Well, it’s that time of the year again.
It’s a well-known but little commented upon phenomenon that each year Christmas comes to London roughly three months early – at least for capital-based cinema buffs – as, each October, the BFI hosts the London Film Festival.
Now in its 60th year, and with more than 240 feature films on display, all of them UK premieres, this LFF comprises arguably the best-looking bunch since my inaugural festival back in 2013. While that grand roster included such revelations as 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Captain Phillips, Inside Llewyn Davis, Under the Skin, Saving Mr. Banks, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Philomena, Nebraska, and Only Lovers Left Alive, the current line-up is no less auspicious.
As such, here is a rundown of the top 10 for which I have the highest hopes.
- Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey (dir. Terrence Malick)
Much as I loathed Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick is one of the few directors who deserve the accolade of “visionary”.
A universe-spanning documentary – like Tree of Life without the narrative bits – Voyage of Time promises a suitably mind-expanding experience. It could equally be, if recent form is anything to go by, intolerably dull.
Still, at only ninety minutes in length, too – which suggest a certain focus and clarity of purpose – it could be a risk worth taking.
- The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-wook)
Marking his return to Korean cinema after the English-language Stoker and Snowpiercer – both released in 2013 –Park Chan-wook seems likely to evoke the same Gothic sumptuousness and delicate psycho-sexual melodrama as the former; which was my podcasting partner Rob Daniel’s film of the year.
Revenge is once more the order of the day, as in Chan-wook’s awe-inspiring Vengeance trilogy, albeit with added period detail and Colonial overtones. Definitely one to keep an eye on.
- Dog Eat Dog (dir. Paul Schrader)
Paul Schrader may still, after forty years, be best known as the screenwriter on Taxi Driver, but he’s certainly no slouch in the directorial department.
Obsessed with themes of redemption, he’s been directing seedy crime dramas since 1978’s Blue Collar – which I only recently saw myself. In Dog Eat Dog, Nicholas Cage and Willem Dafoe play two hare-brained crooks that kidnap a mobster’s baby.
Expect lurid, profane, off-the-chain criminality. It’s guaranteed fun; if nothing else.
- Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (dir. Werner Herzog)
My other documentary on this list, Werner Herzog has always brought a certain Teutonic discipline to his philosophising.
In Lo and Behold, Werner – previously at home commenting on the indifference of all-encompassing nature in the face of personal endeavour – turns his attentions to the World Wide Web. Ruminations abound on the shifting pattern of human relationships and whether or not machines are capable of dreaming.
Phillip K. Dick would be proud.
- Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
A realistic first-contact thriller from the director of Sicario, Arrival looks like what we might expect if Christopher Nolan remade Close Encounters of the Third Kind: a cool, glossy, technically stunning reflection on humanity, our place in the universe, our hopes and our fears, and our capacity for self-destruction.
Based on a Hugo-nominated “hard SF” short story, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner appear alongside Forest Whitaker, I can’t wait to see how it all pans out.
- Nocturnal Animals (dir. Tom Ford)
Being a stereotypical Brit, I’m a sucker for any film about reserved people experiencing strong emotion. Case and point: fashion designer Tom Ford’s 2009 directorial debut A Single Man, which starred Colin Firth as a grieving college professor in ‘60s L.A.
Nocturnal Animals, Ford’s follow-up, occupies the world of reality (Amy Adams, once again, as a gallery director), fiction (Jake Gyllenhaal as the protagonist in a thriller), and memory.
Lots of deeply repressed feelings about this one.
- The Birth of a Nation (dir. Nate Parker)
Written by, directed, and starring Nate Parker, The Birth of Nation reclaims the title of D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist silent epic for a biopic of Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt back in 1831. Race has always been an incendiary topic in America and, released in the wake of a spate of police shootings and establishment inaction, the film seems ideally positioned to make a real statement.
The LFF has an impressive track record of showing eventual Best Picture winners. This year could be no exception.
- Free Fire (dir. Ben Wheatley)
Ben Wheatley’s second film to play the LFF Festival Gala in two years, Free Fire seems a more straightforward, if no less compelling, offering than High Rise. Where the previous film offered up psychedelic, ‘70s- infused social commentary, Wheatley’s latest takes the unbearable tension of a final-act shootout to feature-length.
With a great cast, including current Best Actress winner Brie Larson, Green Room might just have competition for my thriller of the year.
- La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)
Chazelle’s first film was the impossibly precise, snare-drum tight Whiplash. La La Land is, instead, a luminous testament to the impossibility of Hollywood dreams. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as aspiring actress Mia and struggling musician Sebastian who sing and dance their way through love and heartbreak.
Universally acclaimed after its premiere at Venice, the film may be in a notably different key to its predecessor, and somewhat lighter on its feet, but I for one could not be more excited.
- Manchester By Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
Returning to the theme of repressed emotions, Casey Affleck is already picking up Oscar buzz for his performance as Lee – who the LFF brochure wonderfully describes as “calcified” – who finds himself reluctantly back in his hometown in Massachusetts after the death of his brother.
Having already adored Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James, for which he should won Best Supporting Actor, I’ve a feeling – if you’ll excuse the nebulous sentiment – that this may well be my film of 2016, as Whiplash and Carol (both screened at LFF) were the previous two years.
Check back in periodically for more on the London Film Festival, which from October 5th—16th, 2016, will basically be the sole focus of my existence. For now, though, there’s also this: