The 57th BFI London Film Festival Review
Dr Ricky Ghosh Dastidar
The 57th BFI London Film Festival came to a close recently with a star-studded awards ceremony celebrating the year’s best films, actors and directors from across the globe. Continuing to champion new stories, ideas and voices, this year’s festival brought films not only to audiences around London, but also UK-wide across a wide range of different platforms.
In the Official Competition category, which honours the most original, intelligent and distinctive type of filmmaking, the main award was won by Pawel Pawlikowski’s film, Ida. Tackling both the German occupation of Poland and the Holocaust, the jury agreed that the courageous film was handled with both subtlety and insight, leaving a long-lasting impression on viewers.
The Sutherland award, traditionally associated with the most original and imaginative debut feature of the festival, was won by Anthony Chen for his film, Ilo Ilo. Set in Singapore, the film is a devastating study of a modern affluent family and its vulnerabilities. The jury praised it for its “powerful narrative and visual and emotional elegance”.
Screen-writer Jonathan Asser won the Best British Newcomer award for his gritty British prison drama, Starred up. Directed by David Mackenzie, this uncompromising film captures startling realism and its title refers to the practice of placing violent young offenders into adult prisons.
The year’s Best Documentary award was won by a film entitled, My fathers, my mother and me. This intensely personal film is an account of Paul-Julien Robert’s early life growing up in Friedrichshof; a large commune on the outskirts of Vienna. Combining archive footage of life in Friedrichshof during the 1970s, with the personal journey of a mother and son now in the present, the film presents a harrowing insight into the devastating emotional effects a commune of this kind can have on its residents.
The highest accolade that the BFI bestows each year is the Fellowship Award and this year’s recipient was none other than screen legend, Sir Christopher Lee. His contribution to the world of film was described by Festival Director, Claire Stewart to be “both unique and enormous, and entirely fitting for a festival that is committed to excellence”.
There were plenty of other highlights during the 12-day festival and these encompassed world and European premieres, screen-talks and numerous red-carpet appearances from some of world-cinema’s biggest names, including Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Alexander Payne and Judi Dench.
My personal highlights of the festival and the films to look out for over the coming months were spread over a large range of nationalities and genres. The documentaries that come most highly recommended are The Armstrong lie and Mistaken for strangers. The former looks at the rise to stardom and subsequent fall from grace of the seven-time Tour de France winning cyclist; Lance Armstrong. Shot by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, the film combines exhilarating archive footage from the beginning of Armstrong’s career, as well as interviews with the man himself and those closest to him. The film is an intricate portrait of an extraordinarily ambitious man who would stop at nothing to win and the end-product is so compelling and comprehensive, it appeals not just to cyclist-enthusiasts but also to those unfamiliar with the sport. The latter documentary is much lighter in tone, but no less poignant. Mistaken for strangers is a tour documentary of the US rock-band, The National. However, it is not the music or the band that takes centre stage, but the sibling relationship between the lead singer of the band and his younger brother, Tom Berninger, who also directed the film. Mistaken for strangers is a rare treat for anyone with brothers and sisters and provides an invaluable insight into the professional and personal lives of all those involved in the making of the film.
Some gems from world-cinema included the Indian film, Fandry and Asghar Farhadi’s (director of Oscar-winning drama, A Separation) latest film, The Past. Quite possibly the most moving film I have seen this year, director Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry focuses on the caste system that still persists throughout modern-day India and the inequalities and inequities that it engenders. Seen from the point of view of an intelligent Dalit (untouchable) teenager in a small village, the film exposes shocking levels of discrimination and prejudice still faced by Dalit communities in India today and boasts an ending that is truly unforgettable. The Past is another Iranian film by Asghar Farhadi that deals with modern family life and much like in, A Separation, the script is full of twists and turns and the acting is of the highest quality. The Past is set on the outskirts of Paris and stars Ali Mosaffa as a man returning from Tehran to unravel the events of the previous four years, with acclaimed French actors, Berenice Bejo and Tahar Rahim playing the parts of the estranged wife and new boyfriend, respectively.
In the comedy genre, the most original and entertaining film was Joseph Gordon Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon. Utilising a razor-sharp script full of wit, charm and intelligence, the film takes a tried and tested romantic-comedy formula and elevates it to new heights. Gordon-Levitt’s performance as the eponymous Don Jon is fearless and bold while Scarlett Johansson also shines as the gum-chewing girl of his dreams. A special mention must also be given to; The spectacular now; a teen drama which also reaches beyond the limitations of its genre with assured performances from newcomers Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley as the flawed central couple.
My final recommendation from this year’s festival is the new film by Steve McQueen (director of Shame and Hunger); 12 years a slave. Starring Chewitel Ejiofor in the lead role, with support from regular McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, the film is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup; a New York State-born free negro who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery. Already tipped for Academy awards in 2014, 12 years a slave provides an unflinching look at the harsh realities and injustices of slavery in nineteenth-century USA and the extraordinary performances of the actors are guaranteed to stay with you long after you’ve exited the cinema.
Each year, the festival increases in size and as more and more cinemas in London participate it is possible to see films not just in Central London, but also in places as diverse as Islington, Hackney and Brixton. This ongoing change combined with the highly extensive selection of films on offer each year leads to my final piece of advice for 2014; in order to see as many festival films as you possibly can, plan ahead and book your tickets by visiting the British Film Institute website nearer the time of the festival. The full address can be found here: www.bfi.org.uk.