Oct 20, 2014

24FPS @ LFF 2014: My LFF Awards

The London Film Festival introduced competition strands for the first time in 2012.  In this post I won't be confining myself to the competition films, but instead looking at the best of what I saw during the entire festival.

Best Director
Josephine Decker: Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Francois Ozon: The New Girlfriend
Christian Petzold: Phoenix
Celine Sciamma: Girlhood
Peter Strickland: The Duke of Burgundy

It's no surprise that this list features four of my final festival Top 5 (in this category Christian Petzold's control of Phoenix just shaded the abandon that Sion Sono brought to Tokyo Tribe).  All five are excellent all round directorial jobs, with fine performances and visuals, in styles ranging from the playful and colourful The New Girlfriend, through the occasional stylisation of Girlhood, to the much more severe Phoenix.

WINNER: Peter Strickland
The Duke of Burgundy is a rabbit hole of a film, you could easily get lost exploring the depth and detail that Peter Strickland brings to it, refashioning artsploitation influences like Jean Rollin, Jess Franco and Radley Metzger into a surreal love story with undertones of horror.  It is achingly beautiful, extremely well-paced and never less than fascinating.  My few issues with it when I first saw it have since receded in my mind and I can't wait to revisit it.

Best Actor
Romain Duris: The New Girlfriend
Grigoriy Fesenko: The Tribe
Lou Taylor Pucci: Spring
Miles Teller: Whiplash
Ronald Zehrfeld: Phoenix

Rather slim pickings this year in this category, which isn't to say that these aren't excellent performances, just that if you asked me to add a sixth to them we'd probably be sitting here all day while I thought it over.  In a lot of ways Grigoriy Fesenko's is the most interesting performance here, given that he has no voice to articulate his feelings, just sign language and physicality; both of which he jabs aggressively at the other characters.  Miles Teller, one of the best young actors in Hollywood, continues to make his mark with a fantastic performance (which may yet net him an Oscar nod) in Whiplash, which also shows off his versatility, being 180 degrees from his last LFF role, in The Spectacular Now.

WINNER: Romain Duris
Romain Duris is an actor I've been aware of for a long time, but not one I've seen deliver a performance that has really put him on the map for me.  The New Girlfriend changes that.  Duris has a complex role here, in some ways he's playing two characters, to begin with he often has to play aspects of both at the same time, but then draw increasingly distinct personalities for them as the film runs on.  He rises to the challenge brilliantly, creating two characters whose physicality and personality are strikingly different from each other, but who also inform each other's behaviour.  Subtle is not what The New Girlfriend is, but there are many subtleties in what Duris does here.

Best Actress
Bae Doo-naA Girl At My Door
Nina Hoss: Phoenix
Kalki Koechlin: Margarita, With A Straw
Ellen Dorrit Petersen: Blind
Karidja Touré: Girlhood

The welcome surprise of this category was not just the sheer amount of performances I had to leave out of it (from, among others, The Tribe, The Keeping Room, Hungry Hearts, The New Girlfriend and The Duke of Burgundy) but the fact that I had never even heard of three of these actresses before the festival.  Ellen Dorrit Petersen is heartbreaking as a woman dealing with loss (that of her sight) in Blind, Karidja Touré makes a boundlessly charismatic debut in Girlhood and Kalki Koechlin is moving and brilliantly detailed in Margarita, With A Straw.  But...

WINNER: Nina Hoss
Nina Hoss is one the best actresses working in any language right now, and she's seldom better than when she is paired with Christian Petzold, having served as his muse since 2003's Wolfsburg.  Phoenix' take on Vertigo is their second riff on a classic noirish text.  Hoss plays a concentration camp survivor who undergoes extensive plastic surgery (saying she wants to look as much like her old self as possible) to cover her injuries.  On meeting the husband she thought dead she finds that he doesn't recognise her, but is struck by her resemblance to his wife, so much so that he asks her to 'pose' as his wife.  The layers in Hoss' performance are vivid and detailed, and everything, by design, plays on her extraordinary face, right up to the devastatingly powerful final two scenes.

Best Screenplay
Josephine Decker / David Barker: Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Julia Hart: The Keeping Room
Francois Ozon: The New Girlfriend
Christian PetzoldHarun Farocki: Phoenix
Céline Sciamma: Girlhood

One thing that strikes me about the screenplays here is that while they all have some memorable lines, none of them are really built around dialogue.  The ambiguity of mood in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely begins with Decker and Barker's screenplay, while The Keeping Room's screenplay weaves layers of modern metaphor into its depiction of the American Civil war.  Of the three foreign language screenplays Francois Ozon's The New Girfriend comes closest to taking the prize, with its balance of kitsch comedy, raw emotion and strong characterisation.

WINNER: Celine Sciamma: Girlhood
Celine Sciamma's Girlhood, like her previous two films, takes the broad strokes familiar from hundreds of teen and coming of age movies and views them from a sympathetic, ground level, point of view.  Coming from a filmmaker who is 15 years older than her characters and from a very different background the apparent authenticity, transcending stereotypes, of the interactions between the characters is highly impressive.  The structure is another strength, unfolding in several acts of roughly twenty minutes each, always advancing the characters organically but incrementally as it goes on, while keeping a loose, organically driven, feel to the film.  It's the film that feels least written, and that's perhaps why it wins here.

Best Cinematography
Fabio Cianchetti: Hungry Hearts
Ashley Connor: Butter on the Latch / Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Crystel Fournier: Girlhood
Nicholas D. Knowland: The Duke of Burgundy
Martin Ruhe: The Keeping Room

I cheated a little bit here by nominating Ashley Connor for both Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but I really can't separate the two.  Connor has such a definable style and though it grows between the two films there is real continuity between them.  Nicholas D. Knowland might be the obvious choice here for the dreamlike, gorgeous imagery of The Duke of Burgundy, but Martin Ruhe's work in The Keeping Room, while going for a more mainstream approach, also brought beauty and artistic framing to the grindhouse.  The shifting look of Hungry Hearts, which goes from brightly lit rom-com to surreally paranoid shot horror, was a real surprise, and some of the more unusual technique on show at LFF.

WINNERCrystel FournierGirlhood
Fournier has shot all three of Celine Sciamma's feature films, and they have clearly built an understanding and a style together.  Girlhood is their most designed, most expansive and most cinematic work to date, but it wears its technique lightly.  Much of the film has a realistic style, putting us in amongst the girls it is about, and making it all the more striking when, as in the first scene, or the stunning sequence set to Rihanna's Diamonds, Fournier and Sciamma go for something more stylised.  Beautifully and meaningfully framed throughout and carrying recurring themes (for instance the fact every act break features a shot of Marieme's back), Girlhood marks a big maturation in Sciamma's already strong visuals.

Best Score/Soundtrack/Use of Music
Girlhood: Use of Light Asylum, Rihanna / Score by Para One
Kelly & Cal: Song by Wetnap, sung by Juliette Lewis 
Phoenix: Speak Low, sung by Nina Hoss
Tokyo Tribe: Songs
Whiplash: Final drum solo

Film is my first obsession, music is my second, and I love the many ways in which the two intersect.  In fact several of the very best moments of the films at LFF this year revolved around that intersection.  The final scene of Phoenix, in which Nina Hoss, with a beautiful voice I never knew she had, sings Speak Low is a gut punch of a moment that echoes long after the credits roll.  The same goes for the lengthy drum solo that closes Whiplash in an explosion of every feeling Miles Teller's Andrew has bottled up during the film.  Tokyo Tribe is a musical, completely powered by its hip hop beats and (sometimes inexpertly) rapped plot and character developing songs, it's unlikely to be to everyone's taste, but I found it huge fun.

WINNER: Girlhood
I pretty much knew that Girlhood had this category sewn up the second it started.  The opening sequence, set to Light Asylum's Dark Allies is incredibly striking and energetic and sets the tone both musically and for the story of the film in using a song powerfully delivered by a young black woman.  Then there's the sequence set to Diamonds; a key moment of character development for Marieme and a sequence that redefines the song for me.  It's not a song I like outside of this context, but seeing what it means to the audience it is for, and how it draws the girls together, gives it power that it lends to the film.  Add in a brilliant chilled electro score by Sciamma's regular collaborators Para One and you've got a film as rich musically as it is visually and as a story.

Biggest Surprise
The Duke of Burgundy
The Keeping Room
The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow
The Town That Dreaded Sundown
Waiting For August

Surprises came in many forms at this year's LFF (as did disappointments, but we won't talk about those). Satellite Girl and Milk Cow was surprising purely in its completely barmy plot, while Waiting For August and The Keeping Room were both films I wanted to see, expected to like, but was surprised by the specifics of (even after watching it in the case of Waiting For August) and The Duke of Burgundy was a film expected to dislike, on the precedent of Peter Strickland's last film, but found myself falling for.

WINNER: The Town That Dreaded Sundown
At first glance this was an almost completely unappealing prospect; yet another remake of yet another cult horror classic (albeit one I haven't yet seen).  I expected it to follow the blueprint to the letter; drab visuals, stupid and/or hateable characters, overexplained killer, rote deaths, abysmal writing, a sense of 'well, that's good enough' to the whole thing.  That's not what this film is, indeed it's as inventive a remake as I've seen for a long time.  Ambitiously folding the original film into the fiction it spins, this film both pays tribute to the history of horror and uses it as fodder to make something interesting.  It's stylish, directed with verve and an interesting, magpie like, eye, solidly acted and loads of fun.  Definitely the surprise of the festival.

One To Watch
Bruna Amaya: Actress, Casa Grande
Chiara D'Anna:  Actress, The Duke of Burgundy
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Director, The Town That Dreaded Sundown
Teodora Mihai: Director, Waiting For August
Assa Sylla: Actress, Girlhood

One of the things I like best about a festival is the opportunity to discover new talent.  I decided to include people who I haven't nominated for any other awards here, because otherwise the category would be too crowded with the aforementioned likes of Kalki Koechlin, Joesphine Decker, Ashley Connor and Miles Teller.  What that list and the one above reflect is how great a year this has been at LFF for female talent, both in front of and behind the camera.  It's something I hope we see more of, especially in behind the camera roles.

Bruna Amaya is an interesting choice here, because I didn't love Casa Grande, but in discussing it with a critic friend that evening we agreed that she give a nicely nuanced performance and had a warm presence that left us anxious to see more of her.  The other actresses listed here are the same, they draw you into their films and their roles effortlessly, but otherwise they couldn't be more different; Assa Sylla is all bravado as Lady, the leader of Girlhood's gang of girls while Chiara D'Anna seems like a beautiful apparition teleported in from a Jean Rollin film to appear in Duke of Burgundy.  The directors couldn't be more different.  Alfonso Gomez-Rejon finds an interesting style by playing around with as many 70's and 80's horror influences as he can, but manages to make it all feel like more than empty homage, while Teodora Mihai drew me so deeply in to the experience of the family in Waiting For August I never knew whether I was watching documentary or fiction, but was enthralled either way.

I'm not choosing a winner here.  These people should all be on your radar.

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