by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
And that’s that. I’m back home now, in Scunthorpe, got in last night after 2 full weeks away in London. My experience of gallivanting around the nation’s capital for 12 solid days as a professional film critic all by myself with no backup if anything went wrong has come to a close and, aside from traumatising the neighbour of the man I was Homestay-ing at on the first night by mistaking her house for his, the whole thing went off without a hitch. I didn’t get lost, I didn’t lose anything, I didn’t run out of money like I was terrified would happen, I didn’t get robbed, I didn’t make an ass of myself in front of anybody. No, it all went fine. Hell, it went better than fine, it went near-perfectly. I saw 40 films overall (41 if you count my seeing Free Fire twice) within the span of 12 days, I got into most all of the screenings I wanted to, and I managed to crank out a full-length article for each one of those days, all without my enthusiasm or energy dropping once – aside from that final night where I finished my work, collapsed onto bed, and then slept for an uninterrupted 9 hours.
I did it, in other words. I really did it. I had so many fears and anxieties prior to this trip that everything was going to go wrong and that I wasn’t good enough to deserve this trip and what if I hated the experience and what if I wasn’t inspired to work, and none of those mattered in the end because I did it. Nothing went wrong, I turned in some of what I feel is my best work yet, I loved every second of the whole thing, and, once I’ve taken a day or two to recuperate, I feel fully re-invigorated and ready to start bashing out new pieces left, right, and centre – there’s the Christine/Kate Plays Christine piece I already have plotted out, and I’m finally going to tackle that “Lost Cels” entry I’ve had on the backburner for a year just for starters. In a rarity for my life, everything was just as I had hoped and I actually pulled it off instead of falling flat on my face. This fortnight, as previously mentioned, has been the greatest and I currently feel better than I have done in a long time.
But enough about me. You want to know what the best films of the festival were out of the 40 that I managed to see. Well, if you are too lazy to go looking back through all my prior articles from the festival in order to figure that out for yourself, then you’ve come to the right place. I saw a lot of great films during this festival, 2 of which I would especially feel comfortable putting in the upper echelons of my Top 20 of the Year list if both of them come out to the general populace in time, but these are the crème-de-la-crème, so to speak. They’re also arranged in alphabetical order rather than order of preference both because you should go and read my other articles, and because I’m lazy and really cannot be bothered right now to stamp them into a definitive ranked order. So, without further delay, here are Callum Petch’s 10 Best Films of the London Film Festival 2016 (That He Managed To See)!
A Quiet Passion: I usually despise costume dramas, and a torturously long and dull pair of Awards Seasons these past two years have turned biopics into a tainted genre for me, but I sincerely could not get enough of Terence Davies’ costume drama biopic of acclaimed-after-her-time poet Emily Dickinson. Equal parts witty and tragic, Davies manages to walk the fine line between communicating to the viewer how sappingly dull Emily’s life was despite her hopes and wishes without boring the viewer, as he and a tour-de-force Cynthia Nixon performance paint a complex, sympathetic, and all-too-relatable picture of an independent, undervalued, and increasingly bitter woman forced to sit back and watch life happen to everyone but her. A stunning film.
Arrival: Nothing came close to Arrival at the London Film Festival, this year. Many films tried, one almost succeeded, but nothing else was remotely on the level of Denis Villenueve’s instant sci-fi classic that offers something for everyone – hard sci-fi, existentialism, edge-of-your-seat tension, sincere sentimentality – but still has a singular identity of its own. Containing many of the best scenes of the entire year (I am still in total awe of the phenomenal first contact sequence), Amy Adams’ best work in a long time, gorgeous cinematography from Bradford Young, an essential score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, and all masterfully handled by Eric Heisserer’s screenplay and Villenueve’s impeccable directing, Arrival is one of those films that really does remind you of just how powerful cinema can be. Smart, heartfelt, astoundingly beautiful, more adjectives that express positive emotions!
Chasing Asylum: Created with the intention of “shaming” the Australian government over their abhorrent and damn-near illegal immigration policies, Chasing Asylum has found itself more vital relevance given the current state of the Western world and our constant dehumanisation and discriminatory rhetoric towards refugees. An absolutely horrifying glimpse into the brutal and inhuman detention centres purposefully designed by the Australian government to convince those desperately needing help to turn back or stay locked in as prisoners, Eva Orner manages to create an incisive and righteous condemnation of the kinds of policies a worrying amount of other nations are believing to be the gold standard in immigration control without losing touch of the fact that these are human beings being affected by countries who see them as nothing more than statistical parasites. Mandatory viewing.
Christine/Kate Plays Christine: OK, so this is now technically a Top 11 list, but the two Christines are so inseparable from one another to me – both inadvertently complimenting and contrasting, justifying and negating each other’s existences – that I can’t talk about one without mentioning the other. Both tackling the live on-air suicide of local news journalist Christine Chubbuck in July of 1974 in different ways – Christine via an empathetic and highly-accurate depiction and communication of living with depression, Kate Plays Christine via examining the acting method, finding a meaning in an act that none of us can fully understand, and questioning the quietly sadistic reason why we’re all interested in Christine’s story in the first place – the two films are exceptional watches that have refused to leave my brain ever since I saw them. And, for the record, Kate Plays Christine is the better film, but Christine has resonated with me more, especially with its career-best Rebecca Hall performance.
Elle: Yeah, this one really grew on me. Partially because I saw two other films this festival that demonstrated in great detail just how badly this could have gone wrong, and partially because further discussion about it with other people has made the words coming out of my mouth not sound absolutely horrible. Elle is button-pushing cinema made by the master of button-pushing cinema, but it also never feels exploitative or offensive, the provocations coming out of a desire to make the viewer examine and re-examine their attitudes towards sexual assault, rape culture, and misogyny – thankfully in ways that cannot be reduced to, and never even get close to, “maybe these are good things.” Paul Verhoeven directs with assured determination, Isabelle Huppert commandingly keeps things on track at all times with a fascinatingly complex performance, and it’s honestly refreshing to watch a drama about a middle-aged woman for a change. Plus, like I said before, it’s never ever dull.
My Life as a Courgette: Incredibly sweet, moving, and taking full advantage of the medium of Animation, My Life as a Courgette is a wonderful drama about life in a group home for orphaned, “damaged” children. It could stand to be longer than the 66 minutes it runs for, but that’s out of a desire to spend more time in its world and with its characters rather than any rushed storytelling issues. Crowdpleasing but powered by a melancholy undercurrent that doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the harsh reality that these kids are unlikely to ever be lucky enough to find a new home, and at turns very funny and quietly heartbreaking, Courgette is reminiscent of The Story of Tracy Beaker and is similarly a brilliant piece of work.
Nocturama: At the risk of sounding like every clichéd lad’s mag writer whenever they review a particularly nasty piece of work, Nocturama really does not give a f**k what you want it to be. It is bleak, confrontational, provocative, seemingly-pointless filmmaking that could lend itself to being called “punk rock” if it weren’t so intentionally detached in its direction, even when it is indulging in stylistic touches. But Bertrand Bonello’s near-masterpiece, if you get it, eventually reveals itself to a searing indictment of youthful arrogance, egocentrism, and pointless rebellion, a repudiation of materialism and indulgence, and a giant middle-finger to any act of authority-bucking born out of boredom. It is nasty, compulsive, angry, gripping, callous, essential viewing – Spring Breakers as delivered through the medium of domestic terrorism and without any of the sympathy, and just like Harmony Korine’s own near-masterpiece is gonna divide audiences like there’s no tomorrow. You’ll either get it or you really won’t, but those that do are in for one hell of a film.
The Handmaiden: The most pure fun I had at the entire festival, Park Chan-wook’s latest is the Park Chan-wook-iest film ever made, and all the better for it. The Handmaiden is the trashy psycho-sexual drama that Chan-wook was born to make and he puts on one hell of a directing masterclass, here, effortlessly jumping between tones, genres, and a pile-up of twists with skilful aplomb. Phenomenally acted, gorgeously shot, and refreshingly gay as all get out, The Handmaiden balances being ludicrous fun with a surprisingly insightful condemnation of misogynistic erotica and the patriarchy. It does feel about 15 minutes too long and is a little slow to get going, but even as the end credits were rolling I knew that the film was one that will only grow on repeat viewings, as prior knowledge of where things will end up shine a light on elements I missed the first time around. Plus, it’s a fantastic reminder that Park Chan-wook is still one of the very best directors in the business.
The Stopover: French film really cleaned house at this year’s festival, as you can probably tell. The Stopover is an uncompromising drama about PTSD, misogyny, and toxic masculinity, all brought to boil in the military, and all on the verge of bubbling over during a mandated “decompression” weekend in a 5-star Cyprus resort. Viewed through the eyes of the 3 women in a regiment otherwise entirely filled with men, The Stopover draws attention to just how tiring, draining, and menacing being exposed to this kind of rampant casual hatred from your ostensible comrades-in-arms can be, building up a surprisingly tense head of steam that pays off in a deeply disturbing way during its finale. This is one hell of a calling card for The Coulin Sisters, who have very bright futures ahead of them if they can make further films even half as good as this.
Women Who Kill: I had a very hard time deciding between this and Prevenge for the final slot, but in the end I gave the edge to Women Who Kill purely on the basis of Prevenge being basically guaranteed to get its due with the world when it gets a proper release, and Women Who Kill being hella gay. Sardonic, witty, very New York, but also capable of an unsettling streak when it aims for it, this twist on the “is my partner a murderous psychopath?” subgenre is super-entertaining viewing. Writer-director-and-star Ingrid Jungermann’s script is on-point, the performances are all spot on, and its specific immersion in the lesbian New York scene provides a refreshing perspective and a diverse and non-stereotypical collection of lesbian characters in film who all feel lived-in and somewhat real. A real discovery, Women Who Kill deserves to find a wider audience than it inevitably will.