It’s been a long time since the London Film Festival was my beat and I was a card-carrying member of the press corps. Back in those days, in the fortnight leading up to the LFF’s Opening Night, I’d gorge on three screenings a day, topped up with a stack of screeners for home consumption - and that was before the whole thing started and then there’d be even more daily showings to squeeze in. Movies all day. Booze well into the wee small hours. Cadging stray minutes throughout the day and night to actually write the whole thing up. It was a blast.
The highlight of that time was finding the things that you didn't know existed. Sitting and watching Mulholland Dr. or Punch-Drunk Love or Ichi the Killer for the first time.
Now, I cherry-pick from the programme, picking out the “I Hope That’s Great”s whilst navigating my own schedule and availability and finances to ensure that I have a Good Film Festival.
This year certainly qualified as a Very Good Film Festival. Here we go:
It took me a little while to warm to Abel Ferrara’s impressionistic portrait of the last day of Pier Paolo Pasolini, but I can remember the exact moment when I was completely sold. The Staple Singers’ "I’ll Take You There" swells on the soundtrack as the frame is filled with a close-up of Willem Dafoe’s troubled, bespectacled visage - the finest use of the Staple Singers since The Last Waltz. Maybe even since Let's Do It Again. Soon after, there’s a snippet of the Swamp Fox Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and a great segue from Dafoe announcing to the proprietor of a trattoria "I'm waiting for Ninetto" into a story-within-the-story featuring the real Ninetto Davoli himself, replete with a shock of thick white hair. He's aged very well. We also get glimpses of what would most likely have been Pasolini’s next feature project which, from the fragments we see, looked like it was intended to be somewhat in the spirit of Uccellacci e uccellini, as Pasolini’s last night moves inexorably towards its tragic end. The dialogue throughout flips between English and Italian in a way that, surprisingly, isn't jarring and Willem Dafoe’s subtle, thoughtful, mournful characterisation is superb. He really knows how to rock a pair of bell bottoms, too.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Ana Lily Amirpour’s skateboarding Iranian vampire Western (shot with the stark, striking crisp photography reminiscent of Robby Müller's work with Jim Jarmusch) does not wear its love of Lynch lightly. It is, after all, both wild at heart and weird on top. But I also thought it hit a vein of Michael Almereyda's Nadja too. Excellent sound design (particularly the sequence where a piece of music becomes suddenly overlaid with the gentle bumps of a heartbeat), and Sheila Vand is the spit of a slightly younger Asia Argento. Lots of fun.
Shot in Detroit, Michigan (although I couldn't help thinking of it as Haddonfield, Illinois), It Follows is heavy on the Halloween, but is also an effective, genuinely disquieting chiller in its own right. Here, John Carpenter’s stolid, impassive Shape has transmuted into David Robert Mitchell's protean, relentless shapeshifter. It was almost enough to put me off sex for life. Almost…
Halloween’s subtext becomes It Follows’ supertext, in an environment where abstinence and celibacy can save your life and sex kills. Or, if you know how to play the game right, sex might just be the path to salvation. Along with the heavy notes of the Horror Master, there’s also a bouquet of John Landis (in particular the gimmick of having old public domain B-movies crackling away in the background, with their soundtracks doubling up to underscore this film’s action) and more than a little bit of Scooby-Doo. But I thought the biggest resonance here, intentional or otherwise, is Spielberg, echoing his early predilection for populating his worlds with absent or faceless parents. And I loved the Disasterpeace soundtrack. Whilst the central conceit is rich for mining in the future, I fervently hope this remains a one-off that doesn't succumb to sequelitis.
A Girl At My Door (Dohee-ya)
July Jung’s South Korean drama starts with the familiar set-up of stranger-in-a-strange-land, fish-out-of-water à la Hot Fuzz and Copland, but as it progresses it starts to go to some very dark and unexpected places. To say much more than that would spoil the skillfully calibrated run of reveals. I can say this much: Doona Bae (terrific in her brooding, understated central role) is a disgraced cop transferred to a small fishing village, where the old adage “no good deed goes unpunished” comes to pass as she comes to realise that her lack of understanding about local customs, culture and community results in a succession of unintended consequences, soaked in alcohol and steeped in violence.
No Man’s Land (Wu ren qu)
Bad people do bad things to bad people in a nasty, stylish and very, very funny Golden Harvest Spaghetti Western. (A Noodle Western?) Luxuriating in the Leone playbook, all the exterior scenes are hyper-stylised in a heavy orange wash. (So orange, you almost expect the Road Runner to go meep-meeping past with a smoldering coyote hurling Acme products in his direction). A scumbag lawyer finds that he has to Break Bad as he navigates a desolate Looney Tunes landscape populated with twisted oddballs redolent of Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. The lone bum note here is a final scene that somewhat undermines everything that came before it. Lop off the last five minutes and this is a scuzzy delight.
When Animals Dream (Når dyrene drømmer)
Like a Danish Ginger Snaps shot through with the staid, sterile provincial ambiance and tempo of Les Revenants. Confidently paced for most of its running time, its easy to forgive a final act that accelerates into bloody, full-throated genre conventions. It’s also worth singling out Lars Mikkelsen as the star player here, shouldering the weighty responsibility of devotion, sacrifice and dark secrets with quiet stoicism. A smart and genuinely quite moving take on love and lycanthropy.
There's something in the woods! A grisly, inventive Flemish slasher that validates my lifelong antipathy to camping. Jonas Govaerts cites John Carpenter’s influence on the film’s visual grammar and narrative propulsion, and he also copped to the fact that he kind of wanted to answer the question Who Can Kill A Child? Lean, efficient and the exposition is sliced right down to the bone, Welp is a splattery joy.