Simian Substitute Site for December 2023: Sea Monkey Christmas
Living For The Weekend: A 2024 Diary By The BBG

Spank's LFF Diary: The Wrap Party 2023

Our coverage of London Film Festival 2023 is dedicated to the Suzanne Vega Fanclub, who passed away at the end of October this year.

Suze was, as regulars will know, one of the key members of this site’s LFF reviewing team, up until the point where he moved out of London a decade or more ago. But his regular grumpy outbursts in the comments sections were always welcome, no matter where he was living at the time. (Even if a lot of those comments were complaints about my not having a letters page any more, meaning that he could only write about stuff I’d already mentioned.)

When The BBG and I were arranging our civil partnership do this year, inevitably he was high on the list of people to be invited. So it was a shock to get a reply from him saying he was too ill to travel. The best we could do was send him a link to our photos from the day, and he seemed happy with those.

Suze’s final appearance in these pages was in the comments on my writeup of our subsequent trip to Palermo, where he said nice things about the short bit of video I shot there. No surprise there - photography was one of his interests, and one that had a bearing on the films he liked the most. I wish now we’d had a bit more time with him, so we could have discussed the James Benning film I got to see at this festival.

We’ll all miss you, Mike.

On to business. As usual, I’ll tell you all about my LFF highlights shortly, but first here’s The BBG to tell you about hers.

Banel & AdamaThe Belated Birthday Girl

Top 5:

    Banel & Adama
    The Klezmer Project
    The Goldman Case
    The Bikeriders
    Robot Dreams

Bubbling under (in order viewed): Bonus Track, The Killer, Fallen Leaves, Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros, Scala!!!, Vincent Must Die

Near Misses (also in order viewed): The Boy And The Heron, Foe, Cobweb, Poor Things

Bottom 3:
    Croma Kid
    They Shot The Piano Player

Another good LFF for me. A total of 29 feature films, 2 online shorts programs, and 2 talks. A fairly firm Top 5, although a couple of the Bubbling Unders might have a case for usurping the final slot, but in the end I was just charmed both by the look of Robot Dreams, and how it well played for both its younger and less-young audiences, so it sits comfortably at number 5. Going up the list, The Bikeriders was incredibly entertaining, and filled with terrific performances and a fabulous soundtrack. The Goldman Case was not only high-drama but also frequently hilarious. The Klezmer Project was one of the most inventive documentaries I’ve seen for some time, with multiple layers of historical facts and contemporary social history, some wonderful music, and an engaging fictionalised framing. It was also, again, often very funny. But the top spot had to be taken by Banel & Adama, a film I only got to see at all because we couldn’t get into Killers of the Flower Moon. Stunningly shot, beautifully acted, with the quality of a traditional fable, this film enthralled me right from the start. I knew it would be difficult for anything else later in the festival to dislodge it from number 1, and nothing did.

Apart from the Bubbling Unders, which were all unquestionably good, this year I find I have a separate category of film I found questionably good – by which I mean they were almost great but there was something about them that just didn’t quite work for me - that I’ve called Near Misses. The funny thing about The Boy and the Heron is at the time I was pretty clear about what it was that didn’t quite work for me, but I can’t for the life of me remember what that was: nonetheless I have a nagging feeling that there was something. With Foe, I’m a lot clearer: it was the over-explained ending, ramming home the message several times just in case anyone in the audience hadn’t quite got it. Cobweb also had a problem with the ending, but more of a case of not knowing quite when to stop. And finally in this section, I personally could have done with a bit less detail in Bella’s sexual awakening in Poor Things.

Turning now to my Bottom 3, Ferrari was the only one that didn’t really work for me at all, and to be fair, as it was the Surprise film, neither Spank nor I actually chose to see it! Possibly my disposition towards the film was not helped by the break with tradition of announcing it on stage before the screening, but I doubt it would have worked for me even without that slight grump. The story never drew me in, I had no interest in or sympathy for the characters, and the women in particular seemed to me to be just there as plot devices. Given the pedigree of everyone involved in the film, Ferrari should have been much better than it was. Croma Kid was a much more low-budget affair, and while it had a certain amount of charm, it couldn’t quite pull everything together. Finally, the animation in They Shot the Piano Player was lovely, and they had some great material in the musicians’ and others’ interviews, but it felt like they didn’t trust that material to stand on its own, so added a clunky fictionalised wrap-around which just didn’t work.

Briefly to mention the couple of talks we managed to get to this year. We still have the problem of the Screen Talks being announced late – this year, possibly exacerbated by the Hollywood actors’ strike which was ongoing at the time – but it happened that we did still have a free slot for the Greta Gerwig Screen Talk when it was announced. Gerwig was a delightful and thoughtful interviewee, and it was a pleasure to see clips from her earlier work – as well as, of course, Barbie – and hear her talk to them. I hope in future they find a way again to announce the Screen Talks at the same time as the rest of the programme, so that those of us who see a lot of films have more of a chance to fit them in, but at least this year we managed this one.

The other talk we were able to get to was a new format, and one I hope they continue with. Lights, Camera, Action! Who’s Who on Set was a series of free lunchtime talks held in The Festival Café, talking to people working in various roles in filmmaking. Although we were not going to be seeing One Life, the film in the festival he’d worked on, we’d seen other films which Zac Nicholson had shot, and it’s always fascinating to hear from the people who work in different parts of the industry. Given how visual the subject of the talk was, it was a credit to both interviewer and interviewee how well it worked in the café with no clips or other visual aids.

So another LFF done and dusted. Too early for me to have much of an impression of our new festival director Kristy Matheson, apart from being unimpressed with how the Surprise Film reveal was done, although I have no idea whether that’s down to her or Michael Mann, but a good festival for me, anyway. Still the same grumbles from me about the use of the RFH, and the loss of the screenings in other London cinemas, and still the same huffiness from me about the categories that Clare Stewart brought in that we’ve now had two successive festival director who have kept in place. But at the end of the day, none of that stopped me having another good festival, and I look forward to seeing what LFF 2024 brings.

Poor ThingsSpank

The traditional breakdown of what I saw this year according to the CSCS – Clare Stewart's long-established set of film categories, which for the first time were never mentioned at the screenings themselves, so maybe they’re on their way out – goes as follows:

Galas 4
Special presentations 4
Official competition 2
First feature competition 1
Documentary competition 1
Short film competition 10
Love 2
Debate 2
Laugh 2
Dare 0
Thrill 1
Cult 2
Journey 1
Create 4
Experimenta 0
Expanded 0
Family 0
Treasures 2
Surprise film 1
Events 2

A bit lacking in daring and experimentation, or so the numbers would suggest. And yet I’d say that the five best films I saw this year have those quantities in ever-increasing amounts. Ever-increasing, that is, as long as you present them in reverse order. Like this:

5: The Klezmer Project. You’re a documentary maker. You cross oceans to make a film about a subject, only to find that your subject doesn’t really exist any more. What do you do? This is one of the best possible solutions to that problem.

4: Banel & Adama. A film I went into with zero expectations – it was the only film available in the one timeslot we had free that day – only to find myself blown away by its visual and narrative ambition. Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s first feature, and I’ll be at the front of the queue for her second.

3: Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros. I didn’t realise until long after the fact that this is the first Frederick Wiseman documentary I’ve seen that wasn’t set in America. As a result, there’s a lot less state-of-the-nation style baggage associated with it, just lots of people being ridiculously good at their job.

2: Scala!!! Yeah, our names are on the end credits, but that’s not the only reason why it’s on the list. A portrait of the magic of the cinema experience for those who weren’t there, and a supersized burst of nostalgia for those of us who were.

1: Poor Things. It’s a film that looks, sounds and behaves like nothing else on earth. (On the subject of sounds, I somehow failed to mention composer Jerskin Fendrix in my original review, so let’s correct that now.) You want daring and experimentation? Have them both, with a side order of fun.

As for the less good ones, there's a sizeable overlap with The BBG's choices. Croma Kid was an insult to the intelligence of whichever kids it was aimed at, while Ferrari, The Book Of Solutions and They Shot The Piano Player all failed in various different ways, discussed elsewhere in these pages.

So I’d agree with The BBG, it’s been another good LFF. Thanks to her as ever, as well as all the other Pals who came along for the ride: Jon, Lesley, Nim, Pam and Stephen. And of course major thanks to Kristy Matheson and her team for pulling it all together. I guess we'll come back and do it all again same time next year. Although I might change my mind if the programme booklet shrinks down even further to A6. Being a monkey, and all.


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