Highlights of the 64th London Film Festival

Highlights of the 64th London Film Festival

The cinema industry is in dire straits, and big screen lovers must pray for its survival. Fortunately, the British Film Institute is determined that the show must go on and the 64th London Film Festival is taking place from 7-18 October with some tantalising choices. Screenings will take place in selected cinemas still open across the country, and electronically, so that you can watch from home. Despite, or perhaps due to, the pandemic, the Festival organisers promise that it will be its most accessible ever, presenting over 50 Virtual Premieres and a selection of highly-anticipated new feature film previews at BFI Southbank as well as in UK cinemas.

Every screening will be presented with an intro or Q&A from filmmakers and programmers. Also on offer are selected feature films on BFI Player; an international programme of short films featuring established and breakthrough film talents; Screen Talks with major filmmakers and actors, as well as all online salons and Q&As across the Festival which will give audiences an opportunity to delve more deeply into themes and talking points emerging from the programme.

And, if you are into voting, this year the Festival Awards are in the hands of the audience, who will take the place of the Festival’s Official Jury. Viewers engaging with the Festival online will be invited to vote on Virtual LFF Audience Awards in four categories: Best Fiction Feature, Best Documentary Feature, Best Short Film, and Best XR. The winners will be announced in a live online ceremony on the final weekend of the Festival.

Spend some time with the catalogue, which covers every imaginable genre and from all over the world. You will also notice that there are more women and ethnic directors than ever before and some of the most promising titles come from lessor known names. For the full programme click here.

To help you out, here are some highlights for more mature audiences.

Nomadland (108 mins)

High on the list has to be Chloé Zhao’s follow up to The Rider. It is number one for the director alone, however, but also for the pairing of two brilliant actors over 60: double Academy Award winning Frances McDormand (Fargo) and Academy Award nominee David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, Limbo). After McDormand’s stellar performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri it might not be difficult to picture her as a character living on the road in the American West after losing her husband and her home. The wildfires ravaging the American west might result in hundreds more American nomads, but this beautifully shot film (cinematographer Joshua James Richards shot The Rider and God’s Own Country) is a tribute to a woman who, late in life, makes a choice to opt for freedom over comfort. Based loosely on Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao explores this American subculture with empathy and compassion. Could McDormand possibly win a third Academy Award? Will there be justice and David Strathairn will receive his first?

David Byrne’s American Utopia (105 mins)

Anything by director Spike Lee is worth seeing, but Lee, coupled with electrifying performances by the brilliant 68-year-old Talking Heads singer/writer David Byrne, and a big political message is an irresistible combination. When we are all starved of concerts and theatre, what is better than a front row seat to what could be a career best show for the multi-talented Byrne? Some lucky souls have seen Byrne’s popular Broadway show, American Utopia, and in this film we are not only treated to the Byrne body moves and music, but his reflections of life in America. In 1984 Byrne’s album Stop Making Sense was prescient for the times we live in now, but his show makes a lot of sense. And Spike Lee wants the world to know about it.

Like Martin Scorsese with The Last Waltz, Lee transforms the stage production into pure cinema. Byrne’s anti-fascist, anti-racist political urgency is on a par with the creative dance numbers and the fabulous vocal performances. Somehow work by James Baldwin, Janelle Monáe and Kurt Schwitters blend in seamlessly with intoxicating versions of Byrne’s solo work and Talking Heads classics.
A tip: don’t buy yourself one ticket, buy two. You will want to see this one again.

One Night in Miami (111 mins)

There are three reasons to be excited about this film. The first is that it is based on playwright Kemp Powers’ riveting, electrifying play, One Night in Miami, that had its brilliant European premiere at London’s Donmar Warehouse. The second reason is that the film adaptation is the feature film directorial debut of 2019 Academy Award winning actress (If Beale Street Could Talk) Regina King. And third, but not least, is the deep, rich, character and issue driven story itself, an imagined story but based on four high-profile black men at a crossroads in their lives.

What is true is that on February 25, 1964, 22-year-old Mohammad Ali (Eli Goree) beat Sonny Liston to become Heavy Weight Champion of the World. Congratulating him in his hotel room are football superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), sing/songwriter/entrepreneur Sam Cooke, and activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). Instead of a celebration party, however, we watch Ali, Cook and Brown confront their dual identities as celebrities in a white world and black men, sidestepping the Civil Rights movement that is raging outside. Malcolm X persuades Cooke to write for his people and, just after his murder ten months later, the iconic A Change Is Gonna Come was released. Malcolm X is the instigator, but in their long night of the soul each man digs deep inside himself to emerge anew at dawn.

The Painter and the Thief (102 minutes)

Winner of the Creative Storytelling Prize at Sundance, Benjamin Ree’s fascinating documentary is high up on my list because it conveys the transformative power of art: not to a room full of champagne drinking connoisseurs, but to an art thief whose adult life was spent in gangs, selling drugs, and then in prison.

The audacity of the theft of Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova’s huge, naturalistic paintings from the windows of Oslo’s Nobel gallery attracted the interest of documentarian Benjamin Ree’s. The Police were astonished to discover that the thieves had removed 200 nails from the canvases, a task that would take a professional at least an hour. The CCTV footage identifies the culprits, and we are taken, via artist sketches, to the Oslo Court where Karl-Bertil Nordland, stands trial.

During the trial, Kysilkova approaches Karl-Bertil Nordland and asks him where the paintings are. Nordland says he has no memory of what happened to the paintings after the theft, but he did not sell them. He adds, ‘I am very sorry’. When Kysilkova then asks him why he took them, Nordland answers ‘Because they were beautiful’. Moved by this answer, Kysilkova contacts Nordland after the trial to request an unusual form of restorative justice: she wants to paint his portrait.

The sessions become a kind of therapy for both artist and sitter, and an odd kind of healing, particularly for Kysilkova, for the two lost paintings were her most important to date, estimated at 20,000 Euros each. If what happened to the paintings is a blur for Nordland, Ree’s blurs several genres: love story, mystery and biopic into an intriguing look at the unforeseen consequences of loss and bad choices, and the redemptive power of art.

Kajillionaire (105 mins)

Kajillionaire goes on my list simply because it brings the great actress Debra Winger (now 65) back to our screens. She plays Theresa Dyne in Miranda July’s (Me and You and Everyone We Know) deadpan, offbeat love story. Theresa, and her husband (73-year-old Richard Jenkins), are a couple of creative grifters living hand to mouth in an abandoned Los Angeles office block with their daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). They might seem too old for this kind of work, but when you think about it, invisible older people are the least likely to be suspected of a crime. Dysfunctional families are hardly rare in American comedies, but Kajillionaire has a twist. The daughter of these senior citizens, starved of affection becomes attached to a charismatic woman (Gina Rodriguez) recruited by her parents for their next scam.

Shirley (107 mins)

Elisabeth Moss has become so famous for her television series, The Handmaid’s Tale that it would be remiss to omit her new film, Shirley, which allows the talented actress to shed her victimised image. Plagued by writer’s block, Shirley Jackson (Moss) finds inspiration in the form of two newlyweds who come to stay in Josephine Decker’s psychodrama, Shirley, written by producer/TV writer Sarah Gubbins.

Shirley leads a double life. To the outside world she is the queen of horror fiction, but behind closed doors, she is an introverted alcoholic in a failed marriage to a philandering English professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). The arrival of Rose (Odessa Young) and her teaching-assistant husband Fred (Logan Lerman), does not bring out the best in Shirley, but it gets her creative juices racing as she inserts Rose in the plot of her new mystery novel.

If it sounds like Rob Reiner’s terrifying film Misery in reverse, just imagine Moss’s creepy, manipulative, ball-breaking feminist in Ruben Östlund’s The Square married to Stuhlbarg’s belittled and beleaguered suburban man in the Coen Brothers unsettling, A Serious Man. Moss and Stuhlbarg are inspired casting as they are so mismatched it is hardly surprising their marriage is, like Shirley herself, on the rocks.

Ammonite (112 mins)

I might have been the only person in the world who found Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country to be a pale, self-conscious version of Brokeback Mountain, but I will put Ammonite high on my list for its star power alone. Who could resist any film that stars arguably the world’s greatest actress, Kate Winslet, and, at 26, the second youngest person in history to have received four Academy Award nominations, Saoirse Ronan?

Like God’s Own Country, there is a same-sex love story in Lee’s fictionalised account of the life of the 19th century palaeontologist Mary Anning. Expect fabulous, shots of Lyme Regis with Stéphane Fontaine’s (A Prophet, Jackie) cinematography and an atmosphere you can cut with a knife thanks to Lee’s talent for conveying the textures of the natural world. If the LFF has set out to show us the flipside to the allegedly middle-aged, middle-class male dominated movie championed by the American Academy, it has found its poster film here. This is not only a lesbian love story, but the story of women written out of the history books because of their sex and their social class. Lee is not a female director, but you can’t have everything.

Supernova (93 mins)

Any film festival that features two A-list actresses in a lesbian love story like Ammonite, would be remiss for not snatching up Harry Macqueen’s (Hinterland) Supernova, in which Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) face different, but equally daunting obstacles to their happy life together. Sam and Tusker are a devoted homosexual couple whose enjoyable life is turned upside down following Tusker’s diagnosis of early onset dementia. Supernova is a road trip, and that usually spells introspection and soul searching, as well as episodic events to enrich the basic plot. There is something about Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange in this tale about the challenges of facing an uncertain future when a major blow hits you late in life. Firth and Tucci will be hoping it was all worth it come award’s season.

Relic (89 mins)

Dementia also rears its ugly head in horror film Relic only unlike Supernova, the cast is female, as is director Natalie Erika James (in her directorial debut), working from a screenplay by James and Christian White. Emily Mortimer is Kay, a busy, middle-aged, single mother who does not have much time for her independent and aloof mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin). One day Kay is notified that her mother has disappeared and, with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), makes the journey to Edna’s oversized, well lived in home. This being a horror film, the house is in the middle of nowhere and its lovely exterior belies the terror within. Those of you who read Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing, or saw the television version, will be pleased to know that Edna has just wandered off, and eventually returns. You might wish she hadn’t.

The Human Voice (30 mins)

Jean Cocteau’s short play The Human Voice has been performed countless times as an opera and a stage play, and now 71-year-old Pedro Almodóvar reimagines the story for cinema in an era in which isolation has become a way of life. A fitting English language debut, it combines madness, melancholy, loss and delusion – quite a number of the maestro’s themes. And as if that is not enough, the protagonist is none other than Tilda Swinton age 60, going on 40. Expect fabulous cinematography from Almodóvar regular 81-year José Luis Alcaine, and never mind that the entire story is set in the unnamed woman’s apartment. The production design is from Antxón Gómez and the set décor from Vincent Díaz, both of whom dazzled us with the most stylish apartment of the year in Almodóvar’s 2019 masterpiece, Pain and Glory. The screening will include a pre-recorded introduction and Q&A with Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton.

A Common Crime (Un crimen común) (96 minutes)

South American cinema is enriched by a number of films that explore class divisions and ethical responsibility in a stratified social hierarchy. In director Lucretia Martel’s The Headless Woman, an Argentinean middle-class woman’s life begins to unravel when she believes she has killed a servant’s dark-skinned child in a car accident.

In Francisco Márquez’s A Common Crime, middle-class economics lecturer Cecilia Elisa Carricajo (La flor), lives with her young son, Juan and relies on her housekeeper Nebe to help out with chores and childcare. One night, Nebe’s son knocks at the door, but Cecilia does not let him in. This hasty decision has lasting ramifications when Cecilia hears he has been “disappeared by the police”.

If the story reminds you of The Headless Woman, it is also reminiscent of the Dardenne Brothers 2016 drama, The Unknown Girl, in which a young, overworked doctor in a free health clinic in a rough neighbourhood of Liege, hears the practice bell ring late at night, but fails to answer it. It is a decision that she can momentarily justify but must live with the rest of her life. While A Common Crime sounds schematic with the mirroring of the two sons and two mothers, there is scope for Márquez to surpass these two previous films, particularly with Carricajo as the protagonist and a rich moral dilemma.

Herself (98 mins.)

Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!)’s new film stars Clare Dunne and Harriet Walter, in a drama about a woman who refuses to be broken. You can hear Helen Reddy’s I am strong, I am invincible, I am Woman playing in the background.

Sandra (Dunne, who co-wrote the script with Martin Campbell) is a young Dublin-based single mother struggling to provide her two young daughters with a safe, happy home after leaving an abusive relationship. So far, so familiar. But here’s where things get interesting. When the council will not provide a suitable home, Sandra decides to build one herself, against all odds. Sandra calls on the support of friends, and her employer Peggy (Walter). Expect a British feel good film, not devoid of sentimentality.

Never Gonna Snow Again (Śniegu już nigdy nie będzie) (113 mins.)

Małgorzata Szumowska, co-directs with her cinematographer Michal Englert, this Polish version of Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Here, the community which a mysterious stranger, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff, Dr Alexei in Stranger Things) transforms, is a wealthy gated enclave in Poland. The exotic masseur Zhenia comes from Pripyat in Ukraine, not far from Chernobyl, and offers his rich, but troubled clients more than muscle relaxation. Humour is mixed with serious themes of physical and mental healing, doubt, loss and grief. Is Utgoff as good as Nick Nolte as the drifter with the golden hands and a knack for figuring out what makes people need? You can judge for yourself if he manages to seduce you with his performance.

Stray (72 minutes)

Over the lockdown, older people in particular have appreciated their pets. They keep us company and are a good excuse to take walks in any weather. But not all domestic pets have it easy, as the RSPCA knows only too well. And this is why Elizabeth Lo’s evocative award-winning debut documentary, Stray, makes the list. It takes us on a tour of the streets of Istanbul from the perspective of the city’s stray dogs. Stray would make a great double bill with Ceyda Torun’s 2016 documentary Zedi, an uplifting and absorbing film essay about how cats and humans co-exist in a mutually beneficial relationship in the streets of Istanbul.

In Kedi, one cat lover tells us, ‘It is said that cats are aware of God’s existence, but dogs are not. Dogs believe people are God, but cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will…They’re not ungrateful, they just know better.’

This statement proves all too true as the city’s marginalised dogs find themselves at the mercy of humans, many of whom regard dogs the way they do rats. Through the eyes of three stray dogs, we are offered a unique perspective of the lives of Istanbul’s residents and its outsiders, including some homeless Syrian teenagers. The touching bond between the young men and their canine friends might have you asking questions about how society treats the most vulnerable.

Siberia (92 minutes)

Siberia is on the list because 65-year-old Willem Dafoe continues to eschew mainstream cinema and stretch his already flexible acting skills (and body) in films that we might call arthouse. The man with the greatest face in Hollywood, continues to push the boundaries, and remains one of the world’s most prolific actors.

Following Dafoe’s turn in Abel Ferrara’s loosely autobiographical, melancholic addiction drama Tommaso last year, and his larger than life drunken sea captain in Robert Egger’s self-indulgent The Lighthouse, Dafoe might have lost some of the glow from his sympathetic and accessible performance in The Florida Project.

This film is not for those who like a nice cosy plot or linear narrative. Ferrara moves further into the realm of experimentation and borderline surrealist filmmaking with this story of Clint (Dafoe), living a hermit-like existence in snow covered woods and tending a shabby mountainside bar. There are encounters with various weird patrons, but they merely trigger Clint’s memories and dreams depicted in a disarmingly surreal manner. Dafoe has never shied away from explicit sex scenes, or horrific suffering (after all he played Jesus Christ) and here, gross-out comedy is thrown in for good measure. The 2015 survival drama, The Revenant is tame compared to what Ferrara does with widescreen visuals, editing, narrative and an atmospheric depiction of a Siberia of the mind.

One Man and His Shoes (83 minutes)

South Londoner Yemi Bamiro’s feature film debut might be a Michael Jordan documentary, but its real agenda is to reveal the darker side of marketing trainers. Those who want to know why running shoes with a short shelf life have to cost £130, might be interested. Bamiro examines the cultural and commercial phenomena of Michael Jordan against the increasing commodification of Black culture and a lack of corporate accountability. A phenomenal athlete, Jordan was held up as a symbol of Black progress not only in sport, but in the mainstream world of business. He launched his own brand of trainers, but one that made Nike one of the most profitable companies in the world. Bamiro’s thought-provoking documentary is a mind-field, and barefoot runners will be amused. Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman, who studied the evolution of the human foot and running, will not be surprised by Bamiro’s story of consumer evolution.

Glenville (2 mins)

Yes, you have read this correctly. Kevin Jerome Everson and Kahlil I Pedizisai’s film Glenville is 2 minutes long. The film is based on the even shorter 1898 silent film Something Good – Negro Kiss, the first cinematic representation of Afro-American intimacy in the history of cinema. Something Good was directed in Chicago by director-producer William Selig, using an adapted Lumière cinématographe. A pioneer in more ways than one, Selig sold his films through the Sears catalogue! Something Good stars stage entertainers Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown whose physicality will give the beach scene in From Here to Eternity a run for its money. The chemistry between the two lovers is palpable. The 29-second silent film was discovered by Dino Everett, a film archivist at the University of Southern California, at an estate sale in Louisiana in 2015. It now takes pride of place in the LFF’s diverse “Experimenta” section.