The London Film Festival never used to have awards, but in 2012 it's embraced the idea of a festival competition more than ever before, with three competition strands. So, just before my Top and Bottom 5's of the fest, and my final 4 reviews, here are my personal awards (good and bad) drawn from the 58 films I saw at the festival this year.
Athina Rachel Tsangarai: The Capsule
Runner Up: Jacques Audiard: Rust and Bone
This is the first time in any of the awards posts I've ever done on the site that one of the main awards has gone to a short film, but in purely cinematic terms, as a piece of visual art and as a sustained vision, The Capsule was easily the most impressive directorial work I saw on show at the festival. Tsangarai draws inspiration from many other filmmakers (Lynch, Bunuel, Cronenberg), but also extends the personal style we saw in Attenberg. The visuals are stunning, but so are the pacing and mood, and it all adds up to a hypnotic piece of work.
My runner up is Jacques Audiard, whose Rust and Bone is probably my film of the year at this point. Audiard's depiction of violence, sex and depression is visceral, but he manages to combine it with some gorgeously stylised moments which, along with the brilliant performances, help convey the screenplay's complex set of mixed emotions. It's a brilliantly balanced piece of work.
Matthias Schoenaerts: Rust and Bone
Runner Up: Kim Kold: Teddy Bear
I had not seen, nor even heard the name of, Matthias Schoenaerts before sitting down to watch Rust and Bone, and his performance was perhaps the one that hit hardest during the festival. As Ali, Schoenaerts is never truly likeable, nor does he ever expect to or ask to be liked, but he lays the character so bare that we can't help but empathise with him. There's a crackling energy to the performance that draws us to Ali despite his flaws, and allows us to understand why Marion Cotillard's Stephanie is also drawn to him, and Schoenaerts also allows a few cracks to show in the tough front Ali puts up. It's a fantastically detailed piece of acting and often outright electrifying to watch.
Bodybuilder Kim Kold, my runner up, also plays an unconventional tough guy in Teddy Bear. Kold's passive, almost painfully sweet, gentle giant is one of the most purely endearing characters I've seen for some time and his small and subtle performance quietly, but hugely, impressive. I hope people see the film, maybe Kold's upcoming role in Fast 6 will encourage them.
Waad Mohammed: Wadjda
Runner Up: Shirley Henderson: Everyday
Waad Mohammed, just ten Wadjda was shot, had bigger challenges than simply being the lead, and in almost every shot, in her first film. The very act of starring in a film could have been dangerous for her, given that she and the rest of the cast were shooting in Saudi Arabia, where cinema itself is outlawed, under a female director who sometimes had to hide in the production's van and direct via radio, for fear that she'd be spotted. That's not why Waad Mohammed has won here. She's wonderful as Wadjda's central figure; a rebellious young Saudi girl who enters a Koran reading competition so she can buy the thing she wants most: a bike. Mohammed is a naturally engaging presence, and she creates a spunky, somewhat cheeky, entirely likeable and relateable character who we end up feeling deeply for, meaning that we engage with the character first and the film's politics second. I hope she gets the chance to make more films.
My runner up, Shirley Henderson, is much more experienced. I've been a fan of Henderson's for years, and it's great to see her frequent collaborator Michael Winterbottom give her a role so good as the one she has in Everyday. There's nothing showy in what Henderson does here, just an utterly convincing portrait of the day to day struggles, big and small, of a woman left to raise four kids while her husband is in prison. She can be a quirky presence, but here Henderson is simply real, and simply great.
Francois Ozon: In the House
Runner Up: Mamoru Hosoda / Satoko Okudera: Wolf Children
Francois Ozon has made many great films (don't argue this with me, we really will be here all day), but he may never have made one as interesting from a writing standpoint as In the House. The screenplay as as sharp and witty as you could hope for; Chabrolian in its barbed class commentary, and it's tense enough that the Hitchcock comparisons that have been thrown around are entirely warranted, but the real greatness of the writing here is how playful the script is. Ozon messes with us at every turn, almost begging us to guess his plot twists, then mocking us for trying and taking the plot in a direction we didn't guess. He plays with characterisation, making the bourgeois family his main character writes about thin enough characters that they could be fictional even within the film's universe, but rounded enough to hold our attention, and he plays with form, having characters offer commentary on the writing of a scene as it is unfolding. It's a dazzling piece of multilayered screenwriting.
Wolf Children is also a script with many layers, filtering its story of two children coming of age and the single mother struggling to raise them through a magical fantasy twist, through which Mamoru Hosoda and co writer Satoko Okudera bring their essential story home all the more powerfully.
Robbie Ryan: The Summit / Ginger and Rosa
Runner Up: Tobias Datum: Kiss of the Damned
I had many problems with Ginger and Rosa, but Robbie Ryan's cinematography was not one of them. Ryan's gauzy, dreamlike, lensing of much of the film gives it the feel of a half-remembered childhood (which fits the elliptical structure that undermines the storytelling so much), while his starker rendering of other scenes gives the film a sense of time and place, and of the two girls growing up too fast. It's a film so beautiful I wished it were better. Demonstrating his versatility, Ryan also acted as DP for the reconstruction scenes that made The Summit the one documentary I saw at the festival which really cried out to be seen at a cinema, the reconstructions have both staggering beauty and visceral immediacy, the mix serving the film brilliantly.
Tobias Datum's work on Kiss of the Damned is incredibly stylised; channeling the gaudy, somewhat cheesy, beauty of the films of exploitation directors like Jean Rollin. He captures the impossibly beautiful cast at their best, and, with director Xan Cassavettes, crafts a look that pays tribute to other filmmakers but also gives the film its own very particular feel.
Best Score/Soundtrack/Use of Music
Firework by Katy Perry: Used in Rust and Bone
Runner Up: Still Light by The Knife: Used in Jeff
The second time that Katy Perry's Firework is played in Rust and Bone, I almost cried. Shut up, you'd understand if you'd seen the film. The film completely changes the song for me, from a very lightweight pop record to something much closer to the inspirational tune Perry was clearly reaching for. The scene is beautiful, and the way Firework lifts what is a tiny victory for Marion Cotillard's character and makes us understand and share what it means to her is incredibly moving. It's an unlikely and brilliant soundtrack choice.
Jeff, the documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer, uses the dark and menacing electro of The Knife's brilliant third album, Silent Shout a couple of times during its dramatic scenes (which really don't work), but it's the choice of the album's closing track Still Light for the end credits that really stays with you, as it is much more effective than any of the reconstructions at conjuring the desperately creepy and disturbing nature of Dahmer's crimes, through Karin Dreijer Andersson's darkly pretty and haunting voice.
One to Watch
Chloe Pirrie: Shell
Runners Up: Caleb Landry-Jones: Antiviral / Sakura Ando: For Love's Sake / The Samurai That Night
Shell was one of the first films I saw at the festival this year, and while it has dropped out of my festival Top 5 (coming soon), Chloe Pirrie's leading performance has stayed with me. The restraint and subtlety with which she and co-star Joseph Mawle play the strangeness in the relationship between their father and daughter characters gives the film a fascination and a darkness that really pulls you in, and Pirrie impresses with the straightforward reality of her performance. We saw a lot of so called realism at the festival this year, and many of those performances felt very acted, Pirrie's doesn't. Shell will hopefully pull in an audience when it comes out, but at the very least it should act as a calling card for Pirrie, I'll be looking forward to what she does next.
Caleb Landry Jones is clearly a hugely versatile actor, and despite his extremely distinctive look I only realised on looking him up after Antiviral that I had already seen him as the weird brother of Ashley Bell's 'possession' victim in The Last Exorcism and as Banshee in X-Men First Class. He totally disappears again in Antiviral, anchoring the film with a withdrawn but mesmerising performance that signals an interesting young character actor.
Sakura Ando immediately impressed me in Sion Sono's brilliant Love Exposure, but her one two punch of small supporting roles in this year's LFF have convinced me that she's someone to be very excited about. As well as undoubted talent, Ando has something you can't buy or fake: presence. She appears in one scene in The Samurai That Night, but it's one of the most memorable, and she's only fourth lead in For Love's Sake, but when she appears you can't take your eyes off her. I can't wait to see more.
Right, that's enough of being nice. Here are some of the festival's low points.
Gulshan Deviah: Peddlers
Runner Up: Jay Paulson: Black Rock
To be entirely fair to Gulshan Deviah, everyone in Peddlers is dreadful, and the film itself is a rampagingly awful, tonally broken, disaster. I don't think he ever had a shot at being good in it. That said... oh boy is he bad here. Playing a bad boy cop, Deviah is laughable; he's far too clean cut for the role, barely able to hide that charming movie star grin (pictured). The scenes in which he's meant to be most objectionable (like when he force feeds a woman cocaine) are unintentionally hilarious, because there's no sense of darkness in his performance, and frequently you feel like you're watching Deviah run through a scene and that the camera has simply been left running. Even funnier are the 'brooding' scenes as the character tries to hide his erectile dysfunction. You get the very real sense that Deviah is embarrassed even to suggest this about himself, and every scene feels incredibly awkwardly played. It's the most patently acted male performance I saw at the festival.
Jay Paulson doesn't fare much better in the considerably better film, Black Rock, in which he's the sole major weak link. It's a problem when the main antagonist in a horror film doesn't work, and Paulson doesn't. He starts out pretty wooden, but becomes hammier as each scene passes until he's off the deep end by the film's third act. It's an unbalancing performance in an otherwise pleasingly low key film.
Christina Hendricks: Ginger and Rosa
Runner Up: Liv Tyler: Robot and Frank
Even leaving aside the fact that she is totally miscast as Elle Fanning's mother, Christina Hendricks is impossible to take seriously in Ginger and Rosa. In a film packed with American actors inexplicably cast as Brits, Hendricks is the one who struggles most. Her attempt at an English accent is hilariously awful, and sounds for all the world like it's coming out of another actress (who also can't do an English accent). What's really painful though is how apparent it is that Hendricks is working really hard at her accent, so hard in fact that she has completely forgotten to act. There's no inflection, no variation, just a flat, laughably overcooked, accent. That said, the conversation she has about pie is nearly worth the ticket price on its own.
From someone who is working far too hard to someone who is not working hard enough, to basically the same end. In Robot and Frank - a largely charming but already comprehensively overrated film - Liv Tyler appears to have recently woken from a coma and been wheeled on to set to play Frank Langella's daughter. Tyler's a variable actress, and this is one long off day, as she turns in a barely conscious, only occasionally inflected performance that threatened to send me to sleep.
Worst Score/Soundtrack/Use of Music
Michael Nyman: Everyday
Runner Up: Karan Kulkarni: Peddlers
Everyday is a hugely affecting and emotional film. I bought into everything; the process of the kids growing up without their dad, the wrenching feelings on both sides for their parents, the day to day struggles and feeling of imprisonment for Shirley Henderson's Karen and the love between her and John Simm's Ian. Score can augment those things, provided it does so with a little restraint, and that's where Michael Nyman went wrong here. Nyman and Michael Winterbottom simply slather Everyday in a gloopy score that essentially bellows at the audience about how they should be feeling at any given moment. It's a miracle that the film survives it, especially as it ends on a real crescendo of emotion, brutally undercut by the score blaring away.
Peddlers has a different sort of bad score. To go with the 'edgy' tone of the film Karan Kulkarni uses a lot of modern dance music... or some approximation thereof. The dance and club music in Peddlers is painfully generic, sounding like the stock music that TV shows used to be reduced to using when the characters went to a club but the budget wouldn't stretch to licencing any actual bands. It's utterly devoid of personality, and really doesn't fit with the film at all.