Although much of the build-up to this year's BFI London Film Festival was marked by grumblings about the press accreditation fee and the move to the rather uninspiring surroundings of the Cineworld Trocadero, the official launch of the festival this week put the focus back where it should be – on the films themselves. At first glance, the programme assembled by Clare Stewart and her team is the best in years, containing almost all of the big hitters from 2013's various festivals as well as numerous small but intriguing pictures from around the world. Once again, the awkward structure of the festival – divided into sections such as Love, Laugh, Debate and Thrill – can make it difficult to navigate, so I've investigated the LFF programme and highlighted films that I think everyone should consider. With many of the bigger films already scheduled for a UK release in 2013 (some while the festival is still running!) the focus here will largely be on pictures that might not reach British cinemas for a while or – as is often the case – may never screen here again.
While past Gala screenings have often appeared to be selected for star power rather than cinematic value, this year's selection is the most interesting and diverse for some years. The festival is bookended by Tom Hanks films, opening with Captain Phillips (exciting!) and closing with Saving Mr Banks (less exciting!), although I may skip the latter as the trailer shown at the launch seemed to reveal every detail of the film in just a couple of minutes. Films like Gravity, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Nebraska and Philomena are all set for release before the year's end, and while the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis and Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave are enticing, they'll both be released in January 2014. Personally, I'm most excited about Night Moves, the new film from Kelly Reichardt, who I think is one of the best filmmakers currently working in America, and Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best!, which will hopefully regain the spirit and charm of his earliest films. Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake and Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive come highly recommended from Cannes, and I'll be checking out Mystery Road, a thriller from Australian director Ivan Sen, who made a striking debut with Toomelah in 2011. Finally, despite my recommendation that films with imminent release dates should be overlooked, I'll be making an exception for the Archive Gala screening of The Epic of Everest, which will be presented with a live orchestral score from Simon Fisher Turner. The Great White Silence was one of the clear highlights of LFF 2010, and this has the potential to be an equally memorable experience.
The films chosen for the Official Competition are a very eclectic bunch, covering a wide range of tones and genres, and sometimes it's hard to see why certain pictures have been included here at all – the nomination of Parkland sticks out like a sore thumb following the widespread derision that greeted its Venice debut. There are some very interesting offerings here, though. Catherine Breillat returns to reality following her dalliance in the world fairytales with Abuse of Weakness, an autobiographical film starring Isabelle Huppert as a film director recovering from a stroke. Jahmil XT Qubeka's Of Good Report has already made headlines this year, having been banned in South Africa for child pornography, despite the fact that the actress playing a student in the film's central relationship is 23 years old. The film certainly promises to be one of the festivals' toughest viewing experiences (and I'm still recovering from last year's brutal African drama Accession). I'm intrigued by Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, which will hopefully mark a return to form for him after the disappointing The Woman in the Fifth, and I'm keen to see if Xavier Dolan can build on the success of last year's wonderful Laurence Anyways with his new film Tom at the Farm, while Jonathan Glazer's long-awaited Under the Skin has already proved to be one of 2013's most divisive pictures. Two of India's best actors are united in The Lunchbox, with Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui starring in Ritesh Batra's feature debut, and David Mackenzie's Starred Up also boasts a potentially brilliant pairing with Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn sharing the screen.
First Feature Competition
Film festivals are all about making discoveries and there are few thrills greater than stumbling across an extraordinary work from a first-time director. Last year's Sutherland Award winner was Beasts of the Southern Wild, but none of the films in this year's category arrive with a similarly exalted reputation, so with little to go on this is a good place to take a chance on something different. The first two films that caught my eye here are the Nigerian drama B for Boy, which deals with the plight of a woman under severe pressure to have a male heir, and The Long Way Home, a Turkish tale of wartime survival that sounds right up my street. I'm always interested in new Greek cinema so I'll be making time for Michalis Konstantanos's exotically titled Luton, and David Shoval's Youth intrigues with its casting of brothers Eitan and David Cunio as two teenagers who formulate a get-rich-quick scheme after coming into possession of a firearm. Finally, two British filmmakers are also making their debuts with tales of teenage life – Daniel Patrick Carbone with Hide Your Smiling Faces and Rob Brown with Sixteen. I've neglected to mention half of the pictures in this selection, but in truth they all look worthy of your attention.
The documentary strand is always one of the LFF's strongest, and this year it presents a tantalising combination of work from widely respected masters of the form and intriguing projects from up-and-coming filmmakers. Last year's Grierson Award winner Alex Gibney is back with The Armstrong Lie, his long-in-gestation profile of Lance Armstrong, and any work from Gibney – one of the most consistently excellent directors around – is surely worth seeing. Another documentary great appearing at the festival is Frederick Wiseman, who has taken his unintrusive but keenly observant camera to Berkeley for the four-hour At Berkeley, which is a must-see at the festival as its length and subject matter makes it an unlikely candidate for a UK cinema release. Other directors inviting us to explore places we never usually get to see include Nicolas Philibert, whose La Maison de la Radio goes behind the scenes at Radio France, and Mark Cousins, who continues to shine a light into unexplored corners of the cinematic map with Here Be Dragons. Greg Barker's Manhunt – a documentary about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden – sounds fascinating, and the footage shown from Vitaly Mansky's Pipeline at the LFF launch piqued my curiosity.
This is where things start to get a bit more vague, with the category heading Love actually making it harder to search for films in the programme – a sin compounded by the fact that they have inexplicably folded the Treasures strand into each individual category in the published programme. There are a number of films here that stand out here, however. Of course, Asghar Farhadi's The Past is a must-see given the astounding quality of his work to date, and my interest in the work of Romanian filmmakers ensures I'll be taking a look at Child's Pose, the winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin ahead of fellow contender Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, which also appears here. There are two films here about dealing with the complicated theme of children experiencing a sense of inferiority about their natural appearance – Mariana Rondón's Bad Hair and Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry – while Tomasz Wasilewski describes his Floating Skyscrapers as "Poland's first LGBT film." Filmmakers returning to the LFF include Brillante Mendoza, whose Thy Womb is described as almost dialogue-free, and Katell Quillévéré with Suzanne, while former LFF regular Rituparno Ghosh is included posthumously in the programme with his lkast completed film Jeevan Smitri, a tribute to the great poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore. Those looking for a documentary portrait in this category have some interesting fare to choose from - Bertolucci on Bertolucci and The Sarnos – a Life in Dirty Movies catch the eye – while anyone interested in a more epic experience might be tempted by Philip Gröning's three-hour, 59-chapter domestic abuse drama The Police Officer's Wife.
The two films that immediately demand our attention in this category come from filmmakers who have broken the law in order to make them. Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof are both still subject to a 20-year filmmaking ban imposed by the Iranian government, but both have created new work here with Panahi's Closed Curtain and Rasoulof's Manuscripts Don't Burn. Sometimes the very existence of a film is a vital statement. Andrzej Wajda completes the trilogy begun with Man of Marble and Man of Iron with his new film Wałęsa. Man of Hope, and Claude Lanzmann's The Last of the Unjust centres on an interview the director filmed with Benjamin Murmelstein, unused in his monumental documentary Shoah. Bruce Goodison's Leave to Remain is a drama that has been made in collaboration with young asylum seekers in the UK, and Neus Ballús has similarly hired non-actors to play characters inspired by their own lives in his debut feature The Plague. I'm also drawn to the Polish film Papusza, a film about the Roma poet Bronisława Wajs that was five years in the making, Tatsushi Omori's latest film The Ravine of Goodbye, and the Brazilian coming-of-age tale They'll Come Back.
Although I have blown hot and cold on Jia Zhangke’s films in the past, I've been curious about A Touch of Sin since it became one of the most highly regarded films at the Cannes Film Festival. Another director who I've had issues with in the past is Bruno Dumont, but having found his last film Hors Satan to be one of his most satisfying I'll be taking a look at Camille Claudel 1915, which stars Juliette Binoche. I don't think I can resist One Day When the Rain Falls when it is described in the programme as "probably the outstanding Indonesian drama/horror movie/comedy of the year," and I've made a note of Albert Serra's Story of My Death, having heard positive word on it from recent festivals. I loved Joanna Hogg's Unrelated and Archipelago so I'm eagerly anticipating her third feature Exhibition, and I'm intrigued by A Long and Happy Life, which is described by director Boris Khlebnikov as a Russian reworking of the classic Western High Noon. But the film I'm most excited about here is Norte, The End of History by Lav Diaz. Chances to see Diaz's films in the UK have been few and far between – which is perhaps unsurprising, as they can sometimes be as long as 11 hours – but Norte's relatively skimpy running time of a shade over four hours should make it more approachable, and no festival is complete without a good epic or two.
Comedies are always a risky proposition at film festivals. Few things suffer more in translation than humour, and what might have them rolling in the aisles in Asia or the Middle East often receives a bewildered reception from UK audiences. A good comedy can be a wonderful tonic amid the often grim festival fare, however, so I'm hoping to find some pick-me-ups here. One clip that stood out in the LFF launch reel was Gone Too Far! which got a big laugh from the audience at the Odeon Leicester Square, and I'm hopeful that the rest of the film can live up to that moment. Yuya Ishii has become a firm LFF favourite in recent years with Sawako Decides and Mitsuko Delivers, and his new film Great Passage is centred on the 14-year compilation of a dictionary, while Hong Sangsoo inevitably has a new film in the programme, his latest comedy of manners Our Sunhi (one of his two films in the programme). The Dutch film Borgman is described as a comedic twist on the home invasion thriller, which certainly sounds interesting, and A Street in Palermo sounds like an Italian take on the old Galton & Simpson sketch Impasse. The film I'm most looking forward to here is Enough Said, the new picture from Nicole Holofcener. I've long thought that Holofcener is one of the best and most undervalued comic filmmakers working in American cinema, and her latest film has the added attraction of offering a lead role to the late, great James Gandolfini.
A number of the films in the LFF's Thrill section take a minimalist approach to storytelling. Rick Rosenthal's Drones is populated by just a handful of characters, remotely operating drone strikes in Afghanistan from the Nevada Desert, while Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have placed their seven-man crew on a raft in the ocean, as they recreate Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 voyage in Kon-Tiki. JC Chandor sees that effort and raises the stakes; his film All Is Lost has Robert Redford entirely alone on a yacht in the middle of the Indian ocean, fighting for survival when his craft is damaged. Some films take a minimalist approach to titles: 11.6 represents the €11.6m stolen by Tony Musulin in 2009, while 1 is a documentary about the changing shape of Formula 1 racing over the course of six decades. That's one of two F1-related films in this section, with Weekend of a Champion recalling the time Roman Polanski spent with Jackie Stewart in 1971. Amat Escalante's Heli won the best director prize at this year's Cannes, while the Korean thriller New World marks Park Hoonjung's directorial debut and Durban Poison marks Andrew Worsdale's return to the director's chair after an absence of three decades. Finally, Yorgos Tsemberopoulos's revenge thriller The Enemy Within looks like it could be yet another fascinating film from the burgeoning Greek cinema.
"It's Speed but...on a piano!" Yes, Grand Piano is a film about a concert pianist (Elijah Wood) whose wife and children will be killed if he hits a wrong note, and it's just one of a number of genre films to be included in this year's commendably barmy Cult strand. Maverick directors abound, with Sion Sono's wonderfully titled Why Don't You Play in Hell? being described as "a fresh take on the Yakuza film and an affectionate tribute to the death of celluloid" and Ari Folman's The Congress – starring Robin Wright as herself – is certainly an unexpected departure from the director of the acclaimed Waltz With Bashir. Amer directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani bring The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears (another great title!) to the festival, and I like the sound of Juno Mak's supernatural debut Rigor Mortis, while Adam Wimpenny's Blackwood featured some of the most striking imagery to be screened at the LFF programme launch. One of the most interesting films in this category might be Frank Pavich's exploration of a movie that sadly doesn't exist, with Jodorowsky’s Dune telling the story of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's Dune, but pretty much everything in this incredibly eclectic selection looks like it has the capacity to surprise, shock and entertain (although I remain wary of Terry Gilliam films).
The lack of specificity in this heading (are these emotional journeys, physical journeys, or both?) again means that this strand contains a very eclectic collection of films, few of which come into the festival with any kind of reputation to go on. Steven Knight's Locke is yet another minimalist film, with the Tom Hardy-starring drama never leaving the interior of Hardy's car, but if you're looking for something a little more expansive you might want to try Gare du Nord, an ensemble drama telling multiple stories around the Parisian station. The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas is a Greek satire on the country's current financial crisis which stars Christos Stergioglou (so memorable in Dogtooth), while Lifelong is the new film from Men on the Bridge director Asli Özge and the Indian black comedy Sniffer stars the increasingly impressive Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a drunken private detective. After a very strong slate of Irish films in last year's festival, there is only one film from Ireland in the LFF this year, but Eliza Lynch: Queen of Paraguay sounds like a fascinating little-known story. The great African director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun returns to the LFF with Grigris, and Flora Lau's debut film Bends may be worth catching for the cinematography by Christopher Doyle.
The best films in the Sonic section this year all appear to be documentaries that have found intriguing and unexpected subjects to explore. For example, we have seen many films about The Beatles, but Ryan White's Good Ol' Freda looks at the band's devoted secretary Freda Kelly, and Morgan Neville's Twenty Feet From Stardom takes us into the world of backing singers. Broadway Idiot is a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges involved in turning Green Day's American Idiot into a Broadway musical and Philippe Béziat’s Becoming Traviata provides us with a similar access-all-areas pass to a 2011 production of Verdi's La Traviata. I'm also looking forward to Paul Kelly's How We Used to Live, a documentary portrait of the changing face of British life.
There isn't much here that really catches my eye, although Bernd Sahling's attempt to deal with the issue of ADHD in his new film UpsideDown should be an interesting break from the fantasy films that usually populate this strand. Side by Side and The Kids From the Port also look worthwhile, and I couldn't resist a chuckle when I read the synopsis for Antboy, in which a 12 year-old becomes a superhero after being bitten by, yes, a genetically modified ant. Those genetically modified creatures are a bloody menace.
This is a section that I very rarely explore, but if I do find time to dip a toe in the experimental waters I'll probably check out Anthology Film Archives presents: Artist Film Restorations from the USA, which looks like it will have some very interesting content. Cinema Re-acted catches my eye mostly for Antoni Pinent's G/R/E/A/S/E (even though I still haven't seen the original Grease), and as a lover of long film experiences I'm tempted by Boris Lehman's 404-minute My Conversations on Film, although the idea of spending almost seven hours in the BFI Studio inevitably makes me pause.
The Treasures archive is always, without fail, the most exciting category in the London Film Festival for me. Clyde Jevons and his team are the LFF's true unsung heroes, and they have again excelled with a selection of both restored old favourites and films that I have never heard of before but am immediately excited by. From the old favourites category there's The Lady From Shanghai, with a new 4K restoration receiving its world premiere at the LFF, Nick Ray's The Lusty Men, Cocteau's cinematic dream La Belle et la bête and Thorold Dickinson’s Gaslight – all of these films are unreservedly recommended if you haven't seen them before. But I'm most excited about the films that I didn't know existed before opening the LFF programme. Arthur Ripley’s The Chase has been described as an imaginative rewriting of the film noir rules, while two more traditional gangster pictures can be seen in the James Cagney-starring double-bill The Doorway to Hell + Picture Snatcher. I'm a big fan of Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal, so I'm keen to see Cowboy, the other Western he directed around the same time, and Arne Skouen's Nine Lives sounds like a fascinating survival tale. The latest restoration from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation is Uday Shankar’s dance film Kalpana, and there are two intriguing offerings from Germany - Leo Mittler's silent melodrama Harbour Drift and the Nazi-era musical remake of It Happened One Night (seriously!), Paul Martin's Glückskinder. I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this strand – there are also restorations of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop and Luchino Visconti's Sandra (Oh, 27 year-old Claudia Cardinale. Be still my beating heart...) and I didn't even know that Joan Fontaine starred in a Hammer production called The Witches! The London Film Festival may be home to some of the most exciting films from around the world, but in the rush to see something new, don't overlook the fact that restorations of forgotten classics can feel as thrillingly new as anything made in 2013.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 9th to 20th at venues across London.