After being largely relegated to an online event in 2020, the BFI London Film Festival returns to cinemas this October. From Wednesday 6th to Sunday 17th, the 65th LFF will showcase 159 movies, including 21 World Premieres. With that much movie flying about, you’re going to need some recommendations.
Which is where we come in. Here are twelve films getting us excited at this year’s festival, click on the title to go directly through to their official page on the London Film Festival site.
Before we begin, a quote from Festival Director Tricia Tuttle: “Filmmakers and artists are endlessly inventive. One of the real pleasures we have missed is exploring the big ideas, the bold creativity and the invention of their work in a collective environment – a cinema, an exhibition and at a festival. And we cannot wait to have you back with us in these spaces this year.”
So, what are those twelve titles firing our movie-loving mojo?
THE HARDER THEY FALL (Opening Night Gala)
London-born musician turned filmmaker Jeymes Samuel (aka The Bullitts) makes his feature debut with this stylish looking Western, based on true events. The Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Jonathan Majors is Nat Love, a man gunning for vengeance against Idris Elba’s notorious outlaw, Rufus Buck. When Buck’s gang bust him out of a train bound for prison, Nat recruits old flame Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) and aged lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) to help him get his man. That’s one hell of a cast. Add Regina King and Lakeith Stanfield as Buck’s lieutenants and you have one of the best assembled group of actors this year.
Being based on a true story from an African-American perspective, we expect genre conventions to be twisted and re-vitalised. The trailer is super-stylised, but hopefully the visual fireworks won’t smother the story being told.
BENEDETTA (Headline Gala)
Here at Electric Shadows, we love Paul Verhoeven. The iconoclastic octogenarian rarely disappoints, and only has three bad films to his name (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Hollow Man). 2016’s Elle was a thought-provoking commentary on warring sexual politics wrapped up in a darkly comic Ruth Rendell-style mystery. Latest film Benedetta promises to be equally challenging and rewarding, but not to all tastes. Satire, comedy, and eroticism blend together for this tale of Sister Benedetta Carlini, a Catholic mystic and lesbian who scandalised Italy in the early 1600s. Expect caustic swipes at religious hypocrisy and political opportunism, plus a whiff of Ken Russell’s delirious masterpiece, The Devils. Virginie Efra is reportedly on commanding form as the titular nun, with Charlotte Rampling and Lambert Wilson quality support. Verhoeven is not for everyone, but we find him an impossible habit to break.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH (Headline Gala)
A long delayed COVID casualty, Wes Anderson’s latest movie looks to pack in the same multi-character energy and formalist verve of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Shifting between black and white and colour and different aspect ratios, The French Dispatch presents a portmanteau of stories from the heyday of the fictional eponymous highbrow magazine. A philandering political correspondent, an eccentric incarcerated painter, kidnappings, revolutions, and a no-crying rule in editor Bill Murray’s office all feature in what looks like a delightful confection. Wes Anderson is known for assembling impressive casts, but this line-up is jaw-dropping: Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Elisabeth Moss, Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Benicio Del Toro, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Christoph Waltz, Mathieu Amalric and more…
LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (Headline Gala)
Word of advice to all readers: avoid Last Night in Soho’s spoilerific trailer, which appears to give away most of the movie. If it doesn’t then Edgar Wright has created an even more exciting and labyrinthine fantasy/thriller than even that (no-stone-unturned?) trailer suggests. Rising star Thomasin Mackenzie is Eloise, a fashion student living in London who finds herself able to travel back in time to the capital in the swinging sixties. She seems joined in some way to Anya Taylor-Joy’s society girl. Does Matt Smith’s dashing gent hold the answer? Featuring Diana Rigg in her final film role, and another sixties idol in Terrence Stamp, this is one of the highlights we’re most anticipating. Despite that trailer… which we’re not posting here.
SPENCER (Headline Gala)
For our money, Pablo Larraín’s 2016 movie Jackie was one of the decade’s best. An unnerving cinematic séance, it resurrected the haunted figure of Jackie Kennedy (later Onassis) in the weeks after the JFK assassination. Natalie Portman’s performance as the traumatised first lady earned her an Oscar nomination. Early reports are that Larraín has repeated his successfully off-kilter approach with Spencer, focussing on Princess Diana. Kristen Stewart may also see herself Oscar nominated for a reportedly impressive turn as the People’s Princess, bringing nuance and humanity to one of the most objectified and scrutinised women in history. The House of Windsor, right up to Elizabeth II, most likely will not be showered with glory, and we can’t wait to see if current bête noire Prince Andrew crops up.
2013’s Diana was a spectacularly misconceived failure. Can Pablo Larraín and Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight succeed where Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel failed? We will let you know.
TITANE (Special Presentation in association with Time Out)
A provocative winner of this year’s Palme D’or, Julia Ducournau’s follow up to memorable debut Raw will rev the engines of some moviegoers, while leaving others turning off at the nearest exit. Just the kind of cinema we like. With more than a splash of J.G. Ballard in its fuel tank, Titane follows Agathe Rouseselle’s Alexia, a young woman with a car fixation following a traumatic childhood event. Bubbling with murderous energy, Alexia is soon on the run through an oil and chrome wonderland. To quote the LFF brochure, this packs in “gender fluidity, familial subversion, techno-sexual delirium and full-on violence… it’s extreme dream cinema that pulls no punches in its metallic KO.” Buckle up…
NITRAM (Official Competition)
Justin Kurzel exploded onto the scene with 2011’s potent serial killer drama Snowtown. His latest is another dramatisation of a murderous tragedy that hit Australia during the 1990s, specifically the killing of 35 people and wounding of 28 more in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur in 1996. Caleb Landry Jones is Martin, nicknamed ‘Nitram’ by the community because everyone thinks he’s ‘backward’. Avoiding sensationalising or easy judgement, Kurzel seems to unfold the story with a heart-breaking inevitability, as the disturbed young man’s red flag behaviour goes ignored. Legends of Australian cinema Judy Davis and Anthony La Paglia co-star as Martin’s loving but powerless parents, while the excellent Essie Davis also appears.
THE FEAST (First Feature Competition)
There is a touch of Scandi horror to the above clip from Lee Haven Jones’ The Feast. Which makes it all the more exciting, for this deliciously dark tale is a British frightener, shot entirely in the Welsh language with English subs. An industrialist family is throwing a lavish dinner party in their spacious, hard-lined minimalist home in the Welsh mountains. It must go well so their guests will grant them rights to mine the local countryside. But, does hired waitress Cadi have more on her mind than ensuring the soup is ladled before it’s cold? This politically savvy, eco-horror seems to have a dash of both Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel and Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation to its chills. The dark humour is complemented by spicy violence that requires a strong stomach, but should send horror fans home fully satiated.
BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORNO (Laugh strand)
Romania knows how to do confrontational black comedy, and Radu Jude’s memorably titled Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porno is no exception. Made during lockdown, this is a fearless attack on prejudice and hypocrisy, about an increasingly vicious tribunal facing schoolteacher Emi when a private sex tape goes viral. Broken into three sections, the middle act presents the excesses and corruption of various institutions during Ceausescu’s reign, placing the climactic accusations against Emi in sharp relief. Inclusion of hardcore imagery reportedly avoids titillation, instead counterpointing the corruption of a regime that objectified the population of an entire country.
A BANQUET (Cult strand)
The best film of the 2019 London Film Festival was Rose Glass’ Saint Maud. According to this year’s brochure, Ruth Paxton’s debut movie has some of that same energy. Following the untimely death of her father, Jessica Alexander’s Betsey stops eating, but shows no signs of weight loss. With Betsey insisting her body now belongs to a higher power, her mother (Sienna Guillory) faces a nightmarish test to keep her family together. We are currently experiencing a golden-age of female-lensed horror, and this tale of body terror and possible madness is a tasty sounding addition to the menu.
DASHCAM (Cult strand)
Rob Savage arrived on the horror scene with a bang and a face mask last year with the zeitgeist found-footage horror Host. One year on, under the auspices of Blumhouse no less, he returns with Dashcam, and a promise of full-on 18 certificate mayhem. The pandemic again features in this film about Annie, a politically incorrect, COVID-denying vlogger, over from the States to visit a friend in England. Uninformed and hyper-opinionated, Annie is out to shock and appal in equal measure. Then, on a dark country lane she meets Angela…
With a title like Dashcam, it is reasonable to assume Savage will at least be nodding towards his Zoom-based debut. We can’t wait to see what inventiveness he brings to horror here.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Closing Night Gala)
With brother Ethan taking a (hopefully temporary) break from filmmaking, Joel Coen goes it alone for the first time with this adaptation of the Scottish play. The teaser trailer reveals little, but we cannot wait to see what one of cinema’s most eclectic and exciting directors brings to Shakespeare’s 400-year-old tale of madness and revenge.
Shooting in 4:3 and reportedly blending cinema and theatre, we expect an atmospheric journey into a heart of darkness, realised in stark monochrome. Regular Coen composer Carter Burwell is on hand to provide the score, which should complement the increasing hysteria as the story unfolds. In a bit of powerhouse colour blind casting, Denzel Washington is Macbeth, returning to the Bard onscreen for the first time since 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. Frances McDormand could be up for another Oscar as Lady Macbeth, while Corey Hawkins and Brendan Gleeson brood in the background.
We’ll give the final word to BFI CEO Ben Roberts: “I’m in awe of all of the filmmakers across the world who have found the ways and means – practical, creative, emotional – to get their stories told in such challenging and turbulent times. We feel incredibly proud to present so much of this work – alongside as many of their creators as we can – and I invite you to immerse yourself in the sweet glow of the cinema screen and celebrate their very existence.”