The 5 Best Films Of The 2015 BFI London Film Festival

If you ever get the chance to go the BFI London Film Festival, you should take it. It’s sometimes overshadowed by the rest of the fall festival calendar (though it’s had some high-profile premieres in the past, they seem to have mostly been phased out more recently), but by picking the best of the line-ups from Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, TIFF, Venice and elsewhere, plus some expertly curated discoveries, it adds up to ten days or so of the most satisfying filmgoing you can imagine.

As a born-and-bred Londoner, I’ve been attending the festival since a teenager (seeing “City Of God” and “Punch Drunk Love” within a couple of days of each other blew my tiny mind), and covering it for The Playlist since 2009, and the festival’s as good now as it ever was.

With our comprehensive festival coverage here at the Playlist, there are relatively few movies in the line up that we hadn’t already reviewed (catch up on the ones I did write up in full here), but to mark the end of the festival yesterday, I’ve run down what I’ve seen, including my favorites, below. Take a look, let us know what you enjoyed if you were there, and thanks to everyone from the BFI for another cracking ten days of cinema.

The 5 Best Films

5. “Victoria

Thanks to ultra-mobile digital cameras and seamless VFX blending, we’re now living in a long-take age: almost every blockbuster throws in some kind of extended one-shot sequence (“Avengers: Age Of Ultron” tossed one off in its opening minutes), they crop up on TV shows like “True Detective” and “Fargo,” and Emmanuel Lubezki just won two Oscars in a row for pulling them off. Not everyone’s using them for the right reasons, though, so what makes “Victoria” — Sebastian Schipper’s real-time drama shot in one extended take — thrilling beyond the technical bravado, is that the technique isn’t just being done for flash. First screened at Berlin (where Jess gave it the thumbs up), the film tracks the title character, a Spanish woman in Berlin, who over the course of a long night meets a charming, if drunken group of locals, falls in love, and ends up embroiled in a bank robbery and a flight from justice. The film’s not without its problems — the plotting is a little convenient in places, and it doesn’t quite earn the emotional punch it’s seeking by the end. But Schipper (and DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) shoot things in such a thrilling, visceral and clear manner, and without needing to cheat with unmotivated pans to a clear blue sky every four minutes — *cough* “Birdman” — that you roll over the inconsistencies and are pushed along by the film’s propulsive momentum. And yes, the one-take isn’t just showing off: Schipper’s examining not just the spiral of poor decision-making, but the loss inherent in time itself. By the time the credits roll, you’ve been through exactly what Victoria has, and felt your life implode alongside hers. An imperfect treat.

4. “The Witch

Of all the genres that can be susceptible to festival hype, horror might suffer the most. More than once, I’ve seen movies that lit up the festival circuit — “You’re Next,” “The Babadook,” “It Follows,” to name but a few — be greeted with underwhelmed responses from friends catching up with them a year or two later in theaters. “The Witch” has the potential to follow along these lines. Since its Sundance premiere in January, it’s become so talked about that I wondered if it could ever live up to the hype. Without wanting to contribute to building up your expectations, though, I hope it finds the audience it deserves, because it’s a masterfully made, utterly creepy, and richly textured film that’s a rare one to truly elevate the horror genre. Set in New England in the 17th Century, Robert Eggers’ film follows a Puritan family banished from their settlement, only to find, when their youngest child is abducted, that there’s something terrible lurking in the woods. Or possibly closer… Eggers, a former production designer, creates a model of how to make something truly cinematic on a limited budget, but more impressive is the way that he uses every tool at his disposal — leaning on dense sound design rather than cheesy jump cuts — to seep dread into every pore, creating a vibe that’s hard to shake long after you finish watching, with numerous images that will scorch onto your memory (there’s one with a crow that led to my audience gasping). His cast are hugely impressive — newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy is a real find, veteran British character actors Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie do exemplary work — but it’s the almost novelistic range of themes that linger longest. From the more obvious — the familiar horror element of burgeoning female sexuality, and one of this year’s recurring themes, the madness of fundamentalism, as also seen in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Lobster” — to the subtler ones, like the blood on the hands of colonial Americans, there’s enough here to launch a thousand PhDs.

3. “Room

I’d read and loved Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room,” I think Lenny Abrahamson is one of the more exciting filmmakers coming up right now, and I will watch Brie Larson in literally anything (even “The Gambler”), so you could probably say that I was in the tank for Abrahamson’s Larson-starring Donoghue adaptation beforehand. That said, the film’s subject matter — which centers on a young woman who is abducted, repeatedly raped and imprisoned by a stranger, and her young son (the extraordinary Jacob Tremblay), fathered by the kidnapper and who has never left the single room in which he was born — is a virtually impossible tightrope to walk. One wrong move one way or the other and it could either have become unwatchably harrowing, or unpleasantly exploitative, or even both. But Abrahamson’s impeccably well-judged, deeply moving film pulls it off, somehow making its darker-than-dark tale palatable without denying its horrors, or their consequences. Excellently adapted by Donoghue herself, it begins with Abrahamson telling the story almost entirely through disorientingly extreme close-ups, opening out gradually until we end up mostly with long shots, a simple idea brilliantly executed, and throughout he keeps the tonal balance perfectly modulated. He even keeps the film’s energy up into its very different, arguably bleaker second half, one that I’ve heard criticism of in some quarters, but seems to me to be the very point of the film — happy endings aren’t simple, or easily won, and the relatively “plastic”-like quality of Tremblay’s character, able to bend back to normality, isn’t reflected by his mother. But the director’s greatest asset is in his cast, from relative supporting players — an utterly lovely turn from Tom McCamus as Larson’s step-father, a devastating cameo from William H. Macy and an unshowy, wrenching performance from Joan Allen — to the two leads, with Tremblay just utterly believable in every moment, and Larson showing why she’s head and shoulders above pretty much everyone else in her generation.

2. “High-Rise”

Reaction to Ben Wheatley’s much-anticipated “High-Rise,” his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, has been divisive so far, even in Playlist HQ. You might be surprised to see it cropping up here, given Kevin’s C-grade review of the movie from TIFF. It’s not that I don’t understand why people don’t like the movie. As with “A Field In England,” there’s a sense here that Wheatley’s making a movie purely for himself, and doesn’t remotely care if the audience goes for it or not. But fortunately, there is an audience out there for it, and the LFF screening confirms that it’s a very British movie that will perhaps connect best with British crowds in a British context, especially given that it has so much to say about the political situation here today. Capturing Ballard’s vision of the societal microcosm inside a retro-futurist tower block with brutal, brutalist flair (it’s easily Wheatley’s most accomplished piece of filmmaking to date), it sets up a fascinating environment through the eyes of Tom Hiddleston’s Robert Laing (a winningly inscrutable turn from the actor), and then tears it apart over the next couple of hours, like an unholy meld of 2000AD, “Performance” and a nature documentary. Not everyone in the expansive ensemble gets a fair shake (we can always do with more Elisabeth Moss), but there’s not a bad performance here, and one exemplary one, from the surprising source of Luke Evans, trading in his “Fast & Furious” villainy for a mutton-chopped turn that comes across like a feral Oliver Reed breaking into your house and pissing on your carpet. For all the craft on display, it’s the film’s topicality that really made it sing for me, though. At a time when our government is mostly made up of deeply privileged men who used to burn money in front of the homeless at university, when our society is becoming more and more equal, at a time when it’s almost impossible for an ordinary person to afford to live in London, when poor people are being forced to use separate entrances to the same blocks of flats to the rich, Wheatley captures the urban alienation, selfishness and rotten heart of David Cameron’s Britain. It’s something of a blunt weapon (I could have done without the Margaret Thatcher quote that ends the film), but as Wheatley has displayed more than once in his earlier work, a blunt weapon can make a hell of an impact.

1. “Carol

Without exception, “Carol” was the most popular film at the LFF this year. Every single person I spoke to who’d seen it adored it. And not to follow the crowd or anything, but I adored it too: it’s probably the finest film from one of our finest filmmakers, and one of the most moving and finely drawn love stories I’ve seen in years. Adapting Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price Of Salt,” the film sees Rooney Mara’s introspective shopgirl Therese falling swiftly for the title character, played by Cate Blanchett, a wealthy woman undergoing a painful divorce from her husband. It’s the kind of Sirkian melodrama that Haynes has had immense success with before, but whereas “Far From Heaven,” for all its emotional power, felt like pastiche, and “Mildred Pierce” echoed with past examples in the genre (not least the film it was remaking), “Carol” is entirely its own beast. It tackles the tropes and the style of the past (no film this year has better fashion: Sandy Powell deserves an Oscar just for Mara’s hats alone), but feels fresh and contemporary, whether in the breathless freedom of Carol and Therese’s road-trip, or the wrenching hurt of their separation. Everyone involved is doing something close to career-best work: Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score, Blanchett’s title turn, exemplary even by her high standards, Rooney Mara’s fragile, endlessly layered performance, rich, fully-realized supporting work from Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler and Jake Lacy (the latter playing fascinatingly with his Nice Guy image from “Girls” and “Obvious Child”), Haynes himself. And though it might seem chilly and distant early on, it’s just biding its time, and builds to a cumulative power that leaves you reeling and, eventually, even uplifted. It’s a delicate, elegant, exquisite thing, and a rare film that comes alarmingly close to being perfect.

What Else Did I See? Short version: not as much as I’d like. Longer version: plenty of good stuff. While there were fewer home-run knockouts than in some previous LFFs, and I wasn’t able to take chances on smaller fare this time around, I also managed to avoid most of the dreck, and only had a couple of movies I really disliked. Worst in show may have been Deepa Mehta’s mostly laughable gangster pic “Beeba Boys” (reviewed here), though I also strongly disliked Jonas Cuarón’s repetitive, unpleasant immigrant-themed genre pic “Desierto,” deeply flawed Cate Blanchett/Robert Redford journalism drama “Truth,” and the rote, overacted biopic “Trumbo.”

There was some middling fare too: Eve Husson’s sexed-up, deeply unsexy coming-of-ager “Bang Gang” (reviewed here), unrevelatory SNL doc “Live From New York!,” narratively shaky anime “The Boy And The Beast” (reviewed soon), and the disappointing “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” which is watchable, but seems to believe that women have nothing to say about Hitchcock.

But everything else, I liked to varying degrees. Pablo Larrain’s “The Club” doesn’t quite live up to “No,” but packs a hell of a punch, as does Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts Of No Nation,” at least until its slightly rushed final ten/fifteen minutes. I had a deliriously good time with “A Bigger Splash” which has four great performances from Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson, is genuinely sexy, and is beautifully made. “Star Wars”-themed doc “Elstree 1976” (reviewed here) was fun too, as is Sean Baker’s raucous, iPhone-shot sex comedy “Tangerine,” though I wouldn’t have complained much if he’d dumped the whole Armenian-cab-driver subplot.

Korean period actioner “Assassination” (released in the U.S. in August without much fanfare) is convoluted and overlong, but also kind of a blast, though not quite as enjoyable as terrific horror-western “Bone Tomahawk” (reviewed here). Brando themed/narrated tone poem “Listen To Me Marlon” is beautiful and genuinely insightful, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Evolution” is gorgeous, though felt like a short rather than a feature to me, and “My Scientology Movie” (reviewed here) is a bit spotty, but in places funny and powerful. And finally, I had an enormously good time with closer “Steve Jobs,” which struck me as Aaron Sorkin’s equivalent to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, turning the story of the Apple founder’s tale into a virtuoso, self-loathing, self-regarding self-portrait, brilliantly acted by Michael Fassbender and made with a ludicrously high level of craft by Danny Boyle. Cheers, LFF. Til next time.

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