It’s that time of year again. The time when film fans start losing their shit over awards buzz, film previews and starladen Q&As – it’s film festival season. It kicked off at the end of August with Venice, before Telluride and Toronto joined in the fun. The festival fun continues with York and Leeds both hosting festivals this November. The biggest UK event, however, is surely the BFI London Film Festival. Catching many of the acclaimed films that screened in Venice and Toronto, with a few big premieres to boot, the LFF is a big deal in the British cinemagoer’s calendar. Taking place across London, with the West End taking much of the action and the biggest screenings all heading to the 1679-seater Odeon Leicester Square.
Film festivals, by their nature, bring an extraordinary variety of films to a city. In London, one could have seen anything from a relationship comedy to an absurdist horror, and everything that falls in between. Premiering over this weekend were the highly anticipated Downsizing and The Florida Project. The former is the latest film from critically lauded writer-director Alexander Payne. After the deeply human comedy-dramas of The Descendants and Sideways, he now brings a similarly sharp eye to a much larger concept. With overpopulation diminishing resources, scientists have invented the technology to shrink people down to just a few centimetres. It is a brilliant, slightly sci-fi, wholly human concept. The shrunken world is, of course, not as wonderful as it first seems, allowing Payne to go all-out on the social satire. The Florida Project, meanwhile, is less overtly concerned with the “big ideas”, but is still a story of little people. Just outside of Florida’s Disneyland resort, hundreds of people unable to afford proper rent live in tacky budget motels. Sean Baker follows the lives of the naughty, innocent children living in the shadow of one of the greatest commercial tools to come out of cinema. As their parents struggle with money and each other and the kindly Willem Dafoe tries to hold everything together, the kids just want to have fun, however they can.
Continuing the trend of acclaimed indie directors bringing their new works to the festival is Glaswegian filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, best known for her serial killer drama We Need
to Talk About Kevin. With new work You Were Never Really Here, starring a magnificent Joaquin Phoenix, Ramsay shows no sign of moving away from dark subject matter. This is a film that is both outrageously compelling and impeccably made, but also deeply disturbing. The world that these characters live in is shot through with endless, deadly violence.
Lady Bird will surely go down as one of the more successful surprise films the LFF have run.
This makes a nice contrast to Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers. No abduction or hammer-related violence to be found here, as Jacobs tells the sweet and often hilarious story of Tracy Letts
and Debra Winger’s long-married couple who, whilst both having serious affairs, fall back in love with each other. With great performances and a witty script, it is one of those lowkey human stories that feel like they are most at home at a festival. Continuing the sort-of romantic trend is On Chesil Beach, an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novella with a script written by the man himself. Sensitive and well-acted by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, it is a more than serviceable if not shining addition to this year’s programme. Highlighting the delightful diversity of the festival is perhaps best done by placing these two films next to the first fiction feature in nine years from Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel. Zama is a fantastic visual experience that takes us to the very edge of the world and of human survival with a 17th century Spanish colonial officer. It is brutal, breathtaking and beautiful, all in its own rather idiosyncratic way.
Now, the most fun of a fest comes when, among an array of films of all shapes and sizes, you don’t even know what the film is. The “Surprise Film” screening has become a popular
fixture at the LFF each year, with previous surprises including Birdman and Anomalisa. This year, the well-kept secret turned out to be Greta Gerwig’s utterly delightful directorial debut Lady Bird. Also written by Gerwig, it is the kind of indie comedy-drama that she does so well. Rather than casting herself, she enlists the younger and again fabulous Saoirse Ronan to play a teenager growing up in the apparently boring town of Sacramento. Funny, moving and overflowing with well-observed truth, Lady Bird will surely go down as one of the more successful surprise films the LFF have run.
A huge diversity of filmmaking styles then, but what is so fascinating is how much is shared by many of the films. Many of them portray a very particular place and time, whether that be early 2000s Sacramento or the 17th century Argentinian coast. Yet, as Gerwig pointed out in her post-screening Q&A, making something specific does not stop it being universal; the aches and pains of growing up or the desperate urge to survive are the same anywhere. There is also, across the films, a careful balance of optimism and cynicism. We hope for the redemption of a tortured hitman, but know that violence just breeds more violence; we marvel at the possibilities of science but mock humanity’s inability to actually change our corruption and greed; we delight in the power of the innocent child, but cry at their doomed home lives.
This balance, seen across styles, is down to every film’s insistence on showing us humanity and its flaws. They shock us in the realisation that they collectively portray one world. It is bewildering that the sickening violence of You Were Never Really Here and the high-school anxieties of Lady Bird could take place in the same world. That, in essence is what cinema as a whole can do: it exposes, attacks and celebrates humanity and its numerous possibilities. Through these films there is joy, there is despair, there is anger, there is pain, sex, love, prejudice and hope. In short, then, films are simply a depiction of life and our world. That is what you can find in the cinema, and film festivals are the best place to discover it.