Seven Sublime Must-Sees From the London Film Festival

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Mudbound 2
Mudbound, 2017(Film still)

As the curtain closes on the 2017 edition of the BFI’s annual film extravaganza, we reflect on some of our favourite features

Sunday saw the BFI London Film Festival close its doors for another year after a 16-day marathon of forthcoming cinematic releases in every shape, form and style. It was a welcome chance to see a number of the Cannes favourites, such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories as well as acclaimed debuts like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and Léonor Serraille’s Jeune Femme – all of which you can read about here – as well as to enjoy a whole host of exciting new offerings. Here, we present seven of our favourite features for your delectation, spanning an Italian summer romance, an LA neo-noir and a Congolese tale of female perseverance.

1. Mudbound (above)

The latest offering from American director Dee Rees is a masterfully realised reminder of the redemptive power of love in times of festering bigotry, centring around two families living and working on shared farmland in the Jim Crow south during World War Two. Henry and Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke) and their two young children have moved to Mississippi from a more comfortable, middle-class existence in Memphis to fulfil Henry’s agricultural dreams, while sharecroppers Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), who have farmed the land for many years, work tirelessly with the hopes of providing a better future for their four children in the face of racial and social discrimination. When the war draws to a close, Henry’s younger brother Jamie and the Jacksons’ eldest son Ronsel return from the battlefields, soon forging a close but necessarily covert friendship over their shared experiences, with gut-wrenching consequences.

2. Call Me By Your Name

Few directors capture the heady bliss of summer quite like Luca Guadagnino, and his new film, Call Me By Your Name, proves no exception. An electrifying portrait of first love, set under the blistering Lombardy sun in the summer of 1983, it is the story of precocious 17-year-old Elio Perlman, masterfully played by Timothée Chalamet, who is spending his vacation in his family’s enviable 17th-century villa, transcribing music, reading, swimming and casually flirting with his friend Marzia. But when handsome American grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives to help Elio’s professor-father, something new and unexpected stirs within the teenager. The pair soon embark on a slow, deeply sensual back and forth, provoking one another without succumbing to their desires. A heightened attention to texture, sound and smell builds tantalising tension as the summer rolls on and life-altering decisions must be made in this Oscar-tipped triumph that can’t help but beguile.

3. My Friend Dahmer

Jeffrey Dahmer is one of America’s most notorious serial killers, having sexually assaulted and murdered 17 men and boys between 1978 and his capture in 1991. But rather than focus on the gruesome events that saw him dubbed “the Milwaukee Cannibal”, My Friend Dahmer sees writer and director Marc Meyers look back to Dahmer’s final high school year and the series of events that led to his first murder, just three weeks after graduating. Former Disney kid Ross Lynch is mesmerising in the leading role, inciting both pity and fear as he portrays a hunched and bespectacled Dahmer enduring his parent’s separation and taunting school mates, while developing a burgeoning interest in the dissection and dissolution of living creatures. Meyers cleverly conjures Hitchcockian levels of suspense in 70s suburbia, while raising subtle questions about accountability when friends, family members and figures of authority fail to spot the warning signs of dangerous psychopathy.

4. Félicité

For fans of free-flowing, documentary-style filmmaking, Félicité from Senegalese-French filmmaker Alain Gomis, is a must-watch. It centres around its titular character, a free-willed singer and single mother, vividly brought to life by singer-turned actress Véro Tshanda Beya, who finds herself forced to turn to her Kinshasa community for help when her 14-year-old son Samo is gravely injured in an accident. In a world dominated by leering, condescending men, only one, the caring but less-than-perfect mechanic Tabu, offers her assistance, and a relationship between the two begins to flourish as Samo’s condition drastically declines. A minimalist script is supplemented by a symbolic soundtrack that reflects Félicité’s emotional journey as she navigates her raw and hostile urban environment in a stirring depiction of female strength and the power of song.

5. Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes, the new film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, finds the husband and wife directing duo behind Little Miss Sunshine on fighting form as they take on the true story of the legendary 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), then the women’s world number one player, and ex-men’s-champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Riggs, a gambling addict and self-proclaimed misogynist (“I’m going put the chau- back in chauvinism”), challenges King to the task in a bid to prove that a man well past his peak can beat a woman at the top of her game. King, determined to silence Riggs and champion equal rights for women, accepts – and the media frenzy begins. As is their way, Dayton and Faris strike a measured balance between humour and humanity as the two players build towards the big event, while engaged in their own personal battles: Riggs’ gambling is putting strain on his family life, while King must confront her sexuality as her relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) blossoms. The result is an exhilarating and enjoyable watch, with a feel-good finish.

6. Gemini

Gemini, the atmospheric neo-noir from indie director Aaron Katz, investigates the strange relationship between Hollywood stars and their assistants – one that tends to be intensely intimate but at the same time almost entirely one-sided – in a manner not dissimilar to Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. Lola Kirke is brilliantly relatable as Jill, the sedulous PA of an in-demand acting ingenue named Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz). When Heather is found brutally murdered, just hours after Jill last saw her, Jill finds herself in a race against time to prove her innocence and locate the real perpetrator. With its gently Lynchian undertones, nostalgic nod to 90s teen horror flicks and magnificent LA locations – including a glorious glass-walled house with an interior covered in hand-painted tiles – this subversive and stylish thriller is rightly being hailed as Katz’s finest work to date.

7. Lean on Pete

In Lean on Pete, Andrew Haigh, the British director behind Weekend and 45 Years takes on his first American location – the expansive, ever alluring Northwest. Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, it is the tale of Charley (Charlie Plummer), a 15-year-old boy who has just moved to Portland Oregon with his deadbeat but loving father. After discovering the local racetrack, he secures himself a part-time job assisting a crotchety race horse owner called Del (Steve Buscemi), and finds himself drawn to Del’s painfully overworked sprinter, Lean on Pete. Despite being warned against viewing horses as pets by both Del and world-weary jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), Charley finds a solace in Pete that no human connection can offer him. Thus when the chestnut steed’s life comes under threat, Charley decides to make a run for it, Pete in tow, heading out into the open desert. Visually spellbinding, slow paced and searing, with a wonderful cast of complex characters, it’s another winner from one of the UK’s brightest talents.