Film Festival Report By Andrew Arthur and Jordan Sellers, with Collum Smith
Introduction to BFI and LFF
Established in 1933, the British Film Institute is a charity seeking to develop the art of film in the UK, promoting the education and production of British Film and Television. Their annual film festival is the UK’s largest and most prestigious, and one that celebrates the work of filmmakers from all around the world.
Founded in 1957, this was the London Film Festival’s 65th year, and it is the focus of London’s autumn season to the delight of cinephiles and industry professionals alike.
It’s been a long time since anyone has had the chance to attend an event of this scale, and the LFF had a wonderful new venue in the Royal Festival Hall. With 2,500 seats and a stellar sound system, the festival Galas received the showcase they deserved.
Tricia Tuttle, Festival Director, introduced the star studded line-up. Highlight names this year included Benedict Cumberbatch, George Clooney, Edgar Wright, Jane Campion, Kirsten Dunst, Olivia Colman and many more.
Films are presented in strands including Galas, Love, Cult, Laugh, Thrill and Create.
There was an incredible amount to see over twelve days. Striking the right balance between the major titles and the gems waiting to be discovered is always difficult, but there’s never a shortage of great cinema.
Jeymes Samuel opened the festival with his stylish, star-studded debut THE HARDER THEY FALL, a Netflix original that exploded onto the screen with a riotous visual feast for the eyes and music that could only have come from the producer behind Baz Lurhmann’s THE GREAT GATSBY’s soundtrack.
Undoubtedly one of the most anticipated films of the festival was Pablo Larraín’s SPENCER, a haunting and spellbinding fable of three days in the life of Princess Diana. Kristen Stewart’s career defining performance showed incredible sincerity and heartache, conveying every iota of Diana’s spirit. Very much a sister film to Larraín’s JACKIE (2016), SPENCER is a strikingly lyrical work that should be a top awards contender later this year.
Other highlights included Edgar Wright’s eagerly anticipated psychological thriller, LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, a beautiful nightmare that delights in exposing viewers to the shadowy streets of 60’s Soho. With a clear reverence for this era, exploration of fascinating characters, and flourishes of Wright’s signature horror tropes, it should both appeal to a general audience and delight genre fans.
In the same vein, though fueled by a different kind of fire, was the Palme D’Or winning TITANE, a film that reinforces Julia Ducournau’s fierce sensibilities as a filmmaker after her debut in 2016 with RAW. The metallic, stomach-churning heart of this beast is a story of gender fluidity. Not for the faint of heart, TITANE was definitely one of the most talked about films at the festival this year.
A tradition of LFF is the Surprise Film, a fan-favourite event. This year’s was A24’s monochromatic drama C’MON, C’MON, directed by Mike Mills. At just twelve years old, Woody Norman gave one of the best performances of the year, going toe to toe with Joaquin Phoenix, who returns to the big screen for the first time after winning his Academy Award for JOKER in 2019. C’MON, C’MON is a stunningly tender exploration of the relationship between an uncle and his nephew. Don’t miss this one.
A gem of the festival which is sure to divide audiences is the follow up film from Host director Rob Savage. Working from a three page story treatment, Savage and his team created another ‘screen-life’ horror with DASHCAM. Shot on an iPhone and told from the perspective of a live-streaming internet personality who is sure to infuriate viewers, Savage’s latest film is wonderfully bonkers. Whilst not for everyone, it was inspiring to see this team double down on what made their first feature great and push the envelope further. DASHCAM is a furiously entertaining bloody romp. See it in cinemas with the most riotous audience you can find.
Closing out the festival this year was THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, a technical marvel that managed to bring something new to the table despite the list of adaptations that precede it. This was the first time Joel Coen has operated without his brother, and it’s a fascinating project to start with. Shot entirely on sound stages, the film blurs the line between theatre and cinema. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is a star in its own right, and Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand’s performances as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are every bit as wonderful as you’d expect.
LFF featured a number of glamorous parties this year. The Opening Night Party took place in the majestic marble interiors of London’s Freemason’s Hall. American Express has been the official sponsor for the festival for over ten years and hosted several of the Galas and receptions over the course of the festival, including Netflix’s THE POWER OF THE DOG.
LAST NIGHT IN SOHO’s afterparty was held at the appropriately chosen Soho House whilst SPENCER’s Gala reception at Black’s was a notable highlight following the buzz that came from the screening, with attendees congratulating Kristen Stewart on her exceptional performance.
For those contributing to the BFI, the Patrons’ Gala afterparty was held at the lavish The Ned hotel, an elegant venue with a live band where the champagne and G&Ts flowed freely.
Another highlight of the LFF are panels with filmmakers and other creators. This year, industry leaders came together to discuss topics ranging from XR to transitioning between writing for film, television and theatre. With the ongoing expansion of streaming services, conversations surrounding the future of the cinema as a viable medium for telling our stories was important. The number of Netflix productions being showcased at the festival was at an all time high, and demand for limited series and the ongoing competition for content was a hotly debated topic.
At a panel on virtual production, VFX Supervisor Angus Bickerton talked about the excitement surrounding this new, growing technology and spoke with TV Executive Producer Lisa Grey about the possibilities this generates for the industry and the way we tell stories.
Filmmaker teas gave press the opportunity to talk one-on-one with upcoming filmmakers whose work was showcased at the festival.
Rob Savage told us about the mindset he had when creating Host with his team. “Making films is like drawing comics, just more social,” Savage noted. The filmmaker made his first feature STRINGS on a budget of £3000 and recently signed a three-film deal with Blumhouse. The low budget pandemic-oriented HOST was shot entirely in the cast’s own homes during the height of lockdown. Savage says that the central question he asked himself was “What can your team do?” His response: “Make the most impressive film we can.” Savage’s latest work, DASHCAM started production only three months after the previous film’s release online.
Danny Strong discussed DOPESICK with us, a limited series releasing through Hulu over the coming weeks. The show examines America’s struggle with opioid addiction and boasts an impressive ensemble that includes Michael Keaton, Will Poulter, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rosario Dawson and Kaitlyn Dever. Strong spoke about the desire to retain the truth at the heart of the story, only dramatising specific moments so as not to diminish the facts of the case. “If you’re showing someone doing something bad, it has to be true,” Strong pointed out. The show’s opening two episodes are also directed by one of Strong’s heroes and cinema legend, Barry Levinson. The two worked closely together alongside the Director of Photography and Production Designer to establish a look that would be consistent throughout the show. Danny is in the director’s chair for the final two episodes and serves as the Series Creator and Executive Producer.
ENCOUNTER director Michael Pearce talked about his new Amazon-backed science-fiction tale starring Riz Ahmed and Octavia Spencer. Pearce claimed ENCOUNTER is “more ambitious” than his previous film and is a “complex character study” inside of a genre film. On the topic of working with the now Oscar nominated Riz Ahmed, Pearce described him as being “very generous, very nurturing” and explains that “he understood the pathos of the character” and “is very well prepared”. When asked about his next project, Pearce described a “dark, brooding crime thriller” in the vein of a 90’s Fincher film and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.
After a year of lockdowns, the feeling of being back in a large venue with enthusiastic audiences was unparalleled. The LFF goes from strength to strength, and the films this year were overwhelmingly good. Getting the chance to speak with many of world’s most passionate and promising filmmakers was really a treat, and the panels and talks were fascinating.
As BFI Chief Executive Ben Roberts put it: “We never really went away, but it still feels good to say ‘we’re back!’”