Quchi, The Eternal Return Of Antonis Paraskevas and Gare du Nord, all of which are examples of missed opportunities of one sort or another.
With all that out of the way, let's have the usual thankyous. To Clare Stewart and all the team at the LFF: to this year's review crew of The Cineaste, The Belated Birthday Girl, Lesley and Chris: to Jon for additional ticket buying assistance: to Anne, Seapea, both Carolines, Diane and Rhian for joining us at various screenings: to the Mostly Film posse, whose own post-fest wrapup can be found here: and to all of you following this nonsense on the blog and on Twitter. (Special thanks in the latter case to the Kon-Tiki social media team for passing around my review of the film, resulting in my receiving an email with the glorious heading "Thor Heyerdahl mentioned you on Twitter!")
So, that's twenty-five London Film Festivals covered in a row on this site, without a single application for a press pass involved. Maybe in future years, when I get to the point where the number of festivals I've attended equals the number of pounds that accreditation costs, I might consider it. Being a monkey, and all.