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18 best movies of London Film Festival 2016
This year was our very first time covering the BFI London Film Festival, and we had an absolute blast.
If you click the link above, you’ll find all of our coverage in one place, but oh my gosh there was so much to take in. From the pure cinematic joy of La La Land, to the cosmic horror of The Void, via more than 243 other features from 74 different countries, LFF was an incredible 10 days spent in the dark with thousands of people who love cinema as much as you.
In a humble effort to tie everything together, we present a handful of the films we enjoyed the most over the last couple of weeks. These barely scratch the surface of what was on offer, but at least it will give you a heads up on some of the best films out on general release in the coming months.
Our favourite films of London Film Festival 2016
The following are excerpts from the full reviews we’ve already published, with huge thanks to Ben Rabinovich, Douglas Clarke-Williams, Toni Ratcliff, Tereza Litsa and Evie Timmins for their hard work and excellent word-smithery.
Presented in alphabetical order, because trying to rank them would be stupid…
Andrea Arnold’s first US-set movie American Honey is a resonant, freewheeling epic, where youthful abandon triumphs over economic and social adversity. At its centre is a young woman called Star, played by newcomer Sasha Lane, and American Honey owes a great deal of its success to her performance. She’s all zero-fucks given, but you can see her vulnerability through the snarls and moments of terrifying irresponsibility. It’s a wild, immersive ride through the Mid-West, that’s as much a comment on economic disparity as it is a satisfying character study.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an intelligent, beautiful sci-fi film that grounds the extraordinary firmly in the ordinary. It’s a film that is at its best when skirting on the fringes of the science fiction, grounding itself within very human, very intelligent concepts like language, communication, betrayal and determinism. If you are the sort of person who thought Independence Day: Resurgence was a bit too subtle then please, for the love of God, stay away from Arrival.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
André Øvredal follows up Troll Hunter with The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a ghoulishly unique horror with a gruesome mystery to dissect. We spend the entire night down in the basement of a family morgue with a father and son, trying to uncover a fresh cadaver’s cause of death. As they work from the external, to the internal, the coroner duo will uncover injuries that are increasingly horrific and, more to the point, utterly implausible. It’s a playful, dread-soaked exercise in twisting the horror genre into something entirely new.
Certain Women explores the struggles of everyday women in a quiet yet powerful new film by Kelly Reichardt, which deservedly won the Official Competition category at LFF. All four women in Reichardt’s film share the need to be heard in their own way, trying to deal with their community, their family, their life choices, their friends, their routine, and most importantly themselves. However, these needs are rarely externalised. It’s the actors’ moving performances that offer complex representations of female characters; the beautifully nuanced antiheroes in a film that never seeks for the heroic element.
Antonio Campos’s Christine sensitively traces the last few days of real-life journalist Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself on live television in 1974. Rebecca Hall is outstanding as a tragic figure, trying to make a difference in a world where there is really no such thing. Campos goes to great lengths not to isolate specific causes of Christine’s depression, instead preferring to explore both sides. The result paints a complicated picture with work conflicts and personal fights forming strands that intertwine and wrap around Christine like a noose and slowly squeeze the life out of her. It’s a claustrophobic and profoundly startling work.
Dearest Sister is a terrific, delicately-paced tale of second sight and morality gone askew, helmed by a master of slow burning menace and wry observation. Mattie Do is the only female filmmaker in Laos, she’s also its only horror director AND Dearest Sister is only the 13th film to be produced by the country. It’s not only one hell of an achievement, but also an incredibly deft morality tale that comments on many wider social and economic disparities in the country.
Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is a black comedy about guns and violence that skilfully manages to avoid glorifying its own subject. After watching this 90 minute long shoot-out in a warehouse, you’ll no longer be the 10 year-old running around a playground shouting “bang bang bang, you’re dead!” instead you’ll be the nervous grown-up cowering behind a rock and wondering why we all can’t just get along. As a black-comedy spin on 70s action thrillers it’s cheerfully entertaining, but Free Fire’s major triumph is in subverting your idea of a ‘cool gun movie’, and makes you realise that when the bullets start to fly you’re more likely to be a scaredy cat than a Reservoir Dog.
Justin Kelly’s lithe and hypnotically gripping new thriller King Cobra centres on the real-life 2007 murder of a gay porn producer. You could glibly describe King Cobra as Boogie Nights for the Mini-DV generation, as it shows the democratisation of a once exclusive industry while at the same time charting the eventful rise of a sexually-gifted, doe-eyed naif. However King Cobra has more in common with Foxcatcher (or even Behind the Candelabra) in its depiction of a dangerous two-way manipulation between older professional and younger star. It also features some incredibly committed performances guided with sure-handed direction by Justin Kelly.
La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land immerses itself in the softly neon-lit landscape of Los Angeles, and centres on the intertwining dreams of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), and frustrated jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). In terms of casting, Stone and Gosling are a tried-and-tested match made in heaven. This coupled with Chazelle’s intoxicatingly beautiful LA dreamscapes, and the tenderness with which the pair navigate the highs and lows of love means that La La Land is a romance of epic proportions, while still feeling real enough to hold in the palm of your hand.
Manchester By The Sea
Manchester By The Sea is a stunning, mournful film about a man’s struggle between honouring his brother’s wishes and protecting himself from his awful past. Kenneth Lonergan (writer/director of Margaret and You Can Count on Me) portrays a painful mix of regret, sadness and the incredible struggle between doing the right thing and self-preservation. It wrestles with Aristotelian tragedy and the need for catharsis in such a low-key manner that the battle scars only become evident towards the end of the film.
With one eye on the absurd, and one eye on the truth, Mindhorn, is a consistently hilarious and rewarding British comedy from Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby. Mindhorn takes an affectionate swipe at quaint British detective shows, such as Bergerac or Midsomer Murders, and provides richly nuanced characters as well as consistent belly-laughs. Mindhorn more than deserves to be the next great British cult comedy – in fact it should be a global phenomenon.
Set in 1980s Miami, Moonlight charts the defining moments in the formation of a young African-American man’s masculinity and how he gradually identifies himself as gay during three profound moments in his life. It’s character-driven tale full of lyrical, deeply affecting moments that avoid moralising or sentimentality. Instead it’s a complex, vital experience, full of romance and sadness. Highly recommended viewing for everybody.
Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s follow-up to A Single Man, is a stylish, brooding beast full of menace, intrigue and big spectacles. It’s also an incredibly layered, metatextual story involving multiple real and fictional narratives that are impossible to sum up in a single paragraph so I’ll just say… it’s a good ‘un.
Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a profound, sweet and contemplative film that finds duality in the minor details of everyday life. The protagonist’s name is Paterson – yes, Adam Driver plays a bus driver called Paterson, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. Usually this observation would be an amusing but irrelevant aside, however here this little wordplay captures the very essence of the film. A Driver playing a bus driver; a character called Paterson who lives in Paterson – the film is full of so many pleasing symmetries and dualities, it’s a true joy.
Alice Lowe writes, directs and stars in Prevenge, a black comedy thriller about pregnancy that’s brutal in its honesty and bloody in its revenge. The film centres on Ruth, a pregnant woman struggling to come to terms with the death of her partner who died in a rock-climbing incident a few months ago. Overcome with grief, Ruth starts to track down and kill all of the people who were responsible for his death. Lowe herself was seven months pregnant during filming Prevenge, and the film would still be an extraordinary achievement if the writer/director/lead actor wasn’t in her third trimester.
Toni Erdmann is a hysterically funny film. I didn’t want it to end. That’s seriously high praise for a film that’s nearly three hours long and where 10 minutes are wholly dedicated to a character making a presentation about how efficient it would be to outsource the assets of an oil company. In fact, there were many scenes that in any other film would have been painfully dull or irrelevant. Yet in Toni Erdmann, every scene, no matter how innocuous-looking, masterfully illuminates a new aspect of the film’s central characters. A masterpiece.
Una, starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, is a devastating, artfully constructed film, explicitly dissecting the complex aftermath of abuse. It’s an incredibly tense two-hander, covering the course of 12 hours, where its central characters break apart the past with fury, regret and all the complicated miasma in-between. Benedict Andrews first directed David Harrower’s play ‘Blackbird’ in 2005, and this is an adaptation of that same play. But this isn’t your typical filmed version of a stage production. Andrews elevates the many inherent restrictions of a theatre adaptation by using them to his advantage, bringing a formalness to the film and thematically suffocating its characters through mundane settings and framing.
To bastardise a fairly obvious Friedrich Nietzsche quote, “If you gaze long enough into The Void, The Void will throw back at you a truly satisfying blend of Lovecraftian terror and body horror, that manages to both unsettle and entertain.” Or something, I don’t know, I was shit at philosophy. I am good at watching horror movies though, and I loved this one.
For more upcoming big screen events in the city, check out our guide to the Best London Film Events in November 2016.