Arriving at the end of the season, the London Film Festival attempts to summarise a year’s worth of cinema, cherry-picking the choicest titles from around the world. Largely eschewing awards galas and celeb-spotting, the festival aims itself squarely at those who love film in all its diversity, offering everything from major works by big-name directors to micro-budget experimental shorts and features.
Notable among the former is Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, a mischievous portrait of Bob Dylan in which the artist is played by seven different actors, from African-American pre-teen Marcus Carl Franklin to a laconic, unnervingly precise impersonation by Cate Blanchett. Other name directors returning to the festival include Ang Lee with Lust, Caution, a lush and explicit tale of wartime romance and espionage, and Harmony Korine with Mr. Lonely, which stars Diego Luna as a tragic Michael Jackson lookalike wandering the streets of Paris. Michael Haneke directs the American remake of his own Funny Games, a subversive and increasingly relevant account of torture and sadism.
Moving out into the wider world and further down the economic scale we find a series of films dealing with human survival, and characters living on the fringes of the civilised world. Asif Kapadia’s Far North is a bleak tragedy played out among the endless wastes of the Arctic tundra, while the gorgeously monochrome Frozen details the life of a girl nearing adolescence in a remote Himalayan village. Two films deal with figures marooned in the rainforest: The Mourning Forest is an immersive study of an elderly man and his caregiver adrift in the Japanese jungle, while Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn tells the true story of US fighter pilot Dieter Dengler and his experiences in a Laotian prison camp during the Vietnam War.
Two more drama-documentaries bring the subject of warfare right up to date: both Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha and Brian De Palma’s Redacted combine reality and fiction to investigate American atrocities in Iraq: the latter utilises video diaries and YouTube postings to explore the truth behind the apparent rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by American soldiers. Other documentaries explore less controversial topics: Black, White & Gray is a tender portrait of the relationship between art collector Sam Wagstaff and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, while the playful, experimental We Want Roses, Too tells the story of the sexual revolution through interviews, drama and animation.
In fact, animated films are one of this festival’s strong points. Vexille is a dazzling futuristic fantasy rendered in eye-popping CGI, while Persepolis utilises more traditional techniques to tell the story of a girl growing up through the Iranian Islamic Revolution. For younger viewers, Bee Movie marks the long anticipated return of the great Jerry Seinfeld, while Yobi, the Five-Tailed Fox is a giddy tale of magic and adolescence, a South Korean take on Miyazaki. And an intriguing live-action film for children arrives in the form of Island of Lost Souls, a dark, supernatural adventure story steeped in Scandinavian folklore.
In addition to the all the fresh work on offer, the BFI have dug into the archives to present new prints of a number of classic films: from diametrically opposing ends of the cinematic spectrum come the restored Blind Husbands, Erich von Stroheim’s riveting silent tale of forbidden lust and mountaineering, and Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep, a glorious, heartbreaking work of black American neo-realism.