Welcome to Flixist’s top 20 of LFF 2020!
This year’s hybrid London Film film festival was an experiment I wholeheartedly support. While I missed a lot of the atmosphere of being in screenings, meeting new people, raving about something amazing/terrible I had just seen, just generally raving…there’s been a similarly great, yet distinct atmosphere online. It turns out that a lot of good has come from virtual press and industry screenings and premieres, including that slow, contented feeling of deep, post-festival fatigue where you don’t know if you need daylight, a shower, caffeine, sleep, or all of the above.
Not having to travel has broken down a huge accessibility barrier that delegates faced in previous years, and the British Film Institute has put on a fun experience with a combination of virtual screenings, physical screenings both in London and dotted about regionally, and VR exhibitions. The Screen Talks on Youtube, including live Q&As with directors, means the days of bustling for online tickets or queuing for ages in the chance that you may or may not get into a talk are long behind us, and it’s opened events up to an international audience too.
But most importantly, it’s meant you can easily cram in multiple films per day. On your laptop? Watch a film. In bed? Watch a film. Finished work for the day? Close those apps right now and watch a film. This year, I’ve managed 22 screenings over the two weeks, which makes last year’s 12 (twelve!) look meagre by comparison. In any case, there’s so little time and so much to say: here are my top-ranked films and a few thoughts on each.
Flixist’s top 20 films, ranked
1. The Reason I Jump – 8.8/10
The Reason I Jump is officially my top film of LFF: a lucid, thoughtful, and compassionate exploration of the world of non-speaking autistic people, seeing them as individuals and inviting them to lead the conversation. It’s faithful to 13-year-old Naoki Higashida’s book which I urge you to read if you’ve not done so yet.
Jerry Rothwell’s film focuses on the journey of four autistic people and their families across four different cultures: India, South-east England, Sierra Leone, and the United States. It’s a hybrid documentary that not only traces the lives of these extraordinary individuals, but one that uses diegetic sound, carefully constructed shots, and colourful frames to create a simulation of the sensory experience of autism.
2. Mangrove – 8.6/10
Letitia Wright’s performance is superb and it almost feels as though she doesn’t have to act. So strong is her personality, it’s almost as if she has always possessed the tenacity of Altheia’s character. To me, this speaks volumes about her excellence as a performer and communicator.
Altheia becomes one of the most vocal, most passionate, and most deeply invested in the court case against corrupt police forces. An active leader in the local Black Panther group (a fortuitous nod to Wright’s blockbuster fame), she is the one others turn to when they feel like giving up. She is the confidante who shares their burdens but buoys them with her strength and resolve. She skillfully de-escalates crises and altercations, showing her natural leadership. Altheia, I would go so far as to say, is the heroine in McQueen’s version of events.
3. Wolfwalkers – 8.5 / 10
Set in Ireland in 1650, Wolfwalkers is a magical story about the English occupation of Ireland and a young girl, Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey), who discovers the mythical wolfwalkers. There are half-human, half-wolf creatures that live among humans by day and in the wild by night. If there’s one word I could use to describe Wolfwalkers, it would be magical. While there’s a strong sense of the colonial presence of the English among the residents, the Irish production also leans into folklore and has a spiritual undercurrent.
As well as a compelling story that will make your heart race, Wolfwalkers is also beautifully drawn and brought to life. Characters are marked by a gorgeous array of colours and shadows, and it feels like the entire film is a living thing. I can only imagine how many hours it took to perfect the animation. Movements felt fluid despite angular shapes, and a haunting soundtrack fully enveloped you into the world of the film.
4. One Man and His Shoes – 8.2/10
Seven years in the making, director Yemi Bamiro (Hate Thy Neighbour, Reggae Fever: David Rodigan) makes a statement with One Man and His Shoes: his part-documentary on sneaker culture, part indictment of rampant materialism and consumerism. Superficial comparisons are bound to be drawn to The Last Dance –the documentary series currently streaming on Netflix-, but One Man and His Shoes is a deeper, forensic examination of Nike’s Air Jordans as a product and cultural phenomenon.
One Man and His Shoes goes down avenues that other documentaries don’t even dare. It’s not just an exploration of sneaker culture, but arguably of the birth of large-scale marketing and the use of celebrity to solidify a brand. It has access to people that haven’t been on camera before, shining a light on the dark side of consumerism and a product so influential it created a new discourse.
5. One Night in Miami – 8/10
What if Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, NFL superstar Jim Brown, and King of Soul Sam Cooke all met together for one night in Miami after Clay’s historic boxing win on February 25, 1964? What would they share, what would they hold back on? What would rile them and cause conflict? Regina King puts the scenario to you in her accomplished directorial debut.
Although it may feel fictional, the fact is that these figures did indeed know each other. It might not have been well-publicised, but it’s the subject of Kemp Powers’ 2013 stage play. Regina King carefully extracts these characters and examines them in detail, but she’s not afraid to show her creative flair. Her spectacular performance in Watchmen has already more than demonstrated her command of the screen, so it follows that this talent should extend to directing.
6. Mogul Mowgli – 7.9/10
In Mogul Mowgli, Riz Ahmed plays Pakistani rapper Z who, on the brink of fame and a European tour, is diagnosed with a debilitating illness. After enjoying success in America, he visits his home in London after two years and faces uncomfortable decisions about his heritage, his personal history, and his future. The result is a poignant look at a man from mixed backgrounds considering his heritage, legacy, and the true meaning of success.
Mogul Mowgli is an unusually hallucinogenic trip through one man’s life experience. The cinematic qualities of Bassam Tariq’s filmmaking are especially clear in sequences in the hospital where Zaheer sees and hears people that aren’t physically there, augmenting his extra-sensory perceptions. There are unexpectedly heartbreaking moments, as well. Mogul Mowgli is not the sort of film to watch and shelve. Bassam Tariq has achieved both a universal insight into questions of aging, legacy and values while also making it deeply specific and personal.
7. Lovers Rock – 7.8/10
Lovers Rock tells the story of Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and her historic night out in West London in the 1980s. Music, dancing, laughter, drama, violence, resolution, and the euphoria of staying out till the sun comes up: Lovers Rock has it all. It’s an ode to life before lockdown and enjoying being young and alive with your closest friends.
The film took turns I didn’t expect, making it a great finale to this year’s LFF. After this sensuous, tactile, sometimes shocking, and wholly addictive film, I look forward to seeing the rest of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series – including Mangrove, Red, White & Blue on BBC next month.
8. Friendship’s Death – 7.5/10
Friendship’s Death is a screenplay penned by the late, great film theorist Peter Wollen. In this story, a cyborg named Friendship is sent to Earth from the extra-terrestrial galaxy Proscion. She lands within a civil war in Amman, Jordan, where an English journalist (Bill Paterson) gives her refuge, and the two spend a few days together talking about life, mortality, and humankind.
This film is self-conscious about bringing in a non-human to forensically examine the race: its central character is named after humanity’s ‘greatest mission,’ platonic or otherwise. The gorgeous costume design and intimate setting belie the universal themes which become topics of conversation, and the exchanges between Sullivan (Paterson) and Friendship (Swinton) are endearingly witty.
9. Herself – 7/10
Mamma Mia’s Phyllida Lloyd returns with Herself, on the opposite end of the spectrum to the saturated world of Greek archipelagos. In modern Dublin, a woman plans to build a house to free her family from the broken social housing system.
Herself carries the central tension of a mother trying to create a fairytale for her young girls while also fighting an unjust system that could see the family on a temporary housing register for years. The film isn’t all fun and games: there are some graphic depictions of domestic abuse and certain themes viewers might find upsetting. But it’s deeply moving, rewarding all the darker moments by showing us what really matters: family, friends, and giving kindness to people who most need it.
10. Kajillionaire – 6.9/10
A bizarre opener to London Film Festival 2020, I wouldn’t have expected anything less of Miranda July. Her first film in nine years since The Future, Kajillionaire is uniquely July and it couldn’t have worn any other director’s brand so boldly. I’m a bit taken aback, but not completely in a good or bad way.
Watching this film feels like you’ve hit a nerve but you don’t know where and you can’t get rid of the strange tingling sensation. It takes twists and turns that I sometimes couldn’t fathom. If there’s one thing, though, the movie is ambitious: it reaches for hallucinatory heights and it gets there. In fact, Kajillionaire almost transcends comparison to anything else.
11. The Cheaters (1930) – 6.8/10
The Cheaters is one of Australia’s best-loved remaining silent films. Produced by Paulette McDonagh, it is the product of one of the three McDonagh sisters – Isabel, Phyllis, and Paulette – who unexpectedly made their mark on Sydney’s film industry.
A gripping, warm, and poignant film about our complicated relationship to truth and our own fictions, I’m so glad The Cheaters was re-released this year. It tells the story of an eccentric family of thieves whose daughter rebels and falls in love with the son of their sworn enemy. Duplicity, secrets, shocking exposé: The Cheaters has it all. Between many films of weight, it was a welcome slice of film history and comic relief.
12. The Human Voice – 6.8/10
The Human Voice is Swinton’s much-anticipated collaboration with director Pedro Almodóvar, a reenactment of Jean Cocteau’s single-actor play. Colourful, vibrant, and extremely kitsch, it’s the hallmark of an Almodóvar production.
The film unavoidably takes place in the present day, so much so that it couldn’t be read as an allegory for any other period in history. The unnamed protagonist speaks on the phone, knowing that she is totally alone, and due comparisons to the present lockdown situation have been widely remarked. It’s timely that Almodóvar has presented us with a feature that’s all about the inner world and our own demons. The perils, if you like, of being left alone for too long.
13. Supernova – 6.5/10
Supernova is the kind of film I imagine would be in the runnings for the 2021 Academy Awards. With the next month uncertain, let alone 6 months’ time, it’s unclear whether we’ll have that privilege this awards season. But, Oscar or no Oscar, Harry Macqueen’s feature about a long-term couple (Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci) facing early-onset dementia is a moving piece of work. It has lovely cinematography and exquisitely crafted scenes, with a piano recital that I defy anyone to not appreciate.
As writer Tusker (Tucci) and musician Sam (Firth) journey through the English countryside in their caravan, stopping by Sam’s sister’s en route to a recital, the film becomes an account of a memorable voyage together. It’s characterised as much by the landscape and the constellations above -which act as their own stoic characters- as it is by their conversation. Tusker delivers the best line of the film to his niece on an unassuming night as they stare up at the sky together: “A wise man once said, ‘We won’t starve from a lack of wonders, but from a lack of wonder.'”
14. Undine – 6.5/10
Undine is set in modern-day Berlin, but it’s loosely based on a Friedrich de la Motte Fouque novella penned in the 19th century. A siren-like creature must marry a knight to possess his soul but vows to kill him if he is unfaithful. Such is the tone of Undine, set with Paula Beer’s captivating presence and intense, piercing stares. It’s almost as if Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer) can see into other characters’ souls.
The premise of Undine holds great promise, and for the most part, the film feels like it possesses a little bit of magic. There are beautifully-shot underwater scenes and a sense of space and freedom pervades the film. There is a mythical quality to the character Undine, who we’re never quite sure about. Is she a woman or something more ethereal? Characters experience visions that may or may not exist – something which is largely for the viewer to decide.
15. David Byrne’s American Utopia – 6.5/10
I didn’t wholly connect with American Utopia in the way that all the hype and rave reviews suggested – perhaps that’s down to my not being American or living in utopia! But I can appreciate its bombastic display and the legendary status of its creator which, I imagine, has done wonders for the film’s popularity. (See our NYFF review linked in the title.)
16. A Day off of Kasumi Arimura (episodic) – 6.5/10
Shoplifters director Hirokazu Koreeda puts together a charming scenario in the pilot of a TV series, A Day Off of Kasumi Arimura/ Arimura Kasumi No Satsukyu. Kasumi Arimura plays a fictional version of herself: a small-town actress who’s found fame in a TV series. She returns home to her mother on her day off, flaunting her success but also visibly fatigued and in need of a bit of TLC after a stint in the big city.
Returning home with a different perspective, she learns more about herself and her family than she could have ever dreamed of. It takes a reality-hit for her to shake off her self-absorbed attitude. This, in turn, makes her think about her family for once and the ways in which they’ve faced their own challenges in life. This sweet little palate-cleanser was a welcome wrap to a long day of LFF press and industry screenings. The light story and bright composition easily posited the film in the realm of a Japanese serial and it made for an enjoyable episode.
17. 200 Meters – 6.4/10
A Palestinian father, Mustafa (Ali Suliman) lives on the other side of the contested Israeli border. He regularly sees his wife, young son, and two daughters on the Israeli side. He one day hears that his son is in the hospital following a fight at school. What ensues is a dangerous journey to the hospital with a group of strangers: a driver making a living from locals and tourists alike, a documentary filmmaker from Germany -Anne- who hides a few tricks and is more than she seems, and a young man journeying to a wedding.
The film has great cinematography, and for a debut feature, Nayfeh shows talent. Sweeping landscapes, ultra high-res footage, and a view of life on both sides of the border contribute to a film that is at once gritty and elegantly composed. Mustafa shows resilience and courage in the worst of circumstances. 200 Meters is a layered account of life in a difficult bridge between the two regimes and the lengths residents have to go to to keep connected with their families.
18. 180° rule – 6.4/10
The titular 180° rule is a principle maintained throughout this film, balancing two characters in each frame. The sense of space is poignant and, initially, I took the title to mean the constant sense of vigilance. Characters throughout end up keeping their loved ones (and enemies) in their periphery. 180° Rule is a lot like Kiarostami films in its attention to small detail and its casual observation of everyday life.
180° Rule is not such an easy film to watch but it’s worth taking the time to consider. Farnoosh Samadi creates a strong sense of a realistic narrative and I had to remind myself that I was watching a reenactment, so powerful were the performances.
19. Ammonite – 5.8/10
God’s Own Country director Francis Lee returns with another feature, but unlike its much-lauded predecessor, Ammonite trades Yorkshire for the Jurassic Coast. Set in the English coastal town of Lyme Regis in the mid-19th-century, it gives a fictional account of the founder of modern paleontology, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and her brief relationship with a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) sent to the seaside to improve her health. While Winslet gives the best performance of the feature, this blustery tale replete with landscape cinematography offers a bit more style over substance.
20. Siberia* – 3/10
I have to credit the film’s experimental approach, but Siberia lacks any real meaning. While the film’s summary boldly declares that it “explored the language of dreams,” I struggled to believe this was really about dreams and more about one man’s waking hallucinations. I’d be inclined to suggest that Ferrara stick to documentaries and shorts, or even have just quit while he was ahead with King of New York. I can’t imagine what would impel him to create this feature which, at 92 minutes, is an ordeal. The same material might well have been condensed into a more impactful, and more palatable, short film.
*Not the Keanu one.
While screenings for Nomadland and Soul were few and far between, there were still a few great headliners and a wild ride through some far-out features. Here are a couple of honourable mentions. Plus, here are just three, non-LFF films released during October which are brilliant and deserve a mention:
- Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
- Chess Game of the Wind (Shatranj-e baad) [restoration of a long-lost, pre-revolutionary Iranian film]
- Two Single Beds [short featuring Daniel Kaluuya, stream for free on BFI Player]
- The 40 Year Old Version
- The Trial of the Chicago 7
Phew. That’s more than enough for this year’s jam-packed event. Thanks to everyone at the BFI for putting on the show and all the good people of LFF 2020 who made it such a ride. I’m going to kick back, put my feet up…and probably stick on another film. See you again for LFF in 2021!