With AFI and Rome the only major festivals left in the calendar, the close of the 57th BFI London Film Festival last night with the world premiere of “Saving Mr. Banks” signals the winding down of festival season. I’m starting to just about recover from a twelve-day binge of movies (although thanks to early press screenings and screeners, it actually went on for more like four weeks), but it’s not too early to say that, in over ten years of attending the festival (and five as press), this was the best I can remember.
Last year saw long-time festival director Sandra Hebron make way for Clare Stewart, the former head of the Sydney Film Festival, and the result was a slightly awkward transition, with the 2012 fest proving to be a rather weak selection given the films that were available. But it’s all been turned around in 2013, with strong opening and closers (including the first major world premiere at the festival since “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009), a wide-ranging and expansive line-up, and a remarkably high quality of films in general, offering more testament to what a strong year for cinema 2013 is turning out to be.
You can catch up on all the coverage of the festival here but, as a taster, I’ve picked out five favorite films from the last few weeks. Excluded is anything we saw in Venice already (“Gravity,” “Under The Skin” and “Tom At The Farm” might have been contenders otherwise), but fear not, because and there was more than enough excellent work amongst the fresh looks for that not to be an issue. Take a look at below and if you were there, let us know what you enjoyed in the comments section.
For all of the high-profile pictures that screened at glitzy premieres in London, the one that turned out to be my favorite of the festival was a film that barely registered on my radar going in, and that I watched on a screener at home. That film was Pawel Pawlikowski‘s stunning, enriching “Ida,” which also happened to win the Best Film award at the festival, in a rare case of my own taste matching up with a festival jury’s. The Polish-born Pawlikowski was behind two of the best British films of the ’00s with “Last Resort” and “My Summer Of Love,” but has had a tough decade: he’d shot more than half of an adaptation of Magnus Mills‘ “The Restraint Of Beasts,” in the mid ’00s, before having to pull out when his wife became ill (the film was never completed, and she died not long after). He returned last year with “The Woman In The Fifth,” which got fairly mediocre reviews, but he’s back on top form with “Ida,” which also sees him making a film in his native Poland for the first time. Following a nun-in-training in the 1960s who discovers that she’s really Jewish, and sets out on a road trip with her only living relative, an alcoholic aunt, it’s undoubtedly indebted to Bresson in look and feel but still manages to be its own thing, rich in character and flavor, proving unexpectedly funny, sexy even, and featuring two star-making performances from Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza. And not to be too much of an aesthete, but it’s also the most beautiful looking film you’ll see all year: shot in Academy ratio black & white (digitally, but the best-looking digital you’ll ever see), every frame is strikingly and stunningly composed. Music Box Films have the rights in the U.S. so keep a keen eye out for this in 2014.
2. “12 Years A Slave”
We only spoke about this one yesterday and even though it’s now open in limited release, there remains a lot to be said about “12 Years A Slave“—it’s the rare case in which, for all the rave reviews, your expectations will likely be exceeded. The last month or so has seen preponderance of survival narratives—”Gravity,” “All Is Lost,” “Captain Phillips,” “How I Live Now” et al—but they’re concerned with principally with surviving in terms of simply not dying. Solomon Northrup’s story involves that, of course, but first and foremost it’s about surviving in the body and soul, and how far the human spirit can be pushed before it breaks, as is made clear in the stand-out scene where outstanding debut actress Lupita Nyong’o begs Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s Solomon to kill her. As such, for all it’s brutality, it ultimately remains hopeful about the human spirit, if not humanity itself. We spoke about Steve McQueen‘s direction yesterday, which is top-notch, but so much of the film’s success comes from the work of its outstanding cast. Some viewers found the star-wattage of the film distracting, and we’ll acknowledge that Brad Pitt’s late-in-film appearance isn’t the most successful, but it can be useful to see familiar faces to delineate a narrative that’s decidedly episodic. More importantly, everyone who does turn up is superb, especially when you have one-sceners doing work of the quality that Alfre Woodard or Garret Dillahunt manage, while Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson and Adepero Oduye are particularly impressive in more substantial parts. As we said, Nyong’o has a star-making turn, while Michael Fassbender continues to get better and better, somehow bringing a glimmer of humanity to an otherwise out-and-out monster, and towering above them all is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He’s long been one of our favorite actors but has never had a role like this, his charisma shining through even when Northrup has become a shell of a man. In other words: yes, it’s as good as you’ve heard, and is most likely the best film ever made about slavery.
3. “Only Lovers Left Alive”
Unlike Rod, who named “Only Lovers Left Alive” among his favorites of the New York Film Festival, I wouldn’t generally consider Jim Jarmusch among one of my favorites. He’s made films I love, certainly—”Down By Law,” “Dead Man“—but I’ve often failed to click with his work and doubly so with his more recent films like “Broken Flowers” and “The Limits Of Control.” My expectations may therefore have been a little lower going in but I loved the film, the director’s best in nearly two decades, just as much as Rod did. Somehow finding new life (after-death) to the vampire movie, featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston (both spectacularly good) as undead couple Adam & Eve, Mia Wasikowska letting her hair down as Swinton’s destructive sister Ava, John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe (!), and Anton Yelchin as a music-industry hanger-on pal of Hiddleston, it’s a small film, and though technically spanning the globe, it’s almost stage-like in its intimacy. Vampirism’s been used as a metaphor many times over, but here, Jarmusch is interested less in the parasitic side (the vamps, where possible, don’t feed off the living, instead buying black-market plasma from corrupt doctor Jeffrey Wright), than in the idea of immortality, in the sheer ennui of staying alive forever. But it’s also a whopping great love story, and Swinton and Hiddleston might be my favorite screen couple in ages. Despite a twenty-year age difference, they look virtually the same age, share oodles of chemistry (and that tricky kind of chemistry—not the instant, sparky kind, but the lived-in, loving one) and become instantly iconic. Jarmusch wraps the whole thing in a thick atmosphere that you could quite happily live in for days: like the films above, we can’t wait for another look at the film sometime next year.
4. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
I just spent fifteen minutes trying to think of my favorite Coen Brothers movie and to be honest, it’s not the easiest task. While there are a handful you can dismiss quite easily—”Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers,“—a case could be made for almost every one of the others. But I was surprised by how close to the top “Inside Llewyn Davis” came. While it’s often very funny, it’s also among the Coens’ more thoughtful affairs, with the slapstick quality of their other musically-themed picture, “O Brother Where Art Thou,” a long way away. Llewyn Davis’ world is a bleak one, where success is a distant dream and pretty much everyone he comes across hate his guts, while his few attempts to do the right thing mostly end in disaster. And yet while the Coens can be accused of making fun of their characters (mostly unfairly, I’d argue, though something like “Burn After Reading” can drift into mean-spiritedness), there’s a clear deep level of empathy for their Lleywn Davis, aided by the enormous humanity that Oscar Isaac brings to the role. It’s a film that no one else could have made—so many of the Coens’ favorite tropes are here, from a howling fat man played by John Goodman to a memorable elevator operator—but it’s also something a little different, not least because of the gloriously nostalgic photography by Bruno Delbonnel. The music is wonderful. Isaac’s a great performer, and his collaboration with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver on the recording of a “Man Of Constant Sorrow”-style novelty record called “Please Mr. Kennedy” is both absurd and strangely moving. Which is all to say, I’m not sure what I’d do without the Coens.
5. “Starred Up”
As usual for the LFF, the worst few films we saw turned out to be British entries seemingly created for the sole purpose of filling festival slots. In general though, it’s been a pretty good year for British film, albeit somewhat in disguise. Films as varied as “Under The Skin,” “The World’s End” and “Gravity” all were made in the U.K., and sometimes by U.K. filmmakers. The best homegrown surprise of the festival however, was “Starred Up,” a brutal prison drama from David Mackenzie, a director who’s often shown promise (“Young Adam,” “Hallam Foe“), but has underwhelmed more often than not. Here, aided by a killer, and highly authentic screenplay by former prison psychotherapist and poet Jonathan Asser (the rightful winner of the Best Newcomer prize at the festival), Mackenzie excels. The film’s comparison points are clear—a little bit of “Scum,” a little bit of “A Prophet“—but it sets itself apart by making Jack O’Connell‘s central character Eric (who is “starred up,” prison slang for being a high-risk violent offender) a hair-trigger, emotionally fucked psychopath, and by putting him in the same wing as his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a long-time lifer who’s the right-hand man to prison kingpin Spencer (Peter Ferdinando). It’s a film, to some extent about fathers, with both Neville and Spencer competing for Eric’s soul with Oliver (Rupert Friend), a well-meaning middle-class therapist whose experimental anger management classes might prove to be effective, if only prison bureaucracy gets out of his way. It’s strong, visceral stuff, shot unflashily but impressively by Mackenzie and “Winter’s Bone” DoP Michael McDonough, but it also kicks against expectation with a dose of humor, and is far more tender than you might imagine. And among an outstanding cast, Jack O’Connell (who’ll be a superstar next year thanks to roles in the “300” prequel and Angelina Jolie‘s “Unbroken“) makes his claim to being one of the most talented actors of his generation.
Other Great Performances Of The Festival: Mothusi Magano, “Of Good Report“; Berenice Bejo, “The Past“; Robert Redford, “All Is Lost“; Jeong Eun-Chae, “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon“; Conner Chapman, “The Selfish Giant“; Mira Barkhammar, Liv LeMoyne, Mira Grosin, “We Are The Best!“; Brie Larson, “Short Term 12“; James Gandolfini, “Enough Said“; Jesse Eisenberg, “The Double“; Georgia Maguire, “Love Me Till Monday“; Dane DeHaan, “Kill Your Darlings“; Kathryn Hahn, “Afternoon Delight.”
Every Film I Saw, From Best To Worst:
“Kill Your Darlings” [C+]