Film Festival: The 54th BFI London Film Festival 2010

Uncle Boonmee

Tomorrow the London Film Festival finally opens its doors.  And there are still plenty of tickets left, so here’s a little sneak preview to help you decide what to see. Aside from some of the year’s best world and independent films, including Apichatpong Weerasethkul’s engimatic Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, there’s also a new films from John Sayles, Amigo, and Anton Corbijn’s George Clooney cheese-fest The American. Stunningly shot, as you’d expect from former photographer Corbijn, The American starts with a gutwrenching bang – a climax the rest of the film unfortunately can never quite live up to.

Uncle Boonmee (of which there’ll be more later, much more) is a puzzler, both beautiful and creepy. Similar in tone and theme to Weerasethkul’s previous Tropical Malady, but with more elaborate visions of catfish, princesses and monkey gods, it’s a reincarnating stream of consciousness, which defies any simple reading and is bound to polarise. For me though, Xavier Beauvois’ Prix d’Or winner Of Gods And Men was a profound highlight. Set up high in a monastery in the Atlas Mountains, Des Dieux et Des Hommes tells of eight French monks who come under threat from local extremists. Rhythmic and spare, with one breathtaking scene of incredible cinematography, Of Gods And Men retreads the fine line between Christian and Muslim, between man and man of God, and hits you deep, deep down.

Minimalism is de rigueur this year – perhaps an indication of how the global recession is affecting filmmakers all over the world. And while I had high hopes for Kelly Reichardt’s period prairie-crossing piece, having previously enjoyed his indie slackers Old Joy and Wendy And Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff was for me one step too far. And despite brilliant performances, an authentic script and an interesting meander around the idea of trust, its overly subdued resolution left me feeling a bit parched. On the other hand, Michael Rowe’s debut Leap Year and Delfina Castanigno’s What I Love The Most are minimalist masterpieces from Mexico and Argentina respectively. With a slurp of sadomasochism on the one hand and 13-minute fixed frames on the other, both have engaging storylines and sublimely intimate performances.

Will Ferrell plays it straight in Everything Must Go, a loser-back-from-the-brink movie based on a short story by Raymond Carver. It’s big on dialogue but short on intrigue, and Will Ferrell’s alcoholic desperation unfortunately never goes much further than a few beer cans on the front lawn. But there’s also an enjoyably excruciating family drama by Joanna Hogg, Archipelago, where a holiday shared by mother, son and daughter in the Scilly Isles turns sour when personalities clash and old rancours repeat themselves. Equally funny is the Irish comedy Sensation which carefully picks its way through County Wicklow’s nascent sex trade as a horny Irish virgin and a Kiwi callgirl pick their way through a special kind of relationship.

At the other end of the scale, you have Buffalo’s fictional Muslim punk scene in The Taqwacores and It’s Kind Of A Funny Story with acid-dropping Hasidic Jews and David Bowie asylum fantasies. While I hated the beginning of It’s Kind Of A Funny Story with its depressed little New York rich kid under pressure, the film did the unthinkable and won me round. No small feat. And breaking formal boundaries, there’s Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, using recreated scenes from Andrea Dunbar’s original estate-set play and actors lip-synching prerecorded interviews. It’s an unusual technique, which simultaneously suspends prejudice and distances the viewer, but doesn’t take away from The Arbor‘s harrowing tale of family legacy. Equally stylistic is the incredible Howl, constructed out of James Franco reciting Allen Ginsberg’s poem, illustrative animations, interviews and court transcripts from the obscenity trial. It’s strangely undramatic, but you couldn’t hope for a better exploration, both socially and imaginatively, of Ginsberg’s existential poetic cry.

Of the documentaries, Errol Morris’ highly entertaining Tabloid shines brightest. Cheeky, saucy and downright funny, it’s an impertinent revisit to tabloid sensation and former Miss Wyoming, Joyce McKinney and her Mormon sex in chains scandal. With a wry distance from its talking heads, Tabloid is a tongue-in-cheek study of the rainbow press’s carpet-bomb approach to the truth. There’s also The Peddler, a humorous rediscovery of the quintessence of cinema as an itinerant filmmaker goes from town to town making films and bringing communities together. And Benda Bilili! an incredibly moving documentary on homeless disabled musicians from the Congo. Patrick Keiller’s latest fixed-frame adventure Robinson In Ruins is a clever interweaving of cultural strands going deep, deep down inside the Oxfordshire countryside. And in a similar vein, John Akomfrah’s incredibly erudite poetic musing The Nine Muses was an intriguing look at black immigration to Britain, but an awkward transition from gallery to cinema.

Standing tall against this age of austerity is Canadian Xavier Dolan’s second feature Heartbeats (AKA Les Amours Imaginaires). It may be more than a nod to Wong Kar Wai’s elegant slow-mos of In The Mood For Love, but it’s a slyly nuanced and painfully self-confessional film with tremendous energy. With beautiful performances and a ménage à trois à la quebecoise, Heartbeats is uproariously funny and seductively chic. But with over 90 films to choose from and a nifty little app to boot, the 54th BFI London Film Festival definitely has something for everyone. Just don’t be dazzled by all the bright lights.

The 54th BFI London Film Festival runs from 13th to 28th October 2010
Visit the BFI website for more details

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