Report: 54th London Film Festival

54th London Film Festival
October 13–28, 2010

The London Film Festival (LFF) is an annual 16-day event hosted by the British Film Institute. While not as globally significant a festival as Cannes, Venice, Karlovy Vary, or Toronto, the LFF is ambitious in scope, offering its audiences more than two hundred feature films from around the world, many accompanied by their respective directors and actors. A handful of big-name films, especially those having their premiere at LFF, had red-carpet gala screenings at Leicester Square. Directors and actors attended screenings of their work to answer audience questions. In addition, a few directors were selected to give “masterclasses,” events in which they discussed their lives’ work in detail. This year, master classes were given by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Lisa Cholodenko, Olivier Assayas, and Peter Mullan, all of whom had new films in the festival.

Although the LFF is attended by hundreds of press and industry delegates, it is very much a public festival, drawing Londoners and visitors alike. In question and answer sessions, the audience asked intelligent questions, displaying a sensitivity to film form and knowledge of the director’s work, as well as that of similar directors. Though many films at LFF are considered independent or artsy, the organizers successfully avoid pretension—the festival opens its doors to anyone with an honest enthusiasm for film.

Like most festivals, the LFF showcases its opening and closing night films and rewards outstanding work at the festival’s end. This year’s selections centered upon somewhat somber themes. The opening film was Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go (2010), based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same title, set in a sci-fi dystopian version of 1950s Britain. Rather than an Orwellian indictment of authoritarian government or Huxley-style critique of the heartless application of science, the film (like the novel) is intended as a meditation on life’s brevity.

The closing film was similarly serious: Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010) is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a young man who had to choose between death and severing his own forearm, which had become wedged under a boulder while he was exploring an isolated Utah canyon alone. In addition to the distinction of having his film chosen for the festival’s closing night, Boyle received a fellowship for his directorial career, the British Film Institute’s highest honor.

This year’s award for Best Film went to Kak ya provyol etim letom (How I Ended This Summer, directed by Alexei Popogrebsky, 2010), which is set in the polar regions of Russia. In addition to its stark and isolated backdrop, How I Ended This Summer fit the festival’s somber vein, focusing on just two characters who work at a weather station: one elderly and experienced, the other young and callow. When the younger man fails in his duties and delays giving his colleague an important message, existing tensions between them intensify, and the repercussions become increasingly serious. The film was outstanding in its articulation of the differences between the two characters and evoked the hypnotic rhythms inherent in the everyday routine of the weather station.

The festival’s programmers were not in an exclusively serious mood when making the remainder of their selections. There was a strong variety in the festival line-up: alongside sad or frightening films were plenty of comedy-dramas (Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right [2010], Andy De Emmony’s West is West [2010], and Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat/Mumbai Diaries [2010]); coming-of-age films (Katell Quillévéré’s Un Poison Violent/Love Like Poison [2010]); children’s movies (Andrzei Maleszka’s Magiczne Drzewo/The Magic Tree [2009]); mysteries (Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather [2010]); documentaries (Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story [2010] and Errol Morris’s Tabloid [2010]); and inspirational films based on true stories (Julian Schnabel’s Miral [2010]).

Although a single festival attendee can view only a fraction of the films offered, the quality of this selection of films seemed distinctly higher than in past years. Of the many films I saw, several proved to be very strong, and a few were genuinely outstanding. Some films were arguably less compelling, but not one was entirely disappointing. No doubt most of the films at this year’s LFF will be released over the coming year in cinemas across the globe. Based on my experience, the world is in for a treat.

Alison Frank has a DPhil from the University of Oxford, where she wrote her thesis on Surrealism and Cinema. She is now a freelance writer based in London. You can follow her on www.twitter.com/alisonfrank.

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