London Film Festival 2016: my five picks (and five hopes) – Nick James

A short series of our editors’ top festival recommendations – what they’ve seen, what they’re looking forward to. Here Nick James commends Jim Jarmusch’s most soulful yet, a serious shocker from Paul Verhoeven and Amat Escalante’s blindsiding The Untamed.

Nick James
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1. Paterson

Jim Jarmusch, USA

My admiration for this portrait of a New Jersey bus driver who happens to write poetry has already been registered with a poem, but there’s so much more about it than I’ve not yet hinted at. The soulful common man who loves twentieth-century objects of perfection is a common thread for Jarmusch, one he shares with his friend the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, and this is perhaps the film of his that most overlaps with the Finn’s work.

Adam Driver’s insistence on oblique points of view in the TV series Girls is put to further use here as the driver-poet Paterson, who distils ordinary moments into haiku-like short verses. Some people think there’s too much manic-pixie-dream-girl about Golshifteh Farahani’s portrayal of his life partner Laura, who likes to interior decorate in monochrome designs, but to me she’s more a denizen of Jarmusch-world, that moody post-industrial cityscape of pleasant individuals finding what they love in the world, often indoors. I like that place, very much.

 

2. Elle

Paul Verhoeven, France-Germany

Quite a shocker, this psychological thriller from Paul Verhoeven. It begins with the rape of Isabelle Huppert’s computer game entrepreneur in her own living room, but then proceeds entirely on her terms, not so much as a victim – though victim she is – but as an experienced victim, one who knows what to do next time, and who hunts out her affiliations with the perpetrator in order to enact a revenge that twists our moral preconceptions out of shape.

There are times when you feel Verhoeven’s taste for the lurid might overwhelm one’s sympathies but it never happens. Indeed the extraordinary Huppert (she has never been better, and that’s saying something), and the very able French cast around her, do much cooling of the temperature as to make the whole thing feel quite plausible in a way that, say, Basic Instinct never does. It’s easily the most impressive and important psychological thriller I’ve seen this century.

 

3. Moonlight

Barry Jenkins, USA

This impressive, elegiac portrait film was developed by Barry Jenkins from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. It asks the question: What do you do if you’re growing up on the bad streets of Miami and the bullies are always out to get you because they suspect you’re gay?

Chiron, the protagonist, is sensitive. He has an awkward fragility to him that’s also combined with a pugnacious temper. We see three phases of his life marked by changes in his nickname. He starts as the small boy ‘Little’ (Alex R. Hibbert), becomes the teenage ‘Chiron’ (Ashton Sanders) and ends up as the young adult ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes). Each stage has its trials: ‘Little’ needs help because his junkie mother neglects him, and gets it from a local dealer and his girl; ‘Chiron’ is being bullied at school and finds himself morally compromised – though he meets a like-minded soul in Kevin (Jarrell Jerome); and ‘Black’ shows us the consequences of surviving these trials, but also a way out, via Kevin (now played by André Holland).

Jenkins gets us so wrapped up in Chiron’s consecutive hard knocks that by the end we’re as bruised as he is, and the salve, modest as it is, brings on the tears.

 

4. The Untamed

Amat Escalante, Mexico-Denmark-France

I doubt that you’ll see a stranger film than this at the LFF and you certainly won’t have seen anything quite like it before. Amat Escalante has built a reputation for realistic, honest depiction of fraught events in Mexico over three estimable features: Sangre, Los Bastardos and Heli.

Here, though, there’s a wilder genre element. A domestic tangle/triangle between a lovelorn wife with two kids, her gay but lonely brother and her secretly gay husband gets put under further pressure when a woman drifter with a secret befriends the brother and sister. Something lurks in the woodshed that she says will help them both. What happens is a real eye-opener.

 

5. Personal Shopper

Olivier Assayas, France

 

Kristen Stewart was the actress who dominated this year’s Cannes and her best performance was in this fast-moving ghost story that strangely and winningly cleaves to some old-fashioned things going bump in the night.

She plays Maureen, an American girl in Paris who shops for her celebrity boss Kyra, but also doubles as a medium. Her beloved brother was one too, but he’s recently died and seems to be haunting the house they used to live in, which the family are now trying to sell. Meanwhile Kyra also starts to get taunting texts, which display inside knowledge and demand that she comply with S&M dominant-type instructions.

Stewart makes all this entirely plausible and Assayas, moving at his usual fast clip from scene to scene, gives us a breezy idea of the contemporary life of a young service worker who happens to have seen ectoplasm floating past her. Shiver your timbers and you won’t regret it.

 

My five high hopes

1. Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan, USA

I don’t much like speculating about films you haven’t seen but ever since the raves arrived from Sundance, I’ve been keening for this, another film from the writer-director who brought us the marvels of You Can Count on Me and Margaret. I expect top-notch performances, spikily profound confrontations and bucketloads of poignancy from this tale of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a young man returning to his North Shore hometown to connect with his recently dead brother’s orphaned son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and deal with his own estranged wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

 

2. The Informer (revival)

Arthur Robison, UK

The Informer (1935)

Ever since someone I trust insisted that Arthur Robison’s 1929 film adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s novel – the silent version, that is, rather than the hurriedly organised part-talkie made simultaneously – is superior to John Ford’s 1935 classic, I’ve been waiting to see The Informer on the big screen. And when I learned that my BFI colleagues were going to restore it, I knew I should wait for its arrival.

Images I’ve seen and writings I’ve read suggest a proto-noir in which the tale of moral compromise and betrayal of the Irish revolutionary cause is suitably shrouded in purple tints, deep shadows and an atmosphere of constant alarm.

 

3. The 13th

Ava DuVernay, USA

Those of you who have seen the section of Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next that catalogues how a huge proportion of young African American males have been incarcerated and put to work in prison workhouses in a slightly more sophisticated form of slavery will have some idea of where Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th may take us. Named after the 13th Amendment of the US constitution, which states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States,” DuVernay’s film promises a thorough investigation into this most scandalous use of US state systems.

 

4. Neruda

Pablo Larraín, Chile-Argentina-France-Spain

I missed this in Cannes, where it was highly regarded, and have since seen Larrain’s stupendous Jackie (about Jackie Kennedy), which shows him to be a master of the biopic, usually my least favourite genre.

This film however is reputed to be more of an investigation than a recreation, one in which the policeman chasing Neruda is more like the poet’s own invention than a real cop. I also wanted to complete the LFF’s set of films about poets, since that seems to be a theme of the year (see below).

 

5. A Quiet Passion

Terence Davies, UK-Belgium

Jury duty kept me away from this in Berlin, and since I am a fan of Terence Davies’s films, and friends tell me it is one of his very best, how can I resist?

Emily Dickinson was spoilt for me in my youth by the satirical self-lacerating Paul Simon lyric “And you read your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost…” making both poets feel redundantly attached to middle age. What a fool I was. Can’t wait.

 

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