Friday, September 09, 2011

Preview - The BFI London Film Festival 2011

During the month of October I will be doing very little aside from watching films, talking about films, writing about films and – probably – dreaming about films. Yes, the London Film Festival is back, and after attending the press launch on Wednesday morning, I have spent the last couple of days working out exactly what I want to watch from this year's programme. The festival is divided into various strands, and I've picked out a few highlights to look out for from each one.

Galas and Special Screenings

This year's collection of gala films is generally a safe, predictable and disappointingly dull one (both Clooney films? Come on...), but there are a handful of potential gems here. I've already seen We Need to Talk About Kevin, a gripping and deeply unsettling adaptation (and, I think, improvement) of Lionel Shriver's novel. Tilda Swinton gives a stunning lead performance and Lynne Ramsey displays an unerring control of the material, producing a series of vivid images and utilising some expert sound design. Others I'm excited about include the closing night film The Deep Blue Sea, an adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's play which marks Terence Davies' first narrative feature in a decade and stars the reliably excellent Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston. The Dardenne brothers are also filmmakers you can rely on to produce something special, and they return with their new film The Kid With a Bike, while Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender (who worked together on the outstanding Hunger) reunite for New York-based sex drama Shame. But the two galas I'm most excited about are silent features, made eighty years apart. Newly restored, Miles Mander's The First Born will be presented at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with a new score from Stephen Horne, while Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist is a new silent film that recreates the cinema of the 1920's. Having enjoyed Hazanavicius' OSS:117 collaborations with the brilliant Jean Dujardin, I can't think of a better pair to pay homage to that bygone era.

Film on the Square

New films from Giorgos Lanthimos, Werner Herzog and Hirokazu Kore-eda are on offer in this section of the programme. I've tried to avoid reading anything about Alps because I went into the stunning Dogtooth cold and want to experience this film in the same way. Herzog's Into the Abyss takes the inimitable director to an American prison to interview inmates on death row, while I Wish is a return to contemporary family drama from Kore-eda after the eccentric (and, for me, disappointing) Air Doll. The indefatigable Fred Wiseman's latest documentary goes behind the scenes at the Crazy Horse cabaret club in Paris, while Takashi Miike returns with Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, which has a lot to live up to after 13 Assassins was one of the hits of LFF 2010. I'm intrigued by Andrea Arnold's adaptation of Wuthering Heights and by the fact that Sean Penn appears to be playing Dorian from Birds of a Feather in Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be the Place, but perhaps the most enticing prospect here is Miss Bala, the new film from Gerardo Naranjo, which received some extraordinary reactions at Cannes. I've already seen one and a half of the films in this strand – Take Shelter is an absorbing, slow-burning drama that features an incredible performance from Michael Shannon, but I was rather relieved when my screening of Miranda July's The Future ended after an hour thanks to a power cut. I won't be going back to find out what happens to that damn cat.

New British Cinema

The films in this group are mostly unknown quantities, but that means there's hopefully a lot of potential for exciting surprises. I've certainly got my eye on Dreams of a Life, a documentary reconstruction of a desperately sad story, and Shock Head Soul uses similar techniques to tell the story of Daniel Paul Shreber. Junkhearts has a strong cast, including a welcome lead role for Eddie Marsan, while Richard Jobson's The Somnambulists sounds like a bold experiment and Andrew Haigh's gay romance Weekend is one I'll be keeping my eye out for. But really, everything in this section deserves some consideration.

French Revolutions

I always enjoy a good workplace movie and so my interest was piqued by the Jean-Pierre Darroussin-starring Early One Morning even before the programme compared it to the excellent Time Out. I also enjoy the physical comedy of filmmaking team Abel, Gordon and Remy that has been displayed in their films Iceberg and Rumba, so the presence of their new picture The Fairy in the lineup is cheering, while the endearingly weird Dominik Moll presents The Monk. Elsewhere in this section, I like the look of 17 Girls, Guilty and Nobody Else But You and I'm keen to see if Mathieu Amalric builds on the promise of his directorial debut On Tour with his new film The Screen Illusion.

Cinema Europa

I'm not sure if I'll get to enjoy what looks like one of the most daring projects in the festival, but I feel it deserves to be highlighted. Dreileben brings together three directors for a trio of loosely linked features, all of which are sparked by the same event. The festival is screening the three films together and separately, and I hope I can find time to catch them. Elsewhere, a couple of directors whose previous work has impressed me have new features in the festival. Andrei Zvyagintsev, who made a stunning debut with The Return, has now directed Elena, while Ruben Östlund, director of Involuntary, returns with Play. There's also the documentary Whore's Glory, the new film from Andreas Dresen Stopped on Track and the ambitious Russian dystopian epic Target to look out for.

World Cinema

This is perhaps the most eclectic collection of films in the festival, with features from familiar powerhouses of the international cinema scene and offerings from countries whose film culture is less widely recognised lining up alongside each other. From Japan, there's Mitsuko Delivers, a new film from the director of last year's charming Sawako Decides; from America there's two films from Joe Swanberg (Uncle Kent and Silver Bullets); from Iran there's persecuted director Jafar Panahi in This is Not a Film and the excellent actress Leyla Zareh in Goodbye; from China we have comedy-adventure blockbuster Let the Bullets Fly. I'm intrigued by the taboo-breaking Indian film Asshole, the South African film Beauty from director Oliver Hermanus (whose Shirley Adams I admired in 2009), Egyptian true-life tale Asmaa and Sri Lanka's Flying Fish. There's also a collection of films representing New African Cinema and a couple of Tibetan features: Old Dog and The Sun-Beaten Path. I can't wait to expand my cinematic horizons here.

Experimenta/Short Cuts & Animation

I'll be honest. Every year I promise myself that I'll seriously explore the experimenta and shorts strands but every year I fail to find sufficient time in my schedule. I'm approaching this year's festival with the same good intentions, as Twenty Cigarettes and The Pettifogger catching my eye among the experimental offerings, while a couple of the shorts collections – notably The Suburbs and Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean They're Not After You – show some promise. Will I actually see any of these films? Watch this space!

Treasures From the Archives

Every year when I first get my hands on the programme, this is the section I eagerly flick through to – and what riches I discovered this year! Pick of the bunch is undoubtedly Shin heike monogatari, a 1955 film from Kenji Mizoguchi (and one of his only two colour features) that receives a rare screening here. The other archive feature that stood out is The Machine That Kills Bad People, a very atypical Rossellini film about a man who discovers that his camera has the ability to take lives. The director himself described this foray into surreal humour as "an isolated experiment," and I'm not going to miss this chance to see it. There are a couple of great-looking silents as well; The Nail in the Boot + Shoes from Russia (with the BFI's Soviet cinema season having stoked my interest in the country's early filmmaking efforts this year) and an American feature called The Goose Woman, starring Louise Dresser. Finally, I really want to make time to see Barbara Loden's Wanda, Elia Kazan's America, America, the Turkish thriller Law of the Border and a new 4k restoration of Les enfants du paradis. I know everyone flocks to the LFF to see exciting new films, but please don't forget to check out this section of the programme. This is where the real treasure is buried.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 12th to 17th at venues around the capital, and I'll be providing extensive coverage here throughout the month.