When I was going on the other day about all the different formats of the London Film Festival 2021 trailer, with their 4:3, 16:9 and 2.35:1 aspect ratios, it turned out that I'd missed one: the 9:16 version used on electronic poster sites, like the one outside the entrance to BFI Southbank. (Yes, that's what it sounds like outside BFI Southbank on a Sunday night nowadays.)
Anyhoo: the festival's over now, so this is probably the last chance I'll have to watch that trailer, having already seen it before the vast majority of the 35 events I attended this year. (Fun fact: only five of those events are in the trailer.) Taking Clare Stewart's programme categories for my usual overview - and given the latest news, let's see if the same categories start appearing in Sheffield DocFest 2022 - I saw...
Galas - 0
Special Presentations - 6
Official Competition - 0
First Feature Competition - 2
Documentary Competition - 3
Love - 4
Debate - 1
Laugh - 1
Dare - 1
Thrill - 1
Cult - 0
Journey - 3
Create - 2
Experimenta - 2
Shorts - 2
Expanded - 2
Family - 0
Treasures - 3
Events - 2
A lot of Special Presentations this year - as The BBG has noted, a smaller programme probably means that a higher proportion of the big films are counted as Special. But which were the goodies, and which were the baddies? I'll tell you in a bit. First off, though, here are a couple of the regulars to give you their thoughts.
Best of the Fest:
1. What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?
2. A Cop Movie
3. The Neutral Ground
4. The Crossing
5. Cannon Arm And The Arcade Quest
Best of the rest (in order viewed):
The Velvet Underground, Small Body, Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy (particularly the 3rd story), Two Friends, Flee, Neptune Frost, The Afterlight
Around Japan With A Movie Camera
Not So Hot:
1. The Storms Of Jeremy Thomas
2. C'Mon C'Mon
3. Petrov’s Flu
Also disappointed (in viewing order):
Passing, Boiling Point
LFF 2021 was another strong festival, as can be seen from my over-stuffed “best of” list. I found it quite hard to decide on my Top 5, and to put them into an order. I’m not entirely sure why I liked What Do We See When We Look At The Sky quite as much as I did, and at the end of the day, that’s part of why I decided it took top spot, although A Cop Movie nearly pushed it down to second. I think part of the charm came from the very early setting out its stall as being almost in “Magic Realism” territory, but also the dryness of the humour combined with a warmth towards the characters that made you wish them well, meant that the quirkiness was a delight rather than an irritation.
A Cop Movie was the best of the 3 documentaries that made my Top 5, all of which took very different approaches to the form, with this being probably the most innovative. The Neutral Ground took the next spot, for the way it combined humour with a genuine and justified anger, while also being genuinely informative: yes, it’s the sort of thing we’re familiar with from The Daily Show, but it was done very well, and worked for me. The second and last non-documentary film in my Top 5, The Crossing, is ultimately also largely taken from real life, and again tackles a very serious and relevant topic, but does it so beautifully, both in terms of the visuals and the storytelling. And the final spot is taken by one more unusual documentary, Cannon Arm And The Arcade Quest: if you thought watching someone trying to break a record for playing arcade games couldn’t be exciting, or if you thought that a gaming geek was someone without friends and relationships, this film would show you just how wrong you could be.
The Storms Of Jeremy Thomas took the dubious honour of being my lowest-rated film, largely because there was a much more interesting film that could have been made. I would have loved to have heard more from Jeremy Thomas himself, and heard more about the work of a producer. For a film that specifically wanted to focus on the artistic choices of the producer, it gave very little feel for how and why those feed into the final product. In a way, the main thing it showed about the importance of the producer of a film was how much their choice of director can influence the film that gets made. You can’t really fault Mark Cousins for making a Mark Cousins film, but maybe you can fault the producers for choosing a director who gave us so little insight into the work of a producer.
To be fair to C’Mon C’Mon, it was probably a pretty good film if you like that sort of film – certainly it looked lovely – but it really wasn’t my sort of film. I don’t have a lot of patience for over-indulging children (in real life or in cinema), and I found Jesse bratty rather than charming: at one point when Johnny was agonising over having shouted at him, I felt he should have been congratulating himself for restraint at not giving him a thump. Still, the performances were certainly good. The one other issue was the terrible sound in the RFH, which literally meant I didn’t understand Johnny’s relation to Jesse until a good way through the film. And Petrov’s Flu maybe suffered a bit from being watched at home on the player, because if we were immersed in a cinema screening it might have taken us more into its world. But I found it messy and over-long.
Apart from the Bottom 3, the other two films which I would call out as disappointments are mainly because I had much higher hopes for them. Passing started well – and, again, had excellent performances, especially the two leads – but the more melodramatic it got, the less interested in it I became. And I just found the way that the writer/director of Boiling Point wanted to put everything vaguely dramatic he’d seen working in kitchens into it a bit much for me. I’d say that he’d put in everything except the kitchen sink, if it weren’t for the fact that there literally was a plot point involving a kitchen sink. To use another food-based metaphor, it over-egged the pudding, for my taste.
But really, that’s not a bad hit rate for mildly disappointing films out of 29 features, and such a high number of very good or great films. Here’s hoping that by this time next year we’re even further out of this pandemic and can see how the festival under Tricia Tuttle develops in more normal times.
Firstly, what a joy and delight that we had a "physical" LFF in the first place. After last year's festival was obliged to transfer completely to an on-line version, it was a huge relief to enjoy the festival in cinemas. I'm not really excited by watching films on-line - my ever-decreasing attention span means I'm almost certain to get distracted, and personally the enjoyment of appreciating movies comes with experiencing all the reactions with the rest of the audience - the laughs, the scares, the horrors, the ooh's and aah's, even the sighs of tedium at watching an interminable load of rubbish. And for which, huge credit to Tricia Tuttle and her team. Given, if I'm not mistaken, that planning the LFF starts petty much after the previous one's finished, and that the majority of the last 12 months here in the UK we've had some sort of lockdown restrictions, putting on any large-scale collection of screenings is a hugely commendable achievement. So, once again, huge credit - and thanks - to all the organisers.
Now, unsurprisingly, the actual scale of operations was a bit smaller than usual. In particular, the number and geographical location of the venues used. All the venues were in central London - indeed, the Curzon Mayfair and the Cine Lumiere apart, all almost within walking distance of each other. Past festivals have used outlying venues away from the city centre - and whilst I'm all for evangelizing film to the masses, having all the venues clustered geographically close together makes planning the logistics of a busy schedule a lot easier. It will be interesting to see if the likes of the Waterman's Arts Centre, the Ritzy, the Hackney Picturehouse amongst others return next year. Somehow, I think it's unlikely.
So, what of the actual films I saw? Personally, given how the world's turned upside down in the last 18 months, I think (maybe subconsciously) I wanted pure escapism. Great drama, nothing else. I only saw one documentary, and I really wasn't looking for stories with a political message behind them, however worthwhile that message might be. So I avoided those films (of which there were quite a few) which touched on such themes as climate change, diversity, the #metoo movement, the Palestinian conflict, whatever. They can wait till another day.
So, awards etc:
- Firstly, worst film: I'll get this out the way, because thankfully I only saw one bad 'un. No doubt there's a market for something like Titane (as I exited the cinema one young couple were enthusing animatedly about it), but it just didn't engage me at all. I suppose by way of contrast it helped me enjoy/appreciate all the others. Personally, rather than watching this, I'd prefer to stay at home and cut off bits of my anatomy with a sharp kitchen knife.
- Best film: oh, this is difficult - I saw a number of really fine movies, without an obvious standout contender. After much deliberating, I'll give it to The Lost Daughter. Maggie Gyllenhaal's debut feature is a terrifically confident piece of story-telling, a multi-layered drama, engrossing from start to finish.
- Best Paul Verhoeven film about lesbian nuns: Benedetta.
- Special mention: King Richard, Azor, The French Dispatch, The Feast, and She Will. And no doubt, if I'd seen it, I'd have added Benediction to that list as well. Being a Terence Davies film, of course.
- And finally, any common theme running through a number of films I watched? - Yup, my tendency to doze off in an alarming number of films I saw, then waking up and wondering what I'd missed, and how important it was. Next year I must remember to take cushion, pillow, blanket....
So, overall, a really impressive LFF, and once again huge credit to all involved in putting it on. Roll on next year.
Let's start by echoing The Cineaste above: this was one hell of a festival, given where we all were twelve months ago. To get back to something approaching the scope (albeit on a smaller scale) of a pre-pandemic festival, while keeping some of the best innovations from last year, and also adding a few new ideas into the mix, is an incredible achievement from all concerned. I mean, there are things you could quibble with - at least two of the awards handed out were unbelievably wrong, and a world-class film festival shouldn't be running its galas in a venue with as shitty a sound system as the Royal Festival Hall's - but aside from those and a couple of below-par movies, I'm very happy indeed. And to get the below-par movies out of the way, C'Mon C'Mon is excruciatingly terrible and will probably pick up a couple of Oscars, with only the one for cinematography being justified.
So let's run through my top five of LFF 2021, and for a change let's do it in reverse order, even though anyone with functioning eyes will have seen by now what's at number one.
5: Boiling Point. I haven't actually read The Belated Birthday Girl's thoughts at the time of writing, but she did warn me in advance this film would be getting a bit of a kicking from her. And sure, it's a bit overwrought in terms of its plotting and its desire to set up its leading chef character for every possible disaster that could take place over a single night. But it's the overload that makes it entertaining, surely? I'm currently trying to persuade The BBG that a great night of immersive cinema could be had by having dinner at Jones & Sons, where Boiling Point was filmed, and then watching the movie in the Rio just around the corner from there.
4: The Neutral Ground. I can kind of see The Cineaste's point in wanting to avoid documentaries this year, and I was certainly keen to keep away from anything that explicitly referenced the pandemic. But this was a cracking year for docs, particularly for ones which played around with the form, like the three that you're going to read about in this top five. So pandemic = no thanks, but right-wing protests against the removal of pro-slavery statues = fine, especially when discussed with the mixture of snidey humour and solid research in this one.
3: Small Body. Sometimes a film just comes out of nowhere and knocks you flat with the sheer ambition of its storytelling. Small Body has a potentially queasy starting point - a woman carrying her dead baby across Italy to find someone willing to baptise it - but adds more and more surprising elements to the story as it progresses, achieving the status of grand opera by the end. Its director Laura Samani didn't win the First Feature prize, but at least she got a special commendation, and whatever she does next is definitely going to be worth seeing.
2: A Cop Movie. More formal experiments in documentary. This one takes two ideas we're all familiar with - the corruption running riot in big city police forces, and how documentary films put across their ideas visually - and has them both feed off each other in a way which enhances both of them. And it's going to be on Netflix next month disguised as a standard police procedural, which is kind of glorious.
1: Flee. And another one - a documentary in which the director interviews an old school friend about his experiences as an Afghan refugee, and then animates images to illustrate their conversation in a variety of styles. Apparently there's an English dub on the way which will replace the original recordings with the voices of Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: I may be tempted to watch that too, just to see what they bring to the story. As it stands, the Danish version we already have is gripping, and probably the most emotional experience I had from a film this festival.
So, thanks to Tricia Tuttle and her team for putting this magnificent thing together. Thanks to those of Spank's Pals who came along to play this year: Sarah, Jon, Nim, Sharon, Diane and Lesley, with special thanks as usual to The Cineaste for his written contributions, and The Belated Birthday Girl for those and more. A big hello to FilmFan and DasBoot, and apologies to RussMeyerGirl for missing her while she was in town. Thanks to the people who boosted my various LFF tweets, including @SpodoKomodo, @MKupperman, @TriciaTuttle (oh yes), @FilmFan1971 again, @makingdoc and @gocjhunt (this isn't why his film's in fourth place, honest). And, as ever, thanks to all of you for following along from day to day. All that remains for me to do now is hope for a properly post-pandemic festival in 2022. Being a monkey, and all.