Away from the showpiece gala screenings, these are the films worth seeking out at this year’s LFF.
These days everyone’s a critic, but not all critics are the same. The BFI London Film Festival programmers, for example, certainly have firm, well grounded views on cinema rooted in broad viewing experience and advisory expertise, but their particular criteria also offer insights not just on the films themselves, but on the Festival’s principles of selection. Best of all, they are in the privileged position of having (collectively) seen the full programme, unlike the rest of us. LWLies is grateful to the 13 programmers who have contributed these recommendations.
There is something profoundly disarming about this debut feature from Michel Franco’s regular producer David Zonana. On surface level, it begins as a social realist drama looking at the aftermath of a construction site accident that deprives plasterer Francisco (or ‘Pacheco’ as he is known) of his brother Claudio. Frustrated in his attempts to get proper compensation from his employers for the negligence that resulted in his sibling’s death, he opts for a left-field strategy that shifts the narrative (and indeed the film) in a sharply different direction. The parable that ensues – a study of greed, class and social inequalities – proves an unnerving contemplation of humanity’s darker side imbued with a sly Buñuelian moral ambiguity that recalls Los Olvidados.
A shout out also for Lucio Castro’s Argentine debut End of the Century – a queer love story with a difference that had me longing to watch it all over again as soon as the credits had rolled. Maria Delgado
Arguably the finest feature so far by Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz, this was, for me, one of the highlights of this year’s Cannes film festival, and certainly the most emotionally affecting movie I saw there. About two sisters – extremely close despite their very different personalities – who dream of escaping the strait-laced world of 1950s Rio but are suddenly separated by a combination of fate and family prejudice, the film proceeds in stages by chronicling the letters they send one another. By a cruel twist, their updating messages go unread and unanswered, so that the siblings remain wholly unaware that they are still, unexpectedly, living in the same city.
Though the story (adapted from a novel by Martha Batalha) has the potential for lurid melodrama, Aïnouz wisely opts for subtle irony and nuance, ensuring that it all remains both credible and utterly engrossing. A celebration of sisterly loyalties in a profoundly patriarchal society, it grips from spirited beginning to deeply moving end. Geoff Andrew
Screening as the Treasures from the Archive restoration in the Experimenta strand is Maria Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki’s Unheimlich II: Astarti, made in 1980. The name is derived from the German word for ‘uncanny’ (as used by Freud), and the Greek name for the goddess Ishtar, the ancient Mesopotamian deity associated with love, beauty, desire, war, justice and political power. It is an exquisite mytho-poetic film that is a re-enactment of ancient female archetypes as an investigation into the meaning of ethics and relationships, taking us into a trance-like journey in the hypnotic depths of where creation began.
If you know the films of Maya Deren you will have an idea of the experience. As we are all facing an uncertain future, a meditation on the meanings of the feminine and a rethinking of ethical relationships could not be more prescient. The film itself has been painstakingly restored by the CNC in Paris from the original Super 8 film into dazzling 2K digital – a kind of rebirth in itself. Helen de Witt
Coup 53 is a gripping investigation into ‘Operation Ajax’ – the CIA/MI6 led coup that overthrew Iran’s democratic Prime Minister Mossadegh, crucially ending his most significant policy: the nationalisation of Iranian oil. Anyone with an interest in contemporary politics and the shape of the world today should see this film. For those of us who know the story of this pivotal political event all too well, the film packs an emotional punch – for, though the Coup isn’t an unknown story, it has fallen victim to the colonial amnesia at which Britain in particular excels.
Working alongside veteran editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient), award-winning documentarian Taghi Amirani has spent a decade relentlessly challenging the secrecy shrouding the events of August 1953. Masterful storytelling makes this a taut and thrilling watch, but the delicate nature of documentary ethics are also addressed, raising questions not just of power, but of who gets to tell the stories that become known as ‘history’. Elhum Shakerifar
Benni is a so-called “system crasher” who exasperates Germany’s child and welfare system. She dreams of nothing more than being reunited with her overstrained mother, but instead is tossed from one foster home to the next because of her violent behaviour. The striking performance of nine-year-old Helena Zengel is mind-blowing, her aggression, vulnerability and determination painfully real. This is pink power punk of rare emotional intensity alternating between anger, sadness and hope.
System Crasher has just been voted Germany´s Oscar entry, making its writer/director Nora Fingscheidt a (well-deserved) surprise star. Her deeply moving portrait of the vulnerability of childhood challenges conventional attitudes towards innocence and systems of support, as she courageously tackles this topic with a captivating narrative, shining a neon light on a universal topic. Juliane Grieb
Rodney Ascher’s airtight VHS [sic] essay about executioner-hooded Seattle hellion El Duce is arguably an even greater achievement than his cult Kubrick documentary Room 237, since most people are familiar with The Shining whereas The El Duce Tapes somehow makes relevant to 2019 a forlorn provocateur who was marginal by even the sub-subcultural standards of the pre-Nirvana punk/metal underground.
You don’t need prior knowledge: Ascher and co-director David Lawrence provide musical context through concise captions. Their primary visual source is the astonishing video archive amassed by daytime soap actor Ryan Sexton, who spent much of 1990/91 filming the singer born Eldon Hoke plus his oddball group The Mentors. A bookish bassist says that they began as jazz-fusion nerds but then devolved as a “conscious sell-out” to capitalise on white male teenagers’ misogyny, racism and homophobia. The band’s dancer references NWA and you believe her; El Duce’s poker-faced artistic pose sort of demands a spot of inflammatory rhetoric.
Sounds odd, I know, but instead of being offended you feel sadly nostalgic for a pre-social media age when such trolling could still be deployed as a (dubious) subversive strategy to bait conservative hypocrites, rather than fuel for actual bigots. Back then, the consequences of playing with ‘shock rock’ fire didn’t stretch further than an episode of Jerry Springer, alongside cuddly toilet metal heroes GWAR. A portrait that smartly never pleads its subject’s case, intriguingly complicated by the way that alcoholism blurs the line between a calculated masked persona and a tragic personality that just won’t come off. Manish Agarwal
Following his award winning debut at Cannes with Closeness in 2017, Kantemir Balagov’s second feature confirms him as one of the most distinctive of the young Russian film directors. Inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s book The Unwomanly Face of War – which comprises interviews with female survivors of World War Two – he focuses on the intense relationship, conveyed with unusual depth and conviction, between traumatised Iya and her friend Masha in the aftermath of the siege of Leningrad.
Balagov’s objective was to show ‘the consequences of war in their faces and eyes’. A former student of Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark), his striking reconstruction of post-war Leningrad and its psychological aura makes powerful use of colour with evocative and painterly compositions. Peter Hames
When was the last time you got the perspective of a jinn on changes in the United Arab Emirates? Well, the ancient and wise Mother of Fire (Um Al Naar) should know. Summoned by the producers of a reality TV documentary, she is confessional and chatty, with the potential to run her own spin-off, ‘House-jinns of Ras Al Khaimah’. Horribly averse to change, she does however have some reasonable longstanding issues with exorcists and colonialism, the latter from centuries of European meddling along the silk route.
Artist Farah Al Qasimi’s playful medium-length film is more than just entertaining, it’s about the ways that the UAE understands, presents and preserves its own histories and culture. How might the misunderstood jinn and the notion of haunting resonate with contemporary concerns about spirituality, women’s politics and cultural identity? Sarah Perks
This is a surprising and deeply strange documentary – in a brilliant way. At its heart is the relationship between Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent and the delicate ecosystem Pierre rigorously maintains to allow Yves to flourish. Director Olivier Meyrou constructed this from years of observational footage he began shooting in the 90s, but then put on hold due to a legal limbo.
So much more than a straightforward fashion doc, it feels like the inspiration for the peculiarity and twisted power dynamics of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Experimental sound design by François-Eudes Chanfrault creates compelling dissonance, as models glide elegantly through the corridors of the YSL fashion house, enveloped in an unnerving whispering soundtrack. Meyrou has described how the score was an attempt to recreate the atmosphere they felt during shooting and the film embodies that force. Defying biopic conventions, this unfolds hypnotically through mood and tensions. Sophie Brown.
Atmospherically shot on 16mm film, this is an intimate account of love and friendship in a complex, contradictory world. We follow a group of young people as they come of age, moving from a sweltering, carefree summer to an unforgiving winter in the tiny post-Soviet breakaway republic of Transnistria. Most people would struggle to find this country on a map – a narrow strip of land lying between Moldova and Ukraine that has a total population of only 555,000 and still has the hammer and sickle on its national flag.
What’s so special and engaging about Anna Eborn’s film is the way she shows us that however remote and exotic the location, teenagers have much the same concerns the world over – love, identity, hopes and dreams. At a time when global politics seems preoccupied with stressing national differences, this film succeeds in putting our common humanity into beautiful focus. Christine Bardsley
Fyzal Boulifa is refreshingly unflinching in depicting complex working class characters in his striking debut feature. Where traditional British social realist cinema can sometimes lean too hard into didacticism, presenting blameless and two-dimensionally angelic characters, Boulifa instead presents a set of fully fledged human beings who are both deeply sympathetic victims of circumstance and capable of immense cruelty and ignorance.
Set on a nameless estate where young mothers Lynn (Roxanne Scrimshaw) and Lucy (Nichola Burley) have been friends their whole lives, a tragedy sets in motion a series of events that severely tests their bond, bringing out fears and resentments in the community around them. This arresting and beautifully performed film, elegantly shot in 4:3 academy ratio, manages the trick of transcending its kitchen sink aesthetic and slice-of-life scenario to deliver something akin to a modern morality play.
Without easy answers or resolutions, the film presents the thorniest of ‘what if?’ scenarios, confronting us with a taut thriller of bad choices, misunderstandings and escalating social unrest. It is truly exciting to see Boulifa join the ranks of British filmmakers Francis Lee, Hope Dickson Leach and Daniel Kokotajlo, who with skill and sensitivity have managed to expand upon and transcend tired British film genres and tropes. Paul Ridd
Talky, sharp and shameless – I recommend Heart for those who dig their low-budget cinema slow, slight, and as likely to alienate as delight. While debates may rage about millennial women and representations of abjection, South Korean writer-director Jeong Ga-young is busy creating her own one-woman genre (homewrecking mumblecore? K-squirm?).
Following Bitch on the Beach and Hit the Night, this is the third film in which she stars as the aspiring filmmaker most likely to steal your boyfriend for kicks. In Heart, her character is in a pensive mood, keen to drunkenly kick back with a married ex-paramour to reminisce on their fling in the hope he’ll give her advice on her latest romantic obsession. But is she there to shock? To seduce? Or to get at something deeper? Join me, fellow connoisseurs of cringe, in making Jeong’s cinema your next infatuation. Kate Taylor
The Traitor is a gangster film – a Sicilian mafia epic, no less – but surprisingly one from venerated and venerable Italian maestro Marco Bellocchio whose work is typically far from the tropes of genre filmmaking.
On the one hand Bellocchio dramatises, in biopic fashion, the globetrotting true story of mob boss Tommaso Buscetta who became the first ever senior Camorra member to turn government informer. This is replete with all the pleasures of the genre at its best: handsomely mounted, dramatic, often violent action, intense Machiavellian plot shifts and grotesque, compelling characters. But – and it’s a big but – Bellocchio’s vision, in what may be his most ambitious film, is to use all this as a basis to also render an unforgettable, complex portrait of contemporary Italian social history with bravura, insightful filmmaking. Unmissable. Adrian Wootton
The 63rd LFF runs 2-13 October. For full programme info head to bfi.org.uk/lff
Published 26 Sep 2019
Céline Sciamma, Marielle Heller and Athina Rachel Tsangari are all heading to the capital this October.
By Anton Bitel
Personal recommendations to seek out during the upcoming edition of the UK’s biggest film event.
The director’s upcoming crime drama is set for its international premiere on 13 October.