These are my notes from this year’s LFF. They were written either immediately after my seeing the film or shortly thereafter. I am not a film reviewer, so these are more impressions than full-blown reviews.
One of the themes I noticed this year was the increase in stories about women and made by women. Good and long may that continue. There were also quite a few films made with non-professional actors and films that took decades to make.
It was a bumper year for me, with mostly really great films. The films are grouped under “The most striking”, “Very good to eminently watchable” to “Nope to meh!”, but they are in no particular order under those headings.
The most striking
The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man – USA – a most delightful, earthy and joyful hagiography. We should all be more like Bill. Set aside all the colossal bullshit about mindfulness – where is the mind of not always mindful of whatever is engaging it, whether that’s your phone, friends, family or work. Focus more on the principles of improv and enjoying/seizing the moment – yes and can be a mantra for just about any aspect of our lives. New Jersey writer/director/producer.
The Breaker Upperers – New Zealand – Story of two women, friends who have an agency providing break up services. Unflinchingly hilarious. And felt totally genuine. A buddy film made almost entirely by women. Some absolutely hilarious lines. And super fun soundtrack. Worked on the script for five years. Filmed it in 22 days.
Border – Sweden – OK wow. Omg this was great. Can’t say anything at all about it without spoiling the lot. Suffices to say that it’s based on a short story by the author of “Let The Right One In”. Spooky-ish.
Bad Reputation – USA – Joan Jett documentary. Fantastic for fans of music, punk and women who rock. She’s an absolute icon and one of the first live performances I ever saw (1985, Asbury Park Boardwalk. I was 15 and skipping school). My partner commented that there was no indication of a personal life. He felt it was too focused on her professional life. But I disagree. She does say herself that a performer must decide between performing and giving that their all or having a personal life/relationships. And she chose the former. And her sister says too how Joan has always been monofocused. I didn’t care one way or the other. It wasn’t about her home life, but about her as a performer.
Roma – Mexico. A perfect film. Every shot. Every emotion. Every heart wrenching scene. An ode to Cuaròn’s family maid, primarily, but to the other women in his life.
Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records – U.K.- An absolute joy of a documentary, as I expected it would be. Really gets across the social context of the music from the 50s to the early 70s and pre-Bob Marley. The “Jamaican Invasion” had the same profound impact on music, fashion and culture that the British Invasion did, with Trojan Records at its core. And here’s a documentary that does it justice. It’s always Island Records that gets the acclaim. They were coming up as Trojan was in decline. Brilliant Spotify playlist.
What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? – UK/Italy – Documentary about a moment in the life of two young brothers in New Orleans, a bar owner in New Orleans being pushed out by gentrification and the New Black Panther party in Jackson, MS. Beautifully shot in B&W. Poignant portrait of the two brothers and the bar owner. Inevitable conflagration between BP protesters and police. Powerful and worthwhile although sometimes it seemed a bit stitched together. Worth seeing and maybe I need to rewatch it. (Won best documentary).
Suspiria – UK – Luca Guadagnino and Tilda Swinton can do no wrong IMO (including that rubbish remake of the pool film). It was sufficiently creepy, yet fabulously stylised in 80s Berlin. I don’t know the original film, but this is meant to be a reimagining of it so I’m no bothered. I enjoyed it immensely and it gave me nightmares. Ace! Loved the all female cast. And some of the zingers …. “women tell you what they see and you call them delusions…” so good.
Joy – Austria – Story about a Nigerian prostitute in Austria. Superb and subtle performance by the protagonist. And a very humane and nuanced look at women’s lives who are in this situation. Not judgmental. And filmmakers knew women in the same situations. It was utterly shattering to me when the director said that in Austria, asylum seekers have no right to work, but that they can work in the sex industry. I mean …. how do we square that circle? And why shouldn’t asylum seekers be able to work in whatever capacity? (Won best film)
Happy as Lazzaro – Italy – From the same director/writer as “Corpo Celeste” and “The Wonders (Le Meraviglie)” who also is one of the protagonists in the film, Alba Rohrwacher. About modern day peasants/sharecroppers in Italy. This weaving of Italian culture old and new with a handful of magic and mystery is really unique. I never know where her stories are going to go. They look way back but also forwards in terms of Italian culture. But human nature too. They’re not happy or hopeful films even but they’re unmissable and remarkable.
Capernaum – Lebanon. About a Syrian boy and his family in the slums and what it means to legally not exist. Non-professional actors. I was spellbound and profoundly moved. It is unimaginable to us living in such limbo and non existence. Boy now living in Norway and going to school.
Birds of Passage – Colombia. Story of the Wayuu people – a matriarchal/matrilineal tribe = and their change from the 60s to the 80s. Combining myth, bending genre from Greek tragedy to Narcos, stunning scenery and gorgeous performances. I was spellbound. As the director said, telling the story from the local POV because it’s been told by outsiders and they didn’t do it right or justice. The local community participated and welcomed this production. Same team as “Embrace of the Serpent”.
Bisbee ’17 – USA – On the centenary of it happening, unmissable story of the deportation of almost 1200 men, most of whom were immigrants, from a mining town in Arizona because they were striking or supporting the strike. Deportation to the desert in New Mexico. The cattle trains on which they were deported. The rationalising of the actors (local people) of “both sides” and the hollow “doing this now would be wrong but back then no”. So easy for this to happen again and again. And on a lighter note, Walter Douglas seems to me like the basis for Mr Burns. Also, at the end was that Bonny Prince Billy singing? Sure sounded like it to me.
Girls of the Sun – France, Belgium, Netherlands, Georgia – About Kurdish women fighters who were survivors of slave captivity by IS. First ever fiction film of women fighters (and the Kurdish women are not the only ever before). Director heavily researched for two years prior to making film. Filmed in Georgia with Kurdish non professional actors. In some ways, it felt very much like an over sentimentalised war film (but I find male centered war films to be similar, often). The use of the Western war reporter (to resemble Marie Colvin) was a bit disturbing because why do we need that intermediary? Director said it was because they needed French money to make the film and therefore needed the French character. The film isn’t a depiction of the YPJ. It doesn’t give political or historical context and that as deliberate, according to the director. The director wanted to make a war fiction of these Kurdish women. That was her stated intent. And also to nod in appreciation of women war reporters. And I suppose she did do that. Apparently, the Kurdish community in norther Kurdistan loves this film, will screen it to the military etc. However, there are at least two parts where there is politicising – a mention of Assad and a scene with the women watching what was earlier referred to only as an Allied bombing, but then they said somewhat wistfully “ah the Americans”… There was a bit too much crying by the women and I don’t know that just felt stereotypical. But director strung together stories from many women. So who knows. There was also a strange scene where the women decide to cross the valley to retake the town that ISIL originally attacked. The women take a prisoner in a skirmish and use him to lead them through the tunnel that is meant to lead them straight to enemy HQ. The reasoning for using him is that he’d know where the mines were. And, although the male commander asks why they’d be trusting a suicide bomber, the leader of the women says he’s different. That sounded like such a nonsense to me. So down they go in the tunnel. And of course at one point the ISIL soldier does trigger a mine and one of the women dies. Also …. I would’ve figured that the mines would have been a lot more powerful and wouldve blown up the tunnel. But what do I kown. The Q&A was the best one I’ve listened to in this festival. The first question came from an older, white, British man. He announced that today is the anniversary of the death of the British man who fought w the YPGJ – Jac Holmes – and that the film should’ve given more credit to the YPGJ. He did quickly add the name of a British woman who died there also. He then led the YPG chant. Frankly, tone deaf and mansplaining the first ever film about a woman battalion by bringing up a white, British man was everything. Iraqi woman spoke next and said that the filmmaker was part of the problem because no historical context and mythologising the women. Then Kurdish woman spoke up and put both prior in their place. She acknowledged that the Kurds love their foreign fighters and are eternally grateful. But that there’s never been a film about Kurdish women. Or about women fighters. So this was about them. Not the white folks.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – France – Terry Gilliam finally does it. Fantastical world with a lot of sadness. Relevance of old man and young man who may have passed his peak. Madcap, of course. Mad and nonsensical too. Adam Driver is terrific as is John Pryce. Great. Worth waiting 25 years for it.
Dilili in Paris – France – Sometimes the most perfect film is an animation. And if you’d have told me that this – a story about a mixed race Kanaki girl in Paris, solving crimes- would’ve been a top favourite of this year’s LFF, I might not have believed you. It’s perfection for little and big girls and boys. Maybe one quibble that would be a spoiler – the cloaks.
Very good to eminently watchable
Thunder Road – USA – Police officer who loses his mum and his whole life seems to unravel. The most cringeworthy start to a film I’ve ever seen. The character seems to always be hovering between overly calm sanity and complete emotional meltdown. You just don’t know whether he’ll make it out alive. Some very funny moments. And ultimately deeply poignant. Written, directed and acted by the lead. And although there are a few other characters, their actions and words are limited. So everything is through him. Which is really the best and toughest part of this film.
Unsettling – Israel, Denmark, UK- Leftist woman moves to West Bank settler village for a month to attempt to speak with settlers. This was a fascinating glimpse on a slice of Israeli society that we don’t see often. The characters who they chose for the film weren’t the one sided types. And that complexity was interesting. Seeing the presence of soldiers, the passing armoured cars and the brief shots of the checkpoints juxtaposed with the spectacular landscape also made this an absorbing documentary.
Colette – UK- Gorgeous film and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve not read Colette or know much at all about her life. I’m now smitten with Keira Knightly. This was the role she was born to play and I want all the clothes. Also, the director and writer’s story about making this film with his now deceased husband made me weep. Also loved the nods to Impressionism. The scene with the Wood Scrapers painting in the d’Orsay. Some Manet and Monet moment too. Just fleeting but excellent if you love art.
Make Me Up – UK – experimental film made by a Glaswegian visual artist to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in the U.K. Destroying the male gaze never looked better. Dark comedy ride between sci-fi/dystopian novel and daily social media interactions painted in garish colours and sparkles.
The Little Drummer Girl – UK – A spy thriller. Really lush, bright and bold colours and shapes. A joy. The story might be meh – hard to say with only the first two episodes. But I’m hooked and I’ll watch all six episodes when they’re released on television.
The Spy Gone North – South Korea – Fictionalised story of the Black Venus spy from South Korea to North Korea. Entertaining because a spy film about NK and SK! And because good acting, cool hairstyles, incredible locations and sets. Ultimately, it was a spy bromance with K-pop saccharinity. And what’s wrong with that?! That would deffo entice me to go. Now to read up on actual facts!
El Angel – Argentina – Based on a true crime story. Sociopathic, angelic-faced beautiful boy on a crime spree in 1970s Buenos Aires. But did he do it to impress the boy and then was so disappointed or jealous that he had to end it all. A sort of Thelma and Louise? But more stylish? Entertaining and nuts. Good soundtrack
Daughter of Mine – Italy – Not bad. Alba Rohrwacher is also in this film (in addition to Happy as Lazarus) and she’s great actually. Two mothers and a 10 year old daughter. In Sardegna. And the daughter ends up being the more adult of the lot. Interesting too that the little girl is reborn basically once she emerges from the hole in the necropolis. And what was that when she takes off her shirt at the end? She was defiant. It was an act of defiance against the world and both her mothers.
Shadow – China – Fabulous and original fight scenes. Monochromatic scenery. Intrigue, betrayals and Chinese court. Slightly slow and quiet at the start but picks up steam like a massive rolling downhill.
If Beale Street Could Talk – USA – Based on a story by James Baldwin. Beautiful portrayal of young couple who gets stitched up by the racist system. The relevance and power of this film today is completely – tragically – unchanged. The white supremist “justice” system continues to imprison people of colour in the USA and wreak havoc on lives and families for generations.
Museo/Museum – Mexico – Based on true story of the heist from the anthropological museum in Mexico City. Gael Garcia Bernal is always great to watch. It was good story. Bonkers idea. Film lacked some tension and there was a recurring theme I didn’t quite get (mouthing of words). But eminently watchable.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – USA – I am very partial to Coen Bros films. This was a collection of short stories from the American West of “cowboys and Indians”, covered wagons, gold panning, bank robbing and generally eking a living by hook or by crook (mostly crook). Each story was excellently crafted and acted. But because it was in segments, it felt a little long. Overall, very very good.
Nope to meh!
Been So Long – UK – Musicals are meant to elicit good feelings and maybe stoke sympathy and compassion. This one takes place in Camden and started out well enough. But when the protagonists – one of what is fresh out of jail and sports an ankle “bracelet” – go on their first date to Persepolis in Peckham (nice Sally Butcher cameo as herself), the interaction becomes a platform for a cheap pot shot against vegans. What for? A cheap laugh? Why? No one else got made fun of for their beliefs. Imagine if there were a cheap pot shot written in to degrade the protagonist on probation? That would be unacceptable. So why have him ask his date “oh don’t tell me you’re you’re one of those… those … vegans?!” She replied that it was because she wasn’t a baby cow. And then he asks her where do you get your protein?! And she responds to all this with a looking down her nose on vegans saying “ohgodno I’m not one of them! I’m just healthy.” Huh. Wow. Thanks for invisibilising a deeply held belief that it’s wrong to kill sentient beings for no good reason (and palate pleasure or habit aren’t good reasons). I didn’t walk out. But I should’ve. Oh and after their dinner, they find themselves on Primrose Hill as if it were nothing. Well… if this was meant to be about Camden, the journey to Peckham and back and then to Primrose Hill will be at least 70 minutes. Nope.
Étangs Noirs – Belgium – Nah. One big dream sequence. Just nah. Good acting though. Rubbish story.
Widows – UK- I walked out after 70 minutes. Cliché after cliché. The women seemed caricatures. Yes, I am happy to see women as strong protagonists, but not when we have to be made into caricatures. The clichés were so thick that I was calling every scene. If you’re on a plane and there’s nothing else on and you can’t sleep and your reads have been shredded, then it would be a good watch. Otherwise Nope.
Aquarela – UK, Germany – Fierce and magnificent water in many forms with heavy metal soundtrack. There are some glorious and unique shots of water throughout. The beginning, showing the sea ice in far north east Russia is fascinating as are the icebergs. The rest felt a bit drawn out. And I’d have liked more of the hard core metal music that was especially composed for this documentary.
Out of Blue – UK – Cop in New Orleans who solves cold case and unravels the mystery of her own life. Throw in some non sequitur physics and generally uninteresting other bits. Meh.