London Film Festival highlights

We recommend eight films to catch at this year's hybrid edition

by Amber Wilkinson

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

London Film Festival will run as a hybrid edition this year due to the pandemic - which means people across the country will be able to access many of the film's titles to stream via the BFI Player. The festival, which also includes physical London screenings, runs in the capital from October 7 to 18. We'll be bringing you coverage right through the festival and here we recommend some of the highlights.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets - Monday, 13 October, 8.30pm, BFI Player

Brothers Bill and Turner Ross head to the cutting edge of documentary/fiction hybrids with this immersive study of the last day in the life of a dive bar in Las Vegas. The bar The Roaring 20s may not exist in real life, but the brothers have filled the space they use for it - actually a bar in New Orleans - with real people having genuine conversations about their lives against its backdrop. Although the directors have made no secret of their methods, they don't announce it at the start of the film and anyone going in without the knowledge may well come out of the other side thinking they've seen a pure documentary. The addition of an element of "construction" to proceedings, which were shot over several days even though the timeline of the film is confined to a single one allows the film to have a much more cinematic quality than many documentaries, with scenes outside the bar able to be dovetailed with those within. The conversations also flow as free and easily as a pint, sometimes mingling with one another into a potentially volatile cocktail at other times drifting off without easy resolution but frequently offering sharply observant moments that are all the more remarkable because they don't stem from a script. Read our full review.

Notturno Photo: Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Notturno - Thursday, 15 October, 8.30pm, BFI Player

Anne-Katrin Titze writes: Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno (Nocturne) comes nestled at the abyss. The chaotic, unstable border regions of Lebanon, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Syria are where this arresting important documentary was shot by Rosi during the past three years. As he did in his previous work, Fire At Sea (Fuocoammare), or the vigilant Sacro GRA, the images of great beauty shine light on man-made disasters, on cruelty and neglect. In Notturno, we are never told exactly where in the Middle East we are, nor are we given any background on the people. Rosi’s camera lets the light and the landscapes, the shattered houses and the fractured humanity speak for themselves. The humans do it verbally, in action and, more than anything, with their faces. City lights, a town bar at night, military trucks on the road, boys playing in an alley, horses. One white horse stands in the traffic, cars go by behind it. Rosi lingers on the horse’s serene, knowing face in silence. It is a Balthazar moment out of Bresson or Nietzsche’s embrace of the Turin horse. Ali is Rosi’s silent anchor in Notturno, the way the charismatic and talkative Samuele was in Fire At Sea as our guide to the landscape of Lampedusa. We think about the boys’ future when we see their present. What will be possible, which roads are already closed. Read our full review.

The Painter And The Thief
The Painter And The Thief Photo: Benjamin Ree
The Painter And The Thief, 8 October, 9pm, BFI Player

Documentarian Benjamin Ree uses a time-shifting structure to help shift our perspective in his continuously surprising documentary. When artist Barbora Kyslikova had a painting stolen, she became intrigued by the robber, addict Karl-Bertil Nordland, who was quickly caught and, in an act of spontaneity, asked him to pose for her. Ree charts what happened subsequently - as the pair develop a tentative friendship and Nordland becomes a sort of damaged muse. The perspective of the movie shifts over time, so that we see the ambiguities of the pair's relationship, particularly as to what degree Kyslikova is drawn to Nordland in order to pull him out of his darker places, or to observe him in them, a complexity that is retained to the last. The emotions captured here are as raw as a fresh bruise, in particular the moment in which Kyslikova shows Nordland his portrait and in the empathetic way Ree captures Nordland's ongoing addiction problems. Ree's film is compelling as a double portrait and also intellectually engaging in terms of what it means to be a studier or the studied. We have an interview with Ree coming soon and you can read our full review here.

Mangrove - Screening at a number of cinemas countrywide on October 7, see the festival website for details

Anne-Katrin Titze writes: Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (in his Small Axe anthology), co-written with Alastair Siddons and shot by Shabier Kirchner, is neither of the period, nor a documentary, and yet, it manages to convey a vivid sense of time, place, and community, plus the critical factual story of the Mangrove Nine (Frank Crichlow, Darcus Howe, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Rhodan Gordon, Anthony Innis, Rothwell Kentish, Godfrey Millett) and their trial at the Old Bailey in London. It is the opening day of Mangrove, the restaurant owned by Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes as if he were carrying all of humanity on his shoulders), on All Saints Road, Notting Hill. West Indian spicy dishes are being cooked by Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon) and served by Kendrick (Tahj Miles) as the joyous crowd spills out onto the street. The police, headed by Constable Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), an angry, hateful, pockmarked man filled with envy, are watching to “record and observe”. Altheia Jones-LeCointe, outspoken leader of the British Black Panther Movement, which uses the Mangrove as a meeting place, is played by Letitia Wright. Her display of charismatic no-nonsense power and warmth should bring Wright an Oscar nomination. The ease with which McQueen shifts the tone from very serious argument to light-hearted banter is sterling. The energetic script reveals the dynamic of casually inflicted horrors in the name of law and order.Read what McQueen and Kirchner said about the film and our full review.

Stray Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival
Stray, Wednesday, 7 October, 6.30pm, BFI Player

Hit the streets of Istanbul with the stray dogs of the city in this engaging portrait of life on the margins. We chiefly follow female stray Zeytin as she goes about her business, sniffing out food and comfort where she can and sometimes playing, sometimes sparring, with the city's other strays. Director Elizabeth Lo extends her film to consider those who share Zeytin's existence on the edge - capturing the day-to-day struggles of a group of young refugees who are also struggling to feed themselves and find shelter. Avoiding trite comparisons or conclusions, Lo presents the modern landscape of Istanbul with all its positives and negatives, all the while asking whether we might not be able to improve our own world by considering and sometimes even adopting the attitude of a dog. Read our full review.

Lovers Rock
Lovers Rock Photo: Courtesy of NYFF
Lovers Rock, screenings sold out

Anne-Katrin Titze writes: Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is a musical of the kind that never existed or was represented like this before. It is a tender homage to the mood and Blues party culture of the West Indian community in the London of the late Seventies and early Eighties - very much focused on the singular specific details of looks and sound and touch, and at the same time pluralistic in the sense that anyone watching who has ever been to a party will be able to relate. The story, co- written by Courttia Newland, is a girl-meets-boy scenario and the circumstances are anything but cliché. Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young woman from a religious family, sneaks out of her home at night to meet up with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) to take a bus to a private house, where she encounters a young man who fascinates her (Franklyn played by Micheal Ward). With great care and humour, McQueen shows us the transformation of the house (production design by Helen Scott), from family living space to reggae haven. Carl Douglas’ smash hit Kung Fu Fighting, which gets the dancing couples revved up and the Revolutionaries’ Kunta Kinte, which separates the women from the men on the dance floor, reinforce the accuracy of perception. The house on Ladbrooke Grove in a quiet neighbourhood has successfully been transformed for the occasion into a party space. Many white-owned nightclubs in London were unwelcoming to Black guests and the private parties became a sanctuary. The house in Lovers Rock, filled with guests, feels like a port in the storm. Read what McQueen, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward told us about the costumes our full review.

Shirley Photo: Thatcher Keats
Shirley, screening at various venues and times in London on 9 and 10 October, see festival website for details

This psychosexual snapshot of the life of horror writer Shirley Jackson sees Josephine Decker in her element exploring the dynamic that develops when a young couple (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) moves in with the author and her husband. Biographical detail about Jackson is incorporated into a fictional framework that allows Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins free rein to explore not just the writer's life but also the sexual politics of the period. Elisabeth Moss seizes hold of Jackson in all her unpredictable glory, flitting between the author's more manipulative tendencies and depressive humours with ease, while Michael Stuhlbarg, as her husband allows just enough of the predator to glint through his bonhomie to keep us unsettled. The beguiling, drifting cinematography from Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, meanwhile, quickly makes you forget the film's contained setting. Read our full review.

The Disciple
The Disciple
The Disciple, Wednesday, 7 October, 9pm, BFI Player

Anne-Katrin Titze writes: Chaitanya Tamhane’s exquisite second feature, The Disciple, is about meaning and history, loss and grace, legacy and discipline. It is also a film about North-Indian classical music called Khayal, and the fine differences between the truthfulness and art of its performers. If you are clueless about this form of music, it places you in a fine position and state of mind, as feeling palpably inadequate is a leitmotif for the film’s hero, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), a Khayal singer whom we first meet in 2006. He is in his early twenties, performing with his master or Guruji, Maestro Vinayak Pradhan (Dr. Arun Dravid), practising alone at night, and buying pale- peach kurta-pyjamas in a fabric store to wear at a competition. Not too fancy, not too plain, “simple” is what this Goldilocks wants and he quotes his father as saying, in English, that once you are on stage “everything is part of the performance.” Sharad’s father (Kiran Yadnyopavit), who shows up in beautifully framed childhood flashbacks, swathed in golden light (cinematography by Michal Sobocinski) teaching his son about music, was himself a failed performer, so we hear, whose self-delusions kept him from greatness in this art form that lives and dies through the vocalists’ truthfulness and honesty in the moment. Images of what selling out to greed and falsehood looks like enter this picture in various scenes and accumulate in the career of a young singer who is discovered in an appalling TV talent contest, that Sharad follows with fascination and dismay. The Disciple’s wonderful last note takes place in motion with a musical tall tale, where fishes sprout from trees and deer hold a wedding - the perfect link to centuries of storytelling. Read our full review.

For more details of all the films screening at this year's festival visit the official site

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