With Sandra Hebron’s successful tenure as chair of the increasingly relevant BFI London Film Festival coming to a successful conclusion in 2011, the 56th gathering has been given something of a reboot by incoming festival director Clare Stewart.
Gone are the majority of formal film categories that framed your choices, instead replaced by a selection of refreshingly abstract mood headings: Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, and Journey. An appropriate reflection of the variety sure to be on show, a few of which we’ve earmarked as potential headliners.
Launching proceedings as the Opening Night Gala is Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, a return to the gothic canvas on which he has painted some of his best and most personal fairytales. It’s a stop-motion delight to rival much of the Pixar output, an ode to the movies that is imbued with so much love, care, and attention noticeably lacking in the director’s most recent output (Dark Shadows), which makes it the perfect choice to kick off the festival.
Going into the first weekend, and featuring in the Official Competition category, De Rouille et D’os (Rust and Bone) is an emotional wallop from A Prophet director Jacques Audiard. There are two stripped-back performances from a never-better Marion Cotillard, as an Orca trainer who suffers a life-changing accident, and breakout star, Matthias Schoenaerts, a bare knuckle fighter struggling to cope with his societal responsibilities. Both are tremendous as damaged souls forging a rehabilitating friendship, and it could well feature one of the scenes of the year … Katy Perry is all we’re saying.
It could well feature one of the scenes of the year …
One that could have easily fallen into both the Cult and Laugh categories is Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to the critically adored (aside from this reviewer) Kill List. Early buzz on Sightseers is stellar, and there’s no denying that Wheatley has an incredibly distinctive talent, so this tale of a holidaying couple who argue, split-up, and then get back together, against a backdrop of bloodshed and laughs, could well be a stand-out.
Of the many documentaries playing at the festival, Amy Berg’s West of Memphis demands immediate attention. If you’ve seen any of the Paradise Lost documentaries then they’ll act as a precursor to this update/compendium on the case of three West Memphis teenage boys, charged with the murders of three 8-year-olds in 1994. Wrongly convicted amid a sea of morally corrupt political motivation and fudged police interrogations, the boys, one of whom sits on Death Row, have suffered nearly two decades of incarceration. Partly funded by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, this chronicles the fight to free them, and thanks to new evidence, helps point the accusatory finger towards more likely suspects. A film that will anger and move you in equal measure.
Ben Affleck looks set to make it three-for-three with potential Oscar-botherer Argo. Directed by the reformed “Benifer” sufferer, it’s the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez, who concocted a plan to extract six Americans from an embassy overthrown by revolutionaries in Tehran. What’s so special about that, you ask? Well, how about the elaborate lengths they went to masquerade as a film crew making an on-location sci-fi film. It’s testament to Affleck’s growing reputation that he’s enlisted a heavyweight cast – Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman – to make this one of the hottest tickets of the entire fortnight.
Also looking to cement a burgeoning career is Martin McDonagh, whose follow-up to the hilarious In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, is another tale of bad people doing stupid things in dangerous situations. McDonagh could wring another career-best performance from Colin Farrell as a booze-hound screenwriter who winds up entangled in the LA underworld when his questionable best friend (Sam Rockwell) kidnaps local gang boss’s (Woody Harrelson) pet Shih Tzu. If the trailer is anything to go by, then this is profanity laden hilarity with more smarts than the characters it’s depicting.
Debuting at the festival is one feature that has been gathering considerable buzz, winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Cannes Camera d’Or: Beasts of the Southern Wild. Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature is the fantasy tinged story of a bathtub dwelling 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, isolated from civilisation, dealing with an impoverished lifestyle head-on, and facing up to the threat of rising water levels that bring with them prehistoric beasts, birthed from the melting polar ice caps. It sounds like Where the Wild Things Are without the alienating existentialism, and promises a captivating range of performances from its untrained cast.
If you walk to the beat of a drum then get a front row seat to Beware of Mr Baker. Jay Bulger’s warts ’n’ all documentary charts the career of one of music’s most influential pedal pushers, and begins with the film-maker receiving a stick to the nose from his subject, Ginger Baker–one-time drummer for Cream, full-time curmudgeon, and part-time African based polo player. This is an educational eye-opener for the ill-informed, and a nostalgic look at a hedonistic talent for others. Creatively constructed using a combination of animation, talking heads, and unrestricted access to Baker, this may not be groundbreaking but it’s as narratively engrossing as any other film on display this fortnight.
All this and we’ve not even mentioned Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning Amour, Roger Michell’s (Notting Hill) Bill Murray starring Hyde Park on Hudson, the in-your-face brutality of the Jake Gyllenhaal cop-thriller End of Watch, the titular self referential potential of Mike Newell’s adaptation of Great Expectations, and the hottest ticket in town, The Surprise Film, which much like the festival in its entirety is a bit of a gamble.
There is so much diversity on offer that you never really know what you’re going to get; we just hope this may have pointed you in the right direction. Get thee to the box office.
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