Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh and more in London Film Festival 2013

Published by the Alternate Dream

What city could hold a film festival like London does? Paris might be the city of love but there is just so many French films you can watch and the last really good one was probably made around the 1970’s. Toronto might have two of the best film festivals in the world (TIFF and Hot Docs) but it’s still a philistine city. The amazing New York, alas, doesn’t yet have a festival worthy of its name. Cannes and Venice might be pretty little towns but their festivals are mostly for the elite as opposed to the metropolitan crowds of London.  Here the red carpet rolls for the average cinephile as well as the brightest stars.

Yes, this is London, the capital city of the most overlooked country in European cinema, and a world city unlike any other. The city itself is also a great actor. It has played a “far, far away galaxy” when it hosted The Star Wars; the Gotham City police station was right in a Clerkenwell warehouse and Les Miserables’s Bastille was no further than Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College. Even, the war-torn Vietnam of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was shot on the banks of Thames. (Right now, Ridley Scott is shooting his film on Moses at London’s legendary Pinewood studios, the largest of its kind in the world.)

London Film Festival, held by the British Film Institute (BFI) for the 56th year, starts this week and its line-up shows that it’s matured into being one of the best and biggest festivals out there (it wasn’t always like this.)

LFF has it all. So many of the glittery big names are here but, first and foremost, an elegant gift of British cinema to Hollywood and the world, Kate Winslet, whom the Time magazine called the best actress of her generation a few years ago. (Incidentally, Ms Winslet was born in the city of Reading, where your correspondent currently lives and these lines are being written.) Then there is Tom Hanks, Steve McQueen (as a director this year), Carey Mulligan, Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) Josh Brolin, Jesse Eiseberg, Jason Reitman, Terry Gilliam, and, get this, Lech Walesa himself. With all these people flocking to London, the festival doesn’t lack anything in glitter and flare and yet its program also includes an admirable collection of films by newbies and those countries whose cinemas are not very well-known, not to forget many of the re-worked masterpieces of the old times that reminds us what a rich history today’s films have to live up to.

The program is divided into 15 sections this year. Apart from the Galas (each and everyone of which is on ‘must-see’ lists of critics and fans alike) and the three competitive sections (Official competition plus two sections dedicated to first features and documentaries), there are nine one-word themed sections, each dedicated to one great theme: Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, Journey, Sonic, Family. Each section has one gala screening too.

Then there are ‘Experimentals’ and ‘Treasures’ (old classics recently re-mastered.)

In this crowded field, coming up with line-ups is notoriously hard. Here are TimeOut’s suggestions for the LFF’s top 10 this year (http://www.timeout.com/london/film/london-film-festival-the-ten-films-you-have-to-see) which sounds predictable.

And here is our take.

The biggies and the galas

First, the biggies that everybody expects, your correspondent usually avoids watching in festivals since they are to make it to the public screen soon enough.

Both opening and closing night galas this year are dedicated to films starring Tom Hanks. British Director Paul Greengrass’s Captain Philips is a much-anticipated thriller that comes out immediately after its premiere in the festival. The festival closes with John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks, a joint US-UK production that recounts the true story of how Mary Poppins made it to the silver screen. This also comes out soon enough so I don’t see the point in watching it in the LFF.

Among the biggies, watching Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave makes more sense. The pre-civil war drama starring Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor and the legendary McQueen himself already tops the bookies list for Oscars and it doesn’t open to public until next year January. Same is true about Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Days, a film about early 60’s music, starring Carey Mulligan. Who doesn’t want to be the first to watch a Coen anyways?

Among other films that fit the same description (not coming public until next year): Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, staring Jesse Eisenberg, a noted original thriller; Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman, the title of which refers to a little-known companion of 19th-century novelist Charles Dickens.

Then there are films that you just want to see as quickly as possible. The gala screening of ‘Love’ section is, of course, Blues is the Warmest Colour, the winner of Palme d’Or in Cannes that has made sure to make the headlines with its steamy lesbian sex scenes and controversial Arab director. There is apparently much more to expect in the film beyond the fanfare. We’ll see

If you are a fan of Kate Winslet or Scarlet Johansson, as your correspondent is, you wouldn’t want to miss two films that respectively cast Kate and ScarleT: Jason Reitman’s melodrama, thriller, Labor Day and the ‘Laugh’ Gala, Don Jon, the first film by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (although this isn’t the most talked-about Johansson film this year, obviously.)

Two great masters, Jim Jarmusch and Alexander Payne, also come out with their latest, respectively Only Lovers Left Alive, a tale of some centuries-old vampires, and Cannes-nominated Nebraska which once more features an across-the-USA trek as Payne’s best-known film, About Schmidt, did.

Alfonsu Cuaron’s Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and Philomena with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are those gala screenings I can personally forego for now.

Competition

When it comes to the Official Competition, the most-anticipated is without a doubt Jonathan ‘Sexy Beast’ Glazer’s Under the Skin which is supposed to be the creepiest role Scarlet Johansson has ever played (and that’s no easy feat.) Some attention to the film might be because casting Johansson as a foxy alien courting men in Scotland is a fantasy of half the US’s adult male population but again there is surely more to a Glazer.

I am especially looking forward to Mumbai-set The Lunchbox which is dubbed the India’s “hottest indie film of the year” by the organizers. The co-production of India with USA, France and Germany is a first by the award-winning short filmmaker Ritesh Batra. Can’t wait.

The Egyptian Ahmad Abdalla’s Rags and Tatters might be one of the first successful cinematic takes on the country’s massive revolution (this is set in the midst of the movement that led to President Morsi’s ouster) and it’s a sure watch. Especially since his previous Microphone was supposed to have foretold the revolution. (This correspondent’s Marxist comrades in In Defense of Marxism also did but they got less fame.)

We also have Jahmil XT Qubeka’s Of Good Report, mostly known for having been briefly banned by the South African censors; Abuse of Weakness, staring Isabelle Hupert in a portrait-of-an-arist film; Zac Efron’s Parkland about ordinary people caught in the story of Kennedy assassination and Richard Ayoade’s latest weird film, The Double, also starring Jesse Eisenberg.

Then we get to the delicious First Feature competition which is what festivals should be all about: Nigerian Chika Andalu’s B for Boy is LFF’s catch from the strongest cinema of the Black continent (There are also some short films from Africa in the non-competitive thematic section.)

Set in a universe that is the total opposite of modern Nigeria is Antony Chen’s Ilo Ilo which narrates the life of an affluent working family and their newly-hired maid in late 1990’s Singapore.

Also on my top list are Sarah Prefers to Run by Montreal’s Chloe Robichaud, starring Sophie Desmarais which is supposed to be really funny; British urban thriller Sixteen by Rob Brown; and Trap Street, a romance amidst the China’s new surveillance culture from Vivian Qu. If you are for a grueling First World War drama set amidst the frozen mountains of Eastern Anatolia, Turkey’s The Long Way Home is for you. But it might lead to depression, I hear.

Attracting all the buzz is Kill Your Darlings staring Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg. But I can personally wait till December when the film goes public.

Among the documentaries competing for the award, the likeliest to attract attention are Kitty Green’s Ukraine Is Not a Brothel which is probably the first feature-length documentary take on the ostensibly feminist group Femen and Greg Barker’s investigative film that is the documentary version of Zero Dark Thirty about the real CIA people that helped the US get Bin Laden.

I am personally looking forward to Mark Cousins’ Here be Dragons about Albania’s cinema and Paul-Julien Robert’s My Fathers, My Mother and Me about the 70’s free-love commune he grew up in. (I saw another fantastic ‘commune’ film in last year’s Hot Docs, the review for which you can check out here.)

Themes

Love

Love happens to be a especially favorite themes of your correspondent so it’s really hard to pick from the films in this category. First and foremost, I am looking forward for Asghar Farhadi’s The Past for obvious reasons of my love for the director and Iran from which he hails.

Here are some of the other top picks:

– There is the inevitable French 2 Autumns, 3 Winters by Sebastien Betbeder which is also about that love we all share for cinema

Adore, a subversive growing-up tale of female sexuality starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts

– Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry which is a loving indictment of India’s caste system (what better weapon against racism than love?)

– Khyentse Norbu’s Vara: a Blessing which is itself a love letter to one of the most romantic cinemas of the world, that of India

– Palestinian-American Cherien Dabis’s May in the Summer which is a Christian-girl-seeks-to-marry-Muslim-boyfriend comedy.

Golden Bear-winning Child’s Pose about the bourgeois Romanian morality on love;

The Sarnos – A Life in Dirty Movies, a portrait of erotic auteur Joe Sarno and his wife, pioneers of days when the porn film business looked very different

– Vicki Zhao’s So Young which narrates the love in the currently main rising civilization in the world, China

Love Will Conquer All is a collection of eight short films on love, heartbreak and lust. And what subject is better-suited for brief treatments?

– And finally Bertolucci on Bertolucci, a documentary using filmed interviews this master of romance and cinema has given over the last half a century.

As if this head-throbbing collection wasn’t enough there are also re-mastered works of Jean Cocteau’s Gothic fantasy La belle et la bete, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, and Luchino Visconti’s Sandra, starring no less than the vivacious Claudia Cardinale.

As you see trying to short-list LFF’s films is a mostly useless exercise since there is so much choice but I’ll list a few more from the other sections too:

Debate

– Iran’s Closed Curtain by jail-ridden Jafar Panahi about a writer struggling to finish a screenplay

Stop-Over, Kaveh Bakhtiari’s documentary about illegal Iranian migrants stranded in Athens of turmoil and anti-immigrant attacks

– The other Iranian film of LFF this year, Manuscrips Don’t Burn, which is dubbed as an angry, courageous film

The Rooftops, latest from the master of Algerian cinema, Merzak Allouache

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a documentary about the recently-deceased author whom Marxist critic Alan Woods once called the greatest American author alive (he did so while he was alive, obviously)

Walesa. Man of Hope which has brought the legendary anti-communist Polish leader to the festival. It is directed by one of the greatest living cinema masters, Andrzej Wajda, who has the distinction of having been present in the first ever BFI in 1953.

Dare

– What’s more daring than trying to adapt William Faulkner’s classic As I Lay Dying to the screen?

– Biyi Bandele’s debut, Half of a Yellow Sun, is a 1960s-set epic love story amidst the Nigerian civil war

– Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie dares to treat teenage sexual self-discovery

– Boris Khlebnikov’s A Long and Happy Life is supposed to be High Noon meets Russian socialism

– Albert Serra’s Story of My Death dares to cast Casanova and Dracula together in a battle between the reasoned Enlightenment and the dangerously-passionate Romanticism.

Laugh:

– We’ve seen a lot from Korean cinema but not much comedies. Hong Sangsoo’s Our Sunhi won the best director in Locarno

– Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight is a familiar tale of a disaffected petite-bourgeois LA housewife striking a friendship with a young stripper who gives her a lap dance.

– Most of the other titles in this section seem to be quite funny too.

Thrill:

– Robert Redford is here with the very-physical All is Lost

– Rick Rosenthals’ Drones, set in a ‘remote-control warfare bunker’ seems to be a top indie thriller this year

– Armat Escalante’s Heli, set amidst Mexico’s drug war, won the Best Director in Cannes.

– Park Hoon-jung is around with New World which seems to be a bit of a Korean Godfather.

Omar is about a young Palestinian, evading Israeli security for the love of his girlfriend.

Cult:

All Cheerleaders Die has been described as a “wickedly ghoulish subversion of the high school movie.” Whatever rocks your boat.

– If you are into horror films, Bernard Rose’s Sx_Tape should top the list.

– Then there is Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, a subversion of Yakuza genre films.

– Terry Gilliam is also here with another dystopic, The Zero Theorem (I could personally do without this)

Journey

– Lets travel to Chad with Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Grigris where a street photographer falls for a would-be model and they all end up in the criminal underworld. Tantalizing.

– Flora Lau’s debut takes on class in contemporary Hong Kong.

– Any film about this correspondent’s favorite city of Istanbul will always be on the list. Asli Ozge’s Lifelong is a study of bourgeois malaise in the city.

Africa First Short are four short films from the up-and-coming continent in the world of cinema.

Sonic

Broadway Idiot goes behind the scenes of Green Day’s American Idiot album

– Beyond that, the best two films seems to be the one your correspondent already saw in last year’s Hot Docs. Beatles’s until-now-unknown secretary and the Punk singer-feminist Kathleen Hanna are the subjects of these two films. You can check my reviews out here and here.

***

This leaves us with Experimentals and Family, two rather-opposing sections that your correspondent aims to boycott since they both particularly acutely reflect the dead-end of bourgeois culture and morality in the age of capitalist demise and a film festival is no place to listen to ‘death agonies.’

Your corespondent will be rather limited in this year’s LFF and will only visit the festivals for four or five days of film-watching. But I’ll make these quite full-time so hopefully we’ll get many reviews in and some interviews too. If there is a particular film you’d like reviewed or a particular cineist you want to see interviewed, shoot a comment and we’ll see what we can do.

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