The Best Films of the 2016 BFI London Film Festival

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Another BFI London Film Festival belongs to the ages. And this 60th anniversary festival was done proud by some of the best cinema you will see this year (or next dependent upon UK release patterns).

Below is Electric Shadows’ Top 10 of this year’s LFF. Please note that in Brexit Britain immune systems seem to have fallen as low as the pound. With a heavy cold racking this gutsy scribe’s constitution, part days and bed rest replaced full film indulgence. This meant Personal Shopper, Certain Women (the LFF’s Best Film winner), The Birth of a Nation, Dog Eat Dog and Ethel and Ernest were all missed in favour of Lemsip and blankets.

All the above movies seem like Top 10 contenders.

Press screening scheduling clashes meant Elle was chosen over Manchester By the Sea and Your Name over Lion. And for the first time since Electric Shadows started covering the festival in 2014, neither the opening nor closing films made the Top 10 list. A United Kingdom was well-intentioned and Free Fire entertaining, but both were middle-of-the-road examples of their respective genres, beaten out by far more interesting works.

Without further ado, here is the official Electric Shadows 60th BFI London Film Festival Top 10.


1. A Monster Calls

Spectacular, naturalistic and deeply moving, J.A. Bayona’s fantasy epic is a perfect family film, based on Patrick Ness’ first rate teen book. Lewis MacDougall impresses as a young lad struggling with his mum’s serious illness and is “helped” by a giant tree that springs to life and teaches him the harsh lessons of life. Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell and Sigourney Weaver offer solid support. Non-patronising and deeply emotional, it is a dazzling ode to the power of imagination and art to overcome the most difficult circumstances.


2. The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook has yet to deliver a duff movie (yes, we stand by I’m a Cyborg). But, his latest is an astonishing two and a half hour battle of the sexes. Set in 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation, a simple story of a confidence scam on a Japanese lady by two Korean hustlers is the entry point to a dazzling, fever dream world. A land where identity, both national and sexual, are as loose as the truth characters swear by, and sex and danger are frequent bedfellows. Erotic, disturbing and proof that Park is Korea’s most exciting director.


3. Brimstone

A two and a half hour battle of the sexes. Haven’t we just been here? Yes, Brimstone shares certain themes with The Handmaiden: fluid identities, a woman’s struggle in a patriarchal dominated society, men’s fear/hatred/obsession with the female of the species. But with an added layer of religious intolerance, director Martin Koolhoven’s Gothic Western (actually filmed across Europe) is its own beast. Violent, passionate, divided into four chapters and epic in ambition, it resembles an adaptation of some great, recently discovered 19th century novel. Dakota Fanning and Guy Pearce are electrifying, ably supported by Game of Thrones alumni Kit Harrington and Carice van Outen.

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4. Una

Darkness continues with choice no.4. Based on David Harrower’s play Blackbird, Una is a harrowing examination of the lingering aftershocks of a destructive relationship. Rooney Mara is Una, who has tracked down Ben Mendelsohn’s Ray, a man who groomed her into an underage sexual relationship years earlier. Over one fraught day in the cavernous warehouse where Ray works old wounds are scratched open. Some may dismiss it as too difficult, but those who like their cinema challenging and provocative will find much to debate. Mara’s extraordinary performance conveys pain, resilience, anger and hurt often in the same facial expression. This may be too thorny a film come awards season, but Mara moves up another level with her work here.

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5. La La Land

Time to shine light into the darkness. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is an irresistible confection. An ode to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the joy of moviemaking and love stories in general, from the opening freeway number it is hard not to go la la for Chazelle’s land of romance. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone again create Crazy Stupid Love sparks as a stubborn pianist and struggling actress, and Chazelle is not afraid to sprinkle real life grit into the whipped cream wonderland. But, come the oh-so satisfying final moments, you’ll be won over.


6. Your Name

We’re sticking with love stories for pick number 6. Japanese director Makoto Shinkai may not be as well-known in the West as anime directors Hayao Miyazaki or Ghost in the Shell’s Mamoru Oshii, but his movies are not forgotten by those who happen across them. The typical Shinkai story has kindred spirits kept apart by nothing less than forces of the universe. Your Name begins as a body swap movie but takes a big story shift in the second act for something far more interesting and arresting. The Fukushima disaster and the 2011 tsunami are both obliquely referenced, plus the sly critique that adulthood swiftly crushes youthful exuberance. Only final over-egged moments of sentiment let the side down, but this is an impressive, beautifully animated work that deservedly broke Japanese box office records.


7. Elle

Enough good feeling, back to the cinema of confrontation. Paul Verhoeven’s first film since 2006’s Black Book shows the septuagenarian has lost little desire to shock and awe. Isabelle Huppert is astonishing as a businesswoman raped by a masked intruder and opts to investigate who her attacker was rather than report it. What caused consternation at Cannes is that a lot of Elle is played as black comedy (although the rape is depicted with brutal seriousness). Challenging for sure, with a pretty jaundice view of familial relationships, but up there with The Piano Teacher as a fascinating character study of a difficult woman, brought to life by the remarkable Huppert.


8. Prevenge

Speaking of difficult women, they get little more problematic than Alice Lowe’s Ruth in this foetal attraction horror. Lowe also wrote and (debut) directed this gleefully nasty shocker, all while seven months pregnant. As a woman convinced her baby is telling her to kill people, Lowe is wide-smiled frightening, caustic and vulnerable, while the gallery of familiar faces she encounters (including more Game of Thrones alumni, Kate Dickie and Gemma Whelan) play their potential victim roles with relish. Bridget Jones’s Baby meets Dead Man’s Shoes, with a healthy splash of Chris Morris style grotesquery, this is proof British horror still delivers.


9. Their Finest 

As we approach the end we harken right back to the beginning. Remember A Monster Calls and the power of imagination to bring light to the darkest of times? Their Finest traverses similar territory, focussing on World War 2. Gemma Arterton shines as Catrin, a lowly Welsh scenario writer for the Ministry of Information’s Film Division, who happens across a story about a two shy female sisters who stole their drunken dad’s boat to help with the evacuation of Dunkirk. Seeing a tale to restore national spirit and boost morale, Catrin persuades her male superiors to greenlight the project. Unexpectedly moving, genuinely funny, canny in how it proves sometimes truth is not as powerful as legend and quintessentially British, Their Finest is a gem. And the cast, including Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory and Jake Lacy are an ensemble wonderful to watch.


10. Arrival

Incendies aside, Dennis Villeneuve makes almost great movies. Prisoners, impressive first 90 minutes, pedestrian final hour (it was also too long). For all the praise heaped on Sicario, it was lots of sizzle, little steak, with a sub-Jason Bourne climax that destroyed believability. Arrival is his best film since Incendies, which is not to say it is without problems. But, as a serious, intelligent examination of how the world would react if aliens made first contact it is riveting and occasionally awe-inspiring. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are good guides into the world of how communication could occur with a species literally alien. Swipes are taken at the lack of trust and communication amongst humans of different countries. And a late in the day story shift may be brilliant or the easiest way to wrap up the complicated plot events. You decide, but we were impressed. Let’s see what Villeneuve does with Blade Runner.


 

Rob Daniel Twitter: rob_a_Daniel

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