The 2015 London Film Festival finished nearly three weeks ago, and as ever it’s taken us this long to get our final thoughts about the thing onto the internet. So here are yours truly and The Belated Birthday Girl with our pick of the best and worst bits, plus a clutch of bonus reviews from guest correspondent Lesley.
(Or, if you'd rather, that thing to the left is the BFI's official YouTube playlist from their LFF coverage, with several hours of clips, interviews and talks. You could watch that instead if you like. Your call.)
- The American Epic Sessions
- Lost in Munich
- In Jackson Heights
Bubbling under: Our Little Sister, Frame by Frame, Yakuza Apocalypse, Ryuzo and his 7 Henchmen
Fave treasure: A Man For All Seasons
I was wondering whether I should only have a Top 3 this year, now that the festival is shorter and I only got to 33 screenings/events in total, but all 5 on my Top 5 deserve to be there, so I’m sticking with the traditional 5.
It turns out the best thing I saw was made for telly. Seeing The American Epic Sessions with an audience definitely added to it, but the way it touched so many bases made it something special, and I’d recommend catching it whatever way you can.
I’d be keen to see Lost in Munich a second time, to see how it holds up knowing everything that’s going to happen, but it delighted me so much at the time, I’m putting it right up there on the list.
In Jackson Heights was my first Wiseman. None of his previous topics appealed, and to be honest, I still can’t see I’d want to go back to see them. But the Jackson Heights district of New York fully deserved the time spent, with the stories told making good use of the space Wiseman gives them.
Assassination had an old-fashioned feel, from the plot with heroes and villains through the well-shot action scenes to the real explosions, but apart from a slight queasiness about the – understandable – portrayal of the Japanese occupiers, that’s meant in a good way. It was a fun romp, with drama and humour, and a kick-ass female lead (who wasn’t the only strong female character, either). What’s not to love?
Finally, I can imagine Office might actually deserve to be higher up the list, if I had only been able to watch it properly. Unfortunately, as we were seated very near the front, I suffered ill-effects from the 3D, and had to watch much with one eye closed (or even both!). But the design of the film made such good use of the 3D it would have been a shame not to see a 3D presentation. I may need to re-watch on DVD to get to see the whole film. But what I did see was exuberant, witty, visually dazzling and often moving. To’s take on the financial crisis here is effective, if somewhat simplified to fit the form. A musical was an unexpected genre for To, but it actually made a fascinating and entertaining film.
The Treasures strand, though not officially a strand, is still one of my favourites, and once again I saw several presentations in it. The chance to see A Man for All Seasons on the big screen was one that I jumped at, and I would definitely recommend it. Our Man in Havana was also a delight, and the rediscovered Laurel and Hardy shorts were great fun, enlivened by excellent live musical accompaniment.
I also was fortunate enough to attend two excellent interviews in the Live Events. I would echo Spank’s plea for these to be finalised within the printed programme, as I could easily have booked something for both slots before the events were announced: we did, in fact, try to for the Laurie Anderson. The Geena Davis was a real highlight, and if you haven’t visited the website of the Geena Davis Institute – and preferably made a donation to help their work – I urge you to do so. And the Laurie Anderson conversation with Brian Eno was equally fascinating, though very different. But I do feel that Eno’s anti-TV snobbery deserves a re-think, in light of some of the great things being made for TV these days – including, of course, my top pick from the festival!
The three films I saw that were also in Spank’s and The BBG’s picks - Ryuzo & His Seven Henchmen, Kiss Me Kate, and The Idol - I enjoyed but have little to add to their comments, except that Kiss Me Kate improves with every viewing. This was the first time I had seen the 3D version: well worth the experience, though the stage in the final frame seemed like something in a different dimension from maybe a Star Trek movie.
I had been congratulating myself on my excellent selection, until I realised that none of my picks had been deemed worthy of press attention, and that the film I had considered as a fill-in between two films, but decided against as it sounded a bit obsessive – Chevalier - had been one of the triumphs of the festival. Oh well! So here is what else I watched.
Schneider Vs Bax [official Facebook] Director Alex van Warmerdam, Netherlands-Belgium. I had seen the director’s Borgman in the 2013 LFF, and the offbeat tone of that had stayed in my head, especially the way of disposing of corpses: sticking the head into a bucket of concrete and then dumping the body in the river, so the rest of the torso and limbs waved upwards in the water like some exotic aquatic plant. Anyway this one had hitmen staking out each other, for no revealed reason except the orders of the boss, in a rather wonderful reedy landscape, plus the ensuing carnage of others who wander into the plot. Delicious if you like low key weirdness.
Rocco And His Brothers [trailer] Director Luchino Visconti, Italy 1960. New restoration. Wonderful, with reinserted censored sections and a rediscovered reel in the end section of the film. The wonderfully shot (Giuseppe Rotunno) drama of a family fleeing the poverty and harshness of working the land in the south for a better future in Milan must be seen by every cine enthusiast. [I kind of saw it in 1995 - Spank] For me the darkness of the substance of the film, interiors, night scenes, sombre winter days is wonderfully countered at the end when the youngest of the brothers take lunch to the steady brother on the midday break from the car plant, and they talk about the past and the future in a surrounding wasteland: possibly cleared of war rubble, but with the new factory of a fledgling auto industry to which the workers return a sign of the new, a qualified escape from the stark servitude and struggle with the land of the past.
Black Mass [official site] Director Scott Cooper, USA. Boston gangster morality story, with the entanglement of the forces of the law and political leaders in the activities of a local crime lord, because he is one of their own. Not bad at all. Johnny Depp makes a convincing mobster (most of the time, there are a couple of fleeting moments when cute Johnny forgets to put his role on, forgivable.) Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem, plus other plays) is screenwriter along with Mark Mallouk.
The Apostate [official site] Director Federico Veiroj, Spain-France-Uruguay. With Alvaro Ogalla in the main role depicting a fictionalised episode of his own (real) life. Partly an interesting curiosity but with something to say on the recent past in Spain, where youth unemployment hit 56% and many wide-eyed intellectuals and creatives had plenty of time of philosophise on their situation and the state of the nation. It seems that there was a movement of dissociation with the church, not so much a critique, but a more broad ‘I want this thing out of my life’ mood which led to a demand to be recognised as formally apostate. I think it all tied up with a final turning away from the rigorous traditionalism of a country controlled by church and state, of the Franco dictatorship. Like many youth dominated projects the film had its indulgences. On the whole I liked the fantasy elements, especially the inquisition bit, but at times the confusion between fact and fantasy was confusing. The background score was fascinating, on at least a couple of occasions generally meditative or feel good moments were accompanied by cheerful, but very slightly strange tunes. In the Q & A at the end Alvaro revealed that this music had been the background to propaganda films of the Franco era. Such enlightening snippets were indicators that the Q & A really was needed to bring a relevance to a film that might not totally say what it intended to an audience with little familiarity with the culture which spawned it. Final verdict, enjoyable.
The People Vs Fritz Bauer [official site] Director Lars Kraume, Germany. Fritz Bauer was the German Attorney General who pursued the search for Nazi war criminals in a post-war Germany replete with former Nazis in significant political and economic positions of power. Not a period I know much about, though I remember the capture and trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann. Despairing of German support, Bauer turned to Israel to help bring the mass murderer to justice. Bauer wanted Eichmann tried in Germany, but to maintain political stability and to support a German-Israeli arms deal, Israel got the trial. A film also about the effects of criminalised homosexuality. Definitely worth seeing.
Francofonia [trailer] Director Alexandre Sokurov. Another great gallery of the world gets the Sokurov (Russian Ark) treatment, this time the Louvre. Sokurov has focused on the capitulation of France and the first couple of years of the German occupation. There is some wonderful archive footage and the usual fanciful characters ghostly wandering about, Marianne and Napoleon. But I think Sukorov knows that this time he is not in control of his material. I think he has a further problem with his viewpoint. He makes the reasonable point that the foundations of the Louvre’s collection were gathered by Napoleon as war loot, and that in the early days of the occupation the Louvre was lucky to have as German overseer Count Wolff Metternich, an educated aristocrat who knew about art, and had no wish to see the collection purloined by the greed of Goebbels, Hitler et al. However Sukorov loses himself in the comparison with the fate of the art of Russia, decimated by the invaders, and the barbarities of the siege of Leningrad, and has not found a way of restoring the balance.
A Tale Of Three Cities [trailer] Director Mabel Cheung, China. Quaintly dated epic with the life story of Jackie Chan's parents, warlords, Japanese, intrigue, bombings and rubble, migration – very topical boat crossing to Hong Kong Island. But slightly naff in a way only the Chinese really do. (Should have seen Chevalier.)
Guilty [trailer] Director Meghna Gulzar, India. Another instance of the Q & A adding substantially to the experience, but this time the film itself was not at fault. Taking as its subject a controversial true case of the Noida Double Murders, believed to be an honour killing, in India in 2008, the film follows the procedure of the police investigation and subsequent trial. Deeply rooted in a very solid concept of law practice and procedure, the film screams miscarriage of justice. Just as impressive, if not more so, was Meghna Gulgar on stage at the Q & A. Among the audience were people who gave the impression of being senior practitioners of the legal profession, who asked penetrating questions. Meghna Gulzar gave truly impressive responses: throughout development and filming she had had to be thoroughly aware of the legal implications of what she was about. She also defended the local police – who came out so badly in the film, citing lack of resources inconceivable here. Truly a highly intelligent woman at the height of her powers. I could have spent several hours more listening to the interrogation.
A Perfect Day [official site] Director Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Spain. Strangely placed in the Laugh section of the programme, which promised a MASH-style approach to the Balkan war arena. The story is loosely based on the memoirs of a Medecins Sans Frontières worker, with the doctors replaced by general aid workers. Starring Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins as veterans in the field, the film has its black humour moments, but the tragedy and destruction is never overlooked. A very moving film, and the final ‘Act of God’ uplift – dare not say more as it would be a plot spoiler – allows the viewer to leave the cinema with a smile.
To break down my 2015 festival by category, as has become traditional: 6 Laughs, 6 Thrills, 3 Dares, 2 Loves, 2 Cults, 2 Experimentas (experimentae?), 2 Documentary Competitions, 1 Official Competition, 1 Debate, 1 Journey, 1 Event. Nothing from the Family section, and – alarmingly – nothing from Sonic either (although The BBG racked up two from the latter in my absence). It’s also worth noting that if they were keeping the archive Treasures as a separate section like they used to, I saw six of those.
Some pretty good stuff this year, I think. My personal highlight would be In Jackson Heights, my first Frederick Wiseman documentary but hopefully not my last. Without trying to impose rigid storylines on the material, he carefully separates out a series of distinct strands in the lives of Jackson Heights’ residents and keeps them all carefully bubbling for over three hours. It’s an utterly satisfying experience, but still leaves you wanting to know what happens next at the end. The rest of my top five would break down like this:
- Men & Chicken (even more hilariously offensive now I know what it’s really about);
- Office (which has to be seen on a huge screen and in 3D to make sense, so I fear UK audiences may already have missed their chance);
- Invention (sure, it’s a pure art film, but the sheer beauty of its images and weirdness of its sound design can be appreciated by anyone with eyes and ears); and
- Rattle The Cage (end-to-end probably the most satisfying of all the genre films I saw this year).
Inevitably, my choices are skewed by my usual policy of trying to avoid films that already have UK distribution. For example, in the three weeks since the festival finished, we've caught up with The Lobster, and if I'd seen that in the LFF it probably would have ended up somewhere on that list. As for the stinkers, there wasn’t anything offensively bad I saw this year, with Ghost Theater’s relentless will-this-do-ism the closest thing I had to a low point.
So with all that out of the way, thanks to the usual suspects - The Belated Birthday Girl and Lesley for additional reviews: Stephen for additional audience appearances: The Cineaste for nearly making it along, but not quite (I'm not thanking him for that, you understand...): Phil and Matthew for being the visible representation of the Mostly Film posse (and sorry to Indy for not getting to touch base with him this time round): and a quick hello to Tony and Maria, who we only ever see at the LFF these days, and spend so little time chatting that I'm not even sure if they know this blog exists.
And now I really need to buckle down and collate Spank's LFF Diaries Volume 4: 2010-2014 before the next festival rolls around. Being a monkey, and all.