Top 10 Festival Films: BFI London Film Festival

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Matt Micucci picks his top 10 films from the 57th BFI London Film Festival (9–20 October 2013).

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10. – Salvo (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza)

Set in hot Palermo, this is the story of a cold-blooded killer who gets himself into trouble with his own people when he can’t kill off the blind sister of a man who tried to murder him.

Conveying the element of the girl’s blindness, the film is quite a sensorial experience that drifts away from the usual cinematic language by putting less emphasis on dialogue and more on creating a compelling atmosphere moved forward by the titular character’s conflict of emotions. Without disregarding its moments of tension and intense showdown, what seems to start as a violent gangster film becomes a hopelessly tragic love story that is at once harrowing and charming.

Saleh Bakri is an excellent choice as Salvo, and delivers a penetrating performance as the man of few words, one in fact which often recalls Clint Eastwood in the renowned Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy.

 

WATCH THIS IS YOU LIKED – Gomorrah (2008, Matteo Garrone), A Fistful of Dollars (1964, Sergio Leone)

 

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9. – Locke (Steve Knight)

Ivan Locke will not be going home tonight to watch a football match with his family. Nor will he be able to supervise a major concrete pour to facilitate the building of a huge skyscraper. Ivan Locke is driving down to a hospital where a woman, who is not his wife, is giving birth to his child. This film follows his night time car trip as he deals with both his precarious family and professional issues over a series of phone conversations, convinced that he is making the right decision.

It seems that with Locke, Steve Knight’s concept was to take the appeal of radio plays to the big screen. As a result, his film is one of the most intimate portrayal of a fictional character in cinematic history. The cameras –  red epics that make the film’s darkness all the more vivid and add a certain visual beauty to the film – never leave the enclosed setting of the car, and yet Locke remains gripping, intense and even entertaining throughout.

The whole experiment would never have worked if it hadn’t been for Tom Hardy’s amazing and yet often restrained, perfectly balanced performance. In this film, which can seem like the ultimate vanity project for any actor, he shows amazing skill,  literally carrying the weight of the film on his shoulder.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Buried (2010, Rodrigo Cortés), Cosmopolis (2012, David Cronenberg)

 

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8. – Ida (Pawel Pawlikowksi)

Anna, a young girl brought up in a convent, is just about to take her vows and become a nun. Before she does, her Mother Superior insists that she try to reconnect with her last remaining relative, her aunt Wanda, an intellectual and strong woman. After some initial hostility, the two set off on a road trip looking for the place where Anna’s parents were executed and buried during the Second World War.

Pawlikowski’s latest work feels like a journey of a character’s self-discovery but also a journey through the meanders of Poland’s historical conscience. Shot in glorious black and white photography, each frame is carefully composed and adds a poetic depth to the narrative and conveys the careful structure of the character development.

All the while, Kulesza and Trzebuchowska share wonderful chemistry in their moments of soft spoken melancholia and pathos with their performances of their respective characters, who have radically opposed personalities, that conveys Ida’s lack of emotional obviousness in favour of a more honest and touching approach.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – My Summer of Love (2004, Pawel Pawlikowski), The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, 1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

 

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7. – Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului) (Calin Peter Netzer)

All wealthy 60-year-old Cornelia really wants is for her thirty-something son to reciprocate the love she has for him. Her son Barbu, on the other hand, would simply like her to leave him alone. However, when Barbu is involved in a tragic car accident killing a small child in the process, Cornelia, who sees this as an opportunity to win back the love of her son, is thrust back into his life.

The first thing that strikes about this film is the unflinching urgency with which it unravels. The exciting pace of the film is made even more entertaining by its faithful portrayal of the everyday humour and drama of the common mother and son relationship which it aims to represent. However, Child’s Pose is also remarkable for the way in which it portrays such a relationship by not only making use of a harrowing and very original plot, which is centred around a compelling theme of loss, but also for the way in which Romanian director Netzer allows his characters to openly reveal their honest vulnerabilities and eccentricities.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Mamma Roma (1962, Pier Paolo Pasolini), All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre, 1999, Pedro Almodóvar)

 

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6. – The Double (Richard Ayoade)

Richard Ayoade’s follows up his widely acclaimed debut feature Submarine with another stylised film that deals with obsession, love rivalry and psychopathy. Based on Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, this is the story of an irreparably shy and downtrodden young office clerk hopelessly in love with a colleague Hannah, whom he is fixated upon but whose presence despairingly intimidates and mortifies him.

His difficult life is made all the more difficult when a new worker who looks exactly like him but has a complete opposite and extrovert personality is hired and takes advantage of him in any way he can, by exploiting his office work to climb through the company ranks and even stealing the woman he loves.

The Double is remarkably overflowing with creativity and a visual style that recalls the classic film noir, or even the thriller dramas of the late mute period, but also flirts with the bizarreness of the science fiction works of Terry Gilliam, particularly in the creation of a mostly timeless American setting. The way it is composed and structured, whether it is in the mise en scene of each frame or in the narrative developments of the story itself, is fearlessly obvious yet its confidence and exciting pace makes it gripping and entertaining all throughout.

On top of that, it has a sweet and romantic inner core that ensures The Double an irresistible charm, which completes the stylish nature of Ayoade’s direction. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast in this film, and shows amazing versatility and skill in the uneasy portraying two characters who look and dress exactly the same but who are radically different in nature and purpose. In fact, it is obvious that without the strength of Eisenberg’s performance the film would have crumbled and lost credibility.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam), American Psycho (2000, Mary Harron)

 

5. – Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Jigoku de Naze Warui) (Sion Sono)

The cult Japanese Yakuza film genre gets a trendy and exciting update in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? by director Scion Sono, who has been described as the Japanese Quentin Tarantino – and the comparison between the two directors certainly rings true considering Tarantino’s venture into classic cult Japanese genre films with Kill Bill.

The story, based on a screenplay Sono had written fifteen years earlier, involves the violent exploits of two rival Yakuza gangs. One of the gang leaders, as a gift to his wife, wants to make a film star out of her daughter who had reached the peak of her fame as the child in a famous toothpaste commercial. Parallel to this is the story of a group of excited renegade young filmmakers who call themselves the ‘Fuck Bombers’.

The meeting between these two stories will lead to an exciting rollercoaster ride of riveting action sequences, hilarious comedy gags and stylish ultra-violence. The key to Sono’s film is exaggeration, and it has rarely ever worked so consistently. The screenplay never misses a beat, and unravels thrillingly through an imaginative approach and plot developments that wilfully extend its boundaries to boarderline ridiculous. Furthermore, the film’s visuals are wonderfully outlandish. In the midst of this spellbinding chaos is also an unorthodox yet much appreciated tribute to the death of celluloid.

In short, Why Don’t You Play in Hell is a remarkably imaginative riot that establishes its director as a modern cult film visionary and is more than likely to win him a devoted following from here on.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003, 2004, Quentin Tarantino), Fist of Fury (Jing wu men, 1972, Wei Lo)

 

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4. – Sacro GRA  (Francesco Rosi)

A decadent nobleman, a transvestite prostitute, a botanist on a mission to save palm trees from insect infestation, a kind-hearted paramedic. They are only four of the many colourful characters who live in the areas around Rome’s famous Ring Road followed by Gianfranco Rosi in his latest work.

This year’s Golden Lion winner, the first documentary to win the coveted prize, Sacro GRA feels as much like a tender and heartfelt look at these everyday people as it does an enchanting portrayal of the magical side and uniqueness of these individuals. It also feels like the more realistic spin on the familiar multiple plotline structure that is prominent in fiction filmmaking but never feels as genuine and harrowing as it does in this documentary.

Furthermore, its wonderful and careful photography makes it seem like a touching and entertaining narrative drama that is often at once funny and tragic – an approach that both reveals and flatters Rosi’s scope of seeking and showing the beauty of the comedy and drama of everyday life.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – Fellini’s Roma (Roma, 2972, Federico Fellini), The Four Times (Le Quattro Volte, 2010, Michelangelo Frammartino)

 

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3. – Starred Up (David Mackenzie)

David MacKenzie takes the essence of the domestic drama of a difficult father-son relationship and confines it to the tense and claustrophobic setting of a prison.

Starred Up is the story of a rebellious teenage inmate whose angry life deteriorates when he is transferred to the same prison as his father. The father’s attempts at helping his son, in fact, seem to do nothing but fuel Eric’s rage even more and risk putting him into more trouble with the guards. MacKenzie digs deep within the psychology of the characters and their somewhat distorted and selfish priorities.

In the end, this testosterone filled drama is also a harrowing and hard-hitting intimate portrayal made even deeper and more compelling by the wonderful magnetic performances of Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn, who invest body and soul in their honest and sometimes disturbing interpretations of father and son.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – In the Name of the Father (1993, Jim Sheridan), Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

 

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2. – Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adéle) by Abdellatif Kechiche

Much more than the sexually explicit film its controversial nature would have you believe. Director Kechiche knocks down conventional boundaries to truly examine the passion of the love story between two young women, Adele and Emma, from their schooldays to their young adulthood.

While it was based on a graphic novel, a lot of Kechiche’s own concerns with class and society are represented in this film. And while it is true that the sex scenes are lengthy, steamy and imaginative it is equally true but not as acknowledged that the scenes where the girls converse are equally as long and allowed to breathe.

This is a technique that truly reveals the most intimate details of the romance between the two central figures in the film and helps establish a fresh kind of connection with a modern audience. While the film occasionally suffers from its share of overzealousness, it is truly remarkable how the film can remain absorbing despite its length of over three hours.

Lead actresses Adéle Exarchoupoulos and Léa Seydoux deliver praiseworthy and very brave performances, which were of vital importance to give the film the right kind of credibility. Furthermore, with their beauty, sexual chemistry and tenderness they have all the potential to become modern cultural icons of romanticism whether the censorship boards like it or not.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain, 1973, Jean Eustache), Pauline at the Beach (Pauline á la Plage, 1983, Eric Rohmer)

 

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1. –Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru) (Hirokazu Koreeda)

The lives of two very different Japanese families are shaken when they discover six years later that a mix-up in a hospital inadvertently swapped their two male babies. This bombshell inevitably leads to much psychological and emotional distress on both sides of the story, and especially in the father of one of the families who is led down a road of deep and meaningful re-evaluations of fatherhood as well as reflection own struggles with exposing his own emotions.

After dealing with the separation of a pair of young siblings in his previous work, I Wish, Kore-eda returns to the domestic drama territory in a profoundly moving film. However, apart from the story and thought provoking discourse, which also carefully contrasts family traditionalism with modernism, the filmmaker also employs a tasteful kind of style in bringing the story to the screen which is tastefully defined and doesn’t shift the attention away from the intimacy of the meditative nature of Like Father, Like Son and its difficult themes.

 

WATCH THIS IF YOU LIKED – I Wish (Kiseki, 2011, Hirokazu Koreeda), Tokyo Story (Tôkyô monogatari, 1953,Yasujiro Ozu)

 

NOTE: This Top 10 does not include films that were included in my Venice Film Festival Top 10. It does, however, include all the films I watched from every one of the festival selection i.e. Official Competition, First Feature Competition, Documentary Competition, Thrill, Journey, Cult, Love…
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