With a festival as large and wide-ranging as the BFI London Film Festival, it’s always hard selecting films to recommend. How is it possible to choose between an immersive, state-of-the-digital-art space thriller like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, a partly experimental, profoundly personal foray into documentary remembrance like Rithy Pahn’s The Missing Picture, a lovingly restored classic like Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai or an out-and-out big-topics art movie like Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915?
The answer, of course, is that it’s not really possible to do that, so in the list of recommendations below, you’ll find I mostly haven’t made preferential choices: with just a few exceptions, which are my own personal favourites of all the films in the Festival I’ve already seen, the titles are listed alphabetically. That I felt like recommending so many films suggests to me that it’s a very strong line-up overall, as does the fact that there are so many other titles I’m yet to catch but very keen to see, including work by the likes of Stephen Frears, Joanna Hogg, Catherine Breillat, Jonathan Glazer, Terry Gilliam, Nicole Holofcener and Frederick Wiseman.
But I’ll stick here to the films I already know. There are others I could easily have listed – Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour, for example, or Luca Guadagnino’s Bertolucci on Bertolucci or Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Grigris – but I decided to limit myself to an already generous total of 25 movies, and in the end I had to make some tough choices, difficult to explain in a few brief words here.
I also wanted to make suggestions that were wide-ranging in terms of where the films were made, their subject matter and their styles. I may have lent a little heavily towards French and American cinema, but that’s simply a reflection of what I happen to have seen and liked this year. Besides, this is not about box ticking; I’m recommending these movies because I got a lot out of watching them, and I hope and imagine many others will too.
New fiction features
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, USA)
The Coens’ characteristically quirky, witty and thought-provoking take on the beat and boho folk scene in New York at the start of the 60s is one of the films of the year. Good-looking, beautifully acted, and boasting the kind of naturalistic but vibrantly colourful dialogue only the Coens now seem able to pull off, it’s a film I want to watch again as soon as the closing credits start rolling.
Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)
An acknowledged highlight of Cannes – where it was frequently asked why it wasn’t in the main competition – this is Guiraudie’s finest film since the Godard-acclaimed Real Cool Time (2001). Set entirely at a lake in Provence used mainly by cruising gay men, the film creates a mesmerising world of its own. Droll comedy, taut suspense and gay erotica combine with a strong underlying sense of myth and other strange, barely explicable forces. Quietly but dazzlingly assured.
Child’s Pose (Călin Peter Netzer, Romania)
The Golden Bear-winner at this year’s Berlinale is another of those supremely gripping blends of dark, realist domestic drama and subtle socio-political comment which Romania has been giving us regularly since The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005). It’s a chilling portrait of high-level corruption and maternal love, as an architect tries to protect her son, who’s suspected of killing a child by reckless driving. It grips like a vice from start to finish, gaining in emotional and moral complexity as it proceeds.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, USA)
Jim Jarmusch’s typically idiosyncratic contribution to the vampire-movie genre is hard to describe, so seamlessly does it bring its many seemingly disparate elements together. Suffice to say that Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Mia Wasikowska are all perfectly cast as the contemporary undead, leading a decidedly non-homicidal and unabashedly arty existence in Tangier and Detroit. Allusions, gags, music, cinephilia, poetry – the children of the night are born anew…
Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont, France)
I’ve seldom been very taken by Dumont’s work, but this is different, and not just because it centres on an extraordinarily brave and expressive performance by Juliette Binoche as the sculptor, committed by her family (including her poet brother Paul) to an asylum in Provence. Much of it is wordless and features Binoche acting alongside real-life mental patients, wherein lie its tenderness and its quiet power as it follows Camille’s attempts to regain her freedom.
And in alphabetical order:
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, USA)
An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (Danis Tanovič, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, Chile)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, USA)
Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan)
Heli (Amat Escalante, Mexico)
Lifelong (Asli Özge, Turkey)
Like Father, Like Son (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan)
Nebraska (Alexander Payne, USA)
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea)
The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, UK)
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China)
La Maison de la radio (Nicolas Philibert, France)
A day-in-the-life (virtual, since created in the editing suite) of the many channels of Radio France: as in his some of his earlier documentaries, Philibert takes us behind the scenes of an institution not only to reveal its workings and introduce us to the people who keep it ticking, but to explore and illuminate how a phenomenon we all understand and take for granted has its own language system with its own peculiar syntax and inflections. It’s characteristic, too, in rhyming the physical/material world with the metaphysical in a way that’s both touching and funny. And – perhaps ironically for a film about listening – it’s a great film about faces.
And in alphabetical order:
The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, USA)
Arguably the most underrated film directed by Nicholas Ray (better known for In a Lonely Place, 1950; Johnny Guitar, 1954; and Rebel without a Cause, 1955), this also boasts what is in my opinion Robert Mitchum’s very greatest performance; his unshowy naturalism as a ageing rodeo rider falling for a friend’s wife is even finer than his work in Out of the Past (1947) or The Night of the Hunter (1955). But then this is no ordinary Hollywood movie; it’s more concerned with how ordinary people live and what they want than with heroes and villains. The opening homecoming scene has the elegance and truthfulness of a film by Renoir, and the end… well, see for yourselves.
And in alphabetical order: