Thursday, September 13, 2007

Preview - The BFI London Film Festival 2007

The 51st annual London Film Festival kicks off on October 17th with David Cronenberg’s thriller Eastern Promises, and it closes on November 1st with Wes Anderson’s latest quirk-fest The Darjeeling Limited. In the two intervening weeks a remarkable variety of films from around the globe will be on show, and one glance at the full line-up, which was announced today, seems to suggest a particularly strong year. I’ve selected a few films below which I am particularly excited about, although one of the chief pleasures of the festival is always the fact that it can throw up gems in the most unlikely places.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
(Andrew Dominik)

Brad Pitt stars as James and Casey Affleck takes the role of his killer in this western from Australian director Andrew Dominik, his first film since his outstanding debut Chopper seven years ago. Pitt won Best Actor at Venice for this film, which looks like a throwback to the brooding, thoughtful genre entries of the 70’s. If nothing else, it certainly offers one of the best titles of the year.

Back to Normandy
(Nicolas Philibert)
Acclaimed documentarian Nicolas Philibert delves into his past for his follow-up to the hugely popular Être et avoir. In 1975 Philibert worked as an assistant director on a film called Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mère, ma soeur et mon frère..., and he now revisits the area in which that picture was shot, tracking down the participants and talking to them about their memories and experiences three decades on.

The Banishment
(Andreï Zviaguintsev)
This is the second film from Russian director Zviaguintsev who made one of the greatest films of the 21st century with his 2003 debut The Return. As a result, expectations are extremely high for this film, a loose adaptation of a William Sorayan story which examines an increasingly strained marriage. If Zviaguintsev's new picture is even half as memorable as his first then it will be one of the highlights of the festival.

Brand Upon the Brain!
(Guy Maddin)

A new film from Guy Maddin demands the attention, and his latest picture is his most ambitious effort yet. Brand Upon the Brain! has been presented with a live orchestra, celebrity narration and a foley artist at various international festivals; but it’s unclear at the moment if the LFF will be offering the full experience. However it’s staged, though, this is one film which is not to be missed.

The Edge of Heaven
(Fatih Akin)
Like his brilliant 2004 film Head-On, faith Akin’s The Edge of Heaven is another story exploring the lives of second-generation Turks living in Germany. It focuses on the relationship between a lonely man and a prostitute, and it one can be assured that this exciting young filmmaker will take this relationship to some unexpected and interesting places.

Funny Games
(Michael Haneke)
This one could go either way. One wonders why Haneke has felt the need to remake his masterful 1997 film on American soil, but if the picture was going to get an English-language remake then I suppose he’s the best man for the job. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth take on the lead roles, and Haneke is certainly good enough to ratchet up the tension a second time. It’s hard to see the point of it, though.

Glory to the Filmmaker!
(Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano)

Kitano has drifted away from the popular and gripping gangster films which made his name in recent years (his last film, Takeshis’, remains unreleased here), and Glory to the Filmmaker promises to be his most bizarre picture yet. It has been described as Kitano’s 8 ½, and God alone knows what that might be like, but I can’t wait to see what this unpredictable director has in store.

I’m Not There
(Todd Haynes)
Heath Ledger stars as Bob Dylan. So does Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett, and three other actors... Haynes’s unconventional biopic, using a different actor to explore the various stages of Dylan’s life will certainly be a strange affair. Blanchett’s performance has drawn most of the attention so far, with Harvey Weinstein declaring, “if Cate Blanchett doesn’t get nominated, I’ll shoot myself”. Er, can we hold him to that?

Lions for Lambs
(Robert Redford)
Redford! Streep! Cruise! The LFF receives a shot of pure Hollywood glitz with this political drama, surely the highest-profile film yet to directly tackle the current war in Iraq. Redford is also directing - which could mean anything from the Legend of Bagger Vance to Quiz Show - but given the strong cast and the serious themes, let’s hope it’s more like the latter.

Lust, Caution
(Ang Lee)

The latest film from a director who has been one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers of the past decade (okay, let’s forget about Hulk for now) is a spy thriller set in 1940’s China. The great Tony Leung stars alongside newcomer Tang Wei in a film which has already received notices for its sexual content. To their credit, the filmmakers have refused to cut their movie for its US release, taking the NC-17 rating and ensuring viewers will see the film as its director intended.

Things We Lost in the Fire
(Susanne Bier)
The central plot of Things We Lost in the Fire sounds like the stuff of cheap melodrama – a woman trying to rebuild her life after tragedy, who forms a friendship with a drug addict. However, this film has been directed by Susanne Bier, the Danish filmmaker whose ability to turn soapy plots into emotionally demanding dramas has seen her carve out a hugely impressive body of work over the past few years. Things We Lost in the Fire is her English-language debut, starring Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro and David Duchovny, and one hopes the edginess and full-on intensity of Bier’s work doesn’t get lost in translation.


Steve Buscemi (whose new film Interview is playing here) will be discussing his work as both an actor and a director, Harmony Korine will be interviewed about his distinctive oeuvre, and Wes Anderson will be along for an interview ahead of the closing night gala. Robert Rodriguez will here for a chat (his Planet Terror is in the festival programme, although it still hasn’t received a UK release date), and Laura Linney, one of the best actresses currently working, will be appearing at the NFT to discuss her career. Paul Greengrass will be receiving the Variety UK Achievement in Film Award, and he will sit down for an interview after the presentation, while David Lynch and Donovan will discuss the ways meditation has changed their life and work (seriously!).

The Surprise Film

This, of course, could be anything, but it’s always pretty exciting to sit down in front of a film without having a clue what you’re about to see. Recent entries have been both good (School of Rock, Sideways) and not so good (Mrs Henderson Presents, The Prestige), so it's hard to predict how this screening will go. Generally, one starts the speculation by looking for a film which would normally appear in the main festival programme, and which appears conspicuous by its absence. So, with that in mind, I am on my hands and knees praying for the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Perhaps that’s too much to hope for, but we can dream....