Philip Shelley, who runs the excellent Channel Four Screenwriting Programme, which I partook in last year, asked me to write about my favourite films from this year's London Film Festival. The piece is published today:
Because I am writing a feature film under a BFI future film award bursary in association with the SAI, they kindly gave me a student pass to the film festival. Having only managed to watch one film at Cannes this year, I thought I would make the most of this pass and queue up with a gaggle of eager, much younger film students to see the latest cinematic output. I think I managed 17 in total, I didn’t get to see I Am Not a Witch, nor Call Me By Your Name, nor Ladybird nor a host of other highly recommended films, but of those I did see, here is a list of the films that I wholly recommend. (It might be worth mentioning that the one film I saw in Cannes, Loveless, which I was not a huge fan of, has since won at both Cannes and the London Film Festival. So for the record that my taste is at direct odds with the most discerning film boards in the world.)
- 120 BPM, directed by Robert Campillo. An incredibly moving story about Act Up, an AIDS activist group in 90s Paris. The director has drawn from his own real life experience in this group to draw rich, charismatic protagonists portrayed by an incredible cast. It is long (2hrs 40 mins) and formally experimental, drifting from story line and character, into long group dialogue heavy, meetings, that shouldn’t compel but always do. This a film that deals with tragedy in a totally life affirming, humorous, tender and surprisingly sensual manner. Charged protests evolve seamlessly into raves, soundtracked by wonderfully warped versions of Bronski Beats’ Small Town Boy, set in black stage sets that give an otherworldly quality reminiscent of the iconic dance sequences in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail.
- Wajib, directed by Annemarie Jacir. Tells the story of a Palestinian father, living in Nazareth, who welcomes his estranged son home from Italy for a family wedding. The two men must spend the day driving around their hometown delivering invitations to the wedding. As they drive through this occupied city, they discuss their lives and what begins as a tentative rutting of two different perspectives, descends into a deeply moving debate about the plight of Palestinians living in Israel and how different generations responded to the occupation. The two leads are brilliant, played by real father and son actors Mohammad Bakri, Saleh Bakri.
- The Rider, directed by Chloe Zao. This film is about a young rodeo, Brady, who after a terrible head injury, must reconcile himself to a life where he can no longer ride or work with horses. Horses are not only his passion but also his livelihood, and we are with him as he navigates this tragic reality. The director cast real families and friends in this piece, including Lane Scott, a paraplegic and former champion rodeo, who creates an extraordinary performance, and offers Brady (and the audience) a deeply painful insight into the price demanded of his peers and his own potential fate if he carries on riding rodeo.The exquisite cinematography contrasts the harsh reality of these young men’s lives with the epic beauty of the prairie fields, ancient rock-scapes and the magnificence of their closest allies, their horses, who are caressed on screen in visceral close ups. A powerful take on a coming of age story.
- The Florida Project directed by Sean Baker. Telling the story of a little girl, screen dominating new star Brooklynn Prince, and her young mother, newcomer Bria Vinaite, who live in a motel outside of Disney Land. Florida project is bold, bright and funny with the director initially knowingly playing up to a Shirley Temple-esque romanticism of childhood. This tone is then contrasted with a much darker subtext about the injustices of housing rights and Baker underlies this screwball comedy with a dark message about the lengths vulnerable people are forced to go to in order to survive. The rainbow landscape of the consumerism that is Florida is made full use of by DOP Alexis Zabe. The lurid purple of the castle themed motel belies a depressing reality in which residents are scrabbling around to make rent and bed bugs are rife. In a great bit of unexpected casting, Willem Dafoe plays the hippy motel manager, utterly empathetic and well meaning in this saccharine chaos and heartbreak.
- You Were Never Really Here directed by Lynne Ramsay. When a hitman, played by Joaquin Phoenix, gets stitched up one can’t help but think same old same old. However Ramsay turns the genre on its head to magnificent effect. She places very little importance on the plot (unusual for a thriller) and all the emphasis on the psychology and past traumas of the hitman. Though the film is largely about sexual aggression and violence, we rarely see any direct, gratuitous violence, instead, Ramsay plays with angles to deny that “gratification”, creating empathy and often and surprisingly, great comedy in the midst of utter despair. Jonny Greenwood does a scintillating soundtrack accompanying milkshake tinted images of childhood nightmares that merge to tell a story of retribution and second chances.
- Sheikh Jackson directed by Amr Salama. I stumbled upon this film by chance and I am so glad I did. A very dark comedy about an Egyptian Cleric whose faith falters because of the death of Michael Jackson. This film is about the repression of desires, about patriarchy and effects on men ( a under explored and more pressing than ever topic) and about the changing religious landscape of the muslim world. Most importantly it is about a young boy and his life long, irrational, loyal love of dancing to Michael Jackson. Funny, daring and visually experimental, I found myself weeping for this man and his desire to moonwalk.
- The Party directed by Sally Potter. A party is being thrown to celebrate Kirsten Scott Thomas becoming health minister and interesting questions about the limitations of party politics, about gender and about ambition, are raised, largely by a delectably acerbic and pitch perfect Patricia Clarkson. But when wanker banker Cillian Murphy arrives, high as a kite on cocaine with a gun in his pocket, the day takes a drastic turn. Shot in black and white and all set on one floor, this film has a theatricality that Potter plays with to create a perfectly crafted film reminiscent of an Edward Albee great. Maybe not the most urgent film of our time, however its incredible cast and razor sharp script make this film utterly compelling and hilarious.