Hemanth Kissoon looks back at this year's London Film Festival 2009.
(Photographs by Hemanth Kissoon)
As we are approach the end of 2009, the question arises as to whether or not it has been a vintage year for the silver screen? Even before the London Film Festival (LFF) began there films had to struggle to win a place in my Top 10 favourites. In 2008, we had the likes of There Will Be Blood , Cloverfield and The Dark Knight . No such luck so far. The LFF is partly a showcase for the best of world cinema. I broke my personal record and saw 93 films in 32 days in an endeavour to catch what is on offer. So were the festival movies sufficiently good to make up for a lacklustre year?
The Corridors of Power
LFF 2008 had three epic political movies: Che , Il Divo and The Baader-Meinhof Complex . Not easy to follow, you perhaps will agree. This year the films have been more low-key (not necessarily a bad thing) and more focused, rather than attempting to catalogue vast swathes of history. Even experimental films that were hugely frustrating and unsatisfying got in on the action: Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control gives his take on Bush, the Man in J.R, while Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch mixes religion and politics in a clumsy way a shame as his previous, Flanders , was very good.
Italy provides a different take on Mussolini by looking at his treatment of the woman who claimed to be married to him and the son he had with her. Vincere (aka Victory) has things to say about hypocrisy and fascism but for a two hour film more could have been covered. The Big Dream looks at the extremely turbulent times of the 1960s from the perspective of a cop infiltrating an organisation of student demonstrations. It deals more with character than politics, with the characters not being particularly compelling.
She, a Chinese is an immigrant tale where the titular lead's journey feels unbelievable and contrived, which totally undermines the important issues that the film is looking at. Contrast the im press ive Samson & Delilah . Like Jindabyne , the characters and story are an allegory of what has happened to the aboriginal people in Australia . It starts as one story and morphs into another effortlessly both harrowing and deeply moving.
Mugabe and the White African and Balibo fall into the same category as the hugely overrated The Constant Gardener and The Last King of Scotland in that they are both films which are ostensibly about Africa but end up being about a European tragedy. Balibo , which is set in East Timor , does at least acknowledge that, but there is no context to Mugabe , which undermines its tale of injustice.
Sergio looks at the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello, a high-ranking UN diplomat. It manages to criticise the current war in Iraq from an unusual perspective. It also looks at modern geo-politics through a biography of one person which does not always go into huge depth but links the likes of Kosovo, East Timor and Iraq in an unexpected way. It is one of those movies that sadden you as to what might have been. Sergio is joined by American: The Bill Hicks Story - ostensibly a biography, but the nature of the life story analyses the world around the subject by exploring the context of the man. Coruscating comic Hicks is made to seem as relevant as when he was alive.
Defamation , made by an Israeli filmmaker, looks at the way modern anti-Semitism is tackled. It is an intelligent and well-balanced film, giving all sides room to air their views on a sensitive topic.
In summer 2010 this will be the country on everyone's lips. The World Cup don't ya know! Coincidence or not, three great South African films appeared in the Festival. Two quality documentaries , Have you Heard from Johannesburg : The Bottom Line and Behind the Rainbow , cover apartheid and the ANC respectively from the 1960s of. Both are lean, comprehensive and timely. Shirley Adams is a different take on South Africa , more an unrelenting analysis of the country and its psyche through the eyes of a woman and her paralysed son.
Family, Friends and Community
Some of the most im press ive films of the Festival dealt with family, friends and community. The White Ribbon is a gripping technical master class dissecting community, family, morality, religion, class, hypocrisy and fascism. Even though the time (1913-4) and geography (a German village) are highly specific, the themes are universal. Mysterious, sinister and violent happenings befall a community; and as usual, director Michael Haneke (see photo) does not make the solution easy for an audience. However, unlike Caché (aka Hidden) this is a hugely satisfying film, as possibilities are offered rather than a flat-out refusal to answer the riddle posed. The White Ribbon may be an ostensible analysis of the origins of the rise of Hitler, but it is also a dissection of rot within society and family.
The Coen Brothers (see photo) have made their most pared-down film with A Serious Man , even more so than their debut Blood Simple . It has echoes of Barton Fink 's madness and frustration, though going for accessibility and relevance to a general viewer, concentrating on the travails of modern life, building, as it does, press ure-cooker style, into a rhythmic, hypnotic treatise on a man trying to do right by those around him, as his life starts to unravel beyond his control. This is a demonstration of how important self-determination and being heard are to us.
Shed Your Tears and Walk Away is a Brit doc looking at why the suicide rate of the director's contemporaries in Hebden Bridge is so high. It is meant to be moving but their likeability is through the filmmaker's eyes and not conveyed to someone who did not grow up with them. This could have been an insightful sociological study in the vein of David Simon and Ed Burns' book The Corner (which was turned into an HBO mini-series); but instead feels forced, mawkish and non-analytical. Burrowing from Sweden equally outstays its welcome. It is about a community seen through the eyes of a little boy and the theme is isolation, but lacks impact and is forgettable.
A landfill is waiting for Trash Humpers from Harmony Korine, which would have made an amusing short, but instead is an hour-and-a- half of mind numbing mock-anarchy and uninteresting amorality.
The most visually stunning film of the LFF was Gasper Noé's (see photo) Enter the Void . From the headache-inducing strobe credits, this is an extraordinarily directed and lit treatise on sex, addiction, bereavement, siblinghood and life after death. The lighting is hypnotic, the sets are jaw-dropping, and the acting believable. It is two hours 40 minutes of mesmerising ocular confidence, lashed to a moving story. Rather than bold visuals, Precious: Base d on the Novel Push by Sapphire goes for great writing and some of the best acting of the year. A tale of profoundly upsetting abuse that, like its 16 year old protagonist, retains an optimistic, inspiring core. Brimming over with expert writing and performances, without patronising this gives a face to those society often unthinkingly dismiss and delivers a real humanism.
Never reaching the lofty heights of Summer Hours , Three Days with the Family still is a solid family drama on coming together after a passing away. What lets it down is its focus on a morose unengrossing teenager. Had it been a proper ensemble, and shared screen time equally, the experience would be more rewarding.
Two of some of the most exciting directors working today turned in a dud each: Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock (see photo with Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman and James Schamus) and Michel Gondry's The Thorn in the Heart . The former is a pedestrian, ill-conceived look at counter-culture and self-discovery; while the latter a self-indulgent home movie where its maker thinks anyone not in it would be interested in his aunt.
Surprisingly nonexistent this year is an eviscerating take on Iraq . Yes, there's George Clooney in the banal The Men Who Stare at Goats , an ostensible satire but of what? The American military? Look at M.A.S.H. for something with more brains. Another idiotic movie from director Stephen Poliakoff is Glorious 39 . It is a rare beast that looks at British appeasement of Hitler from certain quarters in the lead up to the Second World War. However, it squanders the issues by descending into ridicululous unbeliveability, triteness and inept storytelling.
Contrast City of Life and Death , the most powerful film of the Festival. It leaves you reeling. It deals with the rape and sacking of Nanking by the Japanese in 1937-8 from three perspectives: a Chinese soldier, a Chinese man working as a secretary to a German, and a Japanese soldier. Uninterested in a wider analysis, the film is instead looking solely at the atrocities. The beautiful black and white cinematography keeps the audience at a necessary slight distance. A film relevant to the way every war is conducted.
Lebanon is highly original in form but not content. It joins the many good treatises on man's inhumanity, this time set in the 1982 Lebanese War. However, what makes it stand out is the claustrophobia - the entire film, bar two shots, is set within a tank. The soldiers manning the tank are not stock movie grunts but seemingly conscripted, sensitive souls. Different but the same, all in a good way.
Corporatism, globalisation and capitalism get an inevitable kicking in the LFF, and who could do it more divisively than the director of Fahrenheit 9/11 ? Michael Moore is back in the Festival after Sicko with Capitalism: A Love Story , his entertaining look at the current woes of society. Arguably a companion piece to Roger & Me , it is probably his most ambitious film, as he tackles an entire ideology. As usual you will either agree or disagree with what he has to say and the way he says it, but it is hard to argue that he does not have valid points to discuss.
Corporate thrillers are rare The Firm , The Intern ational , The Insider , A Civil Action to name a few relative to their political siblings, but they are more relevant than ever. Headhunter is a tight, sleek picture set in Denmark with large stakes in the balance. More grounded then most and satisfying. The opposite is the case for MICMACS , the latest from the director of Amélie and A Very Long Engagement . It has Jean-Pierre Jeunet's (see photo) trademark luscious visual and production design, but the characters are not as winning as usual and the arms-dealer revenge plot is underdeveloped.
Starsuckers is a refreshing and passionate attack on the modern media . Well structured and argued using interesting case-studies this is a very solid polemic. Another look at the media comes in the form of the story of Josh Harris in We Live in Public , a man who seemingly was ahead of the times. One of the raison d'être 's of a documentary is to throw light on less obvious topics and this does it well.
The future comes in the form of the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's remarkable novel, The Road (see photo of Viggo Mortensen, Joe Penhall and John Hillcoat). Well acted and put-together though it is, for fans of the novel this never reaches its heights. It is probably as close as Hollywood would dare to get without it being unsellable (though a better adaptation than Fernando Meirelles' take on José Saramago's equally magnificent Blindness ). Even though neither the book nor the film extrapolate on the cause(s) behind the disaster there is an implication that is could be for environmental reasons, which are largely down to corporations. Both Cold Souls and Metropia have great conceits at their heart but do not explore them with smarts. The former is about a company able to remove your soul and/or replace it with someone else's the intriguing results of which are played for laughs and a superficial soul-trafficking subplot. The latter imagines a future Europe linked together by a massive underground metro system, which has fascinating implications, but instead this animation goes down the mind-control, dystopia route, which all feels a bit mundane.
Let's Get Dostoyevsky
Crime and punishment and repercussions have been a definitive theme in 2009. Guantanamo Bay , Abu Ghraib, The Macpherson Report, RBS Chief Executive Fred Goodwin, and MPs' expenses have seriously highlighted issues of justice in recent times and this appears to have manifested itself cinematically in fascinating ways.
A very strong tranche of cinema has tackled violence towards women; which has also coincided with the Millennium novels of Stieg Larsson. The Ape , likewise from Sweden , deals with the aftermath of murder from the one suburban man's perspective in a non-sensationalist and increasingly claustrophobic way, as the repercussions of rage issues are dissected. To reveal too much would undermine much of what is im press ive about the film. Even more overtly concerned with women hatred is Polytechnique . Like D.B.C. Pierre's novel Vernon God Little, and Gus Van Sant's Palme D'Or winner Elephant , it follows a student shooting. Cinematography and direction are super-slick in monochrome but never glamorising and playing with narrative structure, the proceedings are based on a true story in a way that is enthralling and hard-hitting. The only thing that lets it down is a monologue denouement crystallising thoughts that are already evident, slightly undermining an otherwise minimalist film.
A relevant take on war crimes is Storm , a thriller focusing on the Yugoslavian conflict and the idea of justice for victims of the rape camps (also spoken about in Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues). The former Yugoslavia is still hardly being discussed in cinema, but when it is, it has been done well namely Welcome to Sarajevo and The Hunting Party .
The Disappearance of Alice Creed (starring Gemma Arteton and Eddie Marsan) is a confident debut from writer-director J Blakeson about the kidnapping of a wealthy man's daughter. Intense, unsettling and well-acted, it stays just on the right side of exploitative. Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo , a doc about one of the few rodeos in the world open to women inmates, brings a humanity to those incarcerated, who, like people from the elsewhere in the world, are often dehumanised for political and military purposes. There are statistics given, which show how high the incarceration rate is in the US state of Oklahoma for women, and also the high rate of domestic violence. Subtle questions of justice, morality and mercy are raised.
The prison system is also another aspect of the crime and punishment theme in the Festival. One of the best films is A Prophet (see photo).,the latest from seriously exciting filmmaker Jacques Audiard (up there with the likes of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-Ho). It is a crime saga growing into something like Goodfellas and Scarface, coupled with a topical racial element, which never signposts or glorifies its material. Again deglamorised, My Greatest Escape is a sombre French documentary about Michel Vaujour, a notorious absconder, who has spent much of his life gaoled.
There is a small and intriguing subgenre now emerging concerning compulsive liars: Shattered Glass , A Self-Made Hero and part of the journalist strand of the fifth series of The Wire. Two films here look at the individuals: André Téchiné's The Girl on the Train and Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! They follow the falsehoods and their aftermath. All these movies listed deal with the intricacies and consequences, but do not go into the psychology of why someone would concoct these fallacies (except The Wire). Most of the protagonists are obviously bright with one element of the tragedy being, had they focused their gifts they would have excelled in more productive fields.
The other crime pictures do not appear to have overarching themes linking them. Bellamy from director Claude Chabrol and starring Gerard Depardieu is an old school Miss Marple-style slow-burn investigation with an intriguing twist. Far too slow and unenthralling though the pace is just too plodding. Ajami on the other hand is a powerful epic set in Israel and Palestine with innocents caught up in the crossfire of law-breaking, while attempting to save themselves and those around them - excellent. The remastered version of Delmer Daves' Jubal starring Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine, while a Western is also a very good Shakespearen pseudo-noir that tackles jealousy and greed. The Double Hour is a narratively different thriller, in the same fresh structure as last years' Brit flick Jetsam ; playing with construction is always welcome.
Not all crime is dour. Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans starring Nicolas Cage, and Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox starring George Clooney and Bill Murray (see photo), prove that amorality can be highly enjoyable. Herzog has made a different beast to Abel Ferrara's New York-set, over-the-top descent into gratuitous degradation; and this is maybe controversial, but I prefer the latter over the simulated depth of the former. Anderson brings his distinctive style to stop-animation, creating a colourful, brisk and entertaining Roald Dahl adaptation.
Hanging with the Mumblecore
In these credit crunch times we can rely on the bed-head crowd delivering each year a new crop. Not as notable as 2008's one-two-three punch of Nights and Weekends , Momma's Man and Medicine for Melancholy , this year's batch is more ambitious yet less satisfying.
The most entertaining is Passenger Side , a very funny brotherly road trip about healing old wounds. There is a reveal that seemed superfluous but has grown on me since initial viewing. Wah Do Dem is also a trip but one of those where everything goes wrong. Even though the geography covered is relatively expansive for this genre, it still seems slight in what it has to offer in terms of story and character.
The Exploding Girl is a movie for faux-sensitives those who think they are sensitive but actually aren't. It's summer in the Big Apple and a couple of friends hang out, each with romantic travails of the heart. Nothing really happens and the movie lacks the weight it thinks it has. In fact it is cringeworthily pretentious.
Alexander the Last is about an actress coping with her attraction to the leading man in the play she's rehearsing while her husband is away. The music is good, but overall this feels half-baked from the usually good Joe Swanberg - LOL , Hannah Takes the Stairs (see photo).
Men and Women, Men and Men
Relationships were everywhere in the LFF this year; and like life, some are more satisfying than others.
Marriage. Only two films seem to extol its virtues. One is about the grief of a widow Andrej Wajda's inaccessible Sweet Rush ; the other is a documentary, His & Hers , that interviews women from infancy to dotage a nice idea but superficial in execution. Adrift (Choi Voi) begins on a wedding night in Vietnam and sets the tone for the idea that marriage does not live up to expectations, also demonstrated by Atom Egoyan's unsatisfying and undeveloped adultery pot-boiler Chloe (starring Julia nne Moore see photo), and Manoel de Oliveira's old-fashioned Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl , about a man trying to jump huge hurdles to propose to a woman he lusts after. For some bizarre reason Todd Solondz has made a sequel to the im press ive Happiness . Life During Wartime jumps forward in time with new actors taking over the roles and the whole project undermines the devastating end of the original, by totally unnecessarily answering the questions and filling in the gaps as to what occurred after. In contrast Cédric Khan delivers an awesome relationship drama about missed opportunities, availability and waves of desire in Regrets , starring Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Yvan Attal.
Violence rears its head again, mixed in with relationships. Bluebeard is Catherine Breillat's disappointing fairytale, which says nothing interesting about marriage, but does about female fortitude. Kicks starts off as dramatisation of teenage crushes and then suddenly switches with ridiculous unbelieveability into a kidnap drama. From the writers of Sexy Beast, 44 Inch Chest is a disappointing follow-up. Starring some of the doyens of British cinema - Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Ian McShane and Stephen Dillane it deals with machismo and misogyny but not in a particularly compelling way. Guilia Doesn't Date at Night is a quietly devastating romance between a convict and an author, where selfishness and self-absorption have far-reaching implications.
Youth romance has also been catered for in the Festival. The French Kissers is crude and peopled with the unlikeable; it has none of the charm of American Pie , or the laughs of Superbad . It is different though, as is Dear Lemon Lima , which follows a broken-hearted girl and those on the social fringe at a school in Alaska . It is well shot but lightweight.
Experimental cinema is important as it plays with the conventional, but The Portugese Nun is one of the poor examples pretentious, stilted, overlong, the worst of the LFF.
The overhyped Brokeback Mountain was nothing like as convincing as the gay cinema found in this year's festival. Ander is a slowburn love story about being true to yourself; while fashion designer Tom Ford's debut, A Single Man (see photo), is as stylish as you would expect and more confident, focusing on pining after those not available.
Love across boundaries. Jane Campion's (see photo) Bright Star at first appears to be going down staid period ardour territory and then rallies not long in to portray the burgeoning love between poet John Keats with Fanny Brawne, in a arrestingly lit and designed romance. Today's Special should have zinged with its combination of food, interracial relationship and parental expectation. It appears to have had no self-raising flour added, and falls flat. Geddit? I'll get my coat.
Two geniuses, one legend and an obscure band from Canvey Island are the centre of attention for four music films, half very satisfying.
Trimpin: The Sound of Invention shines a spotlight on Gerhard Trimpin - sound inventor, composer and visual artist. This is a solid unobtrusive documentary, a showcase for his extraordinary boundary-pushing talent without the craft of filmmaking getting in the way. The Sound of Invention uses a concert with the Kronos Quartet, where the two collaborate, as a structure to delve into his biography and methods. Some may complain that the film is not as sophisticated as its subject and that it should have been as innovative, but I say why? All Errol Morris did with The Fog of War was to point a camera at Rob ert McNamara and let him speak, and that was hugely satisfying on several levels. As a slice of entertainment about someone not in the mainstream, it is both interesting and informative about a man who represents music and noise graphically. He produces regardless of the music and art worlds. If they didn't exist he would still do his thing.
Also entertaining is Still Bill , reflecting on the life of Bill Withers. He comes across as witty and wise; and intriguingly has not put out a record since 1983, demonstrating his integrity, as he does not release anything for the sake of it.
The makers of Nowhere Boy could have learnt from him. The most overhyped, overrated movie of the Festival is crushingly tedious; a by-the-numbers biopic of John Lennon's formative years. The miscasting of Lennon and McCartney is an additional lead weight dragging down this formulaic waste of effort.
Oil City Confidential , a woeful title, is the latest from director Julien Temple , covering the formation and dissolution of the original line-up of Dr Feelgood. There is nothing mind-blowing about the band nor the documentary, but does draw attention to a group and place that is seldom in the public eye.
Hemanth's LFF Awards
Award ceremonies can be tedious, but also fun, and a very efficient way of instigating debate. So then, let us get the Worst of the Festival out of the way:
The Portugese Nun
The Exploding Girl
Don't Worry About Me (- Disappointingly dire romance from great actor David Morrissey.)
Kamui (- How can a ninja film be this lame?)
How about, an award for the Very Good , in alphabetical order:
Samson & Delilah
A Serious Man
Trimpin: The Sound of Invention
Ok, what about the Biggest Disappointments :
Paper Heart (- A fantastic idea of investigating love is almost totally squandered.)
The Thorn in the Heart
Finally, the Best Films of LFF 2009 :
Enter the Void
The White Ribbon
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
City of Life and Death
Overall, a low-key year of films with often germs of great ideas not fully realised and lacking the courage of their convictions, but still full of interest and intrigue. I cannot wait until LFF 2010!