That annual 12-day celluloid jamboree – the BFI London Film Festival that is a red-letter event on every moviegoer’s calendar – has just drawn to a close. The festival this year offered a truly diverse range of films drawn from more than 70 countries and while not a vintage year was certainly a very good one. I will now recall some of the highlights – films that stood and made the biggest impression.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
You can always rely on the Coen Brothers to come up with something fresh and original and the latest The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is no exception. This is an anthology of six offbeat tales from the wild frontier, with the tone and style perfectly calibrated for each tale. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs features Tim Blake Nelson as a sharp-shooting songster. In Near Algodones, James Franco plays a bank robber who ends up with a noose around his neck. Next – and the best episode then comes Meal Ticket a gothic picaresque tale about a soft voiced Brit without arms or legs who recites passages of poetry to large crowds, who teams up with another travelling performer (a grizzled Liam Neeson) but when his popularity wanes, his fate is sealed. This is followed by All Gold Canyon, in which Tom Waits mines a rich seam of humour, while Zoe Kazan finds an unexpected promise of love, along with a dose of life’s cruel irony, on a wagon train across the Prairies in The Gal Who Got Rattled. Finally, ghostly laughs haunt The Mortal Remains, in which Tyne Daly rains judgement on a motley crew of strangers undertaking a final carriage ride. In short, this is a lovingly crafted collection of vignettes, exquisitely shot by Bruno Delbonnel and with a haunting musical score by Carter Burwell, that emerges as a memorable paean to the American West.
Another director who always delivers is Mike Leigh and his new film Peterloo is an epic undertaking, at times demanding, at times didactic, yet cumulatively rousing, that details the events leading up to and including the day of the Peterloo Massacre on August 6, 1819, when armed forces charged into a crown of 60,000 demonstrators, peacefully agitating for electoral reform and better social conditions in Manchester. This is a magnificently realised film, with standout performances by Maxine Peake as a single mother raising her family on a pittance, and Rory Kinnear as a radical orator famed for his stimulating rhetoric. Leigh here is working at the pinnacle of his powers, skilfully combining many of his preoccupations: class-consciousness, family dynamics, hypocrisy, humanism and the male ego. The film weaves multiple stories of everyday people into a moving tapestry and depicts an act of police brutality with huge contemporary relevance.
A masterful tale of twisted friendships and not-so-pretty crime and revenge is how you could describe Matteo Garrone’s Dogman. Gentle dog groomer Marcelo (the excellent Marcello Fonte) separated from his wife and daughter enjoys a simple life in his rundown coastal town on the outskirts of Rome. But his reliance on a shady side-business to earn some extra cash lands him a in a murky world and the thrall of a violent ex-boxer. When the trust between the two is broken, the exploited Marcello starts down a dangerous path in an effort to regain his dignity. Garonne brings an extraordinary texture to this tense and compelling crime thriller.
An astonishing and heart wrenching depiction of life in the shadows is provided by Lebanese film maker Nadine Labaki in her assured and affecting Capernaum. It tells the story of Zain, a 12-year-old boy from an impoverished family in Beirut who sues his parents for having brought him into a world of such suffering and despair. Along the way he forms an unlikely bond with a toddler, the child of an Ethiopian maid, working illegally in Lebanon. Labaki draws empathetic performances from her young leads, most notably former Syrian migrant child Zain Al Rafeea the protagonist of the same name, while taking the viewer on a journey into subterranean areas of the Lebanese capital, where people exist below the poverty line and lack any legal recognition. This arresting look at crushed innocence builds towards a finale that is as emotionally devastating as it is life-affirming.
A new twist to the historical genre of filmmaking is provided by Yorgos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) Lanthimos in his third English language film in four years The Favourite. It’s the early 18th century, England is at war with France and Queen Anne’s ( a superlative Olivia Colman) poor health causes her to rely on her doting friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) comes to the palace, her charm soon wins the Queen’s attentions and the shrewd girl sees a way to restore her social status, lost through her father’s disastrous wagers. With stakes of the heart high, the two women soon become rivals for the Queen’s affections in a wickedly amusing game of one-up-womanship. This is a riotous, tongue-in-cheek drama that revels in the wit of royal court life, but which is weakened by some stilted, clunky dialogue that seems at odds with the realism of the story. However, Fiona Crombie’s opulent sets offer a spectacular canvas for much ribald jocularity, while Sandy Powell boldly updates court classics and the trio of female leads – Colman, Stone and Weisz – provide a constant delight.
Her eyes are saggy, her skin pallid and she looks much older than her years, yet an almost unrecognisable Nicole Kidman gives one of her finest performances as an alcoholic, jaded police detective haunted by her past in Karyn Kusama’s brooding thriller Destroyer. As a fledgling cop LAPD detective, Erin Bell (Kidman) and her partner worked undercover in the California desert to infiltrate a notorious criminal gang, led by terrifyingly unstable frontman Silas. Still reeling from the trauma of her experience years later, Erin is forced to confront her demons when she learns that Silas has reemerged. Reluctantly delving back into the painful facts of the investigation, she goes in search of the remaining members of his posse, determined to learn Silas’s whereabouts and finally close the case that almost destroyed her. This tense, downbeat detective tale is full of foreboding and strong on atmosphere but the narrative which moves backwards and forwards in times, is at times confusing and this tends to reduce the movie’s impact. However, Kidman is a galvanising presence and holds the whole thing together with aplomb.
A transgender teenager dreams of becoming a ballet dancer in Lucas Dhont’s moving coming-of-age story Girl. 15-year-old Lara has always been aware that she was born in the wrong body. Having attended mandatory counselling sessions and taken puberty inhibitors for some time, she impatiently awaits the day when she can have the surgery she so desperately wants. She has strong support at home, thanks to her progressive single father and loving younger brother. But she still faces great stress at the prestigious dance academy she attends, where the increasing physical and emotional pressures slowly take their toll. This richly empathetic and beautifully realised film features a stirring central performance from CISgender actor Victor Polster in his first screen role. A stunning directorial debut for Lucas Dhont.
Stan & Ollie
Also recommended is John S Baird’s hugely enjoyable Stan & Ollie the closing film, set in 1953 with Steve Coogan and John C Reilly perfectly cast as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy respectively as comedy’s most famous double act enter their twilight years. Although a bit drawn out in places, this movie offers a poignant study in lifelong male friendship and a fitting tribute to two of cinema’s comic greats.
But the best film in the festival was undoubtedly Alfonso (Gravity) Cuaron’s superb autobiographical Roma, which emerges as an unforgettable ode to the woman who shaped his early life. The setting is Mexico City, the year 1970, where we meet Cleo (the marvellous non actor Yalitza Aparicio), a taciturn live-in domestic worker of Mixtec heritage. She is employed by middle class mother of four Sophia (Marina de Tavira), whose youngest son is obviously Cuaron and who struggles to cope with the extended absence of her doctor husband. Cleo loves the children as if they are her own, but her duties leave little time to have an independent life and her situation is further complicated when she falls pregnant to a vain and uncaring martial arts enthusiast. Cuaron’s glorious reminiscence of a momentous year in his life is shot in shimmering black and white and you get the feeling that every image, every emotion is perfectly set in place and the movie is so naturalistic it is like a dramatised documentary. Furthermore, this era of Mexico City as a place teeming with vibrant life, from its cinema and music to the brewing radicalism of the political scene is so vividly recreated you feel you are actually there. I should add that this is also very much a film about the home, a place of women and children, with the domestic space revealing much about cultural attitudes to class, race and gender relationships. Luminous, heart wrenching and emotionally charged, the film was the worthy winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival this year and certainly seems bound for Oscar glory!Last modified: December 31, 2020