October is the best month of the year. It begins with the first signs of autumn. It closes with Halloween. And in between is the BFI London Film Festival.
2019’s 63rd LFF delivers a stellar line-up of the year’s finest movies. Sure, there are surprising omissions: if they are holding back Bong Joon-ho’s Palme D’or winning Parasite for the Surprise Film we’ll be ticked off. But, between opening film The Personal History of David Copperfield and closing film The Irishman are a wealth of cinematic treasures.
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Pablo Larraín’s Ema, his follow-up to 2016’s Jackie, Judy and Punch starring Mia Wasikowska, The Two Popes with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, Takashi Miike’s First Love and Shia LaBeouf’s part-autobiographical Honey Boy. Oh, and Alex Gibney’s new documentary Citizen K. And Scott Z Burns’ The Report, plus Nicolas Cage’s bonkers looking Color Out of Space, from Dust Devil director Richard Stanley, back after a 27-year hiatus.
Yet, to show how strong this year’s London Film Festival is shaping up to be, none of those films nestled between the opening and closing movies have made it to our list of essential watches. Read on to see what we have chosen and check out below our list of LFF recommendations from films we’ve already seen. If any are sold out, we’ve found queuing for returns on the day often pays off.
The Personal History of David Copperfield (Opening Night Gala)
Armando Iannucci’s last film was the controversial The Death of Stalin, a masterclass in black comedy so sharp it drew blood. Early reviews of this Dickens adaptation suggest he’s taking it a little easier on us, delivering a traditional adaptation. However, with Iannucci and fellow The Thick of It writer Simon Blackwell on scripting duties, hilarity is guaranteed.
The colour blind casting of Dev Patel in the lead drew questions at the Toronto International Film Festival and a rebuttal question from Hugh Laurie. We’re looking forward to what is reportedly a performance of lightning-sharp comic timing from an actor so versatile he managed to emerge from The Last Airbender with dignity intact.
You can’t imagine Iannucci has trouble recruiting casts for his projects and this is no exception. Alongside Patel and Laurie are Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong, and Ben Whishaw as the unnerving Uriah Heep.
The Lighthouse (Cult Gala)
The Witch, Robert Eggers’ feature debut, was Electric Shadows’ film of 2015. Therefore, we don’t need a high-powered beam to see that The Lighthouse, Eggers’ follow-up, is our most anticipated movie of 2019’s London Film Festival.
We have avoided major plot points and the trailer (but include it here for your convenience). What we do know is Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are two men situated in the titular giant torch. Strange goings-on occur. It may have long dialogue free stretches. Audiences have emerged freaked out. Can’t wait…
Knives Out (American Express Gala)
We wonder if the title is an oblique reference to the toxic fanbase who skewered writer/director Rian Johnson’s last film, The Last Jedi. But, if the reviews for this Agatha Christie style whodunnit are anything to go by, Disney can take their sweet time deciding if they want Johnson on that new Star Wars trilogy.
For early word is Knives Out is supremely clever, ingenious, politically astute, crackling and imaginative. All of which describes The Last Jedi… tell you, internet trolls need knocking off the cyber bridge with the horns of reason and caustic wit.
Anyway, a murder-mystery starring Daniel Craig as a Southern style Phillip Marlowe investigating the death of Christopher Plummer’s legendary mystery writer? With Plummer’s family played by Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jaeden Martell and Don Johnson? And Sorry To Bother You’s LaKeith Stanfield, M. Emmet Walsh and Frank Oz also showing up? We’re there so fast it’s deadly.
Jojo Rabbit (Headline Gala)
A family comedy based on the last days of Nazi Germany sounds like the makings of another Life is Beautiful happy Holocaust atrocity. Mixed reviews out of Toronto have indicated this is the case.
But, we’re hoping director Taika Waititi, adapting Christine Leunens’ source novel, will hit the right balance between light and darkness. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is Jojo, a young lad born into Nazism, but starting to question if it really is the best way to go about things. Particularly when he discovers mum (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie) in the house. All of which is not pleasing Jojo’s imaginary friend, Hitler himself, flamboyantly played by Waititi.
The tone looks wilder and more comedic than The Book Thief or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, with Stephen Merchant, Rebel Wilson and Sam Rockwell setting their acting styles to “broad”. We’ll report back whether the gamble pays off.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (BFI Patron’s Gala)
The Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? delighted audiences at the 2018 London Film Festival. This year we have the biopic and who better to play the late Mister Rogers, seemingly the nicest man in America, than Tom Hanks, the nicest man in Hollywood. Although largely unknown here, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was a cherished kids’ show that ran for over thirty years in the US.
The structure, Matthew Rhys’ cynical journalist interviews the aged TV personality about his career and presumably learns important life lessons, sounds hokey. Particularly when you hear Rogers is a supporting player in his own story.
But, director Marielle Heller helmed the excellent Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which also played 2018’s LFF, so we think the sentiment will be matched by bladed wit and clear-eyed drama. If this is done well, expect it to be a frontrunner come awards time. Possibly bagging Mr. Hanks his third Oscar?
The Cave (Documentary Special Presentation)
Two films at this year’s London Film Festival share the title, The Cave. One is a dramatisation of the trapped Thai football team. This documentary is about a secret underground hospital in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, besieged by the Syrian government from 2012-2018.
Treating the victims of chemical and bombing attacks, the largely female staff, led by 30-year-old Dr Amani, are shown risking their lives caring for the injured and sick in a woefully under-resourced hospital.
Guaranteed to be harrowing, but Feras Fayyad’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Last Men in Aleppo may be the most essential film of the festival.
Le Mans ’66 (Headline Gala)
Here at Electric Shadows, we’re not much for motor racing. In fact, we’ll go one further and say future generations are going to look back at us with baffled contempt, seeing how we took one of the most precious resources, a resource we fight wars over, and used it to go around and around in circles for entertainment.
But, we also must admit that when a racing movie is done well, we can’t resist it. A gleaming chrome metaphor for characters too fast for ordinary lives, there is something quintessentially cinematic about fast cars filmed well.
And James Mangold is a man who can be trusted to film things well. So, if the Logan director chooses to tell the story of Ford vs Ferrari, expect it to be kinetic. Working from Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script, this tells the story of Carroll Shelby (Damon), charged by the Ford Motor Company to design a car that could rival the seemingly unbeatable Ferrari. But, Ford aren’t too happy Shelby has chosen the brilliant but ill-tempered Ken Miles (Christian Bale, who else?) to be his driver.
Expect the cool of Steve McQueen, the visual whizbang of Scorsese, and plenty of old-school charm and excitement. And while you wait, check out Ron Howard’s underrated Rush to get your engine ticking over.
Greed (Headline Gala)
Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan collaborate well. With The Trips, A Cock and Bull Story, The Look of Love and the five-star 24 Hour Party People, Coogan has proved Winterbottom’s most fertile muse.
Which is why we’re excited to see their latest team-up. A sign o’ the times comedy about a vulgar high street baron wanting to celebrate his 50th birthday with a Roman-style bacchanal, expect our current greed culture to be skewered with rapier-wit and righteous anger.
Joining Coogan for the festivities are Isla Fisher as his ex-wife, Winterbottom regular Shirley Henderson as his mother, plus David Mitchell as an investigative journalist looking to spoil the fun.
The Painted Bird (Dare Strand)
While we’ll never moan about receiving LFF press accreditation, 2015’s 9.30am press screening of Son of Saul was a rough way to start the day. Thankfully, we’re attending an afternoon screening of the three-hour long The Painted Bird, as advanced word is Václav Marhoul’s film is stunning but not for the faint-hearted.
Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel, it depicts World War 2 Eastern Europe as experienced through the eyes of a young Jewish boy, with all the horror that suggests. Mass walkouts at Toronto and Venice Film Festival screenings may deter some audiences, but reviews are calling this a must-watch. Even if you only watch it once. Dubbing of cast members Harvey Keitel and Udo Kier is apparently also quite tough to endure.
Wounds (Cult Strand)
Under the Shadow placed no.5 in Electric Shadows’ Best Films of 2016. So we are all in on writer/director Babak Anvari’s follow-up movie.
Dakota Johnson (so good in The Peanut Butter Falcon) and Armie Hammer are a couple who find their life unravelling after he discovers a phone left behind in his bar. Advance word is Anvari delivers sophisticated commentary alongside well-crafted shocks as per his first movie, plus meaty characters for the cast, including Deadpool 2’s Zazie Beetz, to really chew on.
We’ve already been impressed with the terrifying The Lodge at this year’s LFF. Here’s hoping for similarly grown-up shivers from this one.
A Hidden Life (Debate Strand)
Terrence Malick. The man who once made Stanley Kubrick look prolific. How we bemoaned the fact we were being denied his cinematic visions. Then he started banging films out in pretty quick succession and we begged him to stop. Those recent Terrence Malick joints, particularly Knight of Cups, have resembled video art installations more than movies. Like art installations, they are worth pondering for ten minutes before moving on.
However, with A Hidden Life it seems as if Malick is embracing narrative again. Specifically, the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to fight for Hitler’s Germany in World War 2, and the consequences this had for him and his family.
An important topic for these increasingly intolerant, divided times, we trust Malick will stay on point across the near three-hour runtime.
The Irishman (Closing Night Gala)
A three-and-a-half hour retelling of the Jimmy Hoffa story from Martin Scorsese with a dream cast including Al Pacino as Hoffa, plus Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and an out-of-retirement Joe Pesci. Nothing short of being forced into Witness Protection is going to stop us seeing this one.
We are fingers firmly crossed this matches the calibre of Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino. Scorsese’s previous movie was the five-star The Wolf of Wall Street, so expectations are high.
BFI London Film Festival 2019 Recommendations
We’ve been lucky enough to see a selection of LFF movies already and there have been some knockouts. Click on the title for the full review: