54th BFI London Film Festival – Opening night… and the pick of the rest

BFI 54th London Film Festival

The 54th London Film Festival kicks off tonight with the world premiere of Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek’s eagerly awaited adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield.

Over the next 15 days the festival will be screening a mind-boggling array of films, including almost 200 features and 112 shorts, 11 world premieres and over 100 UK premieres, alongside scores of special events.

It’s a dizzying prospect. What to choose? To give you some pointers here is the pick of the films in the festival that I’ve been lucky enough to see already, in alphabetical order. If you can’t get to see them at the LFF, don’t worry; most of them have UK release dates already lined up.

Africa United

Africa United - An unlikely group of youngsters undertake an epic journey across the continent to reach the World Cup in South Africa

A road movie about a motley group of youngsters travelling 3,000 miles to reach the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, debutant director Debs Gardner-Paterson’s film has already been dubbed this year’s Slumdog Millionaire. Like its predecessor, Africa United is a feel-good fable that doesn’t shirk from showing the darker side of life. The three children who start the journey come from the country with one of the continent’s darkest recent histories: Rwanda. They are Fabrice, a spoilt football prodigy; street kid and Aids orphan Dudu, Fabrice’s irrepressible, self-proclaimed ‘manager’; and Dudu’s pious little sister, Beatrice. Along the way, the trio pick up teenage sex worker Celeste and traumatised former child soldier Foreman George, and together overcome all manner of hazards and obstacles to reach their destination. En route, Dudu spins a fabulous tale (charmingly animated in quirky stop-motion) to sustain his companions’ spirits. Africa United doesn’t have Slumdog’s visual bravura, indeed parts of the film are a bit gauche, but it’ll be a hard heart that isn’t touched and uplifted before the close.

“Five Go to the World Cup: Children on a continent-crossing odyssey.” Read full review.

Festival: 17th, 20th October
Cinema release: 22nd October 2010.

Another Year

Another Year - Ruth Sheen & Jim Broadbent star in Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh’s latest bittersweet study of modern mores has been chosen as this year’s Mayor’s Gala and it’ll be fascinating on the night to see what happens when the glum, left-leaning Leigh shares the stage with the ever-buoyant Boris. Set in London, Another Year stars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as middle-aged, middle-class couple Tom and Gerri (he’s a geologist and she’s a NHS counsellor). At ease with their lot, they act as emotional life rafts to a couple of their less fortunate friends – twice-divorced Mary (Lesley Manville), a work colleague of Gerri’s, and Ken (Peter Wright), a boyhood friend of Tom’s. Mary and Ken are both lonely and unhappy, oozing desperation from every pore. As the story rolls through the four seasons, a series of mundane incidents accumulate into a revealing study of modern life. Some scenes will elicit laughs and some will make you cringe, but put together they make the viewer ponder the question of what makes for a successful, fulfilled life? Is it class, money, education or the contingencies of temperament and luck?

“Is Mike Leigh’s film a duck or a rabbit?” Read more.

Festival: 18th, 20th, 21st October
Cinema release: 5th November 2010.

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine - Ryan Gosling & Michelle Williams

A hit with audiences at this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals, Blue Valentine is a heartbreaking study of a marriage on the verge of collapse. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play Dean and Cindy. He’s feckless and un-ambitious, content to drift along in life, but a loving father to the couple’s adorable young daughter, Frankie (scene-stealer Faith Wladyka). She’s a highly competent nurse, more driven than her husband, whom she has clearly outgrown. We observe Dean’s desperate attempts to save the marriage over a 24-hour period (including a painfully sad night spent in the ‘future room’ of a tacky theme hotel), but we also see flashback scenes of their early courtship and marriage, filmed with an exhilarated hand-held camera. Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance’s film doesn’t apportion blame but is unsparing in its scrutiny of the couple’s all too-human weaknesses. Gosling and Williams, both brilliant, could well be Oscar contenders when next year’s awards season rolls around.

Festival: 15th, 17th October
Cinema release: None yet, but certain to get picked up by a UK distributor.

Let Me In

Let Me In - Chloë Grace Moretz plays the mysterious Abby in Matt Reeves

Everyone shuddered when the news broke that Hollywood was to remake brilliant Swedish vampire thriller Let the Right One In (Movie Talk wasn’t alone in calling it the film of 2009). Had to be a disaster in the making. Surely? Well, contrary to expectation, Matt Reeves (maker of YouTube-style horror hit Cloverfield) has done the original justice. Transplanted from 1980s Sweden to 80s New Mexico, the story remains the same. Owen, a lonely, bullied 12-year-old boy from a broken home encounters the mysterious Abby, who has just moved in next door. Each recognises a fellow outsider and their friendship blossoms. Yet Abby, who only comes out at night, and who smells a little funny, is a vampire… Let Me In doesn’t quite measure up to the original – it ramps up the action a little, and spells out some things that were only hinted at in the original – but it remains chilling and touching in equal measure. And it boasts fantastic performances from the young leads – Chloë Grace Moretz (Hit Girl in Kick-Ass) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Viggo Mortensen’s son in the apocalyptic The Road). Add to this the fact that it comes from the newly revived, back-from-the-dead Hammer Films, and you have a horror winner.

“Vampire thriller remake has more bloody action but equal heart.” Read full review.

Festival: 14th, 15th, 16th October
Cinema release: 5th November 2010.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives - Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s enigmatic film is guaranteed to divide audiences. Some find it dreamlike and sublime, others bum-numbingly boring. It’s certainly slow moving. To enjoy it you’ll need to surrender to what can best be described as Thai magic realism. The story, baldly put, concerns an ailing farm owner with failing kidneys who has returned to his remote rural home for what he feels will be his final days. One evening, in the company of his Lao assistant (who helps with his dialysis) and his sister-in-law, he is visited by the ghost of his dead wife and by the spirit of his long-lost son, who has been transformed into a Chewbacca-like monkey. (Don’t laugh.) Uncle Boonmee’s mix of the banal and the numinous won’t be too all tastes, but its mystery and strangeness leaves a powerful impression, as does the scene LFF programmer Tony Rayns describes as “a sexual encounter between an unhappy princess and a talking catfish”.

Enchanting fable or baffling bore? Read the full review.

Festival: 17th, 18th October
Cinema release: 19th November 2010.