London calling

The essential highlights from this year’s BFI London Film Festival
By Joey Levenson | Film+TV | 9 October 2016

American Honey (2016), still, Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Top Image: Still, American Honey (2016), dir. Andrea Arnold

The season of film festivals is officially in full swing. Venice Film Festival saw the likes of legendary directors Terrence Malick and David Lynch bring new features to the big screen, and Toronto International Film Festival brought their A-game with a line-up of films that critics are already placing their 2017 Oscar bets on. Now, the BFI are bringing their insanely-popular London Film Festival back for another year, and of course, it’s chock-full of films we’re dying to see.

Below, we’ve sifted through the 200+ films and picked out the ones we think are the ones to watch (films already included in our Toronto International Film Festival round-up not included). Whether you catch them this week or wait for a cinema release, take note – when you’re next hankering for a new film fix, hit up this list.

The Red Turtle (2016), dir. Michael Dudok de Wit

Still, Courtesy of STUDIOCANAL

After Studio Ghibli announced back in 2014 that it would temporarily halt production after the retirement of founder Hayao Miyazaki, many worried for the film studio’s future. Now, Studio Ghibli have returned to form with their first ever co-production, debuting a mature animated feature about a man who winds up stranded on an island with no other human inhabitants. What entails is a story of endurance, and the man’s fight with the burgeoning powers of nature and the eponymous red turtle.

For those used to the juvenile spirit of Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro, this film may have you in for a surprise. The film was animated by traditional means, and hopes to provoke something more serene and beautiful with it’s the immersive visuals, which were created by Isao Takahata (the man behind The Tale of Princess Kaguya) and Oscar-winning director Michael Dudok de Witof. Critics have described it as packing a “hefty emotional punch”, with a twist in the plot that none of them saw coming. This will certainly please longtime fans of Ghibli as well as the newcomers to this refined Japanese genre.


The War Show (2016), dir. Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon

Still, Courtesy of DR Sales

“Devastating” and “essential” are just some of the words critics used to describe this documentary feature after it opened this year’s Venice Film Festival. Syrian radio DJ Obaidah Zytoon documents the journey her and a group of friends embark on as they travel across Syria in attempt to face the reality of their war-torn nation. The documentary avoids spectatorship and objectivism in lieu of gripping firsthand accounts and an honest quest for answers, ranging from Aleppo to Zytoon’s hometown of Al-Zabadani. Audiences are privy to the experiences these people face across the country, including the protests, the unimaginable deaths, and the debilitating army presence.

As documented by someone so fully immersed in to the world of Syria’s chaos, Zytoon’s camera is unflinching and relentless. There is no sugar coating, there is no forced narrative, there is just the truth. It’s no surprise as to why Venice chose this to open their film festival, as an energetic documentary such as The War Show is truly a unique insight in to the story of a world that many of us still know little about. The climate of world politics is changing around us, but Zytoon’s film will remain fundamental viewing for years to come.


Nocturnal Animals (2016), dir. Tom Ford

Still, Nocturnal Animals (2016), dir. Tom Ford

As we first reported, Tom Ford has become somewhat of a breakout star this festival season. Whilst his first endeavour A Single Man was certainly critically acclaimed, his sophomore film Nocturnal Animals has now become a fathomable Oscar-contender after winning the Grand Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival. Whilst Ford’s recent AW16 collection at New York Fashion Week was met with praise from the fashion world, many are now predicting a more fruitful career for the designer in Hollywood.

Described as “a pitch-black thriller to make you queasy with tension and regret”, the film follows an art gallery owner (Amy Adams) who is haunted by her ex-husband’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a thinly veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale. The film relies heavily on it’s hazy Los Angeles background as Gyllenhaal’s character sets to make his novel in to a film. And of course the fictional version of Adams’ character is played by no other than the actress’ real-life doppelgänger, Isla Fisher. Critics have described the film as a cross between a Vogue editorial and a Los Angeles Gone Girl, which sounds equally spine-chilling as it does opulent.


American Honey (2016), dir. Andrea Arnold

American Honey (2016), still, Courtesy of Universal Pictures

American Honey is this generation’s My Own Private Idaho. Directed by Cannes superstar Andrea Arnold, this film looks as daring as it does magical. The film details a young girl called Star who joins a group of young nomads selling magazines on the streets. The premise sounds simple enough, but what follows is a flurry of chaos, law-breaking, partying, and the pursuit of life in this whirlwind three-hour odyssey. This has already collected a buzz in the indie circuit, as it acquired the coveted Jury Prize, beating out it’s stiff competition.

With Arnold behind the camera, in front is the enigmatic and captivating new face Sasha Lane, whose presence on screen never once burns out during the film’s prodigious energy. Supporting her is Shia LaBeouf, who brings his real-life controversial persona to the body of his character, Jake. Together, along with the rest of their party crew, this film could have easily been brushed off as another teenage wasteland cliché. Instead, what has been brought to life is a beautiful coming of age film shot with visuals that’ll leave your mouth watering, thus culminating to another win by Arnold.

The 13th (2016), dir. Ava DuVernay

Still, Courtesy of Netflix, Inc.

Ahead of it’s premiere, the BFI described Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th as “urgent viewing”. Now, they’ve included it as part of the festival’s Special Presentation screenings with hope that the documentary’s powerful message can spread to the masses. DuVernay’s feature delves in to the deeply-buried connection between rising incarceration rates of African-American males in the U.S. today and the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which originally outlawed slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.

The documentary is able to boast thorough and synoptic research that DuVernay has spent time conducting; there’s no attempt to shy from subjectivism, the film instead faces it head on and delves in to the discussion of race that is often left untapped by the largely white folk of the criminal justice system. Here, DuVernay is not starting the conversation on race — she’s changing it. To be able to create this documentary, a film which so minutely picks apart the charter of her own nation, and still have it called “patriotic” by the chair of the New York Film Committee, is an accomplishment by any standard. 


The Birth of a Nation (2016), dir. Nate Parker

Still, Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

From the modern day repercussions of the 13th amendment to the revolution that helped it happen in the first place, The Birth of A Nation follows the real life 1831 slave rebellion, where slave Nat Turner lead a group of others in attempt to overthrow the white supremacy. This film holds no shame in tearing apart the very fabric of American life, making sure to highlight the grotesque regime that kept African-Americans under the thumb of white Americans for so long. This is a no holds barred approach to cinema, and so far, it has been welcomed with an insane reception. It was bought by 20th Century Fox at the Sundance Festival for $17.5M (the highest amount for any film at Sundance), and has already topped critics lists to be a strong contender for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Whilst being praised for it’s impressive cinematic achievement from it’s direction, script, and acting, it’s impossible to acknowledge this film without being aware of the behind-the-scenes controversy which surrounds the film’s director/writer/lead, Nate Parker. Although the question of Parker’s morality still is being hotly debated, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that this is not only a great film, but an important one too.


Being 17 (2016), dir. André Téchiné

Still, Courtesy of Elle Driver

Being 17 brings us back to the poignancy of romance that Nocturnal Animals works so hard to erase. Directed by legendary French director André Téchiné, the film is gaining an incredible amount of buzz in the world of European cinema. In fact, critics have been calling it Techiné’s greatest accomplishment yet. With over 20 films, 10 César Awards, and 40 years of filmmaking behind him, that’s an incredible achievement. The film stars two unknown actors (one a former Fashion model) who portray bitter school rivals that are forced to live together when one of their mothers falls ill. As the difficulty between their relationship comes to a head, a surprising romance comes to light.

Thanks to it’s vivacious directing, powerful script and magnetic leads, it’s no wonder why the critics are fawning all over the flick. Described as more of a coming-of-age tale than an unalloyed romance, this film is a surprisingly youthful turn from Techiné. Being 17 looks to be an important pillar in both contemporary queer and European cinema, and certainly a treat for real film buffs.


Arrival (2016), dir. Denis Villeneuve

Still, Courtesy of Entertainment One

Because the world will never get tired of Amy Adams being great in all that she does (see, Nocturnal Animals), Hollywood has now given us Arrival. The Denis Villeneuve directed flick is about a linguist expert, played by Adams, who is called in by the U.S. Government to try and make contact with a mysterious alien ship which has landed peacefully on Earth. As usual with sci-fi films, Villeneve has utilised the genre to anchor in more universal themes, and critics have especially praised the emotional complexity of Adams’ character, who helps to bring something quite poignant and thoughtful to the big screen.

This is probably the most Hollywood blockbuster-friendly flick on the entire list, but it’s a welcome addition. Nowadays, it’s rare to come across such a big budget production which delivers something as good as the vivacious indie circuit. Sci-Fi films are historically snubbed in the award seasons, but we’re expecting this to break through prejudice and garner as much acclaim as it possibly can. If you have to watch any film this year, watch this.

Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny (2016), dir. Louis Black and Karen Bernstein

Courtesy of Dogwoof

Whilst it was at first it tempting to add the new David Lynch life and career documentary on to this list, it’s actually the documentary about another contemporary American filmmaker that we’re excited to see. Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny brings a new perspective on the man behind some of this century’s most critically acclaimed films. The documentary traces the Boyhood‘s life back to his early days in small town Texas, to how he got his foot in the Hollywood door, to ultimately ending up as a 5-time Oscar nominee.

For the young filmmakers out there, Linklater’s optimistic and motivational story will be both inspirational and helpful, as he shares invaluable philosophies on the career he’s built for himself. It’s an incredibly partial insight, but still greatly universal — much like the films Linklater creates himself.

Chi-Raq (2016), dir. Spike Lee

Still, Courtesy of Vertigo Releasing

You’ve never seen Ancient Greek theatre quiet like this. Aristophanes’ classic comedy Lysistrata is deftly reimagined in to a topical contemporary setting, with the gangs of Chicago swapping in for the soldiers of Ancient Greece and Troy. For those unfamiliar with the original, the play sees the women of the opposing army forces going on a sex strike until their men agree to stop fighting. Sounds suitably ridiculous, right? But what the poem was actually renowned for, was it’s striking political satire. Thankfully, none of that is lost in this adaptation. The basic plot remains more or less the same, and the cast is lead by a powerful Teyonah Parris (pictured above, star of Mad Men and Dear White People) with a sonic soundtrack to accompany the film’s abundant culture.

Although now over a year old, the film never got it’s release in Britain. Amidst controversies for it’s title (‘Chi-Raq’ being a slang reference to how the streets of Chicago are likened to Iraq with all it’s gun crime), the flick still managed to gather critic adoration, and even cemented a spot on Metacritic’s top films of 2015. Watch this, then go boast to your friends that you’ve seen Ancient Greek theatre.


City of Tiny Lights (2016), dir. Pete Travis

Still, Courtesy of Icon Film Distribution

To round us off, we have the sole British film on the list. City of Tiny Lights is a film that is as damning to London as it is romantic. Lead by Riz Ahmed, the latest breakout start found in the hit-series The Night Of or film Nightcrawler, the film follows a private eye (Ahmed) who is hired to track down a missing Russian prostitute in London, but discovers a world of festering crime that plagues the city and his own past. As seen in the image above, the film paints a hazy neon-light noir picture of London, perhaps giving us a more realistic image of the city after that latest Bridget Jones flick.

Rounding off the cast is Billie Piper (as if the film couldn’t get more British) and James Floyd, and behind the scenes comes Dredd director Peter Travis. Details are still quite scarce, but early reviews paint a promising picture. We’re sure this will be another showstopper for Ahmed, and pump a much-needed resuscitation in to the London film scene.

The BFI London Film Festival takes place between 5–16 October. You can find out more information on the films showing, where they’re playing, and how to get tickets, here


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