Oct 19, 2015

24FPS @ LFF: The Best of the Fest 2015

It has been a mixed year at the London Film Festival, a year in which I've seen a lot of films that nearly worked.  Some had great passages, but fell apart. Others were largely middling, but had one performance that stuck out, you'll see some of them in the awards categories below. On the plus side, there were some great films and, in a festival jam packed with first time filmmakers, a great deal of promise for the future.

Below you'll find my entirely personal picks of some of the best things I saw at LFF 2015.

5 Star Films
Take Me to the River

Best of the Rest
Burn Burn Burn
King Jack
The Lobster
Der Nachtmahr
Petting Zoo
The Witch

I've not put the rest of this list in a qualitative order, but Evolution is, for me, clearly the best film of LFF 2015. It was always likely I was going to enjoy it, as I've loved Lucile Hadzihalilovic's first film, Innocence, since it came out a decade ago, but I hadn't counted on the way that Evolution has taken up residence in my head since seeing it. Its images are more vivid in my mind than anything from any of the other 55 films I saw at the festival and I am still anxious to see it again in order to decide whether I even find myself agreeing with my initial reading of the film on a second viewing (I didn't with Innocence). This is something that only happens with great films, and Evolution is a great film. 

Best Director
Akiz: Der Nachtmahr
Lucile Hadzihalilovic: Evolution
Yorgos Lanthimos: The Lobster
Micah Magee: Petting Zoo
Matt Sobel: Take Me to the River

This year, one of the frequent topics of conversation between myself and my critic friends at LFF has been the number of feature débuts that have been in the programme. Many have shown promise, even with flawed films, but several have also delivered some of the best films on show. Half of my Top 10 of the festival are first features, and of those three are nominated here. Several more feature in the One to Watch category. 

Matt Sobel delivered an unsettling coming of ager in Take Me to the River, while Micah Magee's personal experience feeds into a raw and real feeling début in Petting Zoo and with Der Nachtmahr Akiz marries compelling characters and storytelling to artistic imagery in a way few visual artists seem to on their first films. Of the more experienced filmmakers Yorgos Lanthimos shows what a master he is, The Lobster is likely his weakest film, but it is uncompromising in its auteurism and still sits head and shoulders above much of the rest of the festival, but a long awaited directorial return trumped them all for me.

WINNER: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
This award doesn't always go to my favourite film of the festival, but there was really no contest this year. The directorial vision and control in Evolution was just unparalleled at LFF this year. Hadzihaliliovic draws on many influences (Cronenberg, DelToro, Żuławski and, I'm sure, many I don't have a reference point for) but crafts something entirely her own. Evolution is at once an original and recognisably a development of ideas and themes established a decade ago in Innocence. The reason I'm choosing her, however, is that no other filmmaker at this year's festival so immediately, consistently and totally immersed me in the world of their film. That is, to a large degree, the job of a director, and Hadzihalilovic does it all but flawlessly.

Best Actor
Jared Breeze: The Boy
The Cast: Chevalier
Colin Farrell: The Lobster
Charlie Plummer: King Jack
Tim Roth: Chronic

The new talent theme continues here. The Boy may have disappointed as a whole (thanks to a last act that simply doesn't need to exist), but 8 year old Jared Breeze gives a terrifyingly assured performance in the title role. I'll come back to Charlie Plummer in a later category. Colin Farrell is always at his best when he's not playing on his looks and Yorgos Lanthimos casts him beautifully against type in The Lobster, his dry delivery of the absurd dialogue is hilarious throughout, but the held in emotion of his performance is especially impressive. Tim Roth also goes for a minimalist turn in Chronic, he's so unactorly here that you could almost believe that this is a fly on the wall doc about a carer who is beginning to identify too closely with his patients.

WINNER: The Cast of Chevalier
I am aware that this is cheating, but hey, this is my site so I get to make and break the rules if I like. The thing is, to try to separate the actors in Chevalier would be silly. The performances all work (like those in The Lobster) at the same drily absurdist pitch and there is no lead role, this is a true ensemble. Everyone has his own standout moment (though few are as memorable as a truly hilarious rendition of Minnie Ripperton's Loving You) and not one actor could be accused of trying to upstage the others, nor of letting the side down. The film relies on this unity to create its truly singular atmosphere and the fact it achieves it is a testament to the cast's outstanding work.

Best Actress
Laura Carmichael / Chloe Pirrie: Burn Burn Burn
Kate Dickie: Couple in a Hole
Dolores Fonzi: Paulina
Devon Keller: Petting Zoo
Ursula Parker: Take Me to the River

While she isn't my winner in this category, Kate Dickie has been one of the MVPs of this year's festival. I've been a fan since Red Road, but here she delivers three very differently pitched performances; as a grief stricken mother in Couple in a Hole, as a fundamentalist mother who thinks her daughter may be evil in The Witch and as a 999 call handler in the short Operator. It's been a remarkable year for her. I've cheated again here by mentioning both Laura Carmichael and Chloe Pirrie for Burn Burn Burn, but both deliver both the comedic and dramatic aspects of their roles so well, and their chemistry and the credibility of their friendship is so central to the film that separating them felt unfair. I'm amazed that I hadn't heard of Dolores Fonzi before, but I'll be looking out for her on the basis of the complexity of what she manages to portray in Paulina. It's tough to understand how the character reacts after she is raped but, in a performance played close to the chest,  Fonzi makes sure that we always have empathy with Paulina. As for Devon Keller, I'll have more to say about her later.

WINNER: Ursula Parker
Take Me to the River is an extraordinarily unsettling film, and much of the credit for that has to go to 10 year old Ursula Parker. What's great about Parker's performance as Molly is how much she keeps us guessing. How aware is Molly of how she behaves? How much of what happens at the river is something she planned? How much is improvised? How much was suggested to her? We could probably read each of these things into her performance. There are moments that betray a level of calculation that seems beyond Molly's years, but also disarming moments where she is just like any 9 year old girl. It all plays into a performance that suggests an intelligent young actress who reminded me of Elle Fanning at the same age.

Best Supporting Actor/Actress
Kyle Chandler: Carol
Roxane Duran: Evolution
Jack Farthing: Burn Burn Burn
Angeliki Papoulia: The Lobster
Robin Weigert: Take Me to the River

I actually said 'awesome' under my breath when Kyle Chandler's name came up in the credits for Carol. Over the past few years (I think Super 8 was the first time I noticed him) Chandler has become one of Hollywood's best go to character actors, adept at turning in a rounded performance in a short time, and he does it again here. The other male actor on this list was less familiar, but it was a very close run thing between him and my winner in this category. Jack Farthing brings such rich life and energy to Dan in Burn Burn Burn that as you see him getting sicker his friends' sense of loss becomes palpable, like the film itself, Farthing beautifully judges the line between comedy and tragedy. Roxane Duran has the most limited role here, but it is her otherworldly presence that gives Evolution a great deal of its effect, and there are a lot of subtleties to her physical performance that set her apart in the film's hermetically sealed environment. Robin Weigert's performance, by contrast, is all about being down to earth. There is a lived in feel to her character in Take Me to the River which makes the film's fraught family dynamics credible and all the more disquieting for that.

WINNER: Angeliki Papoulia
Angeliki Papoulia has been a fixture of Yorgos Lanthimos' films since her astounding turn as the Eldest Daughter in Dogtooth. In The Lobster she's a more peripheral figure, but hilariously perfectly cast as 'The Heartless Woman'. Papoulia has often seemed, in Lanthimos' films, like a woman who tries to avoid engaging with emotion so that she can avoid being hurt, this role takes that persona to its nihilistic conclusion. Her desert dry delivery makes the most of brutally funny lines like "There's blood and biscuits everywhere" (look, it works in context) and her still presence alone is unsettling. I hope this marks the start of more English language work, because more people should know about Papoulia.

Best Screenplay
Charlie Covell: Burn Burn Burn
Efthymis Filippou, Athina Rachel Tsangari: Chevalier
Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou: The Lobster
Micah Magee: Petting Zoo
Matt Sobel: Take Me to the River

I'd be intrigued to know how the collaboration works, and how it differs, between Efthymis Filippou and, respectively, Yorgos Lanthimos on The Lobster and Athina Rachel Tsangarai on Chevalier. Certainly what these and his other collaborations with the leading lights of the Greek new wave suggest that Filippou has a very particular tone and vision, but the screenplays are very different in other aspects. This perhaps is where the collaboration comes in. Either way, these are two great screenplays that both manage to say a lot while making us laugh. We'll come back to Petting Zoo's Micah Magee and Burn Burn Burn's Charlie Covell shortly

WINNER: Matt Sobel
What I admire in this screenplay is much the same as the qualities I admire in the two performances I've singled out in the film. Sobel manages to ground us in a believably fraught family dynamic, while also generating a truly unsettling tone around the secrets that the family keep. Sobel holds a lot back; how far did things go in the past? How much of what happens between the kids in the film is manipulated by the adults, and how intentionally? I like that the script, as well as simply being smartly written and drawing some very complex characters in short order, allows these questions and others to remain open, it ensures that the film lives in your mind after the credits roll.

One To Watch [Actors]
Carolyn Genzkow: Der Nachtmahr
Devon Keller: Petting Zoo
Charlie Plummer: King Jack
Ondina Quadri: Arianna
Moran Rosenblatt: Wedding Doll

The five young actors I've mentioned here each have an undeniable cinematic presence that shines through, in some cases eclipsing the weaker parts of their films. I found Arianna to be a pretty standard issue European coming of ager, but Ondina Quadri's assured performance and the intimacy of the insight she gives us into Arianna serves notice that she's a talent to watch. Quadri's performance can be prickly, by contrast Moran Rosenblatt's, as a girl with learning disabilities who fantasises about her wedding in Wedding Doll is the most open, likeable and brightest of the festival. It is impossible not to be charmed by her, but Rosenblatt's performance is also rich in technical detail, creating a disabled person who is specific rather than a collection of tics. Carolyn Genzkow also has to deal in technical detail in Der Nachtmahr, playing a young woman whose mental illness has become so profound that she is seeing it physicalised. She too pulls this off while creating a character who we end warming to and feeling for, which makes Genzkow's work all the more affecting as she slips deeper into delusion. Alongside all this fresh female talent, Charlie Plummer is no less impressive in the title role of King Jack it's a tough, spiky and often unsympathetic role but Plummer pulls it off brilliantly. He manages to create empathy for Jack, he never tempers the character's hard edges, but rather makes us see why they exist.

WINNER: Devon Keller
It's probably no surprise that Devon Keller gives such a totally unaffected and credible performance in Petting Zoo. The film was shot in her home town, including at at her own high school, immediately after she graduated, which goes to explain why her character feels so grounded in her environment. All of Keller's work in the film has an improvisatory quality, not in the showy way we see in a lot of Hollywood comedy, but in that everything she says feels like we are observing a real situation, perhaps even through a documentary lens. If she can retain that naturalism in her future work, in roles more removed from her circumstances, then Keller could be very special indeed.

One To Watch [Crew]
Charlie Covell [Writer]: Burn Burn Burn
Robert Eggers [Writer/Director]: The Witch
Tom Geens [Writer/Director]: Couple in a Hole
Michael J. Larnell [Writer/Director]: Cronies
Micah Magee [Writer/Director]: Petting Zoo

All of the people on this list had their first feature films at LFF this year, and what's especially heartening for me isn't just the level of talent, but the variety on display. Michale J. Larnell's Cronies may be a scrappy film and an obvious debut, but his skill at working with actors and bringing individuality to his characters voices signals interesting things for him in the future. Micah Magee's screenplay for Petting Zoo is set apart by the observational quality of the dialogue. This is a film that could easily be mistaken for a documentary, both in terms of its writing and direction. I'll be intrigued to see whether Magee can bring that to a film drawn less from her real life in future. Working slightly more with genre in Couple in a Hole and The Witch respectively, Tom Geens and Robert Eggers both delivered striking and often intensely creepy horror films, both rooted, though very differently, in extreme psychology. Interestingly, each also benefits from an intense performance from Kate Dickie. I can often find myself getting down about the future of cinema, these people suggest I shouldn't be.

WINNER: Charlie Covell
There is little more I can say about my admiration for Charlie Covell's screenplay for Burn Burn Burn. She pulls off a brilliant balancing act with it, tone is so easy to get wrong, and yet she judges the balance between the film's sadness, its comedy and its character relationships all but perfectly. As well as containing some of the festival's best jokes ("blood and biscuits", from The Lobster, still wins though), Burn Burn Burn has at least a couple of its most wrenching emotional moments, in beautifully crafted monologues from Alex and Dan. However, the real joy of this screenplay often comes in the asides, little jokes that make us laugh as well as drawing a picture of the closeness of the main characters. It's a hugely promising first feature. 

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