London’s largest annual cinematic spectacle – otherwise known as the BFI London Film Festival – gets underway in less than three weeks. But with 12 days of films to choose from, what should be on your shortlist? We’ve selected ten standouts below. It’s far from an exhaustive list – it was tough leaving off the near-perfection of Finnish understatement that is The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, maverick Albert Serra’s glorious The Death of Louis XIV, Andrea Arnold going open road with American Honey, a whole new kind of trippy Thai psychedelia in By the Time It Gets Dark… you get the picture. Dip in.
We loved screenwriter and actress Alice Lowe’s work with Ben Wheatley on black comedy Sightseers, about a Midlands caravan holiday turned gruesome spree. So curiosity is piqued to see what she’ll do with Prevenge, her feature debut as director. By all accounts, she’s mixed humour with even darker, more grisly terrain in this tale of a woman expecting a baby who has just lost her husband in a freak accident and thus turns into a serial killer. Wombs are often a source of torment in horror, but from Lowe – herself seven months pregnant when she shot the film in – we can expect a unique form of irreverent mischief in her vision of bodily takeover.
When Tom Ford’s feature debut A Single Man came out skeptics of whether the fashion designing maestro could translate his creative talents to filmmaking were silenced. It was a movie as emotionally resonant as it was immaculately stylish. Seven years on comes his follow-up, Nocturnal Animals, which taps the noir and melodrama genres in its tale of a successful LA gallery owner (Amy Adams) with a taste for provocative art who is unnerved by the vicious revenge thriller that her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) has penned and sent her.
It’s official: the best jokes this year are German. The LFF’s Laugh strand gala is comedy, Toni Erdmann. Wickedly bizarre, existential, emotionally insightful and deeply moving, it was embraced as the revelation of Cannes. Sandra Hüller stars as Ines, a pantsuited corporate consultant stationed to Romania whose determination to climb the career ladder is being stifled by casual sexism (nailed in cumulative subtle touches by writer-director Maren Ade). Her outsider melancholy – and capacity to resort to extremes – is only exacerbated by the arrival of her estranged father (Peter Simonischek), whose love of practical jokes is the antithesis of business decorum. The film plays mortifying situations for comedic gold while never succumbing to cruelty. One outrageously weird, hilarious naked scene is destined to become a classic.
Isabelle Huppert is an actress of intense, ferocious talent known to shine in unsettling roles, so the fact her performance in Elle is being hailed as a career high is reason enough to see this film. What’s more, director Paul Verhoeven’s first French-language movie – which also won raves at Cannes – promises a provocative and challenging take on power dynamics in the guise of a comedy that’s as perverse and black as they come. He originally intended to shoot in the US, but doubted he’d find an American actress willing to go far enough. Huppert plays a Parisian videogame exec accustomed to being in control. After she’s sexually assaulted in her own home, she becomes determined to take charge of the situation.
Kate Plays Christine
Robert Greene astutely revealed the fragile, multi-layered nature of identity under a media spotlight in Actress, his portrait of television star Brandy Burre trying to regain her stalled career. He returns to examine the toxic mythologising impulse that haunts fame and the absence of any essential, final knowability to humans beneath their many complex faces with Kate Plays Christine. Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old newsreader, shot herself on live American television in 1974. Kate Lyn Sheil is preparing to play her, and the film follows her down the rabbit hole of increasing questions in her research, about this enigmatic woman and the nature of our voyeuristic society. If you want to see the documentary form stretched to its most innovative and smart, audaciously confrontational capacities, don’t miss this chance.
It’s witty and exuberant with bonkers flair, riotously erotic, and fraught with politically charged outrage and sorrow. To put it another way: Spike Lee’s take on America’s problem with gun violence is many things, but never boring. Set in Chicago, Chi-Raq is a loose musical adaptation of the ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata”, in which women hold a sex strike as a means to leverage their men to end a war. The vibrant, risque rhyming verse volleying between the characters gives the film its energetic force. As Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris leads a spirited movement to unite the warring Spartan and Trojan gangs in a common cause for peace.
With her understated, intimate and thoughtful films such as revisionist western Meek’s Cutoff and take on radical activism Night Moves, Kelly Reichardt has become a leading light of American indie filmmaking. Her latest, Certain Women, promises more beautiful, low-key melancholy. It draws together tales of the lives of Montana women from Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, a short story collection by Maisie Meloy. Laura Dern plays a lawyer embroiled in a difficult case and an extra-marital affair, Michelle Williams is a woman angling after the perfect trappings for a new home despite the strains in her marriage, and newcomer Lily Gladstone is a horse rancher gripped by a strong attraction to her law class instructor (Kristen Stewart).
Famed actress Sonia Braga is nothing short of an inspiration in Aquarius. She brings an almost regal sensuality and cool to her role as a widowed writer fighting to keep her apartment, which holds memories of her younger years, from the ruthlessly corrupt developers set on taking over the building. Director Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose strikingly inventive debut Neighbouring Sounds brought him to attention as a brilliant new talent, again calls out the entitled behaviour of the Brazilian powerful with searing honesty. He uses his sophisticated ear for music and sound to create a deeply moving yet wry tribute to the resistance of small islands of human integrity.
United States of Love
The lives of four complex women, from an unsatisfied wife fixated on a young priest to an aerobics instructor with big-city ambitions, are at the heart of intense drama United States of Love. Warsaw writer-director Tomasz Wasilewski, who brought Floating Skyscrapers to the LFF in 2013, deservedly bagged the Best Screenplay award at this year’s Berlinale for his riveting latest. He drew on his own memories of growing up in a Soviet-style apartment block for the film, which looks back to a 90s Poland just after the fall of communism when a promise of sexual and social freedom was ripe but the means to achieve it were still shaky and unsure. The drastic inevitably erupts from a clash of desire and circumstance in the movie, which wears its air of yearning in a distinctive pastel tint created by renowned cinematographer Oleg Mutu.
Festivals offer the chance to go out on a limb with wilder, more left field choices than you’d find playing long runs in your local multiplex. For beautiful lunacy you can’t beat The Ornithologist, a novel take on the myth of St. Anthony which blew minds at its recent premiere at Locarno as a hallucinatory, poetic but playfully batshit-crazy experience and a half. Fernando is an ornithologist researching black storks in the forest. After a kayak accident he’s found by a pair of young female Chinese Catholic pilgrims, who tie him up. Sinister masked figures performing night rituals and a gay shepherd named Jesus add to the spiralling disorientation and surreal humour in this Portuguese fever dream, entirely shot in sublime but unforgiving nature, from João Pedro Rodrigues.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 5 – 16, 2016.