The BFI London Film Festival for 2011 kicked off last October and once again I struggled with the online booking system and my calendar to get to as many films as I was able. As always it was a fantastic event for film lovers with a wide range of films from all over the world, numerous introductions and Q&As with the filmmakers, and red carpet glitz.
I managed to take in a good selection this year though I didn’t feel the films I saw maintained as high a standard as 2010. That years Of Gods and Men still ranks among my most memorable film festival experiences, as does The White Ribbon. Nothing this year ranked as highly for me as those two. Below are some brief thoughts on the films I saw this year. None stand out as obvious favorites though The Descendents, Martha Marcy May Malene, and 50/50 all rank highly.
Alps – Director Giorgos Lanthimos made a splash with his previous film, Dogtooth, winning the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. Although I have not yet seen Dogtooth I was aware of it’s success and was therefore excited by the prospect of checking out the directors follow up. Alps certainly has an interesting premise involving a group of suspect characters “performing” the roles of relatives and friends who have recently passed away. The film raises questions of identity and grief, and demonstrates a strong control of tone and style. Unfortunately it left me unengaged. Acting is stilted, which appears to be purposeful though to what purpose I am unsure. I found it difficult to relate to anyone in the film which was not aided by an awkward acting style. There is also not a great deal of plot, preferring to concentrate on character and feeling. There is little information provided about the group and what their motivations are. A Q&A with the writer and director after the screening was also not particularly illuminating with the director appearing to take a stance of – “I made the film I wanted now you must interpret the film as you wish”. This film is unlikely to appeal to wide audiences and I found little to reccomend it.
The Descendants – I have enjoyed every Alexander Payne film I have seen (admittedly he has not made many). The style of his films remind me a little of the Coen brothers. Both populate their films with great characters and create worlds that I find a pleasure to spend time in. George Clooney is usually fun but sometimes a little too fun, being amusing but failing to create characters I have any belief in. Does Clooney deliver his best here and does Payne continue his winning run? I would have say yes on both counts. The Descendants is a thoroughly enjoyable film. It mixes humour and pathos very well. In addition to Clooney I enjoyed the performance of Shailene Woodley and found Robert Forster to be very entertaining. Overall highly reccomended, one of the best I saw at the festival.
Take Shelter – Michael Shannon is an actor who appears to have rapidly gone from unknown to this leading role, first popping up on my radar in 2006 with Bug. He does a great job here playing a man struggling with unusual visions, well aware of the strangeness of his behaviour. It is really quite gripping, surprisingly scary at times, but ultimately left me feeling a bit empty. It has a divisive ending which I did not find wholly satisfying. The build up is worth the trip however and it feels like a film for our times, taking in the economic climate and a sense of unease about the future.
The Deep Blue Sea – Critic Mark Kermode loved director Terence Davies’ Of Time and The City and named it the best film of 2008. I never caught it myself but it certainly sounded unusual. A 72 minute documentary narrated by the director touching on his personal recollections of Liverpool. The Deep Blue Sea is a return to more traditional narrative filmmaking. Based on Terence Rattigan’s play of the same name the film stars Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale. Set in around 1950 the story focuses on Hester, the young wife of a high court judge, whose life is thrown into disarray by an affair and with a troubled pilot. There are some great elements on show here. Terrific cinematography, strong performances, and a real sense of time and place. However I felt these were undone by a feeling of “stagey-ness” and deliberate pacing. I wasn’t caught up in the drama as I felt I should be.
Shame – Like The Deep Blue Sea, Shame features some great elements but I didn’t feel it came together successfully. It’s a film with real visual style, individual scenes that work very well, and committed performances. I’m just not sure it all adds up to much. We are presented with troubled characters, and the impact of their troubles is delved into a little, we just never get enough detail to build a rounded portrait. Motivations are left oblique. It is also arguable how much progress the characters make in dealing with their predicament as the ending is left to interpretation though I did feel it leaned in a particular direction and at least prompted further thought. Overall somewhat unsatisfying though not without merit.
Martha Marcy May Marlene – A gripping story of a young womens attempts to escape the clutches of a cult-like commune and it’s frigtening leader. The performances from Elizabeth Olsen abd John Hawkes are great and the atmosphere is terriffic. I was frequently on the edge of my seat. Turning into a bit of a festival theme (following Take Shelter and Shame) it was another film which ended on a question mark rather than a full stop. I could see many audiences members feeling unsatisfied but I felt it worked in the context of the story.
I also enjoyed the post Martha Marcy screening Q&A with writer/director Sean Durkin and stars John Hawkes and Elisbeth Olsen. Olsen especially provided some very good answers to our queries. She had very clear ideas on the character and did an exceptional job of describing this to us. If she brings the same intensity and talent to all her roles we can look found to some great performances in the future.
50/50 – Thoroughly enjoyed it. Hits a good balance of comedy and drama. Emotional without feeling too manipulative. You couldn’t say the role is really a stretch for Seth Rogen but he plays it very well and I found it to be his most affecting character. Likewise Joseph Gorden Levitt does a great job and it building an impressive filmography following successes like Brick, 500 Days of Summer, and Inception. I have seen some criticism of the films treatment of its female characters, Bryce Dallas Howard plays the most unlikeable character however I felt the film benefitted from the perspective the character brought and introduced a conflict that added to the drama. I also felt that Anna Kendrick provided a suitable counterpoint. In addition Anjelica Huston, playing Gordon Levitt’s mother, offers a very sympathetic character. I appreciated the introduction from writer Will Reiser at the screening, he added to the back story of the film, reflecting on its factual basis and it was great to see Anna Kendrick. Post screening I found out that the festival had played the film simultaneously in multiple cinemas, one of which was also treated to a Q&A with Reiser, Rogen, and Kendrick afterwards. It was unfortunate that I was not able to see this.
The Ides of March – A good “Hollywood” drama with the star power of Clooney and Gosling (what a year he had!) and critical favorites Seymour Hoffman and Giamatti. What could go wrong? Happily not a great deal as the film does a pretty good job of delving into the political intrigue of a Democratic primary race and the corruption it breeds. It does feel a little contrived at times and wraps up its loose ends a little too neatly but on the whole it works rather well and walks the line of setting its action amongst political processes without involving too much partisan politicing. Enjoyable.