London Film Festival – the highlights!

Posted by Laurence Green

Picked for over 240 films from countries all over the world, Laurence Green selects his highlights from the 2016 London Film Festival.

The 60th BFI London Film Festival which has just ended proved that 2016 was, if not a vintage year, then a really strong one and a sharp reminder that cinema is certainly alive and well and in great shape. It is worth recalling some of the highlights which make this festival such an important event in every moviegoer’s calendar.

A Quiet Passion

Veteran British filmmaker Terence Davies returned to the peak of perfection with his brilliant chamber piece, A Quiet Passion. This is an absorbing, meticulously crafted chamber piece, centring on the celebrated 19th-century American poet, Emily Dickinson which takes her from the time she left Ladies College at the age of 17 to her death at 55 from agonising kidney failure. Dickinson was a nonconformist, whether as poet, daughter, or women of faith, she finds herself at odds with the diktats of religion and society, becoming increasingly reclusive, dressing in white, writing her extraordinary original poetry but not publishing it, instead sewing together her own tiny little manuscript books or ‘fascicles’. Cynthia Nixon is superb as the adult Dickinson, skillfully revealing the many facets of her character – her wit and linguistic command, an inescapable melancholy, and her poetry’s transcendent ability to connect with other people in ways she cannot. A film whose sensitivity, insight and eloquence resonate in the mind.

A road movie without a map is how you can describe Andrea Arnold’s freewheeling, funny, exhausting and unpredictable American Honey. The story follows the journey of teenage star (a sensual, defiant Sasha Lane) from her abusive home in Oklahoma and across the American Midwest with a hard – partying magazine subscription sales team in a large white van crammed with boozy kids and possibilities. Star is at the once smitten by the dangerous charisma of ringleader Jake (Shia LaBeouf), but for Jake romancing Star is just another part of the job. Although overlong at almost three hours – the film would have benefitted from tighter editing – Arnold has nonetheless created a lyrical story with strong characterisation and a rough-edged tenderness.

An exquisite ode to the quiet complexities of life is provided by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda’ perceptive and engaging, After the Storm. After the death of his father, private detective and one-time novelist Ryota (Abe Hiroshi), with a punishing gambling habit, attempts to reconnect with his mother (the great Kirin Kiki), ex-wife and, most crucially, young son. One thunderous night, Ryota lures his son and ex-wife to grandma’s flat, in the conspiratorial hope of patching things up. The film mines a good deal of subtle comedy from the predicament of its protagonist and the acting is both natural and realistic. Koreeda looks at how one failed relationship can affect all the others around it and his slow but rewarding film has a universal resonance.

It is not often you find an actor giving a career-defining performance but this is indeed the case with Casey Affleck in Kenneth Lonergan’s visually eloquent and emotionally stirring exploration of grief Manchester by the Sea. Set in the wintery confines of Manchester, Massachusetts, the film revolves around handyman Lee Chandler (Affleck), who is called back to his home town after the sudden death of his brother Joe. Upon his return, he is told by the family’s lawyer that he is now the legal guardian of his brother’s teenage son, Patrick. This is a problem for Lee, though, as he has made every effort to remove himself from society. He has no friends or loved ones, only a devastating secret that continually torments him. Affleck is superb as the laconic, calcified Lee, a man who has dedicated his life to fixing the problems of everyone around him, yet he can’t find a way to absolve or purge his own sins. He gets sterling support from Michelle Williams as Lee’s acid-tongued, no-nonsense wife and Lucas Hedges as his nephew Patrick. This, in short, is a tender, yet brutal film, laced with humour and totally devoid of sentimentality, which exudes a warm humanity.

The Birth of Our Nation

Don’t be fooled by the title, Nat Parker’s, The Birth of a Nation is not a remake of DW Griffith’s 1915 epic of the same name. This is a gruelling, deeply moving account of Nat Turner, an enslaved African American and ordained preacher who led a slave revolt in Virginia in 1831. Young Nat dreams of his African ancestors and is predestined to be a leader of his people He is encouraged to read by the wife of the plantation owner, who gives him a bible. By the time he reaches adulthood he has become a man of religion, but when the white slave owners detect insurrection, he is forced to preach submission to his fellow slaves. Unwilling to accept the atrocities he witnesses at the other plantations and abuse of his own wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King), this inspiring preacher is forced to turn to violence and begins to plot an uprising. This is one of the most confident writing and directorial debuts in years, heightened by a scorching performance by Nate Parker in the lead role. Emotionally draining.

A true festival jewel was provided by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s masterly complex movie of psychological subtlety and moral compromise Graduation (Bacalaureat). Grey-haired surgeon Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) has his regular life disrupted by violent incidents. First, a rock is thrown through his apartment window. Then his 18-year-old daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), a stellar pupil who has the offer of a scholarship from a British university, conditional on top marks in her final exams, is assaulted and her writing arm is sprained. After her first paper goes badly, Romeo must consider making the kind of phone calls that contradict the belief in honesty he and his wife Magda ( Lia Bugnar) passed on to their daughter. Adding to the intrigue are Romeo’s lover Sandra (Malina Manovici), a schoolteacher and single mum, a convict on the loose, Eliza’s motorbike-riding boyfriend, a local mayor who owes Romeo a favour and a pragmatic policeman friend. This superbly crafted, absorbing family drama about the shabby choices people make as they claw their way up resonates in the mind long after the final credits have rolled.

Take a mixture of guns, gangsters and a case full of dollar bills and add a strong dose of irony and you have Ben Wheatley’s Closing Night Gala film Free Fire. Sharp-witted Justine (Brie Larson) fixes a deal on behalf of two Irishmen (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), setting them up to buy a stash of guns from seedy gangsters Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer). But the rendezvous in a deserted warehouse derails when a stoner sidekick Stevo (Sam Riley) recognises one of the two handover guys (Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor) and shots are fired. Wheatley and writer/editor partner Amy Jump’s relentlessly playful riff on a shoot-em-up is as fascinated with the slowness of destruction as it is with speed and action. The main problem is that the characters and plot are thin, while the violent, prolonged shoot-out is more comic book than realistic. However, the laconic dialogue and virtually non-stop action means that the movie is never boring and actually quite entertaining.

La La Land

Now we come to the best film of the festival which undoubtedly was Damian Chazelle’s outstanding La La Land, a bittersweet, witty and melodic love letter to the golden era of Hollywood musicals. It opens with one of the most extraordinary sequences in years – a colossal song and dance number about reaching for the heights and chasing all the lights as every driver caught in a massive traffic jam along a vast stretch of the Los Angeles freeway emerge from their cars and flip and dance on top of them. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress serving latte to movie stars in between audiences for second-rate parts. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz musician who scrapes a living by playing cocktail party gigs in dingy bars. Their fleeting first encounter during the aforementioned traffic jam ripples with tension and holds little promise. But, after a series of mishaps, romance blooms.

The beauty of the film is the way life draws two dreamers close to their personal happy ending, but it is far from the conventional love finale you would expect. Indeed while Chazelle plays virtuoso homage to the look, mood and stylised trappings of the MGM musicals of the 40s and 50s, this comes with a sharply modern – and realistic – twist. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance and prance, fluctuating in the air as a contemporary Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and have a definite chemistry going between them. In fact, everything in the movie is tinged with entrancing performances, lights, colour invention and a marvellous score by Justin Hurwitz.

You could describe La La Land as a twinkly fantasy of sophisticated innocence cut with a touch of modern LA sass. I long to see it again!

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