As of tonight the BFI London Film Festival is done for another year. It's been a stellar year all told, if the surplus of reports are to be believed. And I'd willingly add a further approving nod to the list. I didn't manage to see everything I wanted (juggling festival times and dates with travel arrangements is an art – one that's open to fateful intervention...and multiple tube delays), but what I saw was on the whole a bumper crop. Roll on next year, I say. Here are five previous reviews, selected from the films I saw: Uncle Boonmee, A Screaming Man, Winter Vacation, Rare Exports and What I Love the Most. And below are five final mini reviews of a few festival highlights.
Thomas Vinterberg introduced his new film, Submarino, in a cheeky fashion: “if all goes well, you’ll be depressed at the end of the film. Enjoy yourselves!” It was no happy time sure, but it was an enthralling film, despite its determinedly grim subject matter. It follows two brothers’ hard, poverty-stricken lives in contemporary Copenhagen; a family tragedy as kids has left them scarred and emotionally unable to cope with adult existence. Hope is hard to grasp, but not too far away; redemption comes at a cost but may just stop dead the cycle of despair plaguing one or both of the brothers. The characters' direness isn’t forced or over baked and sympathy is well-earned. Lead actors Jakob Cedergren and Peter Plaugborg are excellent as, respectively, the older and younger siblings. Vinterberg’s humanistic approach is thoroughly rewarding and the tautness of the script ensures we become embroiled in the brothers’ plights. It’s strangely an easy film to like, but not always pleasant to watch. B-
Abel, the second directorial effort by actor Diego Luna, was a complete contrast to Submarino (I saw them consecutively). The story of a boy, the titular Abel, who returns home from a stay at a psychiatric hospital to resume living with his mother and siblings – only to assume the role of patriarch of the house, brought on by his father’s disappearance years earlier. The family go along with the ruse in the hope that it aids the boy’s recovery. It’s an amusing, sweet-natured look at how families are truly peculiar to themselves more so than to others. It also questions the role of the father in modern Mexican life and makes more than a few choice and aptly conveyed criticisms of male-dominated hierarchies.
Though it plays all this with pleasant abandon, Luna handles the few slightly troubling darker moments with able care. If the ending seemed a bit easily arrived at, it was made up for by the wonderful photography and easygoing performances, not least a cracking turn by young Christopher Ruiz-Esparza as Abel. C
Two excellent documentaries at the LFF this year were, for my money, two of the fest's best. The first, Journey’s End (La Belle visite) from French-Canadian director Jean-François Caissy, looks at the day-to-day lives of the residents of a Quebec retirement home for the elderly – the L'Auberge des Caps – over five seasons. Situated between a frosty ocean view and a busy Highway, the home, refurbished from an abandoned motel, is a building once made for passing visitors, but now houses folks in the later stages of their lives. Caissy unobtrusively documents random events with warm assurance: dear old gals getting their hair done, the comings and goings of deliverymen, birthday celebrations, personal prayer time and even the home’s resident dog, who frequently scarpers the vast, long corridors. All the community is shown with great thoughtfulness, and interest in their lives is duly maintained through Caissy’s sure-handed control of his material. The inherent tranquillity of it all is thrown into sharp relief by the inevitable idea of finality aroused by the title. It was a joy to spend time with these people. B
The second documentary to wow me was Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym, now playing in US theaters. Wiseman is as much a film artist as any fiction filmmaker, and is often (rightly) held up as such alongside many a fellow documentarian (Chris Marker and the Maysles bros, for instance), especially for his no talking heads, no descriptive onscreen captions and, ultimately, no fuss approach. As ever, his mastery of the form is present and apparent. The titular gym in Austin, Texas is the focus of Wiseman’s elegant and measured gaze: its owner Richard Lord and various members – including lawyers, students, young mothers, doctors, soldiers – train, chat and generally box happily away whenever their often busy lives permit. All the while Wiseman, with his signature visual dexterity, acutely captures key moments and exchanges which reach far beyond the activity at hand to reveal insights into contemporary America. The sounds and aural rhytms of the gym are particularly notable: the noise of fast punches to speed bags, the constant buzz from the training timer chart, the white noise of friendly banter in the background. It’s a visually splendid film, too: light falling on the gym floor, frenetic, dance-like close-ups of nimble-footed boxers and still shots of the city in bright daylight all display Wiseman’s skill with crisp composition. But the telling snapshots of individual gym members resonate most. I was interested in each person’s history, the fleeting ins and outs of their lives, and could’ve happily spent many more hours with them at Lord's gym. Wiseman gets every aspect spot on. A
Finally, Sofia Coppola’s new film Somewhere was, at once, a pleasant surprise and a film seemingly set on autopilot. It’s lovely to look at but it feels rather too much like happy stasis. The first half hour is largely a series of beautifully photographed scenes simply woven together, featuring a strung-out Hollywood actor played by Stephen Dorff frittering his time away lounging with pole dancers and film world flakes in between routine appointments. That’s all well and good until he has to take charge of his estranged daughter (Elle Fanning) and attempt to emotionally re-engage with his real self.
Dazed, cool-around-the-edges drifters are common currency for Coppola, and the film doesnt tread anywhere fresh. It’s fairly easy to predict where Somewhere will end up. The film meanders nicely enough – Sofia does love those lazy days – but it loses some of its early finesse on later scenes which don’t go anywhere or say anything particularly interesting. Coppola is obviously criticising the Hollywood machine here, but she’s also clearly enamoured with it. Is she maybe too close to really have something coruscating to say. She’s a direct product of it, which makes several of her soft attacks come off as slightly too precious. It’s not ivanssxtc (though I’m actually quite glad about that), but it does effectively pinpoint some of the less glamorous actorish tasks with effective wit and clarity. (An 'old-man make-up' test sitting is both deliberately dull and languorously creepy, and my favourite moment in the whole film – it subtly speaks volumes about the sometimes tedious nature of stardom in one acute slow zoom.)
Somewhere has the most relaxed, laid back atmosphere of any film I’ve seen in 2010 so far, save for perhaps Greenberg, and is a refreshing and escapist diversion for a globe still in economic crisis (though is an indulgent tale about a privileged, self-examining A-lister quite what the world desperately needs right now?). Dorff and Fanning are very good and Harris Savides’ photography (more L.A. kinship with Greenberg) is some of the year’s best. But, to be honest, Coppola is coasting, however blissful the ride. C-
My personal top five from the LFF were: 1. Boxing Gym, 2. A Screaming Man, 3. Journey's End, 4. Submarino, 5. Our Life