The London Festival is almost upon us again, and the announcement of the full programme this week means I have spent the last few days with my nose buried in the catalogue, marking films to look out for amid the 248 features that the festival contains this year. Below you'll find my own personal picks and I hope they'll be helpful to you, but before booking your tickets be sure to explore the furthest reaches of the LFF schedule because most of the real gems can be discovered far from the high-profile screenings and some may never been seen in UK cinemas again.
In some respects these films are the biggest films in the festival, with their profile and strategic positioning for awards exposure ensuring they'll grab most of the headlines, but they're not high on my list of priorities. I'll surely have plenty of opportunities to catch up with films like The Imitation Game, Mr Turner, Foxcatcher with their UK releases imminent (in the case of Men, Women & Children and Closing Night film Fury, just a few days after the festival ends). The films that did catch my eye here are the more unexpected Gala selections – the Chinese wuxia film The White Haired Witch of the Luna Kingdom (starring Fan Bingbing), the Danish Western The Salvation (starring Mads Mikkelsen, Evan Green and Eric Cantona!) and Peter Strickland's film of Björk's Biophilia Live (starring, um, Björk). The Archive Gala has reliably been one of the festival's most memorable events in recent years, and this year's restoration of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands looks like it will be a remarkable experience with a live score performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Finally, two festival regulars return with Cannes prize-winners, the absurdly gifted and prolific Xavier Dolan presents Mommy, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan will bring his Palme d'Or champion Winter Sleep.
Peter Strickland's second film in the festival line-up is The Duke of Burgundy, for which the programme synopsis tantalisingly namedrops both Jess Franco and Bergman's Persona. There's a strong female focus in this collection of films. Céline Sciamma follows Water Lilies and Tomboy with another portrait of growing pains in Girlhood; Carol Morley's Agnès Godard-shot The Falling is set in a 1960s girls' school and provides a lead role for Game of Thrones' talented Maisie Williams; Daniel Barber (who impressively adapted Elmore Leonard's The Tonto Woman in 2008) tells the story of a woman trying to protect her land in The Keeping Room, and the 'Iranian vampire Western' A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night certainly sounds like something special. Other films I'm keen to see in this selection come from filmmakers whose work I've often loved in the past, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The President) and Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan), while Abderrahmane Sissako will present Timbuktu in the festival and take part in a screen talk.
First Feature Competition
With a selection of films from first-time directors, it's often a case of pot luck and taking a chance on something in the hope of discovering an exciting new voice. I've already heard some promising reports on Yann Demange's Odd Man Out-ish thriller '71 and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's dialogue-free The Tribe, a Ukrainian film told entirely through sign language and with no subtitles to help guide us. I'm keen to use this opportunity to check out some films from further afield, given the possibility that they may never make it to UK cinemas; films such as Zeresenay Mehari's Difret, Ester Martin Bergsmark's Something Must Break and Naji Abu Nowar's Theeb. But the British selections in this strand also look worthwhile, with Debbie Tucker Green's Second Coming and the Wolfe brothers' Catch Me Daddy piquing my interest, with the latter boasting cinematography from the always impressive Robbie Ryan.
The big news here is that one of the world's great documentarians Frederick Wiseman has made a film about one of my favourite places in London, and he will be presenting National Gallery at the festival as well as taking part in a masterclass. Both the film and event sound unmissable to me. Elsewhere in this section, I'm most intrigued by the presence of directors who I know better as fiction filmmakers. Ulrich Seidl returns to documentary with his new film In the Basement, a presumably cheery and uplifting exploration of the relationship between Austrian people and their basements; Winter's Bone director Debra Granik has made Stray Dog, a portrait of a biker she met while making that film, and In the Fog director Sergei Loznitsa's acclaimed Maidan observes a turbulent few months in Kiev. I'm also intrigued by two portraits of British artists in Hockney: A Life in Pictures and The Possibilities are Endless, which tells the story of Edwin Collins' 2005 stroke and takes its title from one of the few phrases he was able to say in the immediate aftermath of it. This year's Documentary Competition appears to be a very strong and eclectic field.
A collection of films about various forms of love, and the first one that caught my eye is a film about a filmmaker whose work I love so much. Ron Mann's Altman is a documentary about the great Robert Altman, whose 1982 film Come Back to the Five & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean gets a 35mm presentation in the festival. Mathieu Amalric directs and stars in Georges Simenon adaptation The Blue Room, while Benoît Jacquot's 3 Hearts boasts a tremendous female cast. The films in this strand about people struggling to overcome both physical and mental ailments all sound like they might be worth seeing – notably Asaf Korman's Next to Her, Daniel Ribeiro's The Way He Looks, Shonali Bose's Margarita, With a Straw and Morgan Matthews' X+Y. I'm also very happy to see an all-too-rare leading role for Juliette Lewis, in Jen McGowan's Kelly & Cal, and fans of museums will be in heaven this year, with Johannes Holzhausen's The Great Museum going behind the scenes at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and perhaps making a perfect double-bill with Wiseman's National Gallery.
Following A Hijacking in 2012 and Captain Phillips last year, the LFF's now-regular look at modern piracy takes the form of Fishing Without Nets, a film by Cutter Hodierne that looks at the topic from the perspective of a Somali father left with few choices. This section contains a number of films that offer unique perspectives on aspects of society that we don't usually have the opportunity to explore, such as the Congolese fly-on-the-wall documentary National Diploma, the Indian documentary Court and Annalet Steenkamp's I, Afrikaner. Pedro Costa brings Horse Money, his follow-up to Colossal Youth, to the festival, while Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends is the director's first film since his stunning 2004 documentary Darwin's Nightmare. Israeli-Palestinian tensions are examined through two films, Dancing Arabs and Self Made, while Rakhshan Banietemad's Tales looks at the problems facing people in contemporary Tehran.
This section of the festival houses the more challenging and provocative films in the programme, and some of the most challenging and provocative films of recent years have come from Greece, with a couple of them starring Angeliki Papoulia, so I'll be checking out Syllas Tzoumerkas' A Blast. The Ethiopian film Beti and Amare promises a lot of ambition on a very low budget, while Near Death Experience – the new film from LFF regulars Benoît Délepine and Gustave Kervern – intrigues with its casting of Michel Houellebecq in the lead role. A couple of filmmakers have two pictures at the festival, with Josephine Decker's second feature Thou Wast Mild & Lovely appearing here alongside her debut Butter on the Latch (in the First Feature Competition), while Susanne Bier's A Second Chance certainly sounds more interesting than the starrier Serena. I can't wait to see Abel Ferrara's biopic Pasolini and I'm looking forward to Bypass, the second feature from Duane Hopkins, who made a promising debut with Better Things in 2008. The logistic challenge of squeezing a Lav Diaz film into my schedule is one I'm anticipating, as his 338-minute From What is Before screens here, while new films from Eugène Green (La Sapienza), Gregg Araki (White Bird in a Blizzard) and Christophe Honoré (Metamorphoses) are on my radar too. But the most important aspect of the Dare strand for me is the opportunity to see two particular films on the big screen. I've resisted the urge to watch Aleksei German’s posthumously completed Hard to be a God on various online platforms in the hope of seeing it here, and Jean-Luc Godard's first foray into 3D gets a great showcase with Goodbye to Language screening on the very big IMAX screen.
After all that, we'll need a chuckle, although finding laughs in this section can often be a challenge with the humour of one particular region not necessarily translating successfully to another. The best place to start is perhaps Australia, as the clip shown from Josh Lawson's sex comedy The Little Death was a highlight of the festival press launch, and Angus Sampson's The Mule has a promising gross-out premise and a starring role for Hugo Weaving. From America we've got two comedies that have certainly provoked plenty of discussion and positive word of mouth prior to their arrival on these shores, in the shape of Justin Simien's Dear White People and Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up, Philip, while the UK is represented by Simon Baker's Night Bus and John Boorman's Queen and Country, a belated (27 years!) sequel to Hope and Glory. Sophie Fillières' If You Don't, I Will catches the eye with its pairing of Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, and there are new films from Bent Hamer, Hong Sang-soo and Bruno Dumont – wait a minute...Bruno Dumont? Yes, the director of L'humanité, Twentynine Palms, Hors Satan and other memorably laugh-free films reveals his lighter side in Li’l Quinquin, a made-for-TV comedy series that screens here as a single 200-minute knockabout romp. Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write.
A pretty exciting and wide-ranging set of films here, from Diao Yinan's Berlin prize-winner Black Coal, Thin Ice to Toa Fraser's Maori adventure The Dead Lands and Kornél Mundruczó's acclaimed canine horror White God. As a fan of Daniel Monzón's prison drama Cell 211 I've earmarked El Niño (starring the crazy eyebrows of Luis Tosar) as one to watch, and as a fan of Korean cinema I certainly like the sound of Kim Seong-Hun's A Hard Day. A few months after the World Cup, Eryk Rocha's Sunday Ball takes a look at football in the poorer regions of Brazil, and Zee Ntuli's Hard to Get offers an action-packed exploration of the Johannesburg underworld. There's also a sequel to the surprise 2010 hit Monsters, but I lost interested in Monsters: Dark Continent when it turned out that director Tom Green wasn't the Freddy Got Fingered guy. What a missed opportunity.
One of the clips shown during the LFF press launch that really made an impact was a genuinely spine-tingling snippet from It Follows, and that alone was enough to pique my interest in David Robert Mitchell's horror film. Sion Sono's Why Don't You Go Play in Hell? ended my 2013 LFF in a high note and he returns with his Yakuza hip-hop musical Tokyo Tribe, and Mark Hartley – director of the very enjoyable Not Quite Hollywood – explores the history of Cannon Films in his well-timed documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. The programme write-up for Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's Spring references both HP Lovecraft and Before Sunrise, which is certainly an intriguing combination, while tales of teenage loneliness are given a fantastical spin in Jonas Alexander Arnby's When Animals Dream and Jonas Govaerts' Cub. Finally, I'm glad we'll have the chance to see Ning Hao's Chinese Spaghetti Western homage No Man's Land, which was filmed in 2009 but has been battling with censors until now.
I'm generally no fan of portmanteau films but a couple of pictures here sound interesting. African Metropolis is an opportunity to discover filmmakers from a continent whose cinema I'm disappointingly uneducated in, and Robert Connolly has amassed an impressive roster of talent to take part in The Turning, 18 adaptations of short stories by Australian writer Tim Winton. Speaking of Australia, I'm a big fan of Rolf de Heer's work so I'll definitely be checking out his latest collaboration with David Gulpili Charlie's Country. Viggo Mortensen's wanderlust has seen him make some interesting and unconventional choices recently, and he appears twice in this strand, starring in Lisandro Alonso’s Juaja and David Oelhoffen's Far From Men, while Mark Cousins' travels always result in something interesting, so I'm certainly hoping to catch his new film 6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia. The Wonders is Alice Rohrwacher's follow-up to her fine debut Corpo Celeste, I like the sound of Suhra Arraf's black comedy Villa Touma, and Andrew Lancaster's The Lost Aviator certainly has an interesting story to tell.
The main focus in this strand for me is Eden, the new film from Mia Hansen-Løve who I rate as one of the most exciting and talented young filmmakers working today. The best of the rest here are mostly documentaries, such as Michael Obert's Song From the Forest, Alan Hicks' Keep On Keepin' On and One9's Nas: Time is Illmatic. There's also a BUG special, which is always a lot of fun.
While these films are aimed at a younger audience, the Japanese animation Giovanni's Island is one I'll want to catch as previous Japanese attempts to depict the war through animation have been stunning (although I suspect this won't be as viscerally shocking as Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen). Robot Overlords is a sci-fi adventure from the director of Grabbers, and the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson's birth will be marked with a screening of Moomins on the Riviera.
The films in this strand don't usually appeal to me but a few in this year's selection sound intriguing. The Film That Buys the Cinema – a movie made to raise funds for the Cube Cinema in Bristol – has an impressive list of contributors, and Meditations From Our Lady of the Angels offers an opportunity to see a wide range of films on 35mm and 16mm, including I Don't Know by Penelope Spheeris. There are also tributes to two recently departed filmmakers, Harun Farocki and Maria Klonaris.
Here is where I make a heartfelt request to the organisers of the BFI London Film Festival – please give the Treasures strand its own section in the printed programme rather than dispersing its films among the various other strands. The archive programming in the festival is always fantastic and this strand – usually the strongest in the festival – deserves to stand alone. Highlights from this year include Powell & Pressburger's spectacular and sorely underrated other ballet movie The Tales of Hoffman, which has apparently been restored with unseen footage, and John Ford's My Darling Clementine, which again reminds me that a full retrospective of Ford's work is long overdue. Another picture restored to its former glory is Germany Pale Mother, a German film that has had 30 minutes reinserted and sounds absolutely fascinating, while the latest restoration from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation is The Colour of Pomegranates, a film I have wanted to see for some time. I was disappointed that The Goddess wasn't included in the BFI's Chinese season earlier this year so I'm delighted to see it showing up here – with a live musical score at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, no less! – and the other treat from that era is the Colleen Moore-starring Why Be Good? complete with Vitaphone soundtrack! I also want to make time for the Turkish film The Bride and King Hu's Dragon Inn, but one of the pleasures of this strand is the opportunity to take time out during a festival and wallow in the pleasure of re-connecting with a classic film you know and love. This year, a 4k restoration of Howard Hawks' glorious Only Angels Have Wings sounds like it will provide the perfect mid-festival tonic.
The 2014 BFI London Film Festival runs from October 8th to 19th. Check back here for my reviews throughout the festival.