30 recommendations at the BFI London Film Festival 2017

Our critics’ top tips to the best of this year’s world cinema showcase, from the big-ticket galas (including our own special presentation) to the rarer choices with no UK distribution plans in place.

Sight & Sound Editors
Updated:

Web exclusive

Sight <span class="amp">&</span> Sound gala film Zama, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s long-awaited return with a radical period drama

Sight & Sound gala film Zama, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s long-awaited return with a radical period drama

Where to start with the perennial cornucopia of cinema that is the London Film Festival? As ever, this year’s festival spans multitudes, from many of the hottest titles just out of the gates at the Venice and Toronto festivals and teeing up for awards-season contention, or making their first UK appearance after bows at Berlin and Cannes, to the more formally challenging allsorts in Experimenta and the dozen-and-a-half revived classics and rarities showcased in the selection of Treasures (which we’ll be rounding up in a separate post). There are the competitions (main, documentary, first feature and shorts), and the thematic strands (Music this year expanding into Create), and the talks and events

And beyond the ever-tantalising Surprise film, plenty in the programme is still unknown to us, be it the opening-night world premiere of Andy Serkis’s directorial debut Breathe or the Family gala animation from the director of Ernest & Celestine (The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales), or indeed the latest from the studio behind Song of the Sea (The Breadwinner). Fear not, though: our editors and stalwart contributors have been diligent as ever in their due watching at the above festivals and more, and from their reports we’ve whittled down the following list of our 30 top picks across the range of the programme – starting with our own showcase of the long-awaited new film from Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel, a bold, strange and richly debatable work that some commentators are already terming a masterpiece…

 

The Sight & Sound special presentation

Zama

Lucrecia Martel, Argentina-Brazil-Spain-Netherlands-Mexico-Portugal-USA
Cast Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele
115 mins

The rare distinction of Lucrecia Martel’s feature films – from La Ciénaga (2001) to The Headlesss Woman (2008) – is such that one would never usually cite another director’s work in reference to hers.

Her filmic adaptation of Antonio de Benedetto’s existential 1956 novel Zama, however – an 18th-century period piece set in Paraguay – evinces a mood which, though akin to the strangeness present in the hotel of The Holy Girl (2004), is also strongly reminiscent of the feeling of disjuncture produced by Werner Herzog for The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. It’s a mood of somnolent, uncomprehending wonder, as Zama, the protagonist, a stranded official waiting for the preferment of a transfer, experiences his life as a series of events that never climax or complete. The film is a rich work of visual tapestry, of 18th century Latin American colonial life as self-mythologising fable, a haunting work that gets into your bones.

Nick James

Lucrecia Martel on location with Zama: ‘All that heroic past and brave macho stuff makes me ill’ 

 

Other special presentations and galas

Call Me By Your Name

Luca Guadagnino, Italy-France
Cast Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois
132 mins
UK release date 27 October 2017
Distributor Sony Pictures Releasing

Luca Guadagnino’s sun-kissed queer love story revels in the erotic tension of an encounter between a teenager and an older man.

Reining in the ostentatious directorial style he peddled in I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino is content here to linger by the poolside as an enraptured voyeur, revelling not only in the simmering erotic tension, but also in the meals his characters share and the bucolic landscape they inhabit… Stripped of the baggage that so often complicates and corrupts queer romance, Call Me by Your Name is allowed to flourish as an unfiltered evocation of the agony and ecstasy of first love.

— Paul O’Callaghan, reviewing from the Berlin Film Festival

Call Me By Your Name review: a ravishing evocation of romance

 

A Fantastic Woman

(Una Mujer Fantástica)

Sebastián Lelio, Chile-Germany-Spain
Cast Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes
104 mins
UK release date 2 March 2018
Distributor Curzon Artificial Eye

Sebastián Lelio’s follow up to 2013’s much admired Gloria won the Berlinale’s Best Screenplay award for its portrait of a bereaved transwoman’s struggles for due regard.

A Fantastic Woman focuses on a younger subject, Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), a sometime singer and waitress in Santiago who’s just moved in with her 57-year-old lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes). After a romantic evening, Orlando is taken ill and collapses down the stairs, injuring himself. At the hospital, Marina is told that Orlando is dead from an aneurysm, but before telling her, the doctor insists on seeing her ID card, and thereafter uses Marina’s male birth name, for she is a transsexual – you can see this coming because Vega’s face and figure are perfectly poised in comely transition.

The doctor’s slight is merely the first humiliation. The police interview and examine Marina. Orlando’s family insists she move out of the apartment within a couple of days, and return Orlando’s car, and then the dog Orlando gave her vanishes. Worst of all, she is forbidden to attend her lover’s funeral. Though the way the narrative plays out from there is similar to that of many other transgender-centred films, what distinguishes this one is the quality of script and vision. A Fantastic Woman is never less than engaging and Vega’s performance has a quiet, magnetic intensity that keeps you with her even when – somewhat implausibly – she’s jumping up and down on the roof of a car.

— Nick James, reviewing from the Berlin Film Festival in our April 2017 issue

 

The Florida Project

Sean Baker, USA
Cast Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince
115 min
UK release date 10 November 2017
Distributor Altitude Film Distribution

Sean Baker’s energetic, candy-coloured follow-up to Tangerine traces a fiery six-year-old girl’s progress through the rundown motels housing poor families in the shadow of Disney World.

Baker’s last feature Tangerine was a vérité piece of guerrilla filmmaking. He maintains the same manic energy levels here, keeps the same unrepentant, unrelenting raucous verbal spitfire of a script, but swaps an iPhone for 35mm and the streets of Los Angeles for the poverty motels of Orlando, Florida. Just as Hollywood and the sun-kissed dreamland of LA was off-limits and off-screen in that film, here Disney World is the fantasy behemoth that casts a long shadow over Moonee’s universe.

— Isabel Stevens, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

The Florida Project review: a happy film about an ugly world

 

Foxtrot

Samuel Maoz, Germany-Israel-France
Cast Sarah Adler, Lior Ashkenazi
113 mins

Following his Venice Golden Lion winner Lebanon, Samuel Maoz extends his range with this Silver Lion – Grand Jury Prize winner, playing off home-front traumas with the absurdism and rage of life on the Israeli frontline.

…Foxtrot similarly starts out as a claustrophobic chamber drama, this time exploring what unfolds when word of said horrors reaches folks back home. Its opening scene plays out seemingly in real time, with middle-aged couple Dafna (Sarah Adler) and Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) receiving the most unwelcome house guests conceivable – soldiers, visiting to break the news that their son Jonathan has fallen in the line of duty. As we watch, in uncomfortable close-up, the couple’s world come crashing down around them, it’s clear that stark renderings of human suffering remain Maoz’s forte. But it’s equally clear that the filmmaker is eager to expand his range, as he infuses these early sequences with flourishes of deadpan humour…

— Paul O’Callaghan, reviewing from the Venice Film Festival

Foxtrot review: a savage satire of Israeli military grief and grind

 

Happy End

Michael Haneke, France-Austria-Germany
Cast Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Franz Rogowski, Toby Jones
107 mins
UK release date 1 December 2017
Distributor Curzon Artificial Eye

Corrupted by privilege, technology, teen anomie and other engines of psychosis, a fissile upper middle class family brings out the dark wit in Austrian master Michael Haneke.

Happily, Happy End delivers: it’s a film whose themes put it squarely within the continuum of Haneke’s filmography, yet it also distinguishes itself from much of it in the deployment of unexpectedly approachable dark wit and thriller-ish sensibility… For a satire on bourgeois values that essentially sees privilege as a terminal disease whose symptoms include boredom, indolence, alienation, lovelessness, pettiness and perhaps even sociopathy, and to which the only honest response is suicide or euthanasia, it’s very funny.

— Jessica Kiang, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

Happy End review: Michael Haneke hosts a family blowout

 

Mudbound

Dee Rees, USA
Cast Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J Blige, Rob Morgan, Garrett Hedlund
132 mins
UK release date 17 November 2017 (VOD)
Distributor Netflix

Dee Rees’s devastating adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s WWII-era saga of neighbouring black and white cotton-farming families finds humanity up to its neck in hardships both natural and self-inflicted.

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison illuminates the film with searing, visceral intensity – from glistening post-coital sweat to the warm glow of the Jackson’s home, and with visual echoes of Walker Evans’ photography of the Great Depression. The performances are strong across the board, and crescendo to a stomach-churning climax that howls with the horrors that lurk in humanity.

— Sophie Brown, reviewing from the Sundance Film Festival

Mudbound review: days of hell in 1940s Mississippi

 

The Party

Sally Potter, UK
Cast Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall
71 mins
UK release date 13 October 2017
Distributor Picturehouse Entertainment

Sally Potter’s latest is a dark satire exposing the foibles of the British middle classes, and political systems, with barbed dialogue and delicious irony.

As you might expect, Potter’s is a comedy of contemporary socio-political manners, but it’s inflected here with a deliciously ironic touch as she probes and examines a range of human foibles. The characters may be recognisable ‘types’ – besides the politician, we have academics, a financier, an aromatherapist and so on – but they are never merely stereotypes, since Potter understands that people often don’t practise what they preach, and even when they do, what they’re preaching may be riddled with absurd contradictions and self-serving illogicalities.

Could this be an allegorical portrait of British politics today? That may be pushing a metaphorical reading too far, though Potter has said that, writing the film during the 2015 general election, she wanted to evoke the kind of “chronic insincerity” she saw on display during the campaign. That said, what matters is whether the film’s critical portrait of a certain sector of modern British society succeeds dramatically and comedically; and with a deftly constructed, fast-moving real-time storyline, credibly vivid characters and deliciously barbed exchanges coming thick and fast, it unquestionably does.

— Geoff Andrew, reviewing from the Berlin Film Festival

The Party review: Sally Potter’s fast and furious farce

 

The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro, USA
Cast Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
123 mins
UK release date 16 February 2018
Distributor Twentieth Century Fox

Guillermo del Toro conjures a cinematic extravaganza teeming with high notes, from Sally Hawkins’ mute, dreamy musical-loving cleaner to the B-movie creature from the deep she sides with against the worst of 1960s US military-industrial iniquity.

Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is that big romantic all-out imaginative coup (with a sly political undercurrent) that so many of us have been waiting for from the director. There’s a sparkle to the imagery from its fairytale beginning in an underwater apartment – though any note of kookiness soon calms down in favour of Hollywood romance, B-movie mystery, creature-feature fun, film noir psychosis and the occasional sick joke – a cornucopia of exhilarating, multi-layered entertainment and a cinema obsessive’s wet dream… With The Shape of Water del Toro proves he knows how to add just the right amount of every cinematic ingredient at the right time for such an uplifting anti-fascist experience, and we sure need those right now.

— Nick James, reviewing from the Venice Film Festival

The Shape of Water review: Guillermo del Toro’s magical anti-fascist fairytale

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh, UK
Cast Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
115 mins
UK release date 12 Januaruy 2017
Distributor Twentieth Century Fox

Martin McDonagh’s latest laconic, multilayered wrong-footer pits Frances McDormand’s storming mourner against two local cops, Woody Harrelson’s omnipotently beloved sheriff and Sam Rockwell’s richly monstrous officer in waiting.

Three Billboards sticks around in mind and body leaving sweet and sour flavours of its own. Yes, it’s in the Tarantino-to-Coens bandwidth that both McDonagh brothers find comfortable to their talents, but it can boast of a more capacious feel for nuance than most… McDormand, the queen of cold quipping, has never been so laconic, or tragic; Harrelson gives off the generous bonhomie that lights up his best roles, but it’s Rockwell who’s the real revelation here, winning the sympathy that only the best of Calibans capture with a performance of an astonishing range of awkwardnesses.

— Nick James, reviewing from the Venice Film Festival

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review: Frances McDormand grieves a small-town shitstorm

 

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay, UK-USA-France
Cast Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
95 mins
UK distributor STUDIOCANAL

A bulked-up Joaquin Phoenix carries the weight of the world into nightmarish terrain in Ramsay’s hardboiled, sharp-edged, audacious adaptation of Jonathan Ames’s novel.

Whatever else you can say about You Were Never Really Here, it’s not the Lynne Ramsay film you might have been expecting: it’s an exceptionally violent thriller that chooses to tell its hardboiled, even sordid story in predominantly visual terms, cutting dialogue to the bare minimum, so that it almost feels like a graphic novel for the screen… It’s a bold piece of storytelling, with a dream-like feel that evokes its hellish, predominantly nocturnal world very compellingly. Phoenix gives one of his most troubling performances, lending his character derangement and a somewhat Depardieu-like physicality, and Jonny Greenwood’s score, alternating electronics and strings, is integral to the oppressive mood.

— Jonathan Romney, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

You Were Never Really Here review: Joaquin Phoenix storms Lynne Ramsay’s kidnap thriller

 

Official competition

120 BPM (Beats per Minute)

Robin Campillo, France
Cast Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel
144 min
UK release date 6 April 2018
Distributor Curzon Artificial Eye

Robin Campillo’s drama gives life, joy and distinction to the struggles of France’s Act Up AIDS activists of the early 1990s.

BPM takes its time, as it has to. The film is a queer testament to an under-memorialised era, and it represents this period with great deliberation… The miracle of BPM is that in depicting a time of great tragedy it deploys not just righteous anger but a bustling and vibrant visual language and a wickedly irreverent tone. The film is truly funny – not just sometimes and not wryly, but often and riotously.

— Caspar Salmon, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

120 Beats per Minute (BPM) review: queer lives honoured

 

Loveless

(Nelyubov)

Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia-France-Belgium-Germany
Cast Maryana Spivak, Alexey Rozin, Matvey Novikov
127 min
UK release date 9 February 2018
Distributor Altitude Film Distribution

The Russian director’s fifth feature is an enigmatic, and very rewarding, film about a missing child, a dissolving marriage and a country in crisis. At its best, it’s cinematic poetry.

Focused mostly on blaming one another even during their dealings with the police and a group of volunteers who search for missing children, the father and mother are clearly meant to represent, or at least shed light on, various moral failings of contemporary Russia: vacuous hedonism, unthinking consumerism, obeisance to fundamentalist employers, bureaucratic apathy, etc… for the most part Zvyagintsev again gets the balance between credible characterisation of individuals and state-of-the-nation commentary just right. And the final moments, when we’re back with the jackdaws and the wintry trees, are a piercing and poignant expression of simple cinematic poetry.

— Geoff Andrew, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

Loveless review: Andrey Zvyagintsev finds resonances in a Russian family falling apart

 

Wajib

Wajib (2017)

Annemarie Jacir, Palestine
Cast Mohammad Bakri, Saleh Bakri
96 mins

There’s a Palestinian custom, still upheld, that when a daughter is to be married, the male members of her family personally deliver the wedding invitations. And so an estranged father and son – one a traditional school teacher, the other an émigré architect living in Rome – obediently trek around Nazareth trying to navigate at every stop both their community wajib (loosely translated as ‘social duty’) and the escalating reverberations of their own fraught familial history.

Writer-director Annemarie Jacir’s third feature, apparently inspired by witnessing her own husband and father-in-law’s pilgrimage, is beautifully nuanced, slyly political and frequently very funny. Grounded by the lived-in shorthand of real-life father and son stars Mohammad and Saleh Bakri, Jacir offers a generous, bittersweet portrait of pinpoint specificity and universal appeal; its head and heart still divided between the instinctive comfort of the ties that bind, and the urge, duty even, to break free of them.

Leigh Singer

 

Documentary competition

The Dead Nation

Radu Jude, Romania
83 mins

Jude’s Dead Nation draws its imagery from a cache of thousands of photos the director stumbled upon which portray a cross-section of Romanian society in a small town in the 30s and 40s, offset against a Jewish doctor’s diary recording the surge in Romanian anti-semitic violence at the same time, mirroring events in Germany. The technique adroitly opens up a space for the viewer to occupy, scrutinising the photos for traces of a telling absence, signs of the rising savagery. Jude is a displaced presence, glimpsed through the choice of subject-matter, which is of a piece with his ongoing political project, revealing the darker corners of Romanian history that the current powers that be would prefer to conceal.

— Kieron Corless, reporting from Locarno in our October 2017 issue

 

EX LIBRIS – The New York Public Library

Frederick Wiseman, USA
197 mins

Fred Wiseman’s latest magisterial study of a public institution is a tribute to the power of education and the importance of community, characteristically ambitious yet surprisingly brisk.

While Wiseman returns often to the august confines of the NYPL’s Beaux Arts ‘main branch’, he roves freely across the city’s diverse boroughs to provide glimpses of library outreach and community work at the most basic grass-roots level. The NYPL, we see, isn’t just a bunch of books. It plays crucial roles in filling education gaps for children and adults alike, spreading internet access to those languishing in what administrators dub the “digital dark”. Ordinary users are shown; illustrious visitors are heard: the action kicks off with a speech by Richard Dawkins, who stresses the importance of “stating simple facts” and pays tribute to “the poetry of reality”. It ends with Edmund de Waal, who aims for “a passionate lucidity” and restates the fundamental thesis of his bestseller The Hare with Amber Eyes: “method is interesting… the manner of what we make defines us.”

At these moments, the application of such phrases to Wiseman himself, his method and manner as encapsulated by this film, is near-irresistible. The huge canvas becomes an inadvertent self-portrait of this most self-effacing of auteurs, whom one senses entirely shares the NYPL’s noble aims and belief in the power of education, community and hard work.

EX LIBRIS – the New York Public Library review: Fred Wiseman’s ode to patience and fortitude

 

Faces Places

(Visages, Villages)

Agnès Varda, JR, France
89 mins
UK distributor Curzon Artificial Eye

Serendipities fly as Agnès Varda, cinema’s greatest gleaner, goes rambling in the cine-van of magnum muralist JR, and pits her memories against her thirst for new faces.

If, like I, you had any worries that by collaborating with an artist like JR (whose large-scale photographic murals rather pale in comparison to Varda’s filmic folk art) Visages Villages would dilute Varda’s spirit, fear not: from the moment she appears with a cat perched on her shoulder in the opening credits she steals the show… And it’s she who decides that their road trip in JR’s camera-van (a photo booth that prints out large-scale portraits of its subjects) will encompass the French countryside and its villages rather than cities. Together they collaborate taking photographs of the people they find, from goat farmers to factory workers, enlarging them and displaying these huge black and white tributes on the walls of their subject’s homes and workplaces. Varda’s aim: “To meet new faces so I don’t fall down the holes in my memory.”

— Isabel Stevens, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

Faces Places review: Agnès Varda and JR big up the country byways

 

Gray House

Austin Lynch, Matthew Booth, USA
Cast Denis Lavant, Dianna Molzan, Aurore Clément
76 mins

Austin Lynch’s nonfiction film eludes genre, as it moves through landscapes to spend time with remote oil rig-workers in one isolated pocket of America, to female prisoners in another. Denis Lavant grafts on a fishing boat, while a young woman navigates to a remote swimming spot.

Gray House is ambiguous and open, like a painting, and shifts seamlessly from constructed sequences to more straightforward documentary content. Matthew Booth’s photography is stunning, capturing natural colour blends evocative of screenprint methods, and remote boxy structures reminiscent of William Eggleston.

With a score composed by experimental musician Alvin Lucier, the architecture of the sound is itself an intricate structure; at times rumbling viscerally, ebbing and flowing through the narrative with harmony and dissonance. Gray House is a hypnotic description of spaces, and the experience of living within these distinctive environments.

Sophie Brown

 

First feature competition

Ava

Léa Mysius, France
Cast Noée Abita, Laure Calamy, Juan Cano
105 mins

For her second feature, which won the Directors’ Fortnight prize, Chinese-born American filmmaker Chloé Zhao drops us off in Trump heartland, in the craggy plains of South Dakota, where there is little for young men to dream of apart from being a rodeo hero. The rodeo-phile in focus here is young cowboy Brady, a successful bronco rider recovering from a serious head injury and advised to stay away from horses. But that’s a life he can’t countenance. And yet his broken body, viscerally captured by Zhao, also scares him.

What emerges is a very nuanced portrait of the hopelessness and lack of opportunity abounding in America’s hinterlands. The film also surveys masculinity in crisis. Zhao balances the testosterone-filled adrenaline highs of the rodeo world with Brady’s tender relationship with his younger sister, who has learning disabilities.

— Isabel Stevens, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

Six films by new and emerging female filmmakers at Cannes 2017

 

Jeune Femme

(Montparnasse Bienvenüe (Jeune Femme))

Léonor Serraille, France-Belgium
Cast Laetitia Dosch, Souleymane Seye Ndiaye
97 mins
UK release date 18 May 2018
Distributor Curzon Artificial Eye

Laetitia Dosch plays an impulsive, newly single young woman adrift in Paris in this enjoyably chaotic, picaresque character study, the feature debut by Léonor Serraille.

Dosch plays Paula as entirely undaunted by the change in her horizons. Rather than sinking into a funk, she flies high, possessed by a life-seeking energy. Not everyone can take her spirited presence: on Paula’s first night as a solo traveller she stays with a pregnant friend, but defends a jibe directed at her cat by questioning her pal’s mothering potential… Serraille is less interested in neatly resolving plot strands than she is in depicting the furious moment with all its colour and confusion – a state cinema rarely captures.

— Sophie Monks Kaufman, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

Jeune Femme review: furious moments in an unruly life

 

I Am not a Witch

I Am Not a Witch (2017)

Rungano Nyoni, UK-France-Zambia
Cast Margaret Mulubwa, Henry Phiri, Nancy Mulilo
95 mins
UK release date 20 October 2017
Distributor Curzon Artificial Eye

Welsh/Zambian filmmaker Rungano Nyoni’s debut makes inspired use of nonprofessionals actors she found on the streets to craft a striking fairy-tale-cum-satire about witchcraft in rural Zambian society. Taking aim too at government corruption and misogyny, it brings to mind both Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, with a young, anonymous girl accused of being a witch by a mob of villagers and banished to a witch camp. Under the watchful gaze of a predatory government official, she and the elderly ladies there are readily exploited for their labour, their supposed magical powers, but also for their tourist dollar.

The film has a bleak sense of humour… and while the satire occasionally feels too blunt, overall the film offers a rush of originality, energy and ambition.

— Isabel Stevens, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

Six films by new and emerging female filmmakers at Cannes 2017

 

Love

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

John Cameron Mitchell, UK
Cast Elle Fanning, Alex Sharp, Nicole Kidman
102 mins
UK distributor STUDIOCANAL

This film ought not to work at all. A British punk-based sci-fi drama based on a Neil Gaiman story, directed by an American (the estimable John Cameron Mitchell) and starring Nicole Kidman as a punk matriarch, as a descriptor it reeks of tonal mish-mash and in the end it does give way to a kind of genre hysteria. But most of the time it has the brash innocent energy of early punk down pat.

Enn (Alex Sharp) is a Croydon youth just waking to the punk rush. He goes with his mates to a gig by the Dyschords, led by gender bender singer Slap (Martin Tomlinson) and presided over by club queen Boadicea (Kidman, having a whale of a time). When looking for the after party, Enn and his pals are drawn instead to a house party emitting strange beguiling sounds and find themselves subject to the extreme curiosity of visiting aliens who’ve taken on human form, including Zan (Elle Fanning), a fey innocent-seeming creature with strange powers, who runs off with Enn to wreak pleasing mayhem.

One could wish that Sharp didn’t sound so implausibly drama school posh in his role – he should have gone for a more downwardly mobile accent – but otherwise HTTTGAP makes for buzzing B-movie trash entertainment par excellence.

Nick James

 

Let the Sunshine In

(Un beau soleil intérior)

Claire Denis, France
Cast Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Philippe Katerine
94 min
UK distributor Curzon Artificial Eye

In Claire Denis’s low-key rondo, archetypal romantic situations elicit subtle yet surprising transformations in the character of Juliette Binoche’s newly divorced painter as she returns to the romantic fray.

The whole set of rituals is terribly French and meant to act as a kaleidoscope of viewpoints on the topos of romantic fiction, some drawn from the observations Roland Barthes made in A Lover’s Discourse, especially those that focus on how being in love makes the banality of the here and now seem so charged. In that sense Binoche is not playing any particular woman, but a variety of typical responses to the circumstances she encounters. In what is perhaps the most stylistically pared-down of Denis’s films, the camera, fixed mostly on Isabelle and the Other, sometimes half-circles around Binoche, who’s decked out in jet-black tousled hair, neat red leather jacket and spike-heeled thigh-high boots – a trifle tacky, for sure, but again a nailing of an archetype.

— Nick James, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

Let the Sunshine In review: Juliette Binoche rings love’s changes

 

Dare

El mar la mar

Joshua Bonnetta, J P Sniadecki, USA
95 min

J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonnetta’s unsettling portrait of the American southwest and people caught in purgatory is one of the strongest films yet from Harvard’s celebrated Sensory Ethnography Laboratory.

Shot over a period of years in the Sonoran Desert, El mar la mar combines anthropological filmmaking interests with multiple modes associated with the cinematic avant-garde, including observational portraiture, landscape photography and oral histories of both personal and political import… Long stretches of the film play out in voiceover, against a black screen, as people speak of their experiences in this no-man’s-land in tones ranging from the mythic to the matter-of-fact. One woman recounts a chance meeting with an ailing immigrant lost in the night; a man with a heavy accent tells the tale of a 15-foot tall monster said to haunt the region; while a border patrolman, unseen but recognisable in tenor, conflates man and beast with stoic indifference.

Much of the film transpires under cover of darkness, with only headlights on the horizon, or the moonlight over distant mountains, creating stunning chiaroscuro compositions as barely discernible figures move across the far reaches of the frame. With its unsettlingly serene tone and aura of enveloping dread, El mar la mar plays more like a horror film than an exercise in journalistic nonfiction.

— Jordan Cronk, reviewing from the Berlin Film Festival

El mar la mar review: a shape-shifting portrait of the US desert border, cloaked in dread

 

Western

Valeska Grisebach, Germany-Bulgaria-Austria
Cast Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek
119 min
UK release date Winter 2017
Distributor New Wave Films

Valeska Grisebach’s stunning existential study of masculinity tips its hat to classic genre cinema even as it casts an extraordinary troupe of non-professional actors as its grizzled migrant construction workers in a foreign land.

Grisebach’s characters, German construction workers on assignment in a remote corner of the Bulgarian countryside, are driven to distant lands by the same desires as the heroes of the Old West – a quest for money and personal glory that belies existential unrest – and once there they must also contend with a hostile native population as well as their own macho urges, which erupt into rivalries over women and alpha status. Rather than condemn these impulses or use them to expose the corruption of a larger socio-political context, Grisebach strips them of all sensationalism, presenting them as inherent, though by no means exclusive, facets of masculinity…

Although attuned to emotional hardship, Western is far from a miserable trudge. The film also luxuriates in the pleasures of adventure and discovery. When Meinhard takes a break from working in order to admire the pristine natural panorama that surrounds him, his satisfaction is palpable. Watching him as he sits in the sun and smokes a cigarette, taking in the majestic landscape, it’s difficult not to yearn for such a pure form of fulfilment.

— Giovanni Marchini Camia, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

Western review: once upon a time in modern-day eastern Europe

 

Journey

Untitled

Michael Glawogger, Monika Willi, Austria-Germany
107 mins

The late Austrian documentarist Michael Glawogger may have prematurely come to rest in 2014, but this deliberately themeless compendium of his roving observations of human labour and culture across more than a dozen countries is both a quintessential expression of his cinematic drive and – given a biographical voiceover by his collaborator Monika Willi – an elegy to his spirit.

Glawogger often shot in Africa, and much of Untitled takes place in small regions in the Western regions of the country. In these and other parts of mostly impoverished countries we watch, for example, workers sift for gold, caravans hauling materials across the heat-stroked desert, children digging for treasure in an enormous compost heap, and kids pulling water buckets up and down a crowded city street.

Despite there not being an overarching theme, motifs do arise. Physicality and competition is one: in Dakar, a team of wrestlers compete on the beach, heaving one another mercilessly into the fine grain sand at their feet; elsewhere, a less professional form of fighting transpires when a young man is beaten for unknown reasons by a group of locals as his fellow townspeople look on.

— Jordan Cronk, reviewing from the Berlin Film Festival

Untitled review: Michael Glawogger’s posthumous cine-soul odyssey

 

Thrill

Good Time

Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, USA
Cast Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh
101 mins
UK release date 17 November 2017
Distributor Curzon Artificial Eye

Robert Pattinson’s lone sibling desperado rampages nocturnal New York in Benny and Josh Safdie’s streetish 70s-throwback bungled heist thriller.

Connie is a creature of instinct, an urban animal whose lack of big-picture thinking pushes him further and further into a chaotic, perilous evening. What starts as a straightforward task – gather $10,000 for his brother’s bail bond – becomes increasingly knotted, even farcical, as he schemes a hospital breakout, sweet-talks his way into an old lady’s home for shelter and ends up searching for a discarded bottle of acid in a darkened amusement park after hours.

Pattinson is playing for keeps, throwing himself into the Safdies’ shabby, stylised spin on street-level realism. Comparisons have been made with Robert De Niro’s star-making role in Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese sits atop the ‘Gratitude’ list in the credits), but where Johnny Boy was an unpredictable firecracker, Pattinson imbues Connie with an enigmatic, desperate, directionless energy.

— Michael Leader, reviewing from the Cannes Film Festival

Good Time review: Robert Pattinson careens the Safdies’ mean streets

 

Cult

The Endless

Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, USA
Cast Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Tate Ellington
111 min
UK distributor Arrow Films

Three years ago, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead captivated London Film Festival audiences with their horror-romance Spring. They are back with an intricate Lovecraftian tale that revisits the territory of their 2012 debut feature, Resolution, and infinitely loops on itself in more ways than one.

Benson and Moorhead play two brothers, Justin and Aaron, who escaped from the ‘UFO death cult’ in which they were brought up. While Justin prefers their current drab but free existence, Aaron yearns for the easy life and sense of community he remembers having as a child. When they receive a videotape containing a cryptic message from one of the cult members, Justin accepts to go back with Aaron for a visit. But after an idyllic first impression of life on the commune, increasingly unsettling events hint at strange truths and unseen dark forces. Expertly building an eerie, disorientating world of shifting certainties, Benson and Moorhead intelligently explore brotherly bonds and the meaning of ‘family’ amid unfathomable existential mysteries. 

Virginie Selavy

 

Create

David Stratton: A Cinematic Life

Sally Aitken
Australia 2017
Cast Geoffrey Rush, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe
97 mins

The short form way of describing David Stratton to Brits is to say that he’s Australia’s equivalent of Barry Norman – except that that doesn’t quite do it, because Stratton, who co-hosted with Margaret Pomeranz the long-running Australian TV shows The Movie Show and At the Movies, is even more beloved and remembered as a part of every Aussie’s movie education, including that of most of the Australian directors working today. Yet Stratton is not Australian; he’s an Englishman from Melksham, who parlayed a lifelong passion for cinema into a lifelong career.

Since he is a genial and rather self-effacing character in person (he is, I confess, a friend of mine), it’s no surprise that Sally Aitken’s documentary about him is as much, if not more, a thoroughgoing history of Australian cinema, with all the right talking heads involved, as it is a portrait of a great television evangelist for cinema. It’s an immensely enjoyable doc.

Nick James

 

Experimenta

Tonsler Park

Kevin Jerome Everson
USA 2017
Cast Sally Barbour, Shaquita Morton, Deborah Tyler
80 mins

Kevin Jerome Everson’s Tonsler Park is an observational portrait of workers at a polling station on 8 November 2016, the day the current United States president was elected. The absolutely quotidian and undeniably historic meet in this monochrome 16mm film of the mostly African-American women who facilitate the electoral process in the titular area of Charlottesville, Virginia – a city that has more recently made headlines as the site of white supremacist violence.

Tonsler Park can be understood as approaching the charged intersection of race and politics in the contemporary United States, a country deeply mired in the myriad afterlives of transatlantic slavery. But it is also a film about what is perhaps Everson’s favourite subject: people doing their job. Everson lets them do it without intruding; he stays out of the way, shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens. Bodies frequently block the camera’s view, becoming at once an aesthetic device and an inscription of the filmmaker’s ethical stance. This is the cinema we need.

Erika Balsom

Read Elena Gorfinkel’s essay Getting It Done, on how Everson’s films hover between close observation and abstraction, politics and poetry, in our October 2017 issue

 

See all our coverage

  • Sight & Sound: the October 2017 issue

    Sight & Sound: the October 2017 issue

    The cinema of Stephen King, plus female desire at the movies, Hanif Kureishi on Peter Sellers’ Indian characters, Darren Aronofsky on Mother and...

Read about our October issue

Find out more

Access the digital editions

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.