LFF has been and gone.
With equal opportunity helpings of Hollywood, world cinema and overseas festival favourites, the BFI London Film Festival has always struck a welcome balance between the arthouse and multiplex. This year was certainly no exception. After experiencing the better part of a two-week period jam-packed with UK premieres (that ranged from crowd-pleasing to the outright antagonising), it proves difficult as ever to pare down the highlights.
We’re gonna try anyway, though. Here’s our top five.
You Were Never Really Here
Melding the spare understatement of Morvern Callar with the aggressive stylistic flourishes of We Need To Talk About Kevin, what ought to have been Lynne Ramsey’s most straightforward genre exercise emerges instead as one of her most fiercely distinct. Trimming a straightforward chase thriller into a fractured haze, minimalism is the name of the game here. As the ever-committed Joaquin Phoenix follows the trail of a kidnapped girl, Ramsey (with a tack-sharp assist from editor Joe Bini) strips plot exposition, action and character to their most microscopically sparse. The flash of a single image or hushed whisper will account for pages worth of plot and backstory, while action is often eschewed in favour of it’s aftermath. The deliberately incomplete result gives off the feeling of a half-remembered nightmare, as swiftly evasive as smoke. Whether or not it slips through your fingers, it’ll linger unnervingly in the mind.
The latest from Aujord’hui director Alain Gomis refuses to hold your hand. Anchored by a division into two acts – one distinctly more focused on narrative than the other – Felicite’ gradually embraces a loose, almost freeform approach that excises whatever skeleton of a narrative may have been in place. By and large, this tale of a fiercely struggling single mother and singer living in Kinshasa comes to benefit from it’s unhurried, languid telling. Gomis is largely content with simply letting his camera live within the locale. The result is a portrait of the Congolese capital so tangible that one is taken aback to discover Gomis is a relative stranger to it. Still, harsh realism isn’t the only thing on Gomis’ agenda; the bustle of daily life is smoothly juxtaposed with our protagonist’s dreamy, ethereal nighttime getaways to the jungle. Grounding it all is newcomer Vero Tshanda Bero, who lends Felicite’ a steely, forlorn grace.
Over the course of it’s fleet 88-minute running time, this delicate, unassuming character piece ably and proudly carries the weight of late star Harry Dean Stanton’s life and career on it’s back. What’s most impressive is how it largely channels such weight into a series of gentle small-town vignettes, as the local loner Lucky reckons with such weighty matters as mortality, memory and Liberace through quiet conversation. Debuting director John Carroll Lynch and screenwriter Logan Sparks’s palpable affection for Stanton and the rich ensemble of character actors (ranging from Ed Begley Jr’s sardonic doctor to David Lynch, in an oddly sensitive and sincere turn as a man mourning his tortoise’s newfound absence) shines throughout. Standing tall is Stanton himself; in only the second lead of his long career, the actor tempers his craggy charisma with the suggestion that Lucky still has plenty to learn at this late stage of his life.
As eerily precise and assured as debuts come, this black comedy from playwright Corey Finley is taut, tart-tongued and terrifically auspicious. This is in no small part due to leads Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke, who render the conspiratorial friendship at the film’s centre in fascinatingly malleable strokes. Taylor-Joy’s entwined fear and fascination perfectly compliment Cooke’s witheringly lackadaisical deadpan, and the results make their two-hander highly watchable throughout. Finley’s no slouch either, evading the sense of staginess that may have come of a lesser director adapting their play to screen, courtesy of a succession of rich imagery and the jangly, atonal scoring of Erik Friedlander, Thoroughbreds feels constantly alert – and it is also notable for the scene-stealing final turn of the late Anton Yelchin, injecting a welcome dose of barely contained mania.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s vivid, hyperkinetic Tangerine follow-up is defined by the decidedly unharmonious co-existence of wholly disparate elements, namely childhood innocence with harshly unforgiving living conditions. In accordance with this, the Magic Castle motel is just as clearly a dump of the lowest order as it is a candy-coloured theme park chock-a-block with possibilities. Our avenues into this world are the equally abrasive mother-daughter team of Halley and Moonee. This pair is played with fierce, unfettered energy and naturalism by newcomers Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince, who are ably balanced by Willem Defoe’s exasperated motel manager. This supernaturally patient paternal figure’s careworn compassion could easily be Baker’s own – after all, the (gorgeously saturated) eyes through which he and we view The Magic Castle are both crystal clear and entirely lacking in judgement, or condescension. Consequently, The Florida Project thus achieves a graceful balance of deepest empathy and unsparing honesty.
Words by Thomas Messner