Monday, 16 October 2017

Next year's best films: London Film Festival 2017 round-up − Part 2

Here are my 10 favourites from the BFI London Film Festival 2017. To read about the less good films, please toddle on over here. And thanks for reading, it makes me happy.


10. Wrath of Silence

Director: Yukun Xin
Cast: Wu Jiang, Yang Song, Wenkang Yuan
Country: China
UK release date: No release confirmed
Rating: 3/4

A genuinely unusual take on that old chestnut, the 'psycho looking for his missing kid' flick, but used to interrogate the iniquities of contemporary Chinese society (without anyone involved in the production gettinh killed), as a mute miner – left behind by the rapid pace of progress – engages in a bleak, apparently hopeless quest that's punctuated by moments of dark comedy and bone-crunching action (there's a lot of him just kicking people really hard).

The final shot could have used a bit of work, but the ending is otherwise superb, a fitting capper to a film with a few rough edges (cartoonish villainy, an opening that's more confusing than intriguing, a little mid-section bagginess) but interesting ideas, superb imagery – that in-camera shot of the desert giving way to the city! – and the best exhausted fight scene in aeons. Clever title too.

It's basically Kurosawa's High and Low, but for China in 2017. Having said that, and as the director acknowledged, there are no state officials involved in wrongdoing: the corruption shown is all in the private sector, even if it's high-ranking lawyers who operate within the public realm and increasingly dominate Chinese society.

... and curiously, like my previous film in the festival, Wonderstruck, it hinges on a mute person and a taxidermical diorama. This one's good, though.

Director Yukun Xin (centre), his producers and friends, outside NFT1 at BFI Southbank.


9. Our Time Will Come

Director: Ann Hui
Cast: Zhou Xun, Eddie Peng, Wallace Huo, Paw Hee-ching, Jessie Li
Country: China
UK release date: No release confirmed

Rating: 3/4

Stories from the Chinese underground: a film of great moments, appreciable humanity and unapologetic feminism, those virtues triumphing over some more prosaic flaws, like irregular pacing, a curious framing structure, and a few flirtations with propaganda and artifice.

It's a film of wit, stoicism and sincerity, with two key scenes ruminating on honour and duty that recall those towering triumphs of French cinema, Grand Illusion and Army in the Shadows, for which one can forgive some improbable (but dynamic) action heroics, a monochrome round-table that just made me think of Woody Allen, and a few too many scenes of people wrapping things up in blankets.


8. Angels Wear White

Director: Vivian Qu
Cast: Vicky Chen (as Qi Wen), Zhou Meijun, Mengnan Li, Weiwei Liu, Jing Peng
Country: China
UK release date: No release confirmed
Rating: 3.5/4

An excoriating moral thriller about the destruction of innocence – though not, director Vivian Qu says, the debasement of "purity" – which follows two girls left behind by the pace of progress in China: an 11-year-old abandoned to the appetites of a police commissioner, and the 15-year-odd runaway (Vicky Chen), doing odd jobs in a hotel, who's the only witness.

The film's closest analogue is probably Half Nelson – and not just because Qu and Dardennes cinematographer Benoît Dervaux get the most out of some playground tunnels amongst other quasi-surrealist diversions. Like that film, it's an intelligent, consistently surprising heartbreaker that never goes for the soft option when a tough lesson will do.

The writer-director of another Chinese film in the season, Wrath of Silence (see #10), said he steered clear of criticising state officials, as his scripts had to be cleared by the censorship office. Qu (who offers a heroic lawyer where Wrath's was corrupt) clearly doesn't give a shit, and this painful, richly symbolic work – which keeps its violence off camera, and any sentiment or sensationalism off the screen – is a vivid indictment of a society that simply isn't looking after its kids.

Angels Wear White isn't some worthy lecture, though, and while it's slightly uneven, it's a bleakly vibrant, well-acted, quietly poetic, furious film about desperation, the potential for change, and systematic, state-sanctioned abuse masquerading as justice and progress.

It's also the best Marilyn Monroe film since 1961.

Dervaus and Wu trying to ignore the weirdo with the mobile phone all up in their grills.


7. On Chesil Beach

<3 Saoirse Ronan. After Brooklyn and this, I'm starting to think she can do no wrong.

Director: Dominic Cooke
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough
Country: UK
UK release date: 19 January 2018
Rating: 3.5/4

For almost its entire length, this adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2007 novella is close to perfect: the beautifully-modulated, restrained story of a strait-laced couple in the still strait-laced early '60s who look back on their often idyllic courtship from the claustrophobic environs of their honeymoon suite.

McEwan and director Dominic Cooke don't change much of the book: they and their cast just subtly externalise feelings that were elucidated as thoughts on the page, and cast off a few memorable moments that might alienate or unwittingly unnerve a cinematic audience (a spasming muscle, jizz on the face).

The leads are brilliant, particularly Saoirse Ronan as the sexually repressed violin prodigy Florence, and if a couple of elements don't quite work − McEwan's slightly embarrassing fixation with Edward (Billy Howle) liking a good ruck, and Anne Marie-Duff's simplistic scenes as his mother, which are tonally off − those are offset by passages of understated lyricism and rich, convincing romance which clash gloriously with the hysterically uncomfortable wedding night, from the inedible none-more-1962 meal (rendered gloriously on the screen: slice of melon with glace cherry, anyone?) to Edward rolling off the bed because he can't have sex with his shoes on.

When the explosion comes, and it does, it's heartbreakingly portrayed, and one of those sequences that works so well because it's so faithfully rendered. Then McEwan starts to write new scenes that were merely summarised in the book, and all bets are off. The first three − dealing with Edward and his family − are minor but quite satisfying, especially the one with his father, and the fourth is an absolute belter, a slightly obvious but incredibly affecting scene set in a record shop in 1975.

If only they'd ended the film there, as the next has Edward explaining not just the moral but also the text of the story, before a closing sequence set in 2007 that has some of the worst Old Person Make-Up that I've seen: he looks like he's been badly burned, and the rest of the cast are only slightly less ridiculous. Yes, the moment that it's all leading up to got to me, even while I knew I was being manipulated, but from Edward's risible stance at the crease onwards, it's an embarrassing and completely unnecessary coda.

Look, lads, you've got a while till the general release, how about heading back and having another go? Because most of this movie is bloody brilliant.


6. Battle of the Sexes

Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman
Country: USA
UK release date:
Rating: 3.5/4

A hugely uplifting, entertaining movie, with a typically dynamic central performance from Emma Stone, who inhabits the character of Billie Jean King almost entirely, as the tennis legend breaks away from the sexist tennis establishment, confronts the fact she's a lesbian, and gears up for the eponymous match, opposite self-styled 'male chauvinist pig', the shy and retiring Bobby Riggs.

When I heard about the movie, I thought it might be dressing the occasion up as something it isn't, but it gets Riggs right − played by Steve Carell with great subtlety and chutzpah as a slightly pathetic hustler who plays the press like a violin − seeing the villain (represented by Bill Pullman's Jack Kramer) as the society that allows his phony chauvinistic bluster to land.

Almost everything about the film is first-rate: the montages (I love a sports montage!), the pacing, much of the dialogue, it's just the one-dimensional nature of the human villainy (Kramer, Margaret Court) and the overt on-the-nose social commentary that feels too shallow and Hollywoodised: Alan Cumming's character, a gay costume designer, seems to have wandered in from The Hunger Games and just doesn't seem real. The audience loved him, but he's so magic gay: an acerbic queen who's really a wise and profound guardian angel.

On the whole it's a really lovely film, though: incredibly fun and with such a deep, appealing performance from Stone: that penultimate scene in the changing room is so perfectly played, so complex and apposite, when most movies would have given her an unconvincing and sentimental fictional heart-to-heart with Riggs that explained her character and justified his.


At the midway point, let's pause for some trivia.

Cinematic celebrities spotted: Mike Leigh (at the next film in the list), Terry Gilliam at the #1 movie.
Most comfortable screen: Vue Leicester Square: Screen 5
Most exciting screen: Odeon Leicester Square (shame about the leg-room)
Best loos: Vue Leicester Square.
Worst loos: Empire Leicester Square, somehow worst than the portaloos at Embankment Garden Cinema.
Best Q&A: The Florida Project for the lolz and adorableness, Angels Wear White for the insights into Vivian Qu's creative process.
Worst Q&A: The pretentiousness of Zama, both film and Q&A, wound me up. Red carpet feeds (I saw The Battle of the Sexes and 3 Billboards) aren't for me, I just find the fawning absolutely unbearable, and though Emma Stone fielded her questions with a bit of humour and panache, and Martin McDonagh offered some insights into the genesis of his film, there's not much that one can really say to questions like "How are you so brilliant and gorgeous?"
Most exciting person to see in the flesh: AUBREY PLAZA FROM PARKS AND REC, especially as I was just about certain that she wouldn't come over for the film.
Request for next year: Please, more variety in the Q&As for the really big screenings: these always just centre around the same two questions (To the writer/director: 'How did you come up with the idea?'; to the stars: 'How did you get on board?' or 'What did you think when you read the script?'), and subsequently the same two answers, while the format is so rigid that there are never any follow-up questions. As a result, they're nowhere near as insightful as the Q&As for smaller events. It's such a wasted opportunity and makes it seem like we've just got the stars over from Hollywood for a fashion parade. Considering the incredible amount of preparation that clearly goes into this amazing festival, it seems really half-arsed.

All in all, though, it was just such a magical and exciting 11 days, and I feel so privileged to have been able to go to it at all, let alone to so many exciting events.


5. The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected

Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Adam Sandler, Grace Van Patten, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Emma Thompson
Country: USA
UK release date: 13 October 2017 (on Amazon)
Rating: 3.5/4

A moving, frequently hilarious comedy-drama – sort of 'Woody Allen's The Royal Tenenbaums – about a family living in the shadow of impossible oft-married patriarch and undiscovered sculptor, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman).

It has perhaps a couple of endings too many, and Emma Thompson misses the mark as a ditsy New York alcoholic, but the rest of the cast is great, some of the comic, character-rooted flourishes are instant classics – Sandler and Stiller's conversation about business, the way Hoffman runs (I tell you, if he'd done this in Marathon Man, it would've been twice as good) – and there are several darkly comic passages addressing neuroses that frequently debilitate me: Stiller asking a nonplussed nurse if he's abandoning his father by going to a meeting, Sandler's summation of his dad's legacy.

In fact, Sandler has several scenes here that are superb, and if his familiar excesses occasionally intrude (or at least call to mind his dual life as the shittest thing on screen), he's now started giving so many good performances that he's in danger of becoming liked and respected. The call with his daughter (Grace Van Patten) early on in the picture is a beauty.

The Meyerowitz Stories is a really terrific film, Baumbach's best since the unassailable Frances Ha, and yet after 10 minutes I thought I was going to hate it, the director setting it up as a film about privileged, self-serious New York intellectuals with their meaningless problems, before tipping us a huge wink with a line about houmous.


4. You Were Never Really Here

Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman
Country: UK/France/USA
UK release date: No release date confirmed, but probably February
Rating: 3.5/4

Well what did you think a Lynne Ramsay noir with Joaquin Phoenix as a hitman would be like?

Ramsay can write great dialogue, but with a Hitchcockian desire to tell stories using just pictures, that visual imagination – CCTV action sequence ftw! – and her matchless ear for apposite pop music, she rarely needs it. Admittedly she loves a long arthouse silence, so your tolerance for her work may depend on whether you do too, but once this one gets going it's unmissable.

There's Phoenix out intense-ing himself to a Jonny Greenwood score, a deeply moving Jonathan Ames story that invokes and updates the likes of Taxi Driver, The Searchers and A History of Violence without ever feeling like a retread, and a lot of people being twatted in the head with a hammer. Really, what more could you ask for?

Except, of course, the star and director turning up pissed to the screening and spoiling the festival director's Q&A with a mixture of in-jokes and gratuitous flirting.

I just can't get over that line in the politician's dining room, this film's inspired inversion of "Let's go home, Debbie." It damn near broke me.


3. A Fantastic Woman

Director: Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra
Country: Chile
UK release date: 2 March 2018
Rating: 3.5/4

This is really, really good.

I'm always struck by the sky-high ratings on IMDb for bad LGBT movies, and wonder if it's attributable to a) the comparative paucity of these films, meaning that we should celebrate those we get, regardless of their technical or artistic deficiencies (the extension, I suppose, is the tribalistic mindset this engenders, in which you can't judge them as bad films, as they're not just films); b) my lack of insight into what these films should be doing in relation to their audience and LGBT issues in 2017.

Anyway, no such ruminations necessary on this one, it's fucking brilliant: a dazzling, poetic, sometimes dream-like Chilean film about a trans woman (Daniela Vega) trying to hold it together – and reach some point of resolution – after the death of her boyfriend. I should mention that his family aren't helping.

Vega has the most fascinating face and the camera makes the most of it, not least in a dazzling nightclub sequence that moves from pain to sensuality to a fantasy dance number, but there's such depth to her characterisation too, and the film's refusal to give her easy, sassy victories is uniquely satisfying, grappling profoundly and humanely with issues that are both specific and universal.

The effect is of a Dardennes story adapted by Almodovar, but I haven't seen anyone like Vega before. I'm not sure she can really sing classical (the best use of 'Ombra mai fu' is now and forever in Humphrey Jennings' seismic short film, Spare Time, Handel fans), but the rest of the music's a treat, with British composer Matthew Herbert delivering an audial dreamscape that like the script, photography and performances serves to conjure a very particular mood.


2. Bad Lucky Goat

Director: Samir Oliveros
Cast: Jean Bush, Kiara Howard, Ambrosio Huffington, Honlenny Huffington, Elkin Robinson
Country: Colombian
UK release date: No release confirmed
Rating: 4/4

I was expecting Brewster's-Millions-with-a-goat, I got something like the very essence of charm: a wonderfully atmospheric story of burgeoning sibling friendship, set on a Caribbean island, about a brother and sister who accidentally wreck their parents' car by running over a goat, and hatch one scheme after another to try to get level.

Colombian director Samir Oliveros shot the film on Providence Island (an old colonial outpost owned by Colombia) using non-professional local actors, a score written by local musicians (several of whom play on screen) and the locales as another character in a way that recalls a film of escape, change and geographical flavour that I've always loved, Seducing Doctor Lewis. Bad Lucky Goat is very funny when it wants to be, though it's not packed with jokes: much of the joy lies in its genuinely offbeat sensibility and its deceptively lofty ambitions.

Oliveros, who'd made just one previous short and is now doing a master's in LA, told me (as I was bothering him in the lobby) that he shot this one "guerrilla-style" and is now learning how to be a professional filmmaker, ideally in Hollywood. I hope that training doesn't erode the instinctive brilliance of this debut, which is fast-moving but laid-back, packing an astounding amount into its 76 minutes, dealing with themes of superstition, familial loyalty and accidental goat slaughter, and featuring beautiful performances from the two young leads − both of whom are now eyeing careers on screen. Like the rest of the cast, they adapted Oliveros' English-language script into their phonetic local language, Creole, and I could listen to their slang-heavy exchanges all day.

I got lost in its world, and while the film's trip to the cockfights may be a bit of a rude shock to myself and my other libtard cucks, it ultimately did little to dispel the film's very special atmosphere.


1. The Shape of Water

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg
Country: USA
UK release date: 16 February 2018
Rating: 4/4

Guillermo del Toro's wonderful fable – "my favourite thing I've ever done" – is kind of like Arrival starring Amélie, as a shy, mute cleaner (Sally Hawkins) at a government base begins to communicate with the aquaman in the tank, and feels the first flickerings of love.

Set – like my previous film at the LFF, On Chesil Beach (see #7) – in 1962, it's really about today: a plea for tolerance in the light of Trump and co's war on Muslims, blacks and gays, and a monster movie in which the monster isn't the Other, it's right-wing, gung-ho America, represented here by Michael Shannon, as a psychotic vet in a teal Cadillac who'll beat the living shit out of anything that doesn't conform to his very specific notion of a person. The toxic machismo and vicious hatred of otherness isn't restricted to him, though, it's endemic: and hiding behind the most benign of fronts.

Shot in a rich, stylised palette of greens and browns (admittedly more City of Lost Children), set partly above an old, working cinema and filled with little visual effects – though with a creature who's delightfully and resolutely real – it reminded me of nothing as much as Amélie. That 2001 movie might be the last time I felt quite so charmed by a lead character as by Hawkins' Eliza Esposito, whose increasingly appealing, steely, sexy performance recalls that holy trinity of great mute turns: Dorothy McGuire in >The Spiral Staircase, Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown and Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, and is just as full of nobility and pathos; just as lacking in gimmickry.

There's nice work too from Richard Jenkins, who is frequently held hostage in underwhelming comedies, but showed in Tom McCarthy's 2007 masterpiece, The Visitor that he's just about the best actor in America when he can be bothered. As Eliza's gay flatmate, a struggling, alcoholic advertising artist, he's never self-pitying or trite, and those traits no more define who he is than the fact he's bald.

The plot is fine: diverting, involving and well-balanced between moments of intrigue, suspense and humour, but it's the passages of poetry that completely bewitched me, including one sequence in a waterlogged bathroom that took the breath away.

There's another beguiling flight of fancy that memorably references Fred and Ginger's 'Let's Face the Music and Dance', and music is critical to this film: Hawkins and Jenkins engage in an impromptu tap, Alexandre Desplat equips her with the most enchanting theme, and del Toro exhibits his great love for – and understanding of – classic Hollywood by including several clips from old Fox musicals, including Bojangles and Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel and colour clips of Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda rendered in the monochrome of '60s tube TV. Realising that I was in a cinema in which a modern audience was being forced to watch old footage of Alice Faye, and listen to a short monologue discoursing on her ill-fad career was just the most delightful thing.

So… a sci-fi, a horror, a monster movie, a romance, a Cold War thriller, and a history lesson about Alice Faye: this genre-bender is many things, but above all it's an emotional experience, a clear-sighted, glowing-hearted picture with some of the most beautiful imagery and a performance I'm going to be rhapsodising about for weeks, months, years.

Del Toro, his producers, and Richard Jenkins. Sally Hawkins got ill. ***

Thanks for reading.

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