BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2021 – an Alterntive Lens mega-review

I’ve covered film festivals before, but ususally under the guise of working them as a volunteer and then just seeing as many films as I could between shifts. This year though, Alternative Lens (i.e. just me!) headed to London as an accredited member of the press to cover the first post-pandemic BFI festival. It was certainly full of highs and lows as any film fest is, and there are so many films I didn’t get a chance to see for one reason or another, but to able to see so many without having to worry about other commitments for nearly two weeks was an absolute joy. So, without further ado, here are my two pence on everything I saw at this year’s LFF:

The Harder They Fall

A stellar feature debut by British musician Jeymes Samuel, this all-black western is a violent but fun throwback with a lot of charm and a biting sense of humour. The story is nothing to write home about, but it’s such a visual treat full of sight gags and copious amounts of blood that it’s hard to care. The stellar cast helps a lot too, with the easy standouts being Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield, and Danielle Deadwyler. Samuel’s stylish and vibrant direction here reminded me of 90s Robert Rodriguez in all the best ways, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his name pop up on shortlists for blockbuster projects in the pipeline. What a perfect way to start of this year’s festivities! 7/10 (in select theatres and on Netflix on 3rd November)

Spencer

Pablo Larrain’s follow-up to Jackie is yet another examination of a female political figure, and this Princess Diana drama is far as you can get from either the dreadful Naomi Watts film from 2013 or whatever that musical that just dropped on Netflix was. Less a biopic than it is a psychological thriller, Kristen Stewart gives a hauntingly effective lead performance that is sure to nab her some Oscar buzz. Larrain’s direction is impeccable, with the gorgeous cinematography and lavish production design turning Sandringham into a more opulent Overlook Hotel. Supported by Steven Knight’s biting script and strong supporting turns from Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins, this movie is likely to scare royalists more than a thousand revealing interviews with Meghan Markle. Also, I would like to own every piece of wardrobe Stewart wore in this. They’re all simply stunning. 9/10 (in theatres on 5th November)

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

Ana Lily Amirpour’s latest outing has more in common with her sophomore effort The Bad Batch than her stunning debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, resulting in a film with strong potential but absolutely no focus. Jeon Jong-seo’s lead performance as the titular Mona Lisa is subtle but effective, and Ed Skrein is a lot of cringey fun as the eccentric Fuzz, whose appearance and demeanour are best described as “Cyberpunk 2077 NPC who wished on a magic lava lamp to be a real boy”. Amirpour still has a lot of potential as a director, but the script is the real culprit here; the whole thing feels like a first draft that just flits from idea to idea with no narrative through-line or thematic resolution. 5.5/10 (US and UK release TBC)

LFF 2021: Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon review - sweet natured if at times  uneven - NO MAJESTY

Belle

Mamoru Hosoda’s latest is his best since Wolf Children, and possibly his greatest yet. A visual and emotional masterpiece of the anime form, this reimagining of Beauty and the Beast for the Internet age has everything you could possibly expect from a Studio Chizu production and more. Stunning animation that melds 2D and 3D, a timely story that depicts online culture and social media toxicity with frightening accuracy, beautiful and catchy original songs that transcend the language barrier, and a gorgeously realised computer world that feels like a true culmination of Hosoda’s prior work on Digimon and Summer Wars. It’s rare for a movie to make me shed a tear, but this one had me full-on sobbing in the cinema…three times! An absolute must-see. 10/10! (US and UK release TBC)

Encounter

Some solid performances from the always on-point Riz Ahmed and the two youngsters playing his sons (Lucian River-Chauhan and Aditya Geddada) helps salvage this promising but ultimately underwhelming sci-fi thriller. Its premise is basic though with plenty of room to grow, and it has a pretty unique spin of the genre that initially works great, but the film plays that trump card way too early and turns the rest of the film into a waiting game. It probably would have played better if that reveal came far later on in the story, or if it simply made the audience question their perception of the events more after that. This really could have been something special, but it’s instead pretty average despite its excellent pedigree. 6/10 (in select theatres and on Amazon Prime on 10th December)

Flee

A unique combination of documentary and animated feature, this chronicling of the life experience of a gay Afghani refugee is an eye-opening tale full of both hardship and joy. The shifting animation style helps accentuate the mood and intensity of the film, playing smoothly in times of calm and beauty, before turning scratchy and disorienting in moments of trauma. An education in both the horrific struggles refugees go through to simply find a life not impeded by conflict, and learning to be accepted and accept yourself in a culture that sees you as invisible, this is a movie that should be shown in schools to educate students on the importance of human rights and what happens when they aren’t avaliable. 8.5/10 (US and UK release TBC)

Sediments

Depicting a weekend getaway in the Spanish countryside for a generations-spanning group of transgender women, this is the rare film that centres trans voices and mostly avoids the usual tropes of trauma and insincere sympathy. Yes, the conversations can get cyclical and get bogged down in tired topics like surgery, but it’s so refreshing to not only see more intellectual and philosophical aspects of transness discuss, but simply seeing these women live mostly in joy and express personal happiness is something that is so needed right now. It may not do a huge amount for trans audiences, but for allies looking to educate themselves it’s not a bad starting place. But what’s with the gratuitous nudity shots? They almost completely undermine the otherwise tasteful presentation. 6.5/10 (US and UK release TBC)

Last Night in Soho

I already reviewed this one in full last week, but for those who just want the quick yay or nay: Edgar Wright’s latest is beautifully crafted but ultimately too ambitious for its own good. Despite a stunning lead performance by Thomasin McKenzie and a hauntingly gorgeous recreation of 1960s London, the undercooked script has a lot of thoughts but no cohesive opinions. For a film that centres women and tackles incredibly dark feminist topics, its gender politics are confused at best as it seeks to reconcile Wright’s period-accurate male gaze with its modern lens. It’s far too well made to be considered bad, but that’s still enough to make it Wright’s worst film by a wide margin. 6.5/10 (in theatres on 29th October)

Titane

Julia Decournau’s follow-up to Raw has been dividing audiences since it debuted at Cannes, and once you watch it, it’s easy to understand why. This is a fierce, challenging and frankly deranged piece of filmmaking that breaks the rules of genre and taste to deliver an experience truly unlike any other. That’s not to say you’ll like it or that it doesn’t have issues. The film’s first act is its strongest, building suspense and revelations that will leave you equally appaled and excited, and then it just coasts from there until the disturbing finale. At that point it just becomes a waiting game as you wait for the film to drops its two plates and the payoff, whilst as bizarre as you’d expect, isn’t worth the patience. It’s a film I’ve not been able to get out of my head, and has only improved with further thought, so I’d highly recommend you watch it even if it doesn’t seem like your kind of thing. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 7.5/10 (in select US theatres now, and in UK theatres on 31st December)

Costa Brava, Lebanon

This Lebanese dystopian drama may be focused on domestic issues of environmental degradation and political unease, but its themes will resonate across many different countries and cultures in all sorts of ways. It’s unfortunate then that its simple message can’t quite hold to feature-length and ends up going exactly as you’d expect. The family drama as they argue about whether to stay and fight for their land or simply leave it to be overrun is compelling at first, but the same points are simply repeated over and over and very little of consequence happens for most of it. It definitely feels like a first feature, because there are really only enough ideas for a short here. A good short, but a short nonetheless. 5/10 (US and UK release TBC)

Costa Brava Lebanon' Review: Slight but Charming Off-Grid Parable - Variety

The French Dispatch

Outside of his animated efforts Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, the films of Wes Anderson have never really appealed to me beyond aesthetic appreciation and some amusing deadpan humour. It should come as no surprise then that the best parts of The French Dispatch are its brief animated segments, and the rest is an impeccably crafted and amusing set of stories that simply don’t appeal much to my sensibilities. The story focusing around Benicio del Toro as an incarcerated modern artist is a hilariously spot-on critique of art culture, but Timothée Chalamet’s tale is an esoteric exercise is political satire, whilst Jeffrey Wright’s is mildly amusing but really springs to life in those aforementioned animated sequences. If you’re an Anderson fan, you will doubtlessly find lots to enjoy here, but otherwise this mostly more of the same. 6/10 (in theatres on 22nd October)

She Will

Oh no she won’t! While it works as a decent showcase for Alice Krige and does have some inventive visual ideas, beyond that it’s a meandering and confusing horror film that teases cool concepts but is either too self-assured or too conceited to actually explore them. Malcolm McDowell is surprisingly restrained here compared to his recent output, and his past relationship with Krige was one I wish got more in-depth exploration, but the two barely share any screen time and it just undercuts whatever kind of message it was flailing to get across. Instead, the ham is provided by a tired Rupert Everett as a character who you’d expect to be important given the casting and early prominence, but by the midpoint the story pretty much forgets him. Just a massive shrug of a movie. 3.5/10 (US and UK release TBC)

She Will (2021) - IMDb

A Banquet

A British psychological horror about grief, eating disorders, and the potential end of the world as we know it, A Banquet twists everyday fears into disturbing reality as a family slowly falls apart. Held together by stellar lead performances from Sienna Guillory as widowed mother Holly and Jessica Alexander as disturbed daughter Betsey, there’s almost a beauty to how it weaves hints of distressing imagery and apocalyptic depravity into its otherwise grounded drama. Both its greatest strength and biggest weakness, however, is its vagueness. Whilst it helps build suspense and unease as we question whether Betsey’s ailment is real or not, and the final payoff certainly leaves a lot open to interpretation, it also has something of a troubling aftertaste. It’s absolutely an acquired taste, but it’s definitely one worth at least trying. Also, I’ve never seen food look so unappetising on film, which certainly helps put us in Betsey’s mindset. 7/10 (US and UK release TBC)

Shepherd

Inspired by the same story that gave us The Lighthouse, Shepherd can’t help but feel like the cheap Poundland knock-off version of Robert Eggers’ haunting tale of isolation and insanity. The entire production looks cheap, mostly consisting of our lead Tom Hughes flailing in confusion around a barren Scottish isle, with all the money having seemingly been spent on subpar CGI creatures and about five minutes of Kate Dickie being vaguely menacing. It just screams of a film made by a recent film school graduate who hasn’t figured out how to budget properly, trying to ape features with deeper pockets and more experience when it should be focusing on what it can do with what it has. 1.5/10 (in UK theatres on 12th November, US release TBC)

The Phantom of the Open

Playing out in much the same vein as fellow UK sports dramedy Eddie the Eagle, The Phantom of the Open retells the story of the infamous golfer Maurice Flitcroft with delightful aplomb. In the hands of other actors, this could have easily been another trite and shallow crowd-pleaser with little emotional depth, but with national treasures like Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins in the leads its hard not to get swept up in its charms. An impressive directorial debut from Craig Roberts (yes, the kid from Submarine), its period aesthetic and quirky sense of humour, paired with its self-awareness of how ridiculous its story is, help give its ultimate message of perseverance and love of the game a similar heft to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. All in all, the perfect film to take your mum to for a rainy-day matinee. 7/10 (in UK theatres on 15th April 2022, US release TBC)

C’mon C’mon

This year’s LFF Surprise Screening, C’mon C’mon is a hard film to surmise but an easy one to recommend wholeheartedly. Joaquin Phoenix is better than he’s ever been as a radio journalist struggling to keep his composure whilst looking after his wildly precocious nephew, leading to a movie that’s best described as the uplifting, feelgood answer to Uncut Gems. It’s a film that can be frustrating and filled with tension, but it always manages to bring you back with a wonderfully heartfelt moment to reminds you, for all its faults, life is ultimately worth it. Gaby Hoffman is likewise wonderful as Phoenix’s exhausted sister, but its newcomer Woody Norman who truly steals the show as young Jesse; easily one of the best child performances I’ve seen in a long, long while. 9.5/10 (in theatres on 19th November)

Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s wistful drama about a working-class family trying to survive in the eponymous Northern Irish capital during the Troubles is an easy shoe-in for Best Picture consideration. Young Jude Hill is a compelling young lead as the immediately relatable young Buddy, and is ably supporting by a wonderful supporting cast including Jamie Dornan, Catriona Balfe, Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench. Its use of black-and-white cinematography combined with brief flashes of vivid colour creates a nostalgic visual experience that perfectly contrasts against its imagery of smashed-in shop windows and military blockades on civilian streets. There are moments where its sentiments start to cloy more than charm, but it ends on such a strong note that it’s hard to really care. It may be far from my favourite of the year, but this will inevitably be the film to beat come awards season, and I’m just glad it’s this kind of wholesome Oscar bait rather than another Green Book. 8/10 (in US theatres on 12th November 2021, and in UK theatres on 25th February 2022)

Nitram

Exploring the events leading up to the tragic 1996 Tasmania shooting that led to the overhaul of Australia’s gun control laws, this haunting drama from Justin Kurzel dives into the dysfunctional life of the man responsible. Caleb Landry Jones delivers a truly disturbing performance as the future shooter, painting a picture that makes you recognise (but far from sympathise with) how he came to do the unspeakable acts he committed. Essie Davis matches Jones’ disquieting energy as his deranged landlady/mother figure/possible lover, and Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis are respectively pathetic and troubling as his fed-up parents. It does indulge in a lot of the same cliches you might expect from serial killer origin stories, but its matter-of-fact presentation adds to the uncomfortability of how easy this was to pull off; the scene in which Jones acquires his weapons is especially damning. Worth one watch and one watch only; it’s far too depressing to endure more than that. 7/10 (on Stan [Australia only] on 24th November, US and UK release TBC)

The Lost Daughter

Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut with this adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel, and as you’d expect it’s an actor’s showcase more than anything else. Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley are equally brilliant playing the lead role at two stages in her life, creating one of the most cohesive shared performances in a long while, and the supporting turns from Ed Harris and an initially unrecognisable Dakota Johnson have their moments to shine. Unfortunately, the film’s story is a slow burner with a lot of build-up but next to no payoff, with its final vague moments making the rest of the movie feel like something of a waste. Still, I can’t completely hate any movie where a character unloads on rude cinema patrons, and Colman gets an absolute doozy of a going postal scene here. 5/10 (in select US theatres on 17th December 2021, on US Netflix on 31st December 2021, and in UK theatres on 7th January 2022)

The Lost Daughter': Gyllenhaal's Directorial Debut is Electric | IndieWire

Neptune Frost

A queer anti-capitalist Rwandan sci-fi musical? That’s certainly something you don’t see at every festival. Whilst its ambitions are perhaps a bit out of reach of its minimal budget and debut direction, Neptune Frost is unlike anything you’ve ever seen or will likely see afterwards. The first half is a bit of a hard sit, especially if you’re unfamiliar with African cinema, but once it finds its second wind and really doubles down on “f*ck corporations and colonialism and gender”, it’s a truly fascinating and refreshing experience. Also, I really want that keyboard coat the lead character wears. 6/10 (US and UK release TBC)

Munich – The Edge of War

Based on the Robert Harris thriller, this WWII historical drama manages to mine a lot of suspense and intrigue out of a series of events we know from history won’t end well. George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner make for compelling leads as former university chums-turned-enemies-turned reluctant allies, whilst Jeremy Irons does a fantastic job of representing the positive and negative aspects of Neville Chamberlain’s approach to the role of Prime Minister; yes, he’s a naïve wet blanket, but you understand what he’s trying to do. It’s a pretty standard and unsurprising political thriller otherwise, with nothing that particularly stands out as good or bad, but it does just enough to stand out amongst the pack. 6.5/10 (on Netflix 21st January 2022)

George MacKay, Jeremy Irons' Munich Gets Release Date on Netflix

Ali & Ava

A beautifully understated romantic drama from The Selfish Giant helmswoman Clio Barnard, Ali & Ava explores the difficulties of love against the backdrop of trauma, racism and cultural divide. Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook are both wonderful and heart-breaking as the titular lovers, with Akhtar especially shining by breaking out of his usual comedic persona, and the film’s no-frills depiction of the working-class streets of Bradford give it an authenticity most British films try to paint over. If you’re in the mood to cry, this would be a solid recommendation. 8/10 (US and UK release TBC)

The Neutral Ground

The Daily Show writer/producer CJ Hunt hosts and directs this amusing but informative and often shocking discussion of the history of Confederate monuments. Whilst it doesn’t have much new to offer anyone already aware of the problem, its focus in particular on the campaign to remove New Orleans’ key Civil War statues gives the documentary a solid backbone to the wider debate, and as it segues into discussing Charlottesville and the aftermath of George Floyd it really starts to leave an impact. If you’re new to the topic and are wanting a solid education on why these statues aren’t a true representation of American history and why they should be removed, this would be an excellent place to start; much like Flee, it’s another great educational tool. 8/10 (US and UK release TBC)

Benediction

A dry and stoic historical drama that clinically presents the life story of poet Siegfried Sassoon, there’s an uncanny sense of dissonance that permeates every achingly-long moment of Benediction’s laborious runtime. Every performance, line of dialogue and directorial choice feels far more suited to the stage than a motion picture, with its few attempts at being cinematic mostly amounting to green screen montages and some of the worst CGI this side of the 1990s; seriously, it looks like something out of Myst at times. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie so gay and yet so dull, lifeless and completely full of itself; it’s like Pete Buttigieg in celluloid form. 1/10 (US and UK release TBC)

Benediction' Review: A Heartbreaking Siegfried Sassoon Biopic - Variety

King Richard

Will Smith finally finds the role that may win him that Oscar gold with this inspirational sports drama about the rise of the Williams Sisters. Smith is equally charming and unnerving as the unyielding Richard Williams, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton shine as the young Venus and Serena respectively, whilst Jon Bernthal gives a delightfully enthusiastic performance as tennis coach Rick Macci. There’s certainly a lot of sentimental cheese to be found in its overlong runtime, and Richard’s less-endearing parental decisions don’t always get the pushback they deserve, but overall it’s hard not to get invested and swept up in all the excitement. Also, this is easily the best cinematic portrayal of tennis I’ve ever seen. 8/10 (in theatres on 19th November)

Benedetta

No matter the genre or language, you can always bet on Paul Verhoeven to give you something unique, and Benedetta is easily the most challenging and insane piece of filmmaking he’s put out since his Hollywood golden years. A historical drama that explores religious hypocrisy, this feature has a bird pooping a guy’s eye, someone lighting their farts on fire, and a young girl sucking on the breast of a Virgin Mary statue…and that’s just the prologue! Though supporting performances from veterans like Charlotte Rampling and Lambert Wilson certainly add to the audacious spectacle, it’s Virginie Efira’s lead performance as the titular Benedetta that keeps this glorious piece of blasphemous camp shining so bright. Certainly not one for those faint of heart, but if you love movies that like to live deliciously (e.g., Caligula), this is one for you. 8/10 (in US theatres on 3rd December 2021, and in UK theatres 25th March 2022)

Petite Maman

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is certainly much smaller-scale, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in quality or heart. A simple story of childhood worthy of Studio Ghibli, Petite Maman is far from coy about its premise and simply enjoys spending quiet moments with these two girls being young whilst trying their best to ignore their depressing realities. It finds warmth and even joy in such a mundanely sad series of events, and the lead performances from sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz just make their relationships feel that much more believable. On top of that, it’s only 72 minutes long, so this is the perfect little treat if you want a little bit of indie sweetness without the time investment. 7.5/10 (in UK theatres 19th November, US release TBC)

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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