Maybe I wasn’t adventurous enough. But the way the LFF advertises its slate of films, it’s too tempting not to be. See, there’s an ‘official competition’, but unlike major film festivals like Cannes or Venice, the most hotly anticipated offerings aren’t in it, for the most part— London likes its red carpet ‘galas’ and ‘special presentations’, events with sponsorship or clout behind them, and this is where, not by coincidence, you’ll find my favourite 4 films of the festival. The Mayor of London, to his credit, threw his weight behind the very best film I’ve seen this year, Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s bittersweet ‘80s romance between two young American men in Italy. But I don’t want to jump the gun before I have the necessary column inches to do it any kind of justice, so I’ll move on.
Winter Brothers was one of those rare ventures into the unknown that pays off in spades, both for me and the film’s director, Icelandic ‘visual artist and filmmaker’ H. Pálmason, making his feature debut. It’s about two brothers in a remote mining colony, one of whom, Emil, doesn’t fit in, and spends his off-hours making moonshine from industrial chemicals to sell to his co-workers, practicing army drills with a WWII rifle that he bartered off someone, amusing only himself with magic tricks— there’s a lot more mood than plot, although the growing enmity and alienation between Emil and the rest is affecting. Just not nearly as affecting as the literally ground-breaking 16mm cinematography, an old format doing new tricks with white snow, chalky rock, head torches in the dark; it’s a plausible yet mistily timeless milieu that feels as strange as the best science fiction, with a painterly attention to faces smeared with mud, debris, suspicion, and frustration.
More painterly production design, as you might expect, from Guillermo Del Toro’s Cold War creature feature, The Shape of Water, about Elisa, a mute janitor in an experimental military facility who develops a special bond with the latest test subject, a more-charming creature from the Black Lagoon. Del Toro’s got a very clear template by now— monologic framing device with teasing opening shot, human monster versus monstrous human villain, naive protagonist comes into their own, etc. Nevertheless, it’s being heralded as his best work, and I partly agree, at least to the extent that it’s his best script in the English language, and although the cast are all playing types that they excel at, part of the pleasure of a Del Toro film is seeing types and tropes imbued with a new depth of feeling. Richard Jenkins inhabits his best supporting role yet, playing Elisa’s gay neighbour, a recently let go advertising artist who was ‘either born too early or too late’, staring down a future and regretting a past that have no room for him. Major awards are to be expected, not least because Del Toro has never before expressed the debt his romantic classicism owes to vintage Hollywood so explicitly.
Next to such a full and sweeping vision, Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone risks being forgettable, because it’s not much more than a series of long conversations shot by an extremely reserved cameraperson. That’s to be celebrated. You know, not enough films get the credit they deserve for being forgettable; in this case certain details have melted, like chocolate, in the mouth, but I know the flavour. I also know that this is, in its own diaphanous way, a self-lacerating breakup movie about the director’s real-life relationship with the film’s lead actress, with the details of the heroine’s recent past revealed so steadily that this autobiographical element only becomes apparent in the metafictional third act. Some scenes suffer from the fact that it’s difficult to understand people being drunk in a foreign language, but there’s also a few surreal moments involving a ubiquitous man in a woolen hat; the disorientation leads, ultimately, to some kind of shared cathartic pleasure.
If there’s one film I’d recommend most heartily to you, dear The Geek Show reader, it’s Bad Genius, a political heist thriller about rich Thai kids paying a couple of cash-strapped young scholars to help them cheat on exams. Trust me on this! It has the flair of classic Hong Kong action cinema and Edgar Wright’s eye for the dramatic intensity of otherwise comically mundane moments. It burns with anger at the ways that capital corrupts the education system, and the excess heat from that fire is converted into raw, white-knuckle excitement at the sharpening of a pencil, the turning over of a sheet of paper. The ending is clearly toned-down to avoid a backlash, but not enough that it isn’t blindingly obvious what the director meant to say.
Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel returns after a long absence with her adaptation of the novel Zama, about the eponymous Spanish officer consigned to a South American colony and slowly losing his marbles. Were it not for its enervating, deadpan sensibility, ill-suiting such a feverish and amusingly self-centered hero, I might not have become so impatient at what it was trying to say. It’s yet another film that consigns an indigenous population to the background while making the foreground colonists merely look silly, which feels like an increasingly inadequate foundation for critique. The latter half transplants Zama to the jungle for a Herzog-style exploration of the dense indifference of the cosmic wilderness, but a little too late for such second-hand existentialism to be worth it; those questions hardly feel pressing in this context, anyway. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t tell you to look out for a certain llama, rightly praised in all quarters as the year’s best cameo.
More deadpan, characteristically, from Yorgos Lanthimos’ new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, based (as the title suggests) on the myth of Iphigenia. Greek tragedy is much more suited to his sensibility than The Lobster’s social satire was, and Lanthimos, with the help of Barry Keoghan’s creepy turn, manages to summon up the appropriate sense of savage, indecipherable, all-consuming retribution for trespasses that mere mortals are doomed to commit. Colin Farrell is on Lanthimos’ wavelength again as the cardiovascular surgeon forced to kill one of his own children in order to lift the curse inflicted on him after the death of a patient. But it’s Nicole Kidman who is best suited to the material, modelling the most Kidman-esque tableau ever seen: suburban flowerbed at night, serenely accoutred, impeccable makeup, watering the rosebush. Greek tragedy is about more than misery and cruelty, though, and I wish Lanthimos could administer a stronger dose of festive, Dionysian energy as an antidote to his cold Apollonian vision.
Claire Denis, no stranger to oblique adaptations of literature, claims to have made a comedy out of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read it, but I do know that Juliette Binoche being exasperated at the uselessness of all the men in her life and crying herself to sleep every night is a pure, good thing. Aside from that, maybe I’m too much of a useless, insensitive man to connect with Denis’ rather brief, slight and claustrophobic attempts at screwball.
The Florida Project, on the other hand, would be very difficult not to connect with, tapping into that poignant Dickensian vein of depictions of childhood hardship— in this case, a group of Florida children living in an extended-stay motel in the shadow of Disney World. As with his previous, Tangerine, Sean Baker explores his setting with a combination of journalistic responsibility and artful attention to detail, without compromising his subjects’ huge imaginations or their defiant, mimetic senses of humour. Yet again, he has discovered an unimpeachable cast of ‘non-professional’ actors, which is to say, he has found great actors in places where other directors wouldn’t have thought to look, in order to tell stories that other directors wouldn’t have thought to tell. It’s not that they’re more ‘authentic’, just that they’re the best people for these roles in this unique location. It’s no different to the ‘professionals’ he casts— after all, who else would have given Willem Dafoe, often consigned to the villain’s table, this career-best role of a put-upon, tirelessly self-sacrificing motel manager?
Thelma sees Joachim Trier delve into supernatural horror for the first time in order to solve a very real mystery: how and from where do young people inherit hatred, repression and self-loathing? The eponymous university fresher, from a rural, staunchly Protestant part of Norway, is having her lesbian awakening in the big city. Except she’s also waking up to the fact that her epileptic fits seem to telekinetically influence the world around her, and that this might somehow be linked with her long-buried family history. From the opening shot of a father-daughter hunting trip, walking over a frozen lake under which the girl notices fish still swimming, when the father momentarily turns his rifle not on the nearby deer but on the girl… Trier interrogates religion’s twisted obsession with what lies ‘deep down’ in the human heart, contrasting it with the plain legitimacy of this young woman’s surface needs and desires, her attempts at unfiltered self-discovery. It’s not an indiscriminate atheist screed, though; its power lies ultimately in its wondrously redeemed sense of what it means for Thelma to have faith.
A couple disappointments from that same day, though: Alexander Payne, usually a reliable teller of stories about likeable dopes, has really screwed up with Downsizing, a high-concept movie about people who shrink themselves to counteract climate change. First of all, overpopulation is a myth; second, if the film hadn’t entirely forgotten its own concept in the first 30 minutes, it might have gotten around to saying… at least something. The older members of the audience seemed to get a lot of laughs out of how some of the people were normal-sized and some were little, though, so what do I know?
More genuinely ambitious was You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay’s next arthouse thriller. Joaquin Phoenix portrays shuddering, violent PTSD as well as he always does, but I’ve seen it before in films that didn’t distract from it so often by choppily interspersing his most stressful moments with enigmatic recurring flashbacks— what echoes of a tormented past does one need, beyond those implied by every fibre of Phoenix’s living being? In trying to be more mysterious, more elliptical, more ‘art’, the editing betrays a lack of confidence and commitment, which is a shame. Or maybe, since the best scenes are so tender, strange and drawn out, the rushed formal impositions that disfigure the rest of the work suggest nothing more than the banal reality that Ramsay was working to an unusually tight deadline, without much money to spend.
I hadn’t seen any documentaries yet, so I decided to make up for it in the biggest way possible: Ex Libris. It’s a 3 hour, 17 minute documentary about the New York Public Library by Frederick Wiseman, from whom such a thing is not at all unprecedented. As my first experience with the director, though, I loved it: it’s a simple sequence of scenes, all of which are introduced and concluded in a wholly satisfying manner. There’s no phoney bibliomania, no crap about how wonderful it is to smell an old book; it’s all very pragmatic, down to the handing out of portable wi-fi hotspots to those that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them. In fact, there’s hardly any shots of people reading books or opening books… instead, it’s scenes of people talking about lives and ideas and especially race, culture, capital, and labour; people negotiating their relationships with each other, their institutions and the history of their city via conversation, with no less thrilling insights into the beating heart of a society than The Wire offered in its day.
So, after that London Calling reference in the previous paragraph, it’s finally time for London hanging up. The Closing Gala for the festival was Martin McDonagh’s (of In Bruges fame) much-hyped Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He’s just as tuned-in to the rhythms of the best American pulp dialogue as ever, just as able to mix that with his signature sardonic-yet-compassionate spiritual yearning… but as in his previous film, Seven Psychopaths, he’s a stranger to American life. Frances McDormand brings as much as anyone could to the central role, a woman on a quiet, passive-aggressive warpath after the murder of her daughter remains unsolved by local police. But the film is beset with technical issues, from out-of-focus camera to a dreadful ‘moment’ with a CGI deer, that are reflected in the narrative: blurry on the authentic details of rural small towns, artificially substituting for a lack of organic drama.