London Film Festival 2014

I’ve always found the film festival experience to be strange. Watching 3-4 films in a day is par for the course for some cinephiles, but doing that every day for two weeks straight is a different matter. You’re largely watching new films, often world or regional premieres, and the temptation to offer snap judgements before moving on to the next screening is huge. I’ve read many a critic talk about how opinions formed at Cannes shouldn’t be trusted because your brain is frazzled from copious amounts of art cinema and French wine. The new Michael Haneke film is likely to still be a work of genius in four months’ time, however the Bulgarian drama about agricultural relations you saw in Directors’ Fortnight might look a little different in the cold light of day.

My own involvement in film festivals, except for a couple of volunteering gigs here and there, has largely been focused on the Sarajevo Film Festival in Bosnia. I’ve been there six times and I absolutely love it, from the opportunity to see Cannes and Berlin heavyweights long before they pop up in the UK to discovering exciting new films from the Balkans. For example, this year I was able to see Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep alongside Isa Qosja’s intriguing Three Windows and a Hanging, a film that dealt with the fallout from the Kosovo war. Another plus point is you get to see all these films and still find time to immerse yourself in a great city.

Moving back to London last year after graduating from university has allowed me to expand my festival horizons to include the last two editions of the BFI London Film Festival. I’ve joined this particular train in a period of gradual transition after Clare Stewart took over as festival director in 2011 and oversaw a rehaul of its structure. One thing that’s immediately noticeable about LFF is that the programme mostly consists of films that premiered elsewhere, leading to it being seen as a catch-up festival rather like the New York Film Festival is. This can work really well if the curation is good, but it also means the few world premieres and restorations really need to make their mark to stand out.

I’m not writing this post to make some grand statement about what the main film festival in London should represent, nor to complain about the ticket prices. I simply wanted to look at how my two years at LFF have changed my perception of film festivals. It’s certainly different to Sarajevo, a much larger operation that attempts to find a tricky balance between the glitzy gala screenings and the art house fare which makes up the rest of the programme. This aforementioned catch-up element also makes it hard to speak of an objective festival experience, because I could pick out thirty films from the programme and still have no overlap with someone who is also planning to see loads. I can’t think of many other festivals (perhaps NYFF being the major exception) where this lack of competition and an overall perspective is so prevalent.

This has been a bit of a ramble but I did want to put these thoughts in one place before I move on from the festival. Here are some stray thoughts about the films I saw:

1) LFF 2014 showed me a promising glimpse into the future of British cinema. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy received a lot of attention at Toronto and has a somewhat international feeling to it, so instead I wanted to look at three other efforts from British filmmakers. Carol Morley’s The Falling, her follow-up to the acclaimed documentary Dreams of a Life, is an unnerving watch. It portrays the outbreak of a fainting epidemic at a girls school in the late 1960s, asking whether this is a real thing or simply a psychological trick to undermine the school’s hierarchy. Daniel Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy initially appears to be a peculiar mix of the “it’s grim up north” sentiment and an honour killing scenario, but Robbie Ryan’s typically glorious 35mm photography coupled with a strong cast ensure this is a distinctive feature. Tom Harper’s War Book, a film about nuclear war protocol and competing visions of governance, is also worth considering. Jack Thorne’s smart script confines most of the proceedings to one room, and the film’s structure has a theatrical sensibility, but Harper somehow manages to adapt this into something unmistakably cinematic. At the other end of the Brit spectrum, the less said about Michael Winterbottom’s hopeless The Face of an Angel the better.

2) This year’s selection showed me that there should always be space for films with different energies and rhythms. My screening of Damien Chazelle’s explosive Whiplash was followed by Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher, and this juxtaposition led me to a comparison of how the two films set out to depict the teacher-student relationship. Chazelle prefers a more aggressive approach as the ruthless Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) exploits his students’ insecurities at every opportunity. Lapid, on the other hand, indulges in more reflective musings as he depicts the obsessive activities of Nira, a teacher who unlocks a talent for poetry in one of her young pupils. Crowd pleasers like Whiplash are always going to get a lot of attention for the way they excite audiences, and yet contemplative films like The Kindergarten Teacher shouldn’t be left out to dry or seen as inaccessible. Here are two films that choose to explore their ideas and subjects in different gears, and that’s fine by me. Also worth noting that I opened my LFF this year with Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom and ended it with Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. Both are wonderful, but the latter’s screaming matches don’t need to be in opposition to the former’s whimsical nature.

3) Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, in which Nina Hoss’ Nelly undergoes facial reconstruction surgery and then reappears to her husband, is a masterful film and contains one of the most stunning finales in recent memory. It’s important not to spoil the content of that scene, although every review/reaction I’ve seen has hinted at the power of it. Many of the films I saw at LFF saw filmmakers enhancing their work with strong endings. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden steps back from its epic look at the 90s and 00s for a final moment of reflection. Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery ends on a note of beauty as the exhibition spaces of this legendary institution are taken over by a performance piece. Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange survives a couple of dodgy subplots and considers the enduring nature of its central relationship in the last few scenes. None of them quite match the boldness of Phoenix, but each impressed in their own way.

I made a list on Letterboxd that ranks the 21 films I saw at LFF this year:

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