Reflections and the best of the Fest.
And with that, we’re done again. Back home. Another October fortnight spent gallivanting around the nation’s capital playing dress-up as a respected member of the Film Press in the books, with the articles and memories to prove that this wasn’t all a Wizard of Oz/Dallas Season 9-type scenario. Honestly, I’m somewhat glad to be back home, although give it a few days and I’ll want to be as far away from here as possible again. That old cliché of sequels never being as good as the original has turned out to have enacted itself upon my London Film Festival experiences.
Some of this I can attribute to myself on a personal level. Although I think I’ve turned in some quality work during these past 12 days, I have been trying to distance myself from the belief that I am a “writer” in recent months. Not in the way where I say shit like “I am an ESSAYIST, thank you very much!” but more in trying to reframe this whole thing as more of a hobby than a career path that I’ll have any success with – I went into detail about this here, so go read the opening of that for better understanding. On the one hand, this has meant that the pressure to perform and not make an ass out of myself from last year was largely gone, allowing me to treat it more like a weird holiday. But on the other hand, I found my enthusiasm and energy from last year to have largely sagged. By midway through the second Saturday, I was honestly just wanting to go home, and the late nights and packed schedule that I managed to effortlessly deal with last year occasionally made me downright cranky this time.
So, how come? Well, I think that’s down to this past year, more than anything else. My mental state being far more precarious, my sleep getting worse and worse, that constant crushing isolation and lack of a social life becoming more of an issue than it already was, a confusion over my current lack of an identity… It’s not been a great year, and I haven’t coped with it well, and I fear that it’s making me a worse person as a result. Or maybe, in far less bleak terms that you don’t want to read about this early on a Tuesday morning, it’s something to do with those same circumstances that let me think of this as a holiday? Compare: last year, applying for the Festival was a spontaneous spur-of-the-moment thing, a wild throw of the dice to see if I could do it, and a distraction from the immediacy of post-uni life. This year, applying for the Festival had been decided months in advance, saved up for in advance, anticipated and planned for, largely by doing many of the same things as in the previous year. That surprise, that thrill of discovery and learning that I could do it, and the risk of everything going completely tits-up, was gone this time.
That puts more of an onus on the Festival itself to deliver the goods, to feature so many amazing and noteworthy films that it can briefly feel like the first time all over again, and it… largely didn’t. This is not to say that the Fest was bad or that there weren’t highlights that I absolutely adored – we’re gonna talk briefly about those in a second – nor that the Festival’s lack of stacked names this year immediately meant that it couldn’t scale the heights of 2016. But the figures don’t lie: I saw 37 films at this year’s Festival (3 less than last year), and I graded a total of 7 films B+ or higher (compared to the 12 from last year). I may have seen less flat-out duds or ugly films than last year (I only graded 3 films at D+ or less whereas I doubled that last year), but much of this year’s crop was just “fine” or in some way disappointing (I’m still bummed about my inability to love Wonderstruck).
Then again, that’s my view of the Festival’s line-up this year. The beauty and utterly maddening thing about proper big Film Festivals like London’s is that it is absolutely impossible to see enough films in order to make a conclusive statement about the Festival as a whole. 243 feature films have played at this Festival over the past 12 days, and my number barely counts for a sixth of them all. I am also fully aware that I ended up paying a more disproportionate amount of attention to the Headline Galas and Special Presentations this year than the deeper cuts of each individual strand, where there may have been some fantastic hidden gems had I only gone to a greater effort of seeking them out. I, as it turns out, did not manage to see a single feature from the Dare Strand, for example.
But my Festival experience was my Festival experience, and on the whole, I found it a lot less satisfying than last year. The films weren’t as strong, the organisation of the Press side was a whole lot more of a ramshackle mess, and communication over key aspects (such as Rush Queues and ticket applications for public screenings) that were clearly and helpfully provided last year was just woeful – supposedly, according to some of my fellow Press that I talked to, a completely different company was handling the management side of things this year for the first time, which explains but does not excuse things. Should I come back next year, assuming and I and/or us all are still here by roughly this time next year, it’ll depend on 3 factors. The first is the line-up of movies, whether there are interesting gems on all levels of the Festival, and that also requires a release that’s punctual instead of worryingly last-minute (the programme this year didn’t get released until mid-September, two weeks before the Festival). The second is my own mental state, whether I am up for going through with this again and if I can rediscover the joy and enthusiasm I had last year. And the third is whether or not I can convince one of my friends to join me in covering the thing, so that then I can hopefully feel less alone and therefore focus on the fun of the Festival again.
Despite this article, this is not the end of my coverage of the London Film Festival this year. Not fully, at any rate. On Thursday, I’ll finally have an interview transcript of my interview with Nora Twomey, co-founder of Cartoon Saloon and director of The Breadwinner. And for the next two Mondays, I’ll be providing you with bonus little recap round-ups of films in the Press & Industry Screener website that I didn’t get to see at the Festival itself but can now watch at home instead. You might think that this makes doing the customary Best Of list now, on the day of my physical return from the Festival, more than a little premature, but I do think that it’s important to note down for posterity how I feel about this year’s Festival in its immediate aftermath. After all, what are Best Of lists other than snapshots of a particular moment and set of feelings in time, that can end up being unrepresentative even just a few days after filing?
So, here they are, then, my personal Top 10 Films of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival (That I Got To See). Some of these are more films that I really liked rather than loved, since, as mentioned, I only graded 7 films B+ or higher, and it may change entirely by the time I get through with the Screener Library, but what can you do? They are listed in alphabetical order, but we begin with my Film of the Festival…
The Breadwinner: No contest. Every word I said in my original review nearly 10 days ago, I still fully stand by. The Breadwinner is a masterpiece of animated cinema, beautiful in every possible sense of the word. A sorrowful yet hopeful tale of surviving in a brutal, patriarchal dictatorship that erases your existence at every turn for having the gall to be born a woman, in a land that the outside world has largely dehumanised and ignored for so long. It’s sometimes harrowing, but it never becomes lost in the misery, always finding the humanity in its tale, via wonderful characters (aided by excellent voice work) that are made to feel like people instead of statistics or stand-ins. And its animation is truly awe-inspiring, making smartly artistic usage of boarding so that every single frame feels like a stand-alone painting without undercutting the emotional sincerity or believability of the world of the story. The Breadwinner is not just the best film of the festival, it’s one of the best films of the year, and you need to mark your calendars for May 25th right the hell now. You need to see this.
Brawl in Cell Block 99: S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to Bone Tomahawk is a slow-burn descent into the depths of Hell, a nasty piece of work that revels in the disgusting depravity of its dive into chaos. It’s also the most potent shot of adrenaline that genre filmmaking has had in years, with career-redefining work by Vince Vaughn. Every frame drips with menace, every scene turns the screws tighter and tighter, every brief burst of violence is sickeningly visceral. I’d say that Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the kind of film that rewards patience, but that insinuates that there’s any moment of this film that is in some way below the exceedingly high par that it operates on as a baseline. Zahler claimed in a Q&A that his next film, Dragged Across Concrete, will make Brawl look like his concise, accessible film, and I really cannot wait to see what he unleashes next.
Custody: Custody eventually works its way to a trashy-as-fuck ending, albeit one shot in the guise of “respectable” French filmmaking, but it sure as hell earns that trashy-as-fuck ending. Xavier Legrand spends the entire movie ever so slowly raising the tension towards the absolute boiling point – purposefully drawing attention to the physicality and microaggressions of a terrifying Denis Ménochet, whose ability to pull back just when it seems like he’s about to go fully over the edge only makes him scarier – so that it’s only when the bubbling-over occurs that one realises just how strong of a grip on them that the film has. A few go-nowhere subplots aside, this is sharp, focussed filmmaking that also carries a quietly palpable anger for the subtle ingrained misogyny of the law when dealing with abuse cases.
Golden Exits: Thank God that other people are out there making Woody Allen movies, so that I don’t have to feel bad about associating myself with Woody Allen for that fix. Alex Ross Perry continues his hot-streak with a largely downbeat drama about a group of tangentially-connected New Yorkers, mostly via Emily Browning’s Australian traveller, having to confront their own misery, dissatisfaction, and loneliness, with the ever-present spectre of death haunting their every turn. It’s not for everyone – this is a film about often-terrible people and their pre-occupation with their eventual demise someday; there is a lot of navel-gazing involved – but Perry continues to be one of the best dialogue writers in the biz today, displaying a welcome self-awareness that always knows exactly the right time to cut its protagonists down just a little bit, and there are great performances from everybody involved. I understand if you’re tired of this whole subgenre, but Perry’s latest is still as good a version of this as you’re likely to get.
Jane: So, after my initial piece on Jane went up, director Brett Morgen got in touch with me on Twitter to inform me that my one major criticism with the film – that the sound mixing infrequently inadvertently drowned out Jane’s own narration, effectively erasing her from her own story – was in fact a problem with where I was sat in the cinema and the speaker set-up of the cinema, rather than the film in its own right. And whilst we’re going to have to agree to disagree on the idea that the latest Beauty and the Beast’s sound mixing was good and therefore is a mark in Jane’s favour (as they also mixed this), that does at least mean that I now get to recommend this lyrical, insightful documentary about Primatologist Jane Goodall, with a sweeping original Philip Glass score, unreservedly! Hooray! Maybe be less defensive about criticisms that even the person criticising you isn’t fully certain of next time, though.
Quality Time: Quality Time is an utterly bizarre, ridiculous slice of absurdist Danish surrealism that may not have anything new to say about the long, long tapped-out well of fragile masculinity, but does at least have unique, interesting, and utterly hilarious ways of presenting it. Really, though, this is the B-grade film that made the list purely on the basis of its final scene – an excruciating near-5-minute sequence in which a wannabe musician badly plays a simplistic, lyric-free, repetitive song that he seems to think is genius whilst his assembled guests awkwardly shuffle about clearly praying to be anywhere else or for the sweet release of death. It’s the most I’ve laughed at a single scene in a film in the cinema this year, and the 70 minutes of film leading up to it is frequently hilarious as well. I am unlikely to ever see Quality Time again, but I would love to.
The Florida Project: Sean Baker’s loving empathy for the downtrodden and marginalised, where his stories always have a sadness and heartbreak curdling around the edges but which he never lets overtake the joy and pleasure at their centre, is something that the Independent film scene could use far more of. The Florida Project is a wonderful slice-of-life below the poverty line, as witnessed through the eyes of a child more than happy to make the best of a crummy situation. Just like its spiritual cousin, American Honey, it’s a film to get lost in, to surrender to, to feel the lives that its cast lead, and where narrative and drama come second to that. Propelled by fantastic performances – especially from the kids, which is high praise given how child actors can usually be – this should solidify Baker as one of the most important and talented voices in American Independent cinema today.
The Shape of Water: This seems to be the consensus pick for the best film of the Festival, based on the numerous Press members I got to talk to during my time down there, and were it not for The Breadwinner then I would have found it impossible to disagree with them. The Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro leaving everything he has on the screen, one of our greatest living filmmakers working at the peak of his powers, a gorgeous love story between two pure souls ostracised by the rest of society set against the backdrop of American Exceptionalism at the height of the Cold War. Sally Hawkins puts in the best performance of the year, del Toro’s visual design has almost never looked better, and the complete and unashamed earnest romanticism emanating from its every pore is infectious and a perfect counterpoint to recent times. We do not deserve Guillermo del Toro, but I’m not about to stop him from generously providing cinema as sensational as this despite that.
Thoroughbreds: A riot from start to finish, Thoroughbreds is somehow a far better and more insightful examination of upper-class self-absorbed sociopathy than the Michael Haneke film that also played here. It’s funnier, with a rapier wit that the film shares with its protagonists. It’s more dramatic, having taken the time to invest in a central heart, despite its protagonists’ inability to feel one themselves, that makes the drama hit and allows a secret sweetness to exist at the centre of the sourness that the rest of the film wraps itself in. It’s got better performances, with Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy elevating the film into excellency thanks to their rapport and masterful dialogue delivery, and an appearance from the late Anton Yelchin who reminds you one last time what a talent we lost without ever trying to steal the film from our two leads. And it has far more to say, examining victimhood, the difficulty of faking emotions rather than admitting the truth about yourself, and the bubble that makes people like Amanda and Lily think that they really are immune from all consequences. But whilst it’s fun to clown on bad Haneke, Thoroughbreds is an excellent debut feature that deserves to be talked about in its own right.
You Were Never Really Here: Like a bolt gun to the temple, Lynn Ramsay’s latest is vicious, muscular, intense filmmaking with one simple directive; to hold your attention at any cost. The story is one that you have heard a million times before, the execution is anything but, as Ramsay walks the thin line separating art cinema from mainstream action-thrillers like a tightrope, and the result forcibly sticks the viewer into the middle of a waking nightmare and then asks you to stand next to the guardian of that nightmare without flinching. It’s at once abstract, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks on a backstory and narrative it’s not in the slightest bit interested in spelling out for you, and punishingly direct, filled with bursts of violence less graphic than Brawl in Cell Block 99 yet equally as disturbing. Even if there’s the sneaking suspicion that it didn’t really amount to much of anything once it’s all over, You Were Never Really Here is arresting filmmaking and, really, couldn’t the same criticism be said for most nightmares?
Callum Petch *wailing saxophone*