All of the personal reflections I didn’t have time to write whilst at the Festival, and the best films I saw.
Note: elements of this article also appeared on Set the Tape (link).
Another year, another London Film Festival in the books. This one was longer than the previous ones by several days, more shambolically-organised on my end, more intensive in the workload, and I kind of fell apart towards the end. As foretold way back in the heady days of “over a fortnight ago,” my third go-around and alleged trilogy-ender was much like many infamous Part 3s in the history of Hollywood, videogames, music, and all media, really. I haven’t slept for six hours or more in almost three entire weeks now, and that includes these two days since I got back home because I still had work to get done and, like an idiot, figured I could get it done in such a time that my also going to two gigs on those nights (Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Snail Mail for anyone wondering) wouldn’t impact things too much. Of course, like most bad things in my life, this suffering was basically self-inflicted since I subconsciously decided to expand my usually rigid, tried-and-true “three paragraphs per film” structure to “FIVE OR MAYBE MORE OR AT LEAST 1,000 WORDS PER FILM FUCK IT” in order to… I dunno, better justify their individual review nature on Set the Tape, despite the fact that I always get yelled at for writing too long articles for their style?
In any case, yeah, I did not sleep much. Nor did I have much in the way of free time. Hell, I even turned my Wolf Alice gig on what was supposed to have been a night off into article fodder, and penning that addition meant I was also up late on the night after despite having deliberately lightened my schedule otherwise! I wrote everywhere whilst the Festival was going on, joining many of my other critics in the 21st Century by relying on the mobile WordPress app to get a whole bunch of preliminary writing – or, in rare but wonderful instances, finishing an entire review – done between films in a vain attempt to minimise the time spent working in the evening. That last sentence is why many of these articles were initially rife with spelling, grammatical, and formatting errors when they first went up because, for some reason, the app doesn’t have a spellchecker. (They have since been corrected, if you’re reading this literally any day post-the Thursday after posting.) I ended up at much fewer public screenings than in previous years (as the photo next to the below paragraph can attest) because I needed to save the time for additional writing. So, more than any other year, I ended up cocooned in this bubble where, every second of the day, I was either watching films, writing about films, or travelling and thinking about what to say about those films as I did so.
You want to know how total that bubble was? There was a giant anti-Brexit march through Central London on Saturday the 20th, 700,000 protestors all coming together to shut down the heart of the nation’s capital in an attempt to force the Tory government into doing their motherfucking jobs and actually listen to the people they represent for once, the second-biggest demonstration this century in the country (only losing out to the Stop the War demonstrations from 2003)… and the first I heard about it at all was that evening when I collapsed onto the bed of the Travelodge I had to move to, turned on 6 Music, and heard a news report about it after the march had happened. The next day, one of my fellow critics, Zoe Margolis, turned up with a “Bollocks to Brexit” sticker on the back of her badge, so she at least had enough awareness to know it was on. I feel especially foolish about letting this happen to me since I spend a lot of my time at home here in Scunthorpe moaning about my inability to get out there and join in on anti-fascism/anti-far-right/anti-Tory-bullshit demonstrations, yet THE BIG ONE occurs and I’m too zonked out and work-focussed to even acknowledge its existence until it’s too late. There’s probably a joke about Capitalism to be made in there somewhere, but it’s getting late and I need to be up tomorrow so let’s speed on.
(That said: still not getting paid for this shit. Anyone wants to, you know where to find me: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I also think this was my favourite go of the Festival yet. Yes, despite all of that and the accompanying irritability and total exhaustion I was feeling by Day 10 of a 15-day Festival. My first year, 2016, was a dream come true, but it was also one that ran on the wide-eyed sparkle of “holy shit, I’m here and doing this and it’s real!” So long as I didn’t die or someone else didn’t die or I didn’t get thrown out or make a massive tit of myself, I would have considered it a massive success and, since none of those things happened, it was! 2016 was a great Festival, organised well and stacked with excellent films, but much of its appeal was my learning that I could do this, so Festivals afterwards would need to stand on merits not pertaining to my genuine surprise at my own “skill.” 2017, as I touched on after that wrapped up, did not, marred by a sub-par programme and shoddy organisation which took the shine off.
But 2018? Even with my getting the dates all wrong, needlessly extending this out way past any acceptable length, and drowning in my workload, this year’s been great! I’ve seen 39 films in total (those pre-Fest screenings really made up the numbers) and graded 12 of them B+ or higher, way more than the 7 of 2017, and the average quality aside from those was much higher than in either of the previous years, with only two real duds. Organisation, despite a few clashes and bizarre screening room options, was a whole hell of a lot better on both the direct communication side and the staff side (who were all extremely helpful and courteous and deserve more props and love than we really give them). I think some of my writing has been better? Like, I always fear that my reviews are more “extended descriptions of theme” rather than “actual critical analysis,” which is something that especially gets heightened come Festival time and you’re forced to stick to formula in order to mass-produce content on the tightest of tight-ass deadlines, and though I feel I’ve missed the mark with certain entries – I can’t wait for End of Year time to roll around purely so I can have another shot at writing about Widows, in particular – others, like the I Used to Be Normal and Front Runner reviews, I’m kinda proud of.
And, most of all, I talked a lot more this year. This is a big thing for me because my crippling anxiety makes trying to talk to even close friends a challenge whilst my Asperger’s often leaves me failing to understand social cues. Combine the two together and you get the biggest reason why I almost never talk to people I don’t intimately know. But, dammit, this year I put myself out there a bit more and the resulting conversations – whilst ultimately adding to my workload and sleep-deprivation woes – honestly made the Festival to me. Everybody was just so lovely and inviting and welcoming of people they otherwise didn’t know, and that went a long way to mitigating my aforementioned anxiety and feeling more comfortable about joining in. I tagged along with a few lovely ladies juggling the Festival with their University courses after Widows for food and writing time. I ran into the same veteran critic from last year whose name I have still forgotten (those first two examples were from before I made the smart decision to jot people’s names down for future reference) and we had a conversation about sexual assault scandals and Trump with a somewhat boorish gentleman that was… certainly a way to begin a Sunday morning, as I’m sure she’d agree. I found that I am not, in fact, being unreasonable when I get on my ranty high-horse over US-UK release-window disparities and BAFTA eligibility bullshit, because these are my kind of people!
All of these and more contributed to making this year’s Fest an absolute joy despite it lasting 14 straight fucking days (plus an accidental prelim), and I cannot thank them enough. So, as an attempted penance for them having to put up with me, allow me to get all sappy/name-drop-y and shout-out the few whose names I actually bothered to write down because my non-media memory is a fucking sieve. Apologies to those not on the list; it’s nothing personal, and I definitely enjoyed chatting with you, but I have zero forethought with anything in life.
- Philip Bagnall, writer for Scannain whose personal site can be found here and whose Twitter can be found here. He’s Irish, which you would never have guessed had he not told you. /s
- Kelechi Ehenulo, writer for Set the Tape who was down there for her own blog, Confessions from a Geek Mind, and whose Twitter can be found here. She believes that there should be an Oscar for Best Stunt which means she’s good people.
- Amon Warmann, film critic for TalkSport and freelancer for Empire and Den of Geek amongst others. His blog can be found here and his Twitter can be found here. He recognised Set the Tape which caused Owen (my editor there) to have a little squirt, and is also refusing to talk to me because I admitted to not getting the Mission: Impossible movies, which is fair.
- Helen M Jerome, freelancer whom I only sat next to for Stan & Ollie on the last day yet treated me like an old friend regardless, and was also the one who informed me of the information that made me to change a brief chunk of my A Private War review to be less inadvertently insensitive. Her Twitter can be found here.
- Zoe Margolis, yes, that Zoe Margolis. If I were in any sane frame of mind, I probably would have gotten more than a little starstruck when I met her post-Stan & Ollie. She’s a friggin’ badass. You can read her LFF reviews over at Cinevue, donate to her on Patreon, follow her on Twitter, and way too many other things I don’t have time to hunt down and link to on here. Here’s her site, that’s the least I can do.
- Last but not least, Hemanth Kissoon, who is basically Comeau from Scott Pilgrim in that he seems to know goddamn everybody and can therefore slide you into talking with anybody (plus he remembers your name first-time without mistake which makes me feel like a real shit-head). He writes for Filmaluation which you can find here, has a Twitter which you can find here, and carries around proper business cards like the professional I wish I were.
- Also: major thanks to my Set the Tape editors – Owen Hughes, Tony Black, and Wendy Atwell – for staying on top of my ridiculous workload, writing, and turnaround times over the past fortnight. They’re even more troopers than I am. You can find Set the Tape here and the Twitters of Owen, Tony, and Wendy on their respective names.
To finally close out this year’s coverage, then, the customary Best Films list. If you think that’s something most film journalists don’t relish the opportunity to put together, then you weren’t at the Cineworld Leicester Square on Sunday morning when everyone was quizzing each other on their Top lists of varying sizes. As mentioned, this year’s Festival was much stronger than last year’s so I had no shortage of potential candidates, but a nice round 10 works with the fact that I saw 39 films across 15 days. You can find all of the individual reviews at the respective links on each entry, each with their grades so you can mentally rank them in an arbitrary order, though I’ve only listed them alphabetically. Except this first one, which was my Film of the Festival and is still my Film of the Year So Far…
Widows: It is extremely rare for a film that sounds absolutely perfect on paper to not only live up to those expectations but exceed them in every single facet, yet the 2018 Opening Gala made such an achievement look like a complete cakewalk. Steve McQueen updates Lynda LaPlante’s seminal 1980s British TV series, with aid from co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn, for present-day Chicago and the result is what snobbier critics typically deem a “thinking man’s blockbuster,” serving up pulse-pounding genre thrills alongside examinations of abuse in its many forms, political corruption, and a patriarchal society that alternately beats and completely ignores women. It’s a wide-ranging film that somehow moves with such focus and precision that it’s not until the house lights come up that the viewer realises they haven’t breathed properly for two full hours. Sensational.
A Family Tour: Ying Liang goes semi-autobiographical in this tone poem of a Chinese filmmaker forced into exile in Hong Kong because of her refusal to capitulate her personal politics to the whims of an authoritarian Chinese government, and the soul-crushing strain it has put upon her and her family life as a result. Liang’s film courses with an exhausted anger over government censorship and suppression, of being truly angry about this injustice and the pain it causes but being too tired from the hoops he has to jump through daily in order to keep on living that he is physically unable to raise his voice beyond a sigh, but it’s his ability to situate this introspection within a world that brims with life outside of this story that provides the film its biggest kick. It’s something a lot of East Asian art cinema directors forget or fail to include, and Liang here demonstrates how powerful that additional life can be to your movie.
Dogman: There are only a few ways that Matteo Garrone’s latest feature – about a sweet-natured dog-groomer living in a low-income Italian village and the thug cocaine addict who bullies and abuses him at every turn – could end up, but that predictability is actually an asset for this harrowing pressure-cooker drama which tightens the noose remorselessly and in gripping fashion. What elevates the film into true greatness, however, is Marcello Fonte giving one of the year’s best performances, perfectly embodying the character of a kind-hearted doormat being pushed to levels of desperation that scare him, backed into corners he’s forced to lash out from, and so innately likeable a presence that it only makes the shit he gets put through hurt that much more.
I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story: Jessica Leski’s joyous corrective to a collective societal dismissal of boybands on systemically-misogynistic grounds was the most purely enjoyable moviegoing experience I had at the Festival this year. A fun nostalgia trip, a loving ode to fandom and teenage girls, and a firm rebuttal to the sexist notion that women of any age aren’t eloquent or sure in their mind when it comes to what they like, Leski’s documentary celebrates four ordinary women for who they are by letting them speak their minds and tell their personal stories free from judgement or mockery. We need more films like I Used to Be Normal in our current society, writing ingrained wrongs and fighting back against negative gender stereotypes through love and compassion.
If Beale Street Could Talk: Were Barry Jenkins’ masterful follow-up to Moonlight being released in the UK this year, rather than being arbitrarily withheld until next February for no goddamn reason, then my Top 5 for the year would entirely consist of Black films by Black filmmakers. (This is not a coincidence.) But even with that additional fact, this beautiful adaptation of James Baldwin’s lyrical 1974 classic of American literature stands apart thanks to its empathetic portrayal of two childhood lovers done wrong by the systemic racism of the American justice system. A film that bristles with fury over the broken and prejudiced law that punishes innocent Black folks for the apparently unconscionable “crime” of being Black in America, a film that may be set in the past but knows it doesn’t need to belabour the parallels to how little has changed today, yet also a film that refuses to give in to the cynicism and despair such a system is designed to breed by clinging onto the support systems of love and a devoted family that can make staying alive in the face of such a rigged game worthwhile.
Mirai: Mamoru Hosada plays the long game with this domestic family dramedy. Downplaying his signature flights of fantasy into something explicitly metaphorical, and focussing on communicating the mundane fears of parental life and the jealousies of a four-year-old upon the arrival of a younger sibling with a specificity that makes each joke and each dramatic beat land with a surprising relatability. Mirai spends about 80 minutes as the best depiction of a stressed family trying to adjust to a new-born child since The Rugrats Movie, but then Hosada unleashes his sucker-punch with a finale that celebrates all the impossible coincidences and seemingly insignificant decisions that bring each of us into this world and, in the process, the beauty of family. It’s the perfect cherry on top of the Festival’s only major animated feature this year, but what a feature!
Profile: Timur Bekmambetov decides to show everyone else what the potential of a ScreenLife movie can be when handled correctly with this gripping, tense, uncomfortable, and at times wilfully silly thriller based (in very broad strokes) on the true story of a journalist going undercover to get in contact with online ISIS recruiters following a wave of female conversions. The tone is wild and overblown as is Bekmambetov’s specialty, but the ScreenLife conceit not only fits the undercover journalist genre like a glove, it also allows the film to make genuinely insightful points about identity, connectivity, and empathy in the digital age without actually denigrating technology as a whole by recognising that these are topics that human beings and societies as a whole have been grappling with for millennia rather than something inherent to that evil Bogeyman, the Internet. Tense, innovative, and surprisingly deep for those willing to engage with it, Profile is the best example yet of what this mode of storytelling is capable of.
Sorry to Bother You: I cannot stop thinking about Sorry to Bother You. I believed that I was doing it dirty by chasing my viewing with that of another movie immediately afterwards instead of letting it sit for a while, but those fears turned out to be completely unfounded since Boots Riley’s incendiary debut film absolutely refused to be lost in the shuffle of this past fortnight. Ambitious, audacious, stingingly funny, more inventive over the course of 111 minutes than other films an hour longer and some directors display across careers spanning 30 years, and an utterly scathing takedown of late-Capitalism as nothing less than the rebirth of White supremacy genially repackaging slavery as the humane product of benevolent tech-bro billionaires… Words cannot fully describe Sorry to Bother You, do any kind of justice to the provocative genius encased within, or prepare you in the slightest for it. My biggest regret across this entire year is that I didn’t give this the full “A grade” when I had the chance.
The Fight: “That was her debut!” one critic exclaimed in absolute shock when The Fight was brought up in conversation, and her reaction was not unfounded. Jessica Hynes’ first time behind the camera has a confidence and skill that can elude directors who have been doing this for years, crafting one of the most accurate-feeling depictions of working-class British life I have ever witnessed, free of grand gestures or kitchen-sink operatics and operating in a tired melancholy that’s brutally honest for how mundane it is. Her screenplay examines bullying and abuse across generations with empathy and tact in a manner that hit me right in the gut based on my own experiences with those, and that’s a power that many similar dramas would kill for. I can only hope Hynes has an itch to get back in the director’s chair post-haste because I want to hear what else she’s got to say yesterday.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Just pure joy from start to finish. Even if you have no idea who Fred Rogers was or what Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood represented or how much he and it meant to generations of Americans, Morgan Neville’s documentary about the man and the show is essential viewing. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a patient, ultra-sincere, unapologetically kind film without a single ironic bone in its body. A monument to decency and goodness, a reminder of the value in being good in this cruel world, and an ode to what children’s entertainment is capable of when it stops insulting the intelligence of its target audience, all delivered in a way designed to ensure that there’s not a single dry eye left in the house by the time it ends. Simply wonderful.
Here’s to next year most likely, because I probably couldn’t quit this shit even if I wanted to!