Another year, another BFI London Film Festival — fifteen years since the first one I attended as a sixteen-year-old, and my ninth year of covering as press for The Playlist. And I think I may have finally cracked it. It can be hard to cover a film festival in your home city — real life intrudes in a way that it doesn’t necessarily in Cannes or Venice or Toronto. But while the 2017 installments saw a couple of disappointments (Clio Barnard’s “Dark River,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Killing Of A Sacred Deer”), I didn’t see a single bad film, and even some of the ones I was skeptical of going in, like “Journey’s End,” turned out really well.
I mostly put it down to instigating a ‘No Biopics’ rule (sorry, “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool!”) but also down to a great year for festival movies, which as ever, the LFF has been able to pick and choose the best from in its expansive line-up (I could have seen 30 entirely different movies and, I suspect, still had a terrific time). As ever, thanks to all the volunteers and organizers, and below, you can find my five favorites of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival over the last couple of weeks.
As a fan of both the times when arthouse directors get a little loose and play in the genre world, and of the Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (whose faultless career so far has brought us “Reprise,” “Oslo, August 31st” and “Louder Than Bombs”), the idea of Trier taking on a supernatural thriller was a hugely exciting one, and it didn’t disappoint. Co-written again with Eskil Vogt, “Thelma” is the story of a repressed young woman breaking away from her family for the first time to attend university in the city, where her growing attraction to a classmate unleashes something inside our title character (a breakout turn from Eili Harboe) that could prove incredibly destructive. Mashing up Cronenberg, “Carrie,” Bergman and more (not that I’d wish such a thing on him, but this is evidence that Trier would make the best “X-Men” movie ever), it builds on the director’s strengths — a rare facility for authentically capturing youth, an absolute command of mood and tone — and builds in Hitchcockian suspense and an affecting love story, while building to a place that proves utterly devastating. It still feels like Trier flies under the radar for many, but I’m beyond grateful to have him making films of such a consistently high quality.
Aaron Katz is a director who’s felt like he’s on the verge for a while (his “Cold Weather” was one of my favorites of its year), but “Gemini” feels like the film that’ll put him over the top, an incredibly accomplished and dextrous leap-forward for the filmmaker. Updating the Hollywood noir more satisfyingly than anything in decades, it sees Lola Kirke’s devoted assistant to a big-time Hollywod starlet (Zoe Kravitz) become embroiled in a mystery, while becoming a target of an investigation by local cop John Cho (having a deservedly great year with this and his excellent performance in “Columbus”). It’s a shaggy dog story of sorts, but Katz cranks every drop of tension out of it, capturing modern L.A. like few others have of late (the neon-soaked visuals from Andrew Reed marks a real visual step-forward, to say nothing of Keegan DeWitt’s score, one of the best of the year easily), and taking his lead on a journey that can encompass desperate suspense and hilarious Hollywood satire (“Veep” actor Nelson Franklin is particularly good as an asshole indie director) in the space of a couple of scenes. I saw better movies at the festival this year, but few that gave me so much pleasure.
3. “You Were Never Really Here”
Lynne Ramsay has sadly never been exactly prolific — 9 years between her second and third features, six between the third and fourth — with thwarted projects like “The Lovely Bones” and “Jane Got A Gun” having led to her long absences. But the wait was worth it: on the evidence of “You Were Never Really Here,” Ramsay appears to have spent most of the six years since “We Need To Talk About Kevin” at some kind of “Doctor Strange”-style retreat where she’s learned to direct movies on levels that few others can even contemplate. An adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ novella, which sees Joaquin Phoenix’s brutish semi-PI tasked to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a state senator from sex traffickers, it could, in lesser hands, have seen the same material adapted into a forgettable Liam Neeson B-movie. But here, Ramsay, through sheer force of will (and the force of Jonny Greenwood’s incredible score, the Radiohead guitarists’ best film work to date), turns the action-thriller into an anxiety attack, an investigation of the ripples of trauma that immediately digs its thumb into your windpipe and only lets go 89 minutes later. It’s not the most substantial work she’s made, but it absolutely makes the case that Ramsay is one of the two or three best filmmakers working right now.
2. “120 BPM”
Or “120 Beats Per Minute,” or “BPM,” depending on which territory you’re seeing it. Wherever you are, though, Robin Campillo’s third feature as director (after “They Came Back,” which spawned hit T.V. series “The Returned,” and the acclaimed “Eastern Boys”) feels like a masterpiece. It’s been a terrific year for queer cinema, from Sundance movies “God’s Own Country” and “Call Me By Your Name” to the terrific indie “Beach Rats” but Campillo’s film, an expansive epic about the ACT UP group of Aids activists in France in the early 1990s, might be the best of the batch. Introducing a dizzying range of characters (it smartly narrows its focus in the second half), it’s a fiercely political film, a love-letter to activism and all its frustrations, shot with the urgency of a thriller, and full of utterly lived-in performances, most of which come from relative newcomers (bar “The Unknown Girl” star Adéle Haenel, though Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is the best as firebrand Sean). But as tough as its subject matter is, the film’s also never afraid to be vibrant, funny, tender or sexy — it utterly bursts with life. At a time when HIV infections are on the rise and old prejudices re-emerging in the Trump era, it couldn’t have arrived at a more crucial time.
1. “The Shape Of Water”
As high as my expectations were on paper, I don’t seem to have been the only one one, talking to friends, that was turned off by the oddly “Amelie”-ish quality of the trailer for “The Shape Of Water.” Had Guillermo Del Toro gone twee? But within moments of his tenth, and best film, you know you’re in the surest hands possible. Yes, his Cold War-set horror-romance-fairytale-spy-thriller is a sentimental picture, but in the truest sense, its tender heart is on display in every perfect frame. Detailing the infatuation of a mute lab cleaner (Sally Hawkins) with a Black-Lagoon-ish humanoid fish god being experimented on by the government, it walks a nearly impossible tightrope — just one misjudgement and it could feel silly, or over-stuffed, or overly gory, or off-putting. But it doesn’t just walk it with flair, it backflips across it: every scene is five times more interesting, strange or beautiful than it would need to be to great. Instead, it becomes near-transcendent, a heart-soaring, thrilling, funny, utterly unique ode to the misfits and outsiders of the world. It’s honestly my favorite film of at least the last five years.
I Also Loved: Samuel Maoz’s terrific Israeli drama “Foxtrot” (review here), Xavier Legrand’s utterly gripping/traumatic domestic violence drama “Custody,” Greta Gerwig’s totally charming, deceptively affecting “Lady Bird,” Sean Baker’s gorgeous “The Florida Project,” David Fincher’s “MINDHUNTER” (review here), which you’re probably multiple episodes into by now, Brazilian oddity “Good Manners” (review here), Eliza Hittman’s exquisitely physical coming-of-age drama “Beach Rats,” the yes-everyone-loves-it charms of “Call Me By Your Name,” Kogonada’s living architecture coffee table book “Columbus,” pitch-black thriller “Thoroughbreds” (review here) and French comedy “Jeune Femme.”
Oli, this is a very interesting list: your top 5 includes some of the most overpraised work of the year (though I have yet to see You Were Never Really Here and am highly anticipating it), while your honourable mentions include films like Foxtrot and Columbus that blew my away and films like Lady Bird and The Florida Project that I heartily enjoyed.
The Shape Of Water is fast catching up with The Last Jedi as my most anticipated film of the year.