As told to

Anton Bitel

Programmers Picks from the 2016 BFI London Film Festival

Need help navigating the massive LFF line-up? Here are 10 more left-field gems for you to seek out.

Running 5-16 October at numerous venues across the capital, the 60th edition of the BFI London Film Festival promises to showcase literally hundreds of features. So here, in what has become a fruitful annual ritual, we call upon some of the festival’s programmers to pick out one title each – all films that, though perhaps easily lost in this sweeping cine-copia, are well worth discovering.

1. Have You Seen My Movie?

Recommended by Clare Stewart, Festival Director

The act of going to the cinema is exquisitely dissected in Have You Seen My Movie?, Paul Anton Smith’s compulsively brilliant artist film which has its world premiere at BFI London Film Festival. Imagine this: every film you have ever seen, and likely some you haven’t, that features a scene where its protagonists go to the movies. Smith takes these moments and assembles a mind-boggling compendium, illuminating a filmmaking conspiracy of intonations, phrases, quips and articulations, and in doing so, he reveals some kind of secret cinematic language, as thrilling as it is seductive. Having worked with Christian Marclay as assistant editor on The Clock, as well as lead Animator on Marclay’s Surround Sounds and, most recently, Six New Animations, Smith’s first feature project as director announces him as an extraordinary talent with an exacting and passionate approach to his subject matter.

Have You Seen My Movie? is a romantic, lurid, terrifying, joyous cacophony. It’s also addictive, and for all readers of Little White Lies, part of the film’s seductive appeal is its clarion call to movie lovers: prove your cinephilic credentials by identifying the referenced films, decide what you need to see again and hunt out those mysterious unknowns. Whatever it prompts you to do, one thing is essential, go see it in the cinema. Buy tickets

2. Daughters of the Dust

Recommended by Peter Hames

This restored version of Julie Dash’s 1991 film provides a long overdue opportunity to re-experience one of the classics of Black American cinema. It made history as the first film by an African American woman to get national distribution in the United States. Set on a sea island off the coast of South Carolina at the turn of the century, it records the interactions of a family whose younger members are preparing to move to the mainland. Dash said that her film was aimed firstly at Black American women, second at the black community, and thirdly at white women. Yet its visual power and perception makes it a film for everyone.

Based on her own experience, family memories, and careful research, Dash establishes a past world whose customs and mythologies are still linked to the present. Possessing more in common with Black African cinema than the stereotypes of Hollywood, its strong visual qualities and unorthodox narrative nonetheless connected with a wide audience. Filmed at the same time as Toni Morrison was writing Beloved, this is as much a film landmark as that was a literary one. Buy tickets

3. White Colour Black

Recommended by Jemma Desai

If the apparent collective ambivalence towards the unknown and un-traversed in contemporary global politics is leaving you cold this year, take a dip into the LFF programme and you might just find the different perspectives you crave. From a restoration of Daughters of the Dust (a key influence for Beyoncé’s Lemonade) to Barry Jenkin’s masterpiece on male emergence Moonlight this is a particularly hard year to pick a highlight. But something that might not have popped up on your cinephile radars is the world premiere of White Colour Black, a striking British debut brimming with British, POC talent.

“Where are you from? No, but where are you really from..?” Being non-white and growing up in largely white environment, that question crops up at an alarming rate at social gatherings. Joseph a. Adesunloye’s debut feature deftly challenges the assumption of the kind of neat duality to migrant identity that the question assumes, with an exquisitely photographed and nuanced drama about a young mixed heritage man living in London. Not to be missed. Buy tickets

4. Callback

Recommended by Michael Blyth

Every now and then a screen psycho comes along who really gets under your skin. Think of handsome chauffeur-cum-paranoid vigilante Travis Bickle, a weirdo as morally abhorrent as he is strangely charming. Or how about Henry (of John McNaughton’s incendiary debut) an insane everyman who feels too dangerously real to be easily dismissed as a mere work of fiction. Well, it’s time to add a new name to the distinguished list of most fascinating movie madmen: Larry De Cecco, in Carles Torras’ Callback. Like the best cinematic sociopaths, Larry is an anti-hero you can’t help but fall for. He’s clearly unhinged, yet oddly relatable, a human car crash you are powerless to look away from. It’s not what Larry does, so much as how he does it, and thanks to an excruciatingly squirm-inducing performance from the astonishing Martin Bacigalupo in the lead role, this slyly droll exercise in discomfort is as perversely enjoyable as it is horrifically upsetting. The perfect combo if you ask me. Buy tickets

5. Scarred Hearts

Recommended by Edward Lawrenson

It’s the mid 1930s and into a reputable sanatorium by the Black Sea is admitted Emanuel, a young Jewish student with aspirations to write suffering from bone tuberculosis. The condition is serious, and his sympathetic but no nonsense doctors drain his abscess (not for the faint-hearted) and entomb him in a cast that requires him to lay horizontal for months.

So begins Romanian director Radu Jude’s engrossing and boldly told chronicle of Emanuel’s life in the sanatorium, loosely based on the writings of Max Blecher. This blackly comic drama is a masterly exercise in formal restraint: most of Jude’s characters are flat out on beds (zipped about by boisterous medical porters), framed by a static camera and within the squarish bounds of an Academy aspect ratio. But as Emanuel (a superb performance from Lucian Rus) falls in love with a former patient, argues over Europe’s troubled politics with his fellow bed companions (and drinking buddies), and surrenders to melancholy revery through his reading and writing, this study of a man laid low by chronic illness pulsates with life and glows with boundless admiration for his flinty perseverance. Buy tickets

6. The Reunion

Recommended by Maria Delgado

Jonás Trueba has often been written about in relation to his father’s body of work – both are filmmakers associated with Madrid, its foibles and landscape. Fernando is perhaps best known for the wry romantic comedy Belle Epoque which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994, acknowledging Billy Wilder as a key influence. Jonás’ reference points lie closer to home. The Wishful Thinkers, shot in a seductive black and white, evoked something of the French New Wave in its homage to filmmaking in a time of austerity while The Romantic Exiles reinvented the Francophone road movie as its trio of dreamers to Paris in search of lost loves.

The Reunion (Las Reconquista) has a whisper of Rohmer in its ambling tale of two childhood sweethearts meeting again on a cold, wintry Madrid evening after many years apart, but it offers a shift of tone from his earlier three films. There is something open and inviting in the way Trueba’s camera invites us to join Olmo (played by Trueba regular Francesco Carril) and Manuela (Itsaso Arana) on their nocturnal odyssey through the city – an odyssey that feels fresh, intimate and spontaneous. The Reunion is a breakout film for Jonás Trueba – a grown up romance for our global times handled with wit, tenderness and originality. Buy tickets

7. Lovesong

Recommended by Tricia Tuttle

So Yong Kim follows up For Ellen and Treeless Mountain with another exquisite minimalist observation – this time of an inarticulate romantic friendship between two women. In a lesser director’s hands this might have been coy, or inhibited, but Kim’s film offers tremendous intimacy, registering every moment of joy or uncertainty on her characters’ faces.

Rich with gorgeous photography, and a fine score by Denis Villeneuve regular Jóhann Jóhannsson, Lovesong’s truthfulness comes primarily from the great dual performances of Jena Malone and Riley Keough (American Honey, The Girlfriend Experience). Keough in particular is a revelation as Sarah, a young mother – often left alone by her husband – and Malone is Mindy, her free-spirited college friend. Told in two sequences, set years apart, this is a delicate exploration of the grey area between platonic and romantic. Not a film for people who want every emotion writ large or every resolution easily won, but it’s a nuanced and deeply personal one, bittersweet and ringing so true. Buy tickets

8. The Giant

Recommended by Kate Taylor

What if Harmony Korine had directed The BFG? It might look a bit like The Giant, a smashing warm-hearted romp of friendship and familial separation, mixing dark offbeat humour with a raw verité filming style and seamless forays into colossal fantasy. Of the several sports movies in the Festival this year (boxing, football and chess duke it out in multiple films), none can compare to the low-stakes field of pétanque (like boules), and there is no underdog hero quite like Rikard, a severely deformed man with autism, who is determined to become Scandinavian champion and be reunited with his estranged mother.

Filmmaker Johannes Nyholm will be known to approximately 19 million people as the director of YouTube sensation Las Palmas, in which a drunk baby trashes a bar, and for his debut feature he has held onto a keen sense of the absurd, creating something riotous and wonderful, that will satisfy adventurous audiences who like surprises. Buy tickets

9. LoveTrue

Recommended by Laure Bonville

Following her ground-breaking debut Bombay Beach and acclaimed music videos for the like of Beirut and Sigur Rós, Israeli director Alma Har’el returns with a deliciously disorienting and immersive piece of film-making, exploring our perception of love and relationships. Interlacing three young people’s life testimonies, with actors playing them at different stages in their journeys, topped with beautifully choreographed dance sequences, Ha’rel crafts a feverish, dreamlike and sensuous universe.

We meet a young Alaskan stripper, a Hawaiian surfer discovering he’s not the biological father of his son, and a young woman in NYC pondering over faith and family bonds. Where does real life end and fantasy begin? This is for you to decide. Visually glorious and adorned with an hypnotic soundtrack by Flying Lotus, this genre-blurring doc was the deserved winner of the Best International documentary Prize at the this year’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Buy tickets

10. Dawson City: Frozen Time

Recommended by Helen de Witt

One of the most remarkable films ever made about the history of cinema, or rather, from the history of cinema. This is neither fiction nor documentary; it is a new film made from the very material of the movies of the past. Found footage doesn’t begin to cover it!

Nearly 40 years ago, around 400 films were found buried under an ice rink in Dawson City, Yukon, when an old sports hall was being demolished. What were they and how did they get there? The story is scarcely believable. The early days of Hollywood coincided with the Yukon Gold Rush, and the studios sent movies up to the frozen wastes to entertain the gold prospectors. Movie-going became as much a part of Klondike life as prostitution and gambling. Thing was, as the Yukon was so far away it was the end of the distribution line for films that were seen to have exhausted their commercial value. The studios saw no point in paying for them to be returned to Los Angeles so they were just left there festering in an old library, eventually being used as landfill to level an ice rink built over an old swimming pool.

Bill Morison, best known for his exquisite reworking of decomposing film material in Decasia, was clearly the man to call. He sorted through miles of film and edited the footage to create a completely new picture of pre-censorship Hollywood production, full of vamps and villains, and at the same time constructed a picture of early 20th-century America, ripe with sports scandals and fears of reds under the beds following the Russian Revolution. So if you what to hear stories of emerging modern America (some quite hair-curling) and see early cinema that was either completely unknown or thought lost forever, you don’t have to travel to the arctic wastes to do so – just pop along to Dawson City: Frozen Time. Buy tickets

Check out the full LFF programme at bfi.org.uk/lff

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