BFI London Film Festival 2015: 30 recommendations

Our hot takes on 30 hot tickets at this year’s festival.

Sight & Sound contributors
Updated:

Web exclusive

The Forbidden Room (2015)

The Forbidden Room (2015)

Bookended by British directors’ works – Suffragette, Sarah Gavron’s moving tribute to the sacrifices of the ordinary women campaigning for the vote, and Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle’s biopic of the Apple boss – this year’s LFF offers the usual panoply of more and less known prospects: award-winners and hot tickets from premiere festivals such as Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, Sundance and more, alongside the festival’s own discoveries. There’s plenty still tantalising us and even our most globe-trotting festival correspondents: Evolution, the first film in 11 years from Innocence’s Lucile Hadžihalilović, or When Marnie Was There, from Studio Ghibli’s Yonebayshi Hiromasa, or Janice: Little Blue Girl, Amy Berg’s Janice Joplin biopic, or Public House, Sarah Turner’s ‘folk opera’ about Deptford’s Ivy House pub, or NOTFILM, Ross Lipman’s ‘kino-essay’ about Samuel Beckett’s 1965 collaboration with Buster Keaton on the short Film, or Sembene!, Samba Gadjigo’s portrait of the great Ousmane Sembène, which accompanies a restoration of Sembène’s excoriating Black Girl, or indeed new 35mm prints of three Brothers Quay classics accompanied by a new portrait of the duo by none less than Christopher Nolan – itself a celluloid-championing complement to Nolan’s enticing ‘LFF Connects’ stage encounter with Tacita Dean to explore the future of film…

That said, here are 30 titles we can wholeheartedly recommend – starting with Guy Maddin’s far-out The Forbidden Room, which provides us with our very first 3D Sight & Sound Gala at the BFI IMAX on Friday 9 October. Get booking.

 

The Sight & Sound Gala

The Forbidden Room

Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson
Canada 2015
With Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Matthieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, Maria de Medeiros
130 mins
UK distribution Soda Pictures

Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room may not be nonfiction (except, perhaps, as an observational portrait of the artist’s exuberant, demented, movie-movie mind), but its presence in the Sundance programme serves an immediate rebuttal to the idea that the festival is all glamour and convention. The film may feature movie stars like Charlotte Rampling, but it’s so unwieldy and inspired (and exhausting, but in the best possible way) it feels like a nuclear bomb vaporising all the infotainment in its blast zone.

The Forbidden Room has more ideas in ten minutes than most filmmakers have in their entire oeuvres; Maddin jumps into the murky waters of lost styles of nutso movie storytelling and delivers back everything he finds, and the result is properly bonkers.

— from Robert Greene’s Unfiction column on this year’s documentaries at Sundance

 

Other galas

The Assassin

The Assassin (Nie Yinniang, 2015)

The Assassin (Nie Yinniang, 2015)

(Nie Yinniang)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Taiwan-China-Hong Kong 2015
With Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun
104 mins
UK distribution STUDIOCANAL

My favourite film at this year’s Cannes was Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, which was worthy of its Best Director prize. What’s so special about this oblique take on the historical wuxia epic are the long quiet sequences between the action, where the ability of trained murderer Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) to melt into the shadows creates a delicious dynamic between the sheer beauty of diaphanous, wafting curtains, billowing gauzes and waving tree branches and our anticipation that our gorgeous assassin will appear among them to stir things up.

Its story, however, though well known to Chinese audiences, was not sufficiently clear for others to make a Palme winner.

— Nick James, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

Carol

Carol (2015)

Carol (2015)

Todd Haynes
USA-UK 2015
With Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Poulson
118 mins
UK distribution STUDIOCANAL

Patricia Highsmith’s novel has waited 63 years for an adaptation while her other indelible characters, like Tom Ripley, have long proved catnip to filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Wim Wenders. Carol is a tender, devastating romance between Mara’s wide-eyed shop assistant Therese and Cate Blanchett’s Carol, an elegant socialite and mother with everything to lose.
 
Haynes’s previous visually exquisite explorations of a repressed and rotten America in the 1950s, in Far from Heaven (2002) and the HBO series Mildred Pierce (2011), occasionally felt like intellectual homages to the brooding worlds of Edward Hopper and Saul Leiter, and the melodramas and their makers, such as Douglas Sirk, who inspired him. Their influences are still on show here but this is the film where he steps out of their shadow. Surveying a battleground of power and control, Haynes knows all too well the potency of gesture and delivers some of his most devastating scenes in close-up: a possessive hand placed on a shoulder, a finger inching towards a phone’s hang-up button, and, most of all, the eyes of Carol and Therese, full of longing, staring out of car windows.

— Isabel Stevens, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

Read more in Isabel Stevens’ first-look review from Cannes

 

The Lobster

The Lobster (2015)

The Lobster (2015)

Yorgos Lanthimos
UK-Ireland-Greece 2015
With Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, John C Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw
118 mins
UK distribution Picturehouse Entertainment

Lanthimos’s Kafka-meets-H. G. Wells allegory sets up a witheringly droll imaginary world in which conventional single people are sent to a hotel and given a limited number of days to find a sexual partner or else be turned into an animal of their choice (you might read a specifically Greek angle into the deadlines and threats).

Colin Farrell is our meek avatar, who chooses the lobster as his possible fate, and while the film stays within its kitsch hotel environment, with its semi-sadistic rules and deadpan dinner-dance social hells, the fecund Lanthimos continually comes up with novel and/or amusing satirical and absurdist moments. But when the focus shifts to the rebels in the woods – led by a ruthless Léa Seydoux – and a forbidden semaphore romance blooms between Farrell and Rachel Weisz, the film loses charm and momentum, despite Weisz’s fine, nuanced performance.

— Nick James, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

Shooting Stars

Shooting Stars (1928)

Shooting Stars (1928)

AV Bramble, Anthony Asquith
UK 1928
With Annette Benson, Brian Aherne, Donald Calthrop, Wally Patch, Chili Bouchier
103 mins
Production company British Instructional Films
UK distribution BFI

Everyone loves a film about filmmaking, and Anthony Asquith’s first film Shooting Stars (1928) is one of the best and earliest – a love-letter to the process of filmmaking, a commentary on the superficiality of the studio system and also, uniquely in British film, full of glorious detail about the work of a film studio in the 1920s.

It opens with a great cinematic trick: a girl dressed in a calico frock, with Mary Pickford curls, carrying a white dove in a cage, gazes down at her handsome cowboy from an apple-blossom tree. But as our heroine cradles the dove it gives her a vicious peck (animals always know). She lets the dove fly, and the sweet face turns into that of a screeching prima donna as the camera pulls back to reveal the actress balanced precariously on a cardboard crate in her prop tree…

It was an audacious debut for Asquith, who despite his privileged background – the son of a prime minister – was never happier than in the company of the technicians and crew of the studio. As Luke McKernan so neatly put it in The Cinema of Britain and Ireland (2005), it was “a young man’s film”, intended to create a stir, as prodigies such as Orson Welles or Quentin Tarantino would do later.

— Bryony Dixon, from her Primal Screen column to be published in our forthcoming November 2015 issue

 

In competition

Cemetery of Splendour

Cemetery of Splendour (Rak Ti Khon Kaen, 2015)

Cemetery of Splendour (Rak Ti Khon Kaen, 2015)

(Rak ti Khon Kaen)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thailand-UK-France 2015
With Jenjira Pongpas Widner, Jarinpattra Rueangram, Banlop Lomnoi
122 mins
UK distribution New Wave Films

Weerasethakul’s remarkable and mysterious film centres on a middle-aged, lonely hospital volunteer Jenjira (played by Apichatpong regular Jenjira Pongpas Widner) tending to soldiers who have succumbed to a sleeping sickness in a remote Thai city. Like many of his previous films, it conjures a present haunted by the past and did so with some of the festival’s most enchanting imagery; hypnotic, neon-tinged nocturnal landscapes in particular.

The cemetery of the title is one of ancient kings rumoured to lie under the hospital building. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, it is mapped out in words in the hospital’s overgrown garden by a psychic whom Jenjira befriends and who provides the film’s delightfully comic moments, reading the thoughts and dreams of the soldiers to their loved ones.

— Isabel Stevens, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

Chevalier

Chevalier (2015)

Chevalier (2015)

Athina Rachel Tsangari
Greece 2015
With Yorgos Kentros, Panos Koronis, Vangelis Mourikis
99 mins

Tsangarai takes a full ahead anthropological approach to this mordant study of male competitiveness in which a group of six men on a boating trip along the Greek coast start out diving to catch fish but end up competing for who is the best at everything.

The ensemble she’s gathered, playing a nicely variegated bunch of solipsistic manhood of all classes, are mostly on top deadpan form, although there are delicious moments of hysteria and neurosis too. What’s sharpest about the way it plays out – at its best in really funny scenes involving assembling flat-pack furniture and lip-synching Minnie Ripperton – is that the men behave much of the time in ways usually thought stereotypical of women.

The film does lose some momentum once the concept becomes too familiar and it’s not quite as quirky or original in feel as Tsangarai’s breakthrough film Attenberg, but most of the time it feels as fresh as the fish they catch.

— Nick James

 

Office

Office (Hua Li Shang Ban Zou aka Design for Living, 2015)

Office (Hua Li Shang Ban Zou aka Design for Living, 2015)

Johnnie To
China-Hong Kong 2015
With Sylvia Chang, Chow Yun Fat, Eason Chan, Tang Wei
117 mins

It seemed inevitable that Johnnie To would make a musical. What couldn’t have been so easily predicted was that To’s take on the genre would take him to post-modern extremes beyond what was hinted at in his recent (and masterful) rom-coms Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Romancing in Thin Air, and merge that with the venomous social critique of his recession thriller Life without Principle. And it’s in 3D.

It takes place mostly in a corporate high-rise (on the 71st floor), on a set that would make Jacques Tati proud: a completely artificial gridlock of metal, plastic and computers, prison-like in its oppressive modernist design of intersecting lines. The epicentre of the office is a gigantic gyro clock, the cogs of which suggest a metaphor for the rapidly typing employees sat in rows around it. The soundstage’s black floors and background are visible at all times. It’s a playful choice, one that may simply seem in step with the exuberant ambitions of a workplace musical, but which additionally creates a sense of isolation around the players and their playground in this financial sector, removed from reality.

The handful of tunes in the film are hit or miss, but it’s hard not to admire their uncoolness (they’re the least modern part of the film). The songs’ subjects however are always fascinating. In one memorable sequence workers in a crowded restaurant ask themselves: “Are you willing to be a corporate slave?” amidst other woeful expressions of the life of survival in a competitive capitalist society.

— from Adam Cook’s first-look review from Toronto

 

The Pearl Button

The Pearl Button (2015)

The Pearl Button (2015)

(El botón de nácar)
Patricio Guzmán
France-Chile-Spain 2015
82 mins
UK distribution New Wave Films

In The Pearl Button Patricio Guzmán shows us a heartbreaking history of the indigenous seagoing population of the islands of Southern Patagonia, who decorate their bodies with white marks that equate stars with droplets of water, and believe that when they died they take their place in the heavens. This visual analogy between water and the stars is one of several observations that inspire this elegant essay, which ties together the horrors of colonialism with those of the Pinochet era and makes great play of elemental matters in a similar fashion to the director’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010).

— Nick James, reporting from Berlin in our April 2015 issue

 

Something Better to Come

Something Better to Come (2014)

Something Better to Come (2014)

Hanna Polak
Denmark-Poland 2014
98 mins

Shot over 14 years among the denizens of Europe’s largest rubbish heap, outside Moscow, Polak’s documentary tracks young blonde Yula through her formative years in these lower depths – a microcosm outside of society yet with its own community and kinship, not mention a great many individual tragedies. We meet Yula, one of hundreds making a life here, at the age of ten (it’s the year 2000: in one of several glimpses on the world beyond, we hear a radio report of Vladimir Putin’s ascent to the presidency). She’s still a child, horseplaying with her friends, but by 12 she’s joined her mother on the bottle, and at 16 is set to be a mother herself; the upshot is perhaps the most emotionally harrowing stage of a film that’s not short of tough scenes, from the filth in which the characters cook food to the corpses that inevitably turn up in the snow. 

Unapologetically gruelling, the film finds a silver lining to cling to, and you cling with fear, sadness and awe. “A vision of hell worth of Dante,” remarked Joshua Oppenheimer’s jury at last year’s Amsterdam International Documentary Award, bestowing the film with a Special Jury Award, “all the more painful for its tenderness.” 

— Nick Bradshaw

 

Son of Saul

Son of Saul (2015)

Son of Saul (2015)

(Saul fia)
László Nemes
Hungary 2015
With Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
107 mins
UK distribution Curzon Artificial Eye

One of the most terrifying radio dramas I have ever listened to is the soundtrack of events happening off screen in László Nemes’s Cannes Grand Prix winner – a maelstrom of screamed orders, clanking machinery, grinding motors, brutal beatings and random shootings that almost never dies down. The camera mostly keeps tight to the face or back of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a resilient Hungarian Jew who has survived in a German concentration camp by becoming one of the Sonderkommando, tasked with helping the Nazis exterminate his brethren.

Nemes goes out of his way to avoid Holocaust porn – snatches of epic scenes of crowds, vehicles, costumes, gas ovens, burnings, etc, are seen only at the edges of the frame. The soundtrack and the pressure of unseen but foreshadowed events wears you down, as the frantic push-pull between slaughter and survival continues.

When a young boy briefly survives the Zyklon B, Saul recognises him as his son, and, obsessed with trying to arrange a proper Jewish burial for him, takes all kinds of risks in order to retrieve the body and track down a rabbi who can show him the correct procedure. In a conventional Holocaust movie, such a melodramatic sequence of events would have undermined the director’s stand – some say it still does; and a literalist might carp at how often Ausländer seems to be a free agent, able to go where he pleases. For me, though, it’s as if, with the big red Sonderkommando ‘X’ on his back, he becomes a ghost while still alive; and like Ausländer’s life, every state of being Son of Saul puts us through feels very temporary indeed.

— Nick James, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

Sunset Song

Sunset Song (2015)

Sunset Song (2015)

Terence Davies
UK-Luxembourg 2015
With Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie
135 mins
UK distribution Metrodome Distribution Ltd

Davies has filmed this adaptation of Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic 1932 novel on a combination of lavish 65mm film (for exterior scenes) and high-grade digital, across a variety of locations (Scotland, New Zealand, Luxembourg). In the ravishing opening sequence, it becomes clear that the IMAX setting is an apt fit. The camera drifts calmly and vertiginously across a vast field of golden corn, only halting when it locates a hunched figure hidden among the ears. A girl slowly unfurls herself to sit upright: it is protagonist Chris (Agyness Deyn), and this striking image – simple yet potent – speaks eloquently to the themes which define the forthcoming narrative: the literal emergence of a woman into adulthood, and her relationship with the land around her.

Davies then takes us into Chris’s farm homestead, which is presided over by John Guthrie (Peter Mullan), an abusive father figure every bit as terrifying as the one played by Pete Postlethwaite in Davies’ feature debut Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). In the film’s first hour, his ranting has the unfortunate effect of drawing the focus away from Chris, who’s supposed to be the subject. It’s only when Mullan exits the picture that the film comes alive, and Deyn gets to show what she can do. She shares great chemistry with the young actor Kevin Guthrie, who gives the film’s best performance as Chris’s paramour, beginning as soft and pliable as a woodland creature, but hardening before our eyes as the spectre of World War One descends on Scotland, and his idealism seeps away.

A final-act transition to war-movie territory is tonally unbalancing, and Davies doesn’t quite land his ending with the emotional force he’s aiming for. Nevertheless, he has composed a rich drama about the pleasures and strains of labour, the realities of adulthood in a harsh climate and the indomitability of the Scottish spirit.

— from Ashley Clark’s first-look review from Toronto

 

The rest of the programme (in alphabetical order)

Aferim!

Aferim!

Aferim!

Radu Jude
Romania-Bulgaria-Czech Republic 2015
With Teodor Corban, Mihai Comănoiu, Cuzin Toma
108 mins
UK distribution STUDIOCANAL

The title is an ironic Romanian borrowing of an Ottoman Turkish expression meaning ‘Bravo!’ In early 19th-century Wallachia, all gypsies are enslaved. Costandin (Teodor Corban), a clumsy old buffer of a constable, has been given a mission by a local boyar to track down a gypsy runaway who’s accused of raping the boyar’s wife. Costandin’s scrawny son, a trainee in the policing trade, is along for the ride, but it’s his flintlock and sabre that will be required first should anything go awry.

So natural-seeming, well-observed and meticulously researched are the incidents these two encounter – involving priests, rival police, intimidated peasantry, terrified gypsies and so on – that the film combines the best pleasures of historical romp, road movie and western. Everything is authentic in feel and look but never attention-grabbing. The film simply says, ‘This is how it was: crude, brutal and idiotic.’ Combined with that ease of period, however, is a rich plundering of the language and prejudices of its time, which is likely to make you gasp and laugh despite yourself.

— Nick James, reporting from Berlin in our [[embed type=link nid=24519 title=”April 2015 issue

Read more in Berlinale 2015: the prizes

 

The Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One
Volume 2, The Desolate One
Volume 3, The Enchanted One

Arabian Nights (As Mil e Uma Noites, 2015)

Arabian Nights (As Mil e Uma Noites, 2015)

(As Mil e Uma Noites – Volume 1, O Inquieto, Volume 2, O Desolado, Volume 3, O Encantado)
Miguel Gomes
Portugal-France-Germany-Switzerland 2015
With Crista Alfaiate, Adriano Luz, Américo Silva, Chico Chapas, Luísa Cruz, Carloto Cotta, Jing Jing Guo
125 mins — 131 mins — 126 mmins
UK distribution New Wave Films/MUBI

The most ambitious, industrious undertaking at this year’s Cannes was Miguel Gomes’s 381-minute maze-like triptych Arabian Nights, a quasi-adaptation of the classic Middle Eastern folktales. Gomes is one of only a few auteurs to tackle the financial crisis head on and this portrait of his native Portugal mixes fiction, documentary (informed by journalists’ extensive research) and absurdism where most would favour intimate social realism (see Stéphane Brizé’s The Measure of a Man, below).

At the film’s outset, the camera bobs alongside a Portuguese shipyard, taking in the mass of laid-off workers lined up on its harbour to a soundtrack of their testimonies of the glory days of busy industry there, while silent cranes loom like giant gravestones in the background. By the end of Gomes’s animal- and water-obsessed epic, he has mingled banal and opulent stories and spectacles – about wasp plagues, teenage firefighters, chaffinch hunters, talking cockerels, protests, an unwanted dog, evictions, an exploded whale – and in the film’s most riveting chapter, Scheherazade herself and her plight as a doomed storyteller.

If his denunciations of government austerity can seem too smugly farcical at times (such as his fable ‘The Tale of the Men with Hard-Ons’) and some imaginative stories drift on too long, there is always a deliriously surprising turn in waiting, along with moments of outré visual experimentation (split screens, double exposure, upside-down landscapes) and Gomes’s trademark wistful pop soundtrack. It’s a film about escapism that manages to mine the desperation and precarious lives of ordinary people too. How it will be released in the UK remains to be seen, but the three elements deserve to be seen as closely together as possible.

— Isabel Stevens, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

The Brand New Testament

The Brand New Testament (Le Tout Nouveau Testament, 2015)

The Brand New Testament (Le Tout Nouveau Testament, 2015)

(Le tout nouveau testament)
Jaco Van Dormael
Belgium 2015
With Benoît Poelvoorde, Catherine Deneuve, Yolande Moreau
113 mins
UK distribution Metrodome Distribution Ltd

A joyous satire in which the daughter of a malicious God sets out to unruin the world he created.

Benoît Poelvoorde plays the robe and slippers-wearing old git who first creates Brussels (using a laptop), fills it with animals, then gets pleasure from the sod’s laws he inflicts on his new creations, the humans. His locked-up teenage daughter has had enough of his cruelty, and so, with the help of her deceased older brother JC, she breaks out of their apartment and begins collecting her own offbeat apostles.

This is a film of almost ceaseless invention. There are a few feeble and sentimental moments, but overall Dormael’s best film in more than 20 years wins through.

— Nick James, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

The Club

The Club (2015)

The Club (2015)

(El Club)
Pablo Larraín
Chile 2015
With Roberto Farías, Antonia Zegers, Alfredo Castro
97 mins
UK distribution Network Releasing

This Berlinale Grand Jury Prize-winner opens with an expansive beach scene, shot in the magic hour, the music of Arvo Pärt playing and a windsurfer skimming the water in the distance as a man plays with his sleek greyhound. How typical, you might think, of late Terrence Malick! But the director is Pablo Larraín, and his intention with this spiky, intricately woven black comedy is not to open our eyes to the sublime but rather to toy with such notions and expose the iniquities of organised religion.

The title refers to four priests and a nun, Monica (Antonia Zegers), all of whom live discreetly in an isolated house in a beach town under an ordered, cosy regime part-funded by racing their very fast greyhound. After a new arrival, Father Lazcano (José Soza), is delivered to their door, a stranger, Sandokan (Roberto Farías), arrives and begins to barrack the house with obscene descriptions of what Lazcano did to him sexually, as a boy. A tragic death follows, and so Father García (Marcelo Alonso), a handsome quasi-psychologist, is sent to clean up the consequences; but instead the mire gets deeper and stickier, matching the grainy look of Sergio Armstrong’s cinematography.

— Nick James, reporting from Berlin in our April 2015 issue

 

Dheepan

Dheepan (2015)

Dheepan (2015)

Jacques Audiard
France 2015
With Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby
110 mins
UK distribution STUDIOCANAL

The title character of Audiard’s Dheepan is a Tamil Tiger veteran (played by a compelling Jesuthasan Antonythasan) who hurriedly assembles a fake family out of himself and two other refugees in order to escape Sri Lanka after the rebel war has been lost to the government. Dheepan gets a job as the caretaker of a banlieue block in France, while his ‘wife’ Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) finds a position looking after the ailing godfather of a drug gang now run by his son.

Though there are pointers that some kind of painful ending is brewing, much of the time the film holds out the hope that it might be a searing, low-key realist tale of survival and violence spurned; but in a final leap of tone giddily out of proportion to what we have seen, Dheepan’s experience as a warrior is required to free them again from new dire circumstances.

It’s a consummately made work, and had it stayed truer to the tone established throughout I would have no quibble with the Palme d’Or prize awarded it at Cannes. As it is, it’s as if the Coen brothers-led jury had rewarded a Taxi Driver ending tacked on to a Dardennes brothers film.

— Nick James, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

Ernie Biscuit

Ernie Biscuit (2015)

Ernie Biscuit (2015)

Adam Elliot
Australia 2015
21 mins

Tantalising animation prospects in this year’s festival include new films from Hosoda Mamoru (The Boy and the Beast) and Studio Ghibli’s Yonebayashi Hiromasa (When Marnie Was There), though of course adult fans will have to will have to comb the mixed-technique short-film compilations dispersed throughout the programme for animation that isn’t installed in the Family strand.

One such is this new piece from Australian ‘clayographer’ Adam Elliot, six years after his feature masterwork Mary and Max and returning to the 20-minute form of his breakthrough Harvie Krumpet. Though it narrates half the life of a typical Elliot troglodyte – a deaf and elective-mute taxidermist in mid-twentieth-century Paris – through various tragedies and misdemeanours, it marks perhaps something of a narrative experiment for Elliot, dwelling less on the comedy of afflictions (this universe is only passingly cruel) and adventuring more scenes of dynamic action, notably a knockabout prologue involving a pigeon, a balloon and a Notre Dame gargoyle’s loosened stone eye reminiscent of Sylvain Chomet’s The Old Lady and the Pigeon, and a sudden-jeopardy finale which is crying out for the wit and timing of Nick Park.

There’s also less interiority to Ernie’s latter-day paramour Angelina, a blind lighthouse keeper’s daughter who makes for a somewhat conventional romantic foil: they bond by morse code, a gag that cuts us out from seeing or hearing their bond. But if Elliot isn’t entirely playing to all his strengths, it must be said that his sad-sack grotesque character designs are here in force, and so too his lovey whimsical, sardonic way with words (Angelina’s previous beau was “an enigma wrapped in a moustache, floating in a bottle of virility”).

— Nick Bradshaw

 

The Hard Stop

The Hard Stop (2015)

The Hard Stop (2015)

George Amponsah
UK 2015
90 mins

This moving, smartly-assembled slice of nonfiction filmmaking closely follows the fortunes of Kurtis and Marcus, two young Tottenham men struggling to adapt to everyday life in the aftermath of the police killing of their friend, Mark Duggan – an incident which sparked widespread unrest across the UK in 2011.

Amponsah eschews sensationalism in favour of a measured approach, digging deep into the men’s personal stories and displaying sensitivity as an unobtrusive interviewer. He underscores their testimony by including carefully-chosen archive footage (like the Broadwater Farm disturbances of 1985), and dismaying stats about historical police brutality in the UK. A complex, impressively macrocosmic study of race, class and family thus emerges from microcosmic roots.

— Ashley Clark

 

Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Film

Programmed by Bryony Dixon and Margaret Deriaz
Edited by Douglas Weir
Music composed and performed by Lillian Henley
UK 1899-1917
80 mins
UK distribution BFI

The early twentieth-century suffragettes took advantage of a growing medium to position themselves front and centre in cinema newsreels and “make more noise”, in the instructive words of Emmeline Pankhurst. The films in this compilation of suffragette films from the BFI document the campaign for female suffrage from 1899 to 1917, and stand as proof that the campaign she partly led still fires the public imagination, and that her arguments bear repeating.

There are scenes of marches, protests and by-elections, and the notorious, and chilling, footage of the Epsom Derby in 1913 when Emily Davison fell under the hooves of the King’s horse, and moving footage of her funeral. Other films tell the story of women’s changing role in British society across the first two decades of the 20th century. In the crude slapstick of 1899’s Women’s Rights, two men in drag play matrons gossiping by a fence, who become outraged when they discover that two scamps have nailed their hems to the boards. A decade later, Alma Taylor and Chrissie White run riot in a pair of 1911 ‘Tilly Girl’ films, as mischievous sisters who flirt with chaps and defy authority in a refreshingly modern manner.

As the years pass the sex war ramps up, with husbands and wives battling over the roles in the home. Yet two of the most powerful sequences in the anthology derive from the campaign ceasefire at the onset of WWI to contribute to the war effort.

— Pamela Hutchinson, from a feature to be published in our forthcoming November 2015 issue.

  • Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film is released in UK cinemas on 23 October, with music by Lillian Henley.
 

The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man (La Loi du Marche, 2015)

The Measure of a Man (La Loi du Marche, 2015)

(La Loi du marché)
Stéphane Brizé
France 2015
With Vincent Lindon
93 mins
UK distribution New Wave Films

A spot-on satire of global market capitalism which follows 51-year-old Thierry, an ordinary guy searching for a job who is taken on as a security guard in a supermarket. (Thierry is played by the ever-excellent Vincent Lindon, who deservedly won the Best Actor prize at Cannes.) Various staff members (played with quiet dignity by non-actors) are questioned about petty pilfering, and the management talk a familiar fake language of corporate concern for the individual, but the film leaves out dramatic arrests, concentrating instead on their consequence. It’s a low-key, soberly incisive work.

— Nick James, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

Mountains May Depart

Mountains May Depart (Shan He Gu Ren, 2015)

Mountains May Depart (Shan He Gu Ren, 2015)

(Shan he gu ren)
Jia Zhangke
China-Japan-France 2015
With Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi, Liang Jin Dong
131 mins
UK distribution New Wave Films

Mountains May Depart tackles the same subject as many of Jia’s previous films – the momentous overhaul of Chinese society – and it contains some of the fantastical flourishes he is so well known for. But few would anticipate a roving, futurist melodrama following four characters’ thwarted search for home and happiness, told with a rousing string soundtrack and occasionally very conventional shot-reverse-shot camerawork (the startling landscape vistas of the northern mining town setting are the exception), all launched by an aerobics class jigging to Pet Shop Boys’ Go West. It is a three-act film spanning a quarter of a century, with each time-jump – from 1999 to 2014 to 2025 – signalled by a different aspect ratio.

The film’s anchor is Zhao Tao’s aerobics instructor turned lonely bourgeois mother, first the object of obsession, then embroiled in a bitter divorce. The final, stilted futuristic Melbourne-set chapter, concerning her estranged teenage son, is the film’s one disappointment, but when the focus returns to Zhao it is a potent, melancholy story of money-obsession and fractured relationships.

— Isabel Stevens, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

  • See also Walter Salles’ new documentary Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang.
 

My Golden Days

My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, 2015)

My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, 2015)

(Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)
Arnaud Desplechin
France 2015
With Quentin Dolmaire, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, Mathieu Amalric
123 mins
UK distribution New Wave Films

A companion piece to Desplechin’s 1996 film My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument, My Golden Days looks back to the formative years of that film’s twentysomething academic Paul Dedalus (again played by Mathieu Amalric, with a magnetic Quentin Dolmaire portraying the character’s teenage self) and his fledgling relationship with siren Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). In its digressive narrative, the film balances thrills, unexpected humour and psychological unease. It’s far from just a charming nostalgia trip, showcasing a multitude of cinematic tricks (from a recurring iris effect to actors addressing the camera), but one that always makes sure to sketch emotions sincerely.

— Isabel Stevens, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

One Floor Below

One Floor Below (Un Etaj Mai Jos, 2015)

One Floor Below (Un Etaj Mai Jos, 2015)

(Un etaj mai jos)
Radu Muntean
Romania-Germany-France-Sweden 2015
With Teodor Corban, Iulian Postelnicu, Oxana Moravec
93 mins

Muntean’s One Floor Below follows the pattern of so many Romanian successes of recent years: a bleak and sticky situation develops around a potential crime that causes the build-up of psychological pressures of a Dostoevskian nature. Patrascu (Teodor Corban), a man who deals in car registrations, is climbing his apartment block stairs when he overhears a violent argument between a husband and his wife. The next day, the wife is found dead, but when the police visit Patrascu, he says nothing. Afterward, Vali Dima (Iulian Postelnicu), the husband from the floor below, begins to infiltrate Patrascu’s life in small ways, wanting to repay him for his silence. How Patrascu deals with this is the poignant heart of a film of exact mood and intense downplayed expression which maintains the very high standard of Romanian social realism but is really more interested in psychology than social circumstances.

— Nick James, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

Our Little Sister

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, 2015)

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, 2015)

(Umimachi Diary)
Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Japan 2015
With Ayase Haruka, Nagasawa Masami, Kaho
128 mins
UK distribution Curzon Artificial Eye

This saga about four sisters who live together in a coastal town and take in their teenage half-sister beautifully showcases Koreeda’s Ozu-indebted formal delicacy and his aptitude for depicting everyday life and family dynamics. Its unabashed sentimentality actually makes the makeshift family utopia built by the sisters (soon, one fears, to disappear) all the more affecting. However, despite the loneliness and resentment lurking beneath many of the exchanges in the film, one abrupt farewell aside, it never quite musters the potent sadness that haunts Koreeda’s best work.

— Isabel Stevens, reporting from Cannes in our July 2015 issue

 

Paulina

Paulina (2015)

Paulina (2015)

(La patota)
Santiago Mitre
Argentina-Brazil-France 2015
With Dolores Fonzi, Oscar Martinez, Esteban Lamothe
103 mins

Argentine writer and director Santiago Mitre’s Cannes Critics’ Week Grand Prix-winner is a psychologically nuanced exploration of political idealism.

Paulina abandons a promising future as a lawyer to teach politics to young kids in a rural province of Argentina. Her arrival in the small town where she is to teach, a region brutalised by deforestation, is immediately disappointing: the students are unreceptive, opting to walk out of the classroom rather than engage in a philosophical debate about freedom of choice, choosing action over the rhetoric she offers. Riding home from her co-worker Laura’s house after a few bottles of wine, Paulina is attacked and raped by a gang of local boys, though it is initially unclear what has happened to her.

With shifting focus and flashbacks, the film begins a complex review of the actions and motivations of several of its characters. The distancing effect of this superfluity of viewpoints is unsettling, making a conventional or empathetic response difficult. Though Paulina is almost constantly onscreen, she remains inscrutable, and it’s testament to Dolores Fonzi’s performance that the character remains a magnetic presence even despite her impenetrability.

As Paulina isolates everyone around her, so Mitre denies his audience an emotional engagement, pushing us towards a more complex understanding of his protagonist’s behaviour. Skirting a satisfying resolution, the film offers a difficult examination of the human body as a site of political conflict; of politics made personal, and ideals taken to extreme ends.

— from Chloe Roddick’s first-look Cannes review

 

Right Now, Wrong Then

Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da, 2015)

Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da, 2015)

(Jigeumeun matgo geuttaeneun teullida)
Hong Sang-soo
South Korea 2015
With Jung Jae-young, Kim Min-hee
121 mins

Winner of Locarno’s Golden Leopard, Hong Sang-soo’s marvellous and wise new comedy is divided in two, and the second part repeats the first almost precisely: call it GroundHong Day. Arriving in a snowy small college town for a campus screening of his work, a well-known filmmaker (Jeong Jaeyoung) is smitten by a young painter (Kim Minhee) and tries to pick her up; he mostly fails miserably, after which the film resets to zero and he gets another shot, albeit seemingly oblivious to the events that have already taken place onscreen.

Hong has always been brilliant at wringing variations on a basic formula (men + women + soju = comedy), but here, that idea of incremental revision, and the ripple effect of small choices, is the actual subject of the film. Whether one interprets the style of Right Now, Wrong Then as magic realism or pure formalism, the effect is beguiling.

— Adam Nayman

 

Taxi Tehran

Taxi (2015)

Taxi (2015)

Jafar Panahi
Iran 2015
82 mins
UK distribution New Wave Films

A wry comedy of manners set in the confines of a car, Panahi’s followup to Closed Curtain made an unusually small-scale winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale festival.

Panahi himself plays a taxi driver, looking gauche in glasses and a flat cap, and his pick-ups tend to recognise him as a local celebrity (a double bluff, since we twig they’re all his actors). Seemingly off-the-cuff, amusing and sometimes spiky conversations bubble up as he drives around Tehran. In the first, a petty crook in the front seat opines that kids who steal car tyres should be hanged, thereby irritating a middle-class woman in the back, who upbraids him for his lack of heart. Next comes a drily comic seller of pirated DVDs who has to share the lift with two old ladies who want to return a pair of goldfish in a glass bowl to a shrine – an accident waiting to happen.

When later Panahi picks up his sharp young niece, who also totes a movie camera and harbours her own ideas about cinema, what seemed at first like a gentle tribute to Kiarostami’s 10 (2002) becomes a delicious, affectionate multi-levelled parody. By the end, helped by Panahi’s own oddball charm and willingness to send himself up, this intricate revision of the what-can-a-director-under-government-restriction-make deftly turns its dilemma into a brilliant solution.

— Nick James, reporting from Berlin in our April 2015 issue

 

Variety

Variety (1928)

Variety (1928)

EA Dupont
Germany 1925
With Emil Jannings, Lya de Putti, Warwick Ward
95 mins
Sales Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung
UK distribution Eureka Entertainment

Debuting in Berlin a year after Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), and sharing a studio (Ufa), cinematographer (Karl Freund) and star (Emil Jannings), Variety once had an almost comparable reputation. Set among the trapeze artists of the Berlin Wintergarten, Dupont’s choice of source material, a popular novel, seems likely to have been heavily informed by the opportunities it provided for Freund to continue his experiments in camera mobility.

Jannings plays an ex-performer and peep-show operator who is seduced by one of his dancers (Lya De Putti) into abandoning his family and returning to the big top. Erotic satisfaction and professional rebirth go hand in hand, but not – as we know from the frame story, in which Jannings’s character confesses his crimes to a prison governor – for very long. Siegfried Kracauer included it in a cycle of German films in which “the leading character breaks away from the social conventions to grasp life”, only to find himself inevitably forced into “submission or suicide”.

What is most striking now is its focus on voyeurism. One scene in which we see a topless acrobat reflected in the opera glasses of her rapt audience is strongly reminiscent of the opening sequence of Hitchcock’s debut film, The Pleasure Garden (1926); others bring to mind The Ring (1927), Hitchcock’s first film for British International Pictures, where Dupont went on to make Piccadilly (1929).

Restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and Austrian Filmarchiv, this Varieté is the closest possible approximation of the version first shown in Germany in 1925, the negative of which is lost.

— from Henry K Miller’s DVD review in our October 2015 issue

 

Victoria

Victoria (2015)

Victoria (2015)

Sebastian Schipper
Germany 2015
With Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski
140 mins
UK distribution Curzon Artificial Eye

Schipper’s technically accomplished Victoria is a nice-girl-meets-dodgy-gang overnight drama that happens convincingly in real time and was shot in one take. Victoria (Laia Costa) is a young middle-class Spanish woman getting smashed in a nightclub who hooks up with an up-for-it bunch of drunken Berlin boys led by Sonne (Frederick Lau). As as she gets to know them better she realises she is becoming entangled in an increasingly dangerous situation. It’s the kind of story where you have to discount mounting implausibilities and go with the energy and emotion, and if you do the tension becomes almost unendurable.

— Nick James, reporting from Berlin in our April 2015 issue

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