53rd Times BFI London Film Festival

The Times BFI London Film Festival opens tonight with the world premiere of Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson’s screen version of Roald Dahl’s much-loved children’s story. Hollywood royalty will be turning out in force at the gala screening in Leicester Square, with George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray joining director Anderson on the red carpet. Jarvis Cocker, multi-tasking as a member of the festival’s jury and of the film’s voice cast, will be there too.

The next fortnight promises a cornucopia of movies: 191 features and 113 shorts in total, including 15 world premieres, 23 European premieres and 146 UK premieres, Of the films I’ve been lucky enough to see already, here are half a dozen I can strongly recommend, in the order in which they appear during the festival. And, if you can’t get to see them at the LFF, don’t worry; they all have UK release dates lined up.

Cold Souls - Paul Giamatti stars as himself in Sophie Barthes’s playful existential comedy

1. Cold Souls

With a surreal storyline and a famous actor playing himself, this playful existential comedy unavoidably draws comparisons with Being John Malkovich, yet first-time writer-director Sophie Barthes’s assured feature film debut has a deadpan wit and gentle pathos all its own. In New York, Paul Giamatti is agonising over the rehearsals for his forthcoming production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, so he enlists the services of a company that offers to lighten his burden by temporarily storing his soul. Unfortunately, despite the soothing assurances of David Strathairn’s smooth-talking doctor, the transaction doesn’t quite go to plan and Giamatti finds himself mixed up in the murky world of soul trafficking in the company of Dina Kurzon’s world-weary Russian mule.

Read full review.
Festival: Sat 17, Sun 18 & Mon 19 Oct

Cinema release: 4 Dec

Bright Star - Abbie Cornish stars as Fanny Brawne, here with Edie Martin as Fanny’s sister Toots

2. Bright Star

Jane Campion’s ravishing costume drama tells the story of the tragically short love affair between romantic poet John Keats and his young neighbour Fanny Brawne, a relationship that inspired some of Keats’s most beautiful poetry and letters. Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish play the lovers, whose first encounter was far from auspicious: Keats thought Brawne a fashion-obsessed minx, while she found his poems a strain. Yet, as Campion movingly shows, an intense bond soon formed between the two that was only broken by Keats early death at the age of 25 in 1821. Without being in any way anachronistic, Whishaw and Cornish bring a freshness and conviction to their roles, while Campion shakes off costume drama frippery to deliver real lyricism and emotional depth.

Read full review.
Festival: Mon 19, Tue 20 & Wed 21 Oct
Cinema release: 6 Nov
Jane Campion screen talk, NFT1 Tue 20 Oct

An Education - Carey Mulligan & Peter Sarsgaard star in the period movie based on Lynn Barber’s memoir

3. An Education

Journalist Lynn Barber, known as Demon Barber for her razor-witted interviews, caused quite a stir when the memoir of her teenage years in early-60s London appeared in Granta magazine in 2003 and revealed her seduction as a 16 year old by a conman in his 30s. Now Nick Hornby has turned the memoir into the film An Education. Newcomer Carey Mulligan captivates as bright 16-year-old Twickenham schoolgirl Jenny, whose mix of worldliness and naivety allows her to be charmed by Peter Sarsgaard’s louche older man and swept up into his glamorous but rackety world. You could argue that the central relationship ought to seem sleazier, but the performances are spot on (with impressive support from Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams and Rosamund Pike, who very nearly steals the film) and director Lone Scherfig perfectly captures the look and mood of drab, pre-swinging 1961 London.
Festival: Wed 21 Oct & Thu 22 Oct
Cinema release: 13 Nov

The White Ribbon - Michael Haneke’s chilling drama set in a small German village on the eve of the First World War

4. The White Ribbon

Austrian director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Hidden) has a knack of getting under the viewer’s skin and his new movie, a period drama filmed in austere black and white, is another chilling, unsettling tale. This year’s Palme d’Or winner, The White Ribbon is set in a small Protestant village in northern Germany in the months leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. Seemingly tranquil, the village witnesses a series of troubling events.  Malicious hands would seem to be at work, but whose? Haneke is typically elusive, but he does create an indelible portrait of a repressed, authoritarian society in which the sins of the fathers are being laid upon the children. Some see here the breeding ground for Hitler and the Nazis. I’m not convinced, but whatever you read into the film, it remains a gripping and thought-provoking drama.
Festival: Wed 21, Thu 22 & Fri 23 Oct
Cinema release: 22 Jan 2010

The Boys Are Back - George MacKay, Nicholas McAnulty & Clive Owen star in this funny, touching drama about a widower raising two young sons

5. The Boys Are Back

Shine director Scott Hicks returns to Australia after his decade-long  Hollywood sojourn for this funny, touching drama based on the best-selling memoir by The Independent’s parliamentary sketch writer Simon Carr about his efforts to raise two sons after the death of his second wife from cancer. In the film, Carr becomes sportswriter Joe Warr and the book’s New Zealand setting becomes Australia, but the account of his unorthodox, sometimes chaotic, “least resistance” parenting is the same. Holding the film together as the flawed yet likeable father, Clive Owen shows sides we’ve not seen on screen before, while Nicholas McNulty and George MacKay give appealingly unaffected performances as his sons.
Festival: Wed 21, Thu 22 & Fri 23 Oct
Cinema release: 22 Jan 2010
Clive Owen screen talk, NFT1, Thu 22 Oct

Cracks - Eva Green plays charismatic teacher Miss G in Jordan Scott’s sensual boarding school drama

6. Cracks

Imagine a heady mix of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Lord of the Flies, with a dash of Maidens in Uniform, and you’ll have some idea of the febrile mood of this sensual boarding school melodrama set in 1930s England, the confident directing debut of Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley). Eva Green (best known as Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd) stars as the charismatic Miss G, the dashing teacher who coaches the school’s swimming team, a self-appointed elite headed by Juno Temple’s Di. Miss G spellbinds her teenage charges with her tales of exotic travel, wilfully encouraging their crushes, but her poise is shaken when an outsider, beautiful aristocratic Spanish pupil Fiamma (María Valverde), joins the school and upsets the fragile status quo.

Read full review.
Festival: Sun 25 & Wed 28 Oct
Cinema release: 4 Dec