Thursday, 23 October 2014


To wrap up my coverage of the 2014 BFI London Film Festival, here's my list of the best of the fest. Only one win per film, so some have had to make do with runner-up citations in lieu of officially placing first more than once.

Best Film
Lav Diaz does it again with yet another extraordinary rumination on the human condition. What a cliche that might be to say, but his films are just that profound and that monumental. I saw many great films at LFF this year, but none even came close to beating From What Is Before.
Last year's winner: Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz)

Special Mention
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (Wiam Simav Bedirxan and Ossama Mohammed)
This gutting documentary is perhaps the most emotionally shattering film I've seen, and not just at LFF this year. It's brilliantly, beautifully cinematic, but as much a vital humanitarian document as an artistic one. Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait will be a documentary for the ages.

Last year's winner: 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

Competition for these top awards came from Aleksey German's Hard to Be a God, primarily. Deserving winners would also have included The Duke of Burgundy, Foxcatcher, The Furthest End Awaits, Jauja and The Tribethough, truthfully, they didn't stand a chance.

Best Directing
Aleksey German (Hard to Be a God)
And he's dead! Completed by his widow Svetlana Karmalita, and his son, fellow filmmaker Aleksey German Jr., Hard to Be a God is the maverick Russian director's final film. It took roughly six years to even get off the ground, and just about that long to actually make thereafter, but the immensely long and complex production was wholly worth it. German's inimitable style is pushed to its extreme in this bewilderingly detailed stew of sense, nonsense and a wealth of unidentifiable shit (literally) in between. An obvious choice.
Runners-up: Lav Diaz (From What Is Before), Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy)

Last year's winners: Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani (The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears)

Best Female Actor

Li Yi Qing (Dearest)

Peter Chan's Dearest is, unquestionably, the weakest film to win in any of these seven categories, but it's far from the least deserving winner when one considers why it's done so. I've seen few films so packed with great, truly great, performances as this one: child actors such as Zhou Pin Rui and Zhu Dong Xu, and adult performers like Huang Bo, Hao Lei and Zhao Wei, the latter two of whom would have been worthy winners in this category. But it's the very young Li Yi Qing who was my favourite, in a very small role as a young girl left in an orphanage when her mother is sent to prison. In just a few scenes, she'll completely and utterly break your heart.

Runners-up: Evelyn Vargas (From What Is Before), Zhao Wei (Dearest)
Last year's winner: Isabelle Huppert (Abuse of Weakness)

Best Male Actor

Body / Luke (White God)

The rules state that there may be no tied wins, but I had to make an exception in this case. You see, I couldn't tell the difference between Body and Luke, the two leads playing the same role, Hagen, in Mundruczo Kornel's gripping thriller White God. What's so remarkable about their win is that neither Body nor Luke is a human being - they're dogs! But the intensity and the spontaneity of their performances, and the incredible range of emotions both was fully capable of expressing with their whole bodies, made them the clear frontrunners for this win.

Runners-up: Zhu Dong Xu (Dearest), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

Last year's winner: Elyes Aguis (The Past)

Best Screenplay

Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan)

It may not have struck me as the modern masterpiece that so many critics have hailed it has since its Cannes premiere in May, but the screenplay to Andrey Zvyagintsev's ambitious social satire Leviathan, co-written by himself with writing partner Oleg Negin, is an excellent piece of work. It's funny, astute and very well-paced, and balances its requirements as a narrow-focused family drama and a broad-reaching political polemic with ease and accuracy.

Runners-up: Wiam Simav Bedirxan and Ossama Mohammed (Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait), Lav Diaz (From What Is Before)

Last year's winners: Christophe Bataille and Panh Rithy (The Missing Picture)

Artistic or Technical Achievement

Timo Salminen (Jauja- cinematography

Aki Kaurismaki collaborator Timo Salminen worked in unmistakable Academy Ratio, complete with antique rounded corners, for Lisandro Alonso's superb Jauja. His immaculate framing of bodies against landscapes combines with his flair for emphasising, even discovering, striking colours that produce a stunning look (never better than here) made his cinematography the finest of the festival.

Runners-up: Sergey Kokovin, Georgy Kropachev and Elena Zhukova (Hard to Be a God) - production design, Dani Abouloh and Maison Asaad (Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait) - editing

Last year's winner: Claire Mathon (Stranger by the Lake- cinematography


Picture the scenario: 30-odd young men trapped in an enclave. It's big and grassy, and surrounded by gigantic concrete walls, which encircle it for kilometres, seemingly, in the form of an enormous maze which none of the inhabitants have been able to solve. They've been there for years now, and have no memory of life beforehand. They do, however, remember how to speak English and how to act their age. They do not, however, remember how to curse, or not very much. Nor do they remember how to have sex - ok, so fantasies aside, isn't this kinda like prison? Don't even try to tell me none of these young, physically fit men ever once dropped the soap... intentionally! And, speaking of young, physically fit men: half way into The Maze Runner, a girl arrives. She must have booked her entrance into the clearing with a token token, just like the fat guy, and the young guy, and the non-Caucasian guys, and the aesthetically repulsive guys. One wonders what Patricia Clarkson's running here - a social experiment or an elaborate porno? No wonder she sends that girl in, which, btw, inspires not one of these young men to so much as get a semi. It's about time we had a female lead (she's not the lead by any stretch of the imagination, but she'll just have to be for now) in a male-dominated action film who wasn't there for the purpose of titillation, though Kaya Scodelario is hardly from the Kathy Bates school of character acting (read: unfuckability). I'll suspend disbelief for the hokiest of scenarios, but implausibility suddenly becomes a major bugbear for me when it gets in the way of my needs. If The Maze Runner wasn't going to be a good film, it could at least have been good wank-bank material.


One can read a lot into a film if one wishes to do so, and one can try to convince oneself that one's analysis of the film is valid and appropriate, and that it enhances one's appreciation of it. Yann Demange's '71 takes deliberate steps toward restricting any alternative analyses to that which it deems valid and appropriate - the Northern Irish conflict in recent decades, specifically in 1971 Belfast, depicted democratically, with both honour and dishonour on either side of the fight. That's a prettier picture to paint in retrospect; I suspect that the setting for '71 is an arbitrary detail, the ideal position in which to place the character of a wounded, abandoned soldier being in the midst of a civil war, in an English-speaking land for maximum commercial viability. As long as the specificities of the political animosity at play are kept buried, hidden so as not to disturb the tension or confuse the viewer, '71 is an excellent thriller. Demange has a straightforward directorial style, full of clarity and a boisterous energy that seeps away when he's not utilising it properly. In riveting sequences of violent action or, more often, the threat of violent action (which is much more effective, obviously), Demange exhibits an impressive verve for the techniques of thriller filmmaking, if little ingenuity. It's testament less to the abilities of anyone involved in making '71 than to the enduring strength of the stock genre elements employed in the film that their impact remains strong and sharp, no matter how many times we've experienced that impact before. But '71 functions well only as such a thriller - try to read into it any more than it asks of you, and you might only be underwhelmed by what you get.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014


A look at the weekend's new releases, as an R-rated film sits at No. 1 for the fourth consecutive frame.

FURY [TOP SPOT] - $23,702,421
Against recent R-rated thriller Gone Girlwhich David Ayer's Fury has unseated from the top of the US box office, this is not a very strong start. But it's not bad either, by any means, and public reception has been promising. Awards buzz has rather dried up for the film, though, so don't expect it to play well beyond the autumn.
Prediction: $70-80m

THE BOOK OF LIFE - $17,005,218
A modest gross for a modest animated product. This marks a slight step up from Reel FX's last film, Free Birds, and, combined with the decent reception to the family film, one can expect it to perform better in the long run too.

Prediction: $50-60m

THE BEST OF ME - $10,003,827

By some margin, The Best of Me's opening is the lowest yet for a Nicholas Sparks movie. That's even including The Notebook, which didn't have quite the same level of positive brand recognition that this does. Whether or not this means that the film's audience simply hasn't rushed out to see the film remains unclear.

Prediction: $30-40m

BIRDMAN - $424,397

How to evaluate Birdman's rather enormous opening in just four theatres? It's over 125% what Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children made over the weekend, and it was in nationwide release. Its per-theatre average is the eighth-highest ever for a live action film. But then, wasn't that all to be expected? Its true success will be gleaned when it expands, and when awards season kicks off.

Prediction: $30-40m


This, to me, is the big success of the weekend. It's one of a mere handful of films to score a per-theatre average of over $30k, and was only one spot away from the Top 20 in only 11 theatres. Roadside Attractions will be looking to turn this into one of their biggest hits to date with a serious expansion plan.

Prediction: $10-20m

A MATTER OF FAITH - $138,677

Not even overwhelmingly positive reviews tend to result in high grosses for non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli fare, but The Tale of Princess Kaguya has achieved that. $18,305 per-theatre is an impressive gross for the film, which performed underwhelmingly in its native Japan.

Prediction: $0-10m

THE GOLDEN ERA - $48,000

Ann Hui's new film didn't attract the kind of critical response that was expected of it during the recent festival season. Chinalion must have hoped to make as much money as possible by putting the film into a peculiarly hefty 15 cinemas, and might just have succeeded. Just.

Prediction: $0-10m

RUDDERLESS - $37,440

One of those simultaneous VOD releases that was kinda asking for it. Why 18 theatres? Refer back to The Golden Era for a similar explanation.

Prediction: $0-10m


Why hasn't Listen Up Philip made as much as I expected it to? Did the arthouse crowd just not care? Well, why not? The critics certainly did care. This must be a bit of a disappointment for all involved.

Prediction: $0-10m


That'll do, ish. In five cinemas, a higher per-theatre average might have been hoped for, but this hasn't fallen flat enough to be considered a flop.

Prediction: $0-10m

GOD THE FATHER - $15,037


DIPLOMACY - $8,518
Opening in just one cinema, Volker Schlondorff's theatrical adaptation earns a fine amount. That's all. Once upon a time, he might have been looking at a lot more, but that was then, and this is now.

Prediction: $0-10m



CAMP X-RAY - $1,316
Dreadful... out of context. Considering that the vast majority of Camp X-Ray's audience is probably extremely tech-savvy, you can bet that this film has made a serious distance more on VOD, where it was released day-and-date with its theatrical opening. It'll be remembered more positively than this gross suggests, I expect.

Prediction: $0-10m


Although it will announce its choices for the best of 2014 in December, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association will host its annual awards event on the 15th of January. They've recently revealed the recipient of their Career Achievement Award for this year's ceremony, and it could hardly be a more worthy pick: the actor Gena Rowlands. Best known for her collaborations with her partner John Cassavetes, including seminal performances in films such as Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, Gloria and Love Streams, the 84-year-old star is one of the greatest living film actors, and wholly deserves the honour.


The London Film Festival only includes a small fraction of its selection each year, roughly 5%, in its official competition, but they're many of them excellent features. Critical mega-hit Leviathan won the top award from Jeremy Thomas' jury, reportedly the unanimous choice, beating my preferred choice, The Duke of BurgundyFull winners below:

Official Competition
Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)

Special Mention

Girlhood (Celine Sciamma)

Documentary Competition
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (Wiam Simav Bedirxan and Ossama Mohammed)

First Feature Competition
The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Best British Debut
Sameena Jabeen Ahmed (Catch Me Daddy)

BFI Fellowship
Stephen Frears

Monday, 20 October 2014


Love is a torment in Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy, a third consecutive feature from the director to appear wildly ambitious and yet utterly effortless. His burgeoning, meticulous, vivid mise-en-scene presents content as context, a bountiful hive of concealed information - he delves as far into his characters' cerebrums as their crotches, and as the amplified atmospheric noise of insects, obsessively small, obsessively detailed, seeps into reality. But what is reality? Strickland toys with our expectations, turning askew situations around, and around again, and again, our senses luxuriating in the immense, idiosyncratic beauty of his film as our heads gasp for some clarity, some definite sense of place. We will not be afforded such distinctions; nor will his characters. Their carnal yet chaste relationship, obsessed with whatever extremities they feel compelled to pursue, takes the form of a Moebius strip, like a spiral of repetition, encompassing birth, death, rebirth, life and its byproducts to be consumed, a fetid pool of textures left swirling around them as does one's placenta, or perhaps one's faeces, if not taken proper care of. Proper care is perverted in The Duke of Burgundy, though, obsessively distorted to fit one's needs; what of the relationship's needs? Obsession is obsessed with itself, descending down that spiral to the most minute details. What pleasure Strickland permits us to derive from this film, of endless analytical value, is in his playfulness, that toying that he extends to so much of his work. It's self-reflexive style, progressive pastiche, and it's the most persuasive argument conceivable for non-narrative cinema: The Duke of Burgundy is of such enormous worth as said exercise, as a mosaic of exquisite artistry, be it in Andrea Flesch's supple fabrics and sensuous seams, Cat's Eyes' aptly non-classifiable score or just in Strickland's singular artistic intentions. It's an experience meant for those willing to experience it, and its premier message lies therein.


Jacob Cheung employs tools of simplicity and serenity to hysterical effect in The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, an overblown and over-complicated martial arts picture that mistakes business for energy and melodrama for emotional sincerity. It's easy to see where he got waylaid - the plot doesn't exactly lend itself to restraint and carefulness, though with so many classical twists the film could have used much more of both - but stylistically this is a gauche and rather disrespectful film that will disappoint all but the hardiest fans of the genre. Cheung, whether knowingly or not, constructs a consciously artificial historical environment, responding to the magical elements of the text with a lack of imagination: the lens flare, the cumbersome production values and the brash, Westernised score (unfortunately now commonplace among many similar films) cheapen The White Haired Witch, which otherwise has enormous potential for sensory brilliance. Such cannily-selected details as the impressive authentic scenery or Timmy Yip's magnificent costumes are relegated to the background, as Cheung over-emphasises hollow spectacle, be it in interminable close-ups of mediocre acting, or poorly edited wuxia sequences. Tung Wei's action choreography is creative, but indistinguishable from the array of lacklustre stunt work spliced into these scenes. Indeed, Cheung displays a determination to render inherently dramatic aspects as banality, with his attentions apparently focused upon more questionable content: in particular, a wretched final scene that is just the wrong side of being an outrageous triumph of bad taste, but is therefore merely outrageously bad.

Sunday, 19 October 2014


The futility and the absurdity of law over a lawless landscape. In the struggle to exact their cultural identity upon Algeria's fearsome desert, men of all different heritages and creeds engage in a senseless conflict, feuding over a place in the world that eats them alive in great swathes. One detects the natural tension in David Oelhoffen's Far from Men, the perception that danger is forever present, even as supposed enemies are not. There's an otherworldly desolation to the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, a notion that these men are aliens upon this land, their only real hope to see sense and abandon it. They may adapt through openness - the willingness to accept their shortcomings and realise their true, humble purpose in life. Tellingly, it is only the men whose 'honour' has been stripped of them who are capable of such - they are loners, outsiders, fittingly dwarfed in tremendous isolation by the impressive scenery. Oelhoffen's film is lean and succinct, as one expects a thriller of its kind to be, but not as one has to be. There's relatively little analytical scope in Far from Men, the intriguing complexities of out enigmatic leads revealed early to be mere hollow character descriptions, and Oelhoffen resists the opportunity to develop their relationship to its full potential. The film is mostly only as it seems: simple and plain, though effective in its plainness. Whether it's as densely textured as one hopes it will be or not, the fact is that Far from Men is a solid piece of work founded on solid thematic and stylistic grounds.

Saturday, 18 October 2014


The adult characters in Chiung Chiang Hsiu's exquisitely sensitive drama The Furthest End Awaits each experience the lure of memory, of familiarity, of an existence that has passed, abandoning them in a space from which they have not. It is when one runs from one's future that the real damage is done, but when one accepts the need to move forward - but with patience, always - that damage can be repaired. The Furthest End Awaits has the trappings of a gentle 'slice-of-life' drama, simple, uncomplicated, observant and non-judgemental. Those are valuable qualities for most films to possess; Chiung appreciates their true value by applying them to a concept that only gradually, with the same patience she admires in her characters, becomes apparent. The film formates positive, optimistic methods of adjustment to the complexities of pursuing a practical existence - in Japan, where it is particularly pertinent to feel rooted in both past and future, given its rich heritage and its lust for development in a great many regards. Old rituals and new technologies combine, and bridge gaps, heal discord, when their masters are of pure intention. Chiung's presentation is plain, her content clear, a vast reverence for the beauty of the natural world and all of the life therein showing in her careful attentiveness, her respect for the delicate textures and thin materials so prevalent on this narrow strip of islands, facing a gigantic ocean on one side and a gigantic continent on the other. She finds inroads to the deepest depths of her characters' souls, unveiling the benevolent, sincere desires that lie beneath all the unnecessary concerns of life. Their preoccupation with revisiting and returning becomes cleansed, a gracious comprehension of the healthier requirement of looking ahead replacing it. Families that have been broken or lost, its members left as isolated as they are at this rural tip, this furthest end, are re-found, bonds re-made, and harmony restored. This is a hugely spiritual, beautiful film.