Festival Highlights: BFI London 2018

Still from Birds of Passage

This year’s line-up at BFI Film Fest featured some great cinematic gems from all around the world and arguably one of the best selections of films I’ve seen at the festival in the 5 years I’ve been attending. In most the films reviewed below there is a very fine line between who the good and bad guys are; often the protagonists start off as good, but desperate circumstances, or life in general, make them hardened into doing bad things. The overarching theme for me this year was magical realism told from a diverse set of lenses such as the Wayuu tribe of Northern Colombia as well as from a wide range of settings such as from a decrepit Italian seaside resort, to modern day Seoul; and not forgetting the most famous tale of magic meeting reality with an ambitious re-imaging of the story of Don Quixote. In today’s polarised political world where reality is stranger than fiction, only magical realism can really turn the lens around on us and make us question things we have started to take for granted.

Birds of Passage — Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

Casual viewer [A] / Film buff [A]

Where to watch: Nov 20th release date in cinemas (check it out this week)

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra return as standard bearers for Columbia’s indigenous communities after their breakthrough film “Embrace of the Serpent”. Blending Columbia’s famous magical realism with a Narco rags-to-riches story and most importantly told from the lens of the indigenous Wayuu tribes of the Northern Guajira region, this film is an absolute must see, if only because this is the first ever film told in the Wayuu language. More importantly it is a cinematic tour-de-force, everything from the direction, the actings (with its mix of amateur and professional actors), to the beautiful setting in Guajira perfectly expressed in the cinematography. For those who keep saying that films these days are all the same look no further. Birds of Passage will be Colombia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards.

Capharnaüm — Nadine Labaki

Casual viewer [A-] / Film buff [A-]

Where to watch: No release date announced yet

Lebanon’s answer to the “Florida Project”, Capernaum tells the story through the eyes of a young Lebanese boy who works the streets to support a family who is unable to look after all the children they keep having. When his sister is snatched into a marriage she is far too young for, the street smart Zain runs away from his negligent parents and finds a home with a single Ethiopian mother. The movie tries to challenge parenthood and the difficult decisions they have to make believing its the best decision for their family. From the Q&A, Nadine emphasised the fact that those who have not known such deprived conditions, should not be quick to judge. Not to ruin the rest of the movie, this is an eye opening must see. The film was shot on location, in chronological order and using real world amateur actors.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — Terry Gilliam

Casual viewer [B+] / Film buff [B+]

Where to watch: No release date announced yet

After almost 30 years of development hell, Terry Gilliam has finally completed his film about Cervantes’ infamous Don Quixote de la Mancha. There are certain books that were just cursed to be adapted into film; this is one of them, having haunted not only Terry Gilliam but also other great directors such as Orson Welles (Orson Welles intermittently shot it throughout his life because he could never secure funding and it was unfinished at the time of his death). Unlike Welles, Gilliam managed to finish it in his lifetime, although only after encountering every imaginable and unimaginable obstacle along the way, in almost a real life parody of the Don Quixote story.

This film is also not Gilliam’s first attempt at a production of the film. He had actually started to film another version of the film in the 90s with an all-star cast including Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, and Jean Rochefort as the chevalier from La Mancha, but had failed admirably in the process after everything that could possibly go wrong, having gone wrong (all documented in one of my favourite documentaries, “Lost in La Mancha”). This time around the production process wasn’t any easier with disputes with Portuguese authorities, lawsuits by former producers that tried to prevent the film’s release, and even a health scare when the director was presenting the film at Cannes, but the director’s tenacity and passion (almost madness) for the project is a great testament to filmmaking, showing that no obstacle is insurmountable.

The film itself features Adam Driver as a famous but disillusioned film director returning to film a big budget production of the Don Quixote story in the same Spanish town where he filmed the story when he was much younger as a still undiscovered film student. There he encounters the man who played Don Quixote in his student film (Jonathan Pryce), who he learns has lost all sense of reality, and believes he is Don Quixote himself. In typical Gilliam fashion, the disillusioned protagonist meets a mad but wise character that takes them on a quest that leads to their redemption. The film is fun and entertaining for casual viewers and film buffs alike, with Gilliam adding his characteristic Monty Python slapstick humour though a Vaudevillian set of supporting characters. The film’s weakness is when it stops being fun and tries to be serious about topical political issues, but overall this is definitely a film to kick back to and let yourself get lost in La Mancha.

Dogman — Matteo Garrone

Casual viewer [B+] / Film buff [A-]

Where to watch: Now playing on a silver screen near you

For those who love Matteo Garrone this is a must see! In Dogman, he combines the visceral reality of poverty in Italy such as he does in Gomorrah, with the fairy tale narrative elements from Tale of Tales. The film stars Marcello Fonte who channels Roberto Benigni and Chaplin as Marcello, a dog groomer working in an impoverished seaside town and trying to get by while dealing with local bully Simone (Edoardo Pesce). In the director Q&A Garrone highlighted how he wanted the film to show how even good people can be forced into circumstances where they do bad things. Dogman will be Italy’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards.

If Beale street could talk- Barry Jenkins

Casual viewer [B+] / Film buff [B]

Where to watch: Feb-2019 release date (stay tuned)

From the director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins does not disappoint with his next feature. Set in 1970’s Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk tells the tale of a beautiful love story against a backdrop of injustice. He takes the time to make the audience believe in the pure and hopeful love of a young couple whose plans for the future are derailed when Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. The deeply flawed and racist justice system is highlighted here through the breaking apart of one family and one love that we can all relate to. With stunning visuals and 70’s fashion, this movie is worth seeing on the silver screen, but you may need to take some tissues.

Burning — Lee Chang-dong

Casual viewer [C+] / Film buff [B-]

Where to watch: Feb-2019 release date (stay tuned)

Lee Chang-dong, better known for his previous films Peppermint Candy, Oasis, and Poetry, returns with an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, “Barn Burning”. The film follows Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) who falls for childhood neighbour Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), however when she returns from her holiday with jet-setting Ben (Steven Yeun), a love-triangle develops that has tragic consequences. As usual Lee Chang-dong’s films offer social commentaries of Korean society, this one in particular about the widening divide between the ultra rich and the rest, however this time employing some of Murakami’s characteristic magic realism. Great performance by Yoo Ah-in and Steven Yeun, however the film doesn’t do much to develop Jeon Jong-seo’s character and eventually becomes too convoluted with its b-stories.

The Wild Pear Tree — Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Casual viewer [D] / Film buff [B]

Where to watch: November 30th release date in cinemas

At over 3 hours long this is definitely not easy to watch if you aren’t used to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s discursive portrayals of village life around Turkey. However, this is a director who manages to capture the wisdom and beauty in the most humble places better than any other. In a similar vain to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Winter’s Sleep, The Wild Pear Tree follows a protagonist who is much too stubborn for their own good, taking too long to learn important lessons about life. Unlike the director’s previous two films, the first a murder case in Anatolia, the second a family study in a Cappadocian bed and breakfast; The Wild Pear Tree’s strength is neither the plot, setting, nor imagery, but rather the coming of age lessons the graduate Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) learns in a pivotal crossroad in his life as well as the fantastic performances by both him and his father Idris (Murat Cemcir). For film buffs there are some amazing scenes which make the whole film a must watch such as the beautifully cinematic long take when Sinan walks through the village with the two imams and discusses all sorts of philosophical and moral issues, however for the rest I would recommend starting with other films by the director before watching this one.

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