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Our Highlights of the BFI London Film Festival

The BFI London Film Festival is now in its 57th year. Competing with other film festivals in cities such as Toronto and Berlin is no easy feat but the BFI’s carefully curated programme continues to grow, showcasing many of the films predicted to be big winners during the upcoming awards season. Here we pick 8 of the BFI’s top recommendations; whether you see them during the festival or later in the year, these are the films to watch:

Inside Llewyn Davis

The latest release from director-sibling-duo, Joel and Ethan Cohen, takes an intimate look into the life of singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis as he tries to break into the blossoming folk scene of 1960s New York City. The film follows Llewyn as he surfs from couch to couch, creating discord with friends and striking up flings with fellow musicians, all leading to undesirable consequences.

 ‘Deliciously playful but never irreverent, this is the Coens working on the intimate scale of A Serious Man, in the thematic territory of Barton Fink and with the musical veracity and inventiveness of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (T-Bone Burnett is music producer again here, working with Marcus Mumford). Punctuated throughout with terrifically memorable characters (the splendid cast includes John Goodman and Justin Timberlake), Inside Llewyn Davis riffs on the traditional biopic, creating a fictional reality that is coherent and honest in its portrayal of creative vulnerability and hubris, and that is heartfelt in its love for the era and its sounds.’ Clare Stewart.

Like Father Like Son

Kore-eda’s new film explores the reaction of two families as they make the uncomfortable discovery that the children they thought were their sons were accidentally swapped at birth. The snag? The boys are now six years old. Although the two boys have grown up in markedly different echelons of society, the parents decide to swap the boys back. Suddenly finding themselves in new households with contrasting parenting styles, one son adjusts quickly and easily, the other struggles with the emotionless home he now has to live in.

 ‘Kore-eda looks more and more like the best mapper of the terrain of Japanese families since Ozu. [...] A newish father himself, he admits that the distant Ryota family is a kind of wry self-portrait – which helps explain why the account of a man loosening up and learning to love his wife and son is so profoundly believable. A small triumph.’ Tony Rayns.

Luton

In this film from Greek director, Michalis Konstatantos, three seemingly unconnected characters contemplate the monotony of their day to day lives. Makis, the owner of a local mini market, scans his customers’ products, putting on a faux polite attitude and a blank expression. But all is not as it seems; this apparently insignificant scene gives way to an expression of anger, demonstrating Makis’ true dissatisfaction with society.  Another character, Jimmy, is a student intending to move to Luton to study as means of an escape from his bourgeois upbringing. Finally, Mary, a lawyer in training, tries to find some meaning in her life through empty sexual encounters with men. With their three lives seeming so different, it is a surprise when their paths eventually cross.

‘Michalis Konstantatos’ direction is unashamedly austere and dwells almost sadistically on the most hollow details of his characters’ lives. This oblique approach gives an almost hypnotic rhythm to the piece, creating a taut and mounting disquiet that builds to a grimly impressively dénouement.’ Jemma Desai.

Cutie and the Boxer

Cutie and the Boxer is a documentary that tells the tale of Ushio Shinohara, a much lauded Japenese artist, renowned for the paintings he made by punching paint onto canvas with boxing gloves.  Having moved to New York in the 1960s to find fame and fortune, Ushio never really experienced commercial success. However, his move to New York did bring him happiness in the shape of Noriko, his long term partner and an artist in her own right. Director, Zachary Heinzerling, goes on to reveal a series of drawing Noriko produced that illustrate the story of a couple called Cutie and Bullie, and the many trials and tribulations of their relationship. By juxtaposing the drawings with Ushio and Noriko’s relationship, Heinzerling reveals how creativity can be a positive outlet for emotion.  

‘This remarkable documentary, illustrated with animated sequences of Noriko’s drawings, captures the couple as they prepare a joint exhibition, when tension between them is high, and deals with how love and the creative spirit can survive decades.’ Michael Hayden

Bad Hair

Set in the Venezuelan capital Caracas, Bad Hair details the relationship between a mother, grandmother, and son. Young son Junior develops an obsession with straightening his tightly curled hair, convinced his mother will love him more for it. But this only serves to fuel his exhausted mother’s irritation and her assertion that he is a trouble maker. Conversely, Junior’s grandmother makes him her pet project, dressing him up and attempting to turn him into a singing sensation. Along with his best friend, Junior begins a journey to embody his alter ego.

‘Artist and filmmaker Mariana Rondón offers a distinctive and highly engaging commentary on mother love grounded in a trio of committed performances from Samuel Lange as the enterprising Junior, María Emilio Sulbarán as his unnamed lippy friend, and Samantha Castillo as his stressed-out mother.’ Maria Delgado.

Bertolucci on Bertolucci

Hours and hours of footage is painstakingly cut together for this fascinating documentary made up of clips of Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci talking about his own work, as well as film theory, trends and his contemporaries. Jumping from decade to decade, the film shows how Bertolucci’s opinions and style have matured over the years, capturing his personality perfectly.  

‘From the critically acclaimed director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) and Walter Fasano comes this unique portrait of maestro filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci. Sifting through hundreds of hours of archive material and drawing almost exclusively on filmed interviews with Bertolucci in Italy, France, the USA and the UK, we are given a fascinating, frank and revealing insight into the great man, from winning poetry awards in 1962 right up to the present day, discussing his most recent film (Me and You, released earlier this year).’Adrian Wooton.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

Following a spell in prison, middle aged Victoria moves in with her uncle in a remote Quebec town to lie low. A little while later, she is joined by her former cellmate and current lover, Flo, and the pair set about rebuilding their lives. Constantly bugged by a parole officer many years their junior, one woman becomes frustrated by the lack of freedom living in the small town gives them, whilst the other craves further isolation.

‘Director Denis Côté, well known for his mischievously wry, genre-bending works, does not disappoint with his Berlinale Silver Bear winner about two sapphic outlaws attempting to make it good in the wilds of Quebec.’ Jemma Desai

Good ‘Ol Freda

For the first time in 50 years, the secretary who worked with The Beatles, throughout their 10 years as a group, tells of her experience working with band. Director Ryan White knew the unassuming Freda Kelly as a friend of his aunt, when he discovered her historic relationship with The Beatles, he knew her story had to be documented on film. Kelly’s relationship with the Beatles started when she was the secretary of the fan club and she still works as a secretary today. Her dedication and loyalty gives an honesty to the Beatles’ story, and the film is one of the only Beatle-docs that have been approved by the surviving band members.

 ‘Freda is a self-effacing and sometimes reluctant observer of history but she is also open and devoid of bitterness, her insight such that it sheds new light on a saga that has been recounted many times. It’s testimony to her contribution that the surviving Beatles approved of the film; their music, which features alongside original versions of songs they covered, makes for a gear soundtrack.’ Michael Hayden.

For more information about the BFI London Film Festival, and for the full programme, click here.