BFI London Film Festival 2013: 
30 recommendations

With vampires and folkies, stories from Mexico, the Philippines and Yorkshire, the BFI LFF 2013 is as multifarious as ever. Here are our favourite films so far.

Sight & Sound Editors
Updated:

Expanded web edition

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddlestone in Jim Jarmusch’s droll vampire comedy Only Lovers Left Alive, this year’s S&S Gala

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddlestone in Jim Jarmusch’s droll vampire comedy Only Lovers Left Alive, this year’s S&S Gala

Eclecticism and diversity are as ever the watchwords for this year’s BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 9-20 October.

A strong competition line-up includes new films by Catherine Breillat, Jonathan Glazer, Clio Barnard, Richard Ayoade and Pawel Pawlikowski. There are plenty of others that we’ll be excited to see, such as Of Good Report, a controversial South African film directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, about a teacher’s obsession with a pupil.

We at S&S are very proud to be presenting Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive as the Sight & Sound Gala screening on Saturday 19 October. And as well as new films, let’s not forget those restored classics the LFF has long championed – this year Thorold Dickinson’s Gaslight, Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men, Luchino Visconti’s Sandra, among many others.

To help guide you through the international cornucopia, the Sight & Sound editorial team has selected 30 films we’ve been fortunate enough to catch at previous festivals.

The Sight & Sound Gala

Only Lovers Left Alive

Screening Saturday 19, Sunday 20

Junkies in films usually fail to charm me but Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston’s wife-and-husband team of connoisseur vampires are winningly wasted (in the Keith Richard-chic sense) in this, Jarmusch’s fine-grained and nuanced comic study of good-hearted fiends at odds with the times.

They’re divided at first between the wasteland of Detroit, where Adam (Hiddleston), who dresses and behaves like a reclusive English rock star of the 1970s, is running low on the good stuff (blood untainted by the drug use and/or viruses of its owners) and Tangiers, where Eve (Swinton), all bonhomie and white-blonde hair extensions, roams the night streets in slo-mo to collect her fix from medical folk.

Eve decides to come to Detroit to cheer Adam up. There Adam collects vintage guitars, has a helpful human roadie-type called Ian, and in his house of bohemian splendour they listen to old blues vinyl and sip their deep red sustenance from chalices. Not a lot happens, but it happens exquisitely, until the arrival of Eve’s sister Ava, whom Adam disdains for her lack of self-control.

The gently unfolding scenarios offer manifold moments of ultra-dry wit and charm – for instance, to Adam and Eve, ordinary humans are “zombies” and LA is referred to as “zombie central” – and you feel throughout as if you’re furled up on the sofa with agreeable, if lethal, chums.

— Nick James

Other galas

Blue is the Warmest Colour

Screening Monday 14, Thursday 17

Kechiche’s Palm d’Or-winner comes out of the rich tradition of realist French drama about love or infatuation or lust or passion, of which the critical fraternity is generally very indulgent. What’s different is that Kechiche holds scenes for far longer than his peers, favours a particularly forensic gaze and demands much more intensive commitment from his actors.

For three hours his camera tracks the progress of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos). At first she’s a gauche schoolgirl who enjoys erotic fantasies about Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired woman who passed her in the street; later she becomes a schoolteacher and Emma’s live-in lover.

Their relationship is not as innocent as some critics have made out. Emma is an experienced habituée of the lesbian scene, who seems quick to discard her long-term girlfriend as soon as she’s met Adèle (though time-jumps skip the how and when). Though we’re sure Adèle is deep in thrall to her, there’s a distinct possibility that Emma is only in it for the sex. But then the film is explicitly from Adèle’s point of view, and her passion is what overwhelms the viewer – or at least those who are prepared to go with it. 

To me the sex seems as convincing as it needs to be. Sure, the actresses are gorgeous, as few humans are, and Kechiche’s camera seems bewitched by Exarchopoulos’s mouth. But it’s the rapture that convinces me, not the orgasms.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issueSee also Jonathan Romney’s blog post Up close and physical.

The Epic of Everest

Screening Friday 18

Everest’s base camp may now be on Google maps, its summit conquered by hundreds of climbers every year, but back in 1924 the mountain’s peak was a magical no man’s land. “Because it’s there” was George Mallory’s infamous if terse reason for scaling the top of the world, but surely Everest’s mystery and its desolate beauty played a role.

Captain John Noel’s film about that year’s doomed expedition certainly suggests so. The explorer turned director’s hand-tinted mountainscapes, which have been lovingly reintroduced in this restoration, possess an otherworldly quality (and would feel at home in any German Expressionist film of the era).

At the LFF, Noel’s little-seen documentary finally arrives back on the big screen. The film follows the whole saga of one of the most renowned expeditions in mountaineering’s history, charting life in Tibetan villages in the campaign’s early stages to its final moments, when Noel’s specially-designed telephoto lens was able to capture the spectacle of two tiny silhouettes disappearing to an icy grave.

Isabel Stevens

Inside Llewyn Davis

Screening Tuesday 15, Thursday 17, Saturday 19

The Coen brothers’ spiky, self-mocking, heartfelt study of an also-ran on the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene is in their best vein of work.

In a wintry New York, Davis (Oscar Isaac) negotiates his guitar-toting itinerancy on a night-by-night basis, seeming to take in his halting stride the news that his embittered ex (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant. But as his descent into obscurity becomes all the more obvious, we get to the roots of his misanthropy.

Authentic in its portrayal of the music, with Isaac playing guitar pieces for real (some easily recognisable from a music book I own called Masters of Instrumental Blues Guitar), the film also takes time to mock the self-righteous pomposity of the folk scene. And if the structure of the Coens’ scripts does tend to certain repetitions, this subtle portrait of a dislikeable protagonist did keep surprising me with its insights and its determination not to redeem him.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issue.

Night Moves

Screening Tuesday 15, Wednesday 16, Thursday 17

Kelly Reichardt’s films like to put neurasthenic types into tough situations they’re not properly raised or prepared for. In Night Moves, perhaps her finest work yet, she has three eco-terrorists prepare and carry out a raid on a dam.

Like a great macho heist movie (such as Rififi) or many war movies about sabotage, the film is not too concerned (at least at first) with the motivation behind these characters’ actions. Character is action here as loner organic farmhand Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) gets together with idealistic spa-worker Dena (Dakota Fanning) to buy a speedboat and take it to his up-for-anything friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) only to find that they’re short of enough fertiliser for their raid.

The sequence where Dena has to persuade the local dealer to part with 500lb of fertiliser when she doesn’t have sufficient ID gives us a chance to see this superb, restrained and utterly convincing cast working off each other. After that, it’s pure action until the results of the raid are known and the film tips into a different kind of drama, where the consequences of their actions show the trio’s true colours.

Some have said it would have made a purer film if Reichardt stuck to the raid, but for me this last film noir-like segment has a devastating accuracy about the thin line between ordinary behaviour and the unthinking promulgation of terror.

— Nick James, from his Venice Film Festival blog report Venice 2013: week one high-water marks.

Stranger by the Lake

Screening Friday 18, Sunday 20

Guiraudie’s astonishing film makes magnificent use of the various parts of what is effectively just one gay-cruising lakeside location – woods, lake, shore, car park. One habitué takes a shine to another, but secretly witnesses him drowning his current lover in the lake (the most riveting scene I saw this year at Cannes). Lust and curiosity overcome fear as he’s gradually drawn into a relationship with the murderer, just as a police investigation gets underway.

There’s an almost pagan feel to the film’s crystalline images, its evocation of summer heat and desiring, devouring glances and bodies, its mixture of beauty and dread (the mythical dangerous fish in the lake). Casting, performances and script are all pitch-perfect as well.

— Kieron Corless, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issue. See also Geoff Andrew’s blog post, Tough acts to follow.

Official Competition

Like Father, Like Son

Screening Saturday 12, Monday 14, Tuesday 15

Koreeda’s film poses a parental dilemma that may not seem as imponderable to Westerners: what if you find out the son you have raised to the age of six isn’t actually yours but was swapped at birth? Not one anglophone parent I’ve asked thinks they wouldn’t just carry on loving and raising that child.

However, the film’s two families – one aspirational, the other go-with-the-flow, the first concerned with bloodlines, the second hoping for financial compensation – see it as a legal travesty. Both try to wean the ‘wrong’ child off their established lives, with a view to swapping them back. Many scenes of soul-searching and poignant encounters unfold, with class differences emerging and inherited character traits biting back at the ‘real’ parents – particularly the snobbish Ryota (a controlled portrait of status protection from Fukuyama Masaharu).

If the last half-hour seems unnecessarily exhaustive and the use of the ‘Aria’ from Bach’s Goldberg Variations too flagrant, this is a characteristically slow-burn tearjerker from Koreeda, whose direction of children is always a marvel.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issueSee also his blog post, Three morality tales for our times.

The Selfish Giant

Screening Monday 14, Wednesday 16

This essay in lyrical realism belongs in a very familiar British tradition that connects such films as Kes (1969), Ratcatcher (1999), Sweet Sixteen (2002) and Fish Tank (2009) – depictions of the immediate conditions of social deprivation from the point of view of children and teenagers.

Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas are terrific fresh finds for Barnard, and the film is a triumph in the direction of young untried actors. Thomas’s less demonstrative role shouldn’t blind us to the depth of emotive power that he finds in the quietly tenacious, ethically stalwart Swifty, while Chapman is one of those force-of-nature young talents (as David Bradley was in Kes, and Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank) who seem to find their personal apotheosis in one perfect role.

— Jonathan Romney, reviewing the film for our forthcoming November 2013 issue. See also Kieron Corless’s blog post, Three morality tales for our times.

Under the Skin

Screening Sunday 13, Monday 14

You won’t have a more unexpected experience in the cinema this year than watching Glazer’s long-awaited adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel (unless you’ve seen Upstream Colour, perhaps), not least because it bears little resemblance to what Faber imagined.

Yes, it begins with Scarlet Johansson as a mildly provocative young woman whose only purpose seems to be to cruise the streets in a car seeking out easily-led men. But here we see straight away that she’s had the clothes from the corpse of a dead girl brought to her, so we know she’s up to some kind of alien malefaction. And the film is not really about her story as such; it’s more of a low-key species encounter, with spectacular interludes, in which compassion acts as a kind of virus but is then met by an equal callousness.

It would be wrong to spoil the strangeness of the film by describing it too much, so just go see it.

— Nick James

First Feature Competition

Salvo

Screening Friday 18, Sunday 20

Sicilian mafia hitman Salvo (Saleh Bakri) rubs out an enemy and is about to kill the man’s blind sister (Sara Serraiocco) too when she suddenly regains her sight, after which Salvo does his best to hide her. Despite this corny premise, the film sticks to a taut, mostly dialogue-free B-movie model of tonal near-perfection.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issue.

Documentary Competition

At Berkeley

Screening Saturday 12, Monday 14

The latest in Wiseman’s series of films about institutions is a forensic and immersive 244-minute study of the famously sprawling California university which, as it gradually unfolds, posits Berkeley (revealed to be facing severe ‘disinvestment’ in public funding from the state) as a microcosm of American society at large.

Crafted in the director’s familiar understated and unobtrusive style, it consists of long, talk-heavy sequences in classrooms, offices and boardrooms, punctuated by brief montages depicting serene everyday life on the leafy campus, or musical and theatrical performances. Despite its intimidating length, Wiseman’s structure fosters a set of hypnotic internal rhythms, allowing the viewer space to make their own thematic connections.

A narrative of sorts gradually emerges surrounding the efforts of the UC Berkeley administration to prepare for, and deal with, a large-scale student protest in response to fee hikes. However, At Berkeley is really about two things: firstly, the power and importance of open communication, making it, by extension, a quietly patriotic hymn to American democracy; secondly, it is self-evidently a vigorous and rousing defence of higher and public education in economically straitened times.

— Ashley Clark, from his Venice Film Festival blog report Truth, lies and admin: American documentaries on the Lido.

The Missing Picture

Screening Wednesday 16, Sunday 20

Panh’s film tells the story of his family and country’s obliteration by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, using carved wooden figures to stand in for the people who were murdered and the archive images that could never have been filmed. The technique proves to be a triumphant assertion of memory and creativity over a regime that attempted to destroy both.

— Kieron Corless, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issueSee also Geoff Andrew’s blog post Dark mirrors.

Dare

Camille Claudel 1915

Screening Saturday 12, Tuesday 15

Always one to seek out the world’s finest auteurs, Juliette Binoche has been stretching her persona in films like Flight of the Red Balloon, Certified Copy, Elles and Cosmopolis. What a surprise, then, that it’s Dumont – with Camille Claudel 1915 – who has brought the actress back to the starker kind of role that made her reputation.

As the famous sculptress, confined to a mental institution by her family, Binoche is on camera, without make-up – or many lines to utter – for more than an hour. Few actors can pull off the performance of thought without speaking or gurning, but Binoche manages it magnificently. Camille’s anguish fluctuates with her sympathy for her fellow inmates and her intrinsic sense of superiority (the sculptress thought herself a genius); surrounded by much more disturbed inmates (played by real inmates), she is hounded by the idea that she could be mad.

Dumont, too, shows uncharacteristic restraint, here relying on the simple, beauty of buildings, landscape and natural light to convey the intense, sculptural way that Camille looks at the world. Of course, he is still Dumont, and so the preaching has to start, and it duly arrives with the supremely self-righteous Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), a man whose religious convictions will make sure his sister never leaves the asylum.

I can’t pretend it isn’t hard going at times, but Camille Claudel 1915 is probably Dumont’s best film yet.

— Nick James, reviewing from Berlin in our April 2013 issue. See also Geoff Andrew’s blog post The best of the Berlin Film Festival 2013

Exhibition

Screening Saturday 19, Sunday 20

Hogg surpasses herself with this unsettling, idiosyncratic and darkly witty film. Dedicated to the modernist architect James Melvin and set in a home he designed, it’s a privileged-class domestic drama, like her previous film Archipelago, but more obviously experimental.

Strained artworld couple D and H (convincingly embodied by former punk-rocker Viv Albertine and conceptual artist Liam Gillick) are selling their house. D is reluctant, believing it is filled with spiritual residue.

The stark building is filmed as a haunting presence, bringing to mind Kleber Mendonça Filho’s recent Neighbouring Sounds, which likewise linked spatial architecture with urban psychological horror.

— Carmen Gray, reviewing from Locarno in our October 2013 issue.

Harmony Lessons

Screening Thursday 10, Sunday 13, Sunday 20

Kazakh writer-director Baigazin’s debut feature is a cool-headed appraisal of brutal life in a Kazakh school, put together with great precision by a ‘new voice‘ using non-actors.

Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) is a bright student living with his mother, conned by thug Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev) into drinking water the other boys have used to cool their private parts. He is thereafter ostracised until a new pupil arrives – Akzhan (Anelya Adilbekova) – who isn’t scared of Bolat. Lessons on Darwin, Gandhi and the like contrast with the all-pervasive gangsterism that deprives pupils of their food and money, as well as Aslan’s bizarre torture experiments on cockroaches.

Baigazin clearly shares Kazakh cinema’s interest in stark landscape shots and a certain mute beauty.

— Nick James, reviewing from Berlin in our April 2013 issue. See also Geoff Andrew’s blog post The best of the Berlin Film Festival 2013

Norte, The End of History

Screening Friday 11, Sunday 13

The 15th film from Filipino director Diaz, and the best film I saw at Cannes this year, grapples with big abstract themes – justice, the nature of evil, guilt, fate, love – but keeps them firmly rooted in the concrete particulars of Philippine society. A drop-out law student grows ever more twisted in his take on life, airing political views that could be construed as fascist and deliberately alienating friends and family. Another man, decent and simple, seems incapable of providing for his impoverished family. When the student murders the pawnbroker who lends them both money, as well as her daughter, the other man is mistakenly jailed for the crime.

There are clear nods to Dostoevsky, but the student’s descent into ever more horrific depths is only one element, beautifully counterpointed with the imprisoned man’s spiritual awakening, his wife’s struggle to cope without him, and their continued love for each other despite the hand they’ve been dealt. The episodic, unpredictable narrative proceeds by way of a series of stunning long takes, all perfectly choreographed visually and spatially.

It’s a mesmerising experience that grows deeper and broader the longer it goes on, completely justifying its four-hour duration. It seems to be pitched in a completely different key to the other films I saw in Cannes this year, with its own rhythm and rules, a different mode of address to the viewer, the ambition to reach for – and attain – a metaphysical dimension.

— Kieron Corless, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issue.

Story of My Death

Screening Wednesday 9, Friday 11

Having previously reworked Don Quixote in Honour of the Knights, the uncompromising Catalan avant-gardist Albert Serra has radically merged the myths of Casanova and Dracula in this grandiosely eccentric confection, which rightly won the Golden Leopard at last month’s Locarno Film Festival.

In a sumptuous 18th-century setting, the idle libertine (a thickly made-up Vicenç Altaió, his face gripping in its casual perversity) travels to the Carpathians with his valet.

Horror seeps into the masterfully measured atmosphere, as rationalism is colonised by dark romanticism. In a mood of unsettlingly oblique inertia, evidence of bodily disharmony – inexplicable laughter, a strained bowel movement, blood rivulets – proliferates, gathering to a finale of alarmingly memorable force.

— Carmen Gray, reviewing from Locarno in our October 2013 issue.

A Touch of Sin

Screening Friday 11, Sunday 13

Four separate real-life cases of people who reached their own breaking-point and turned to violence were used by Jia as the basis for A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding – which literally translates as ‘heaven’), each one a victim of China’s massive economic expansion, transformed by Jia’s prize-winning script into wuxia or spaghetti-western archetypes.

Dahai (Jiang Wu), for instance, evolves from a mining-union official infuriated by his former buddies’ enjoyment of the perks of corruption into a rifle-toting equaliser – but not before the gang bosses have him beaten about the head with a spade.

Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) finds satisfaction and relief from the daily grind of responsibility by carrying a firearm and blithely offing anyone he can steal from.

Sick of being palmed off with second best by her married lover, a massage-parlour receptionist (Zhao Tao) snaps and resorts to violence. 

The final case is sadder still, as a handsome young factory worker (Luo Lanshan) deserts the production line to work as a bus boy in a bizarre hotel brothel and befriends one of the young whores, until he sees her at work. Plotlines interweave and settings shift: from Shanxi province to Chonqing to Dongguan.

Blending his usual documentary aptitude for catching street-corner deals and time-killing attitudes with a new-found flair for bloodletting that indicates a close relationship with production company Office Kitano, Jia has made a hard-edged, well-engineered satire of underlying bitterness that enjoys its violent displays coldly while hitting its political targets.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issueSee also Kieron Corless’s blog post, Three morality tales for our times.

Debate

The Last of the Unjust

Screening Thursday 10, Sunday 20

Lanzmann’s documentary is another of his painstaking excavations of memories of the Holocaust, the fulcrum of which is a riveting interview carried out in the mid-1970s with a charismatic former Jewish elder placed in charge of the Nazis’ so-called model camp at Theresienstadt.

Gradually a complex portrait emerges of an individual placed in an impossible historical situation – a miraculous survivor left suspended between self-criticism and self-exculpation.

— Kieron Corless, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issueSee also Geoff Andrew’s blog post Dark mirrors.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn

Screening Saturday 12, Thursday 17

This courageous portrayal of government-sponsored suppression by blackmail, torture and murder involved director Rasoulof breaking a 20-year work ban and resulted in him leaving off the credits in order to protect the crew who made this film. It’s a low-key, realist thriller which focuses at first on a pair of paid thugs, one of whom, Morteza, believes their work of intimidation and worse is justified by sharia law, and the other, Khosrow, whose son is sick in hospital, worries that he’s receiving divine punishment for the violence he’s dishing out.

Their main aim, on a typical bleak winter day, is to extinguish all written evidence and perhaps witnesses to a botched assassination attempt on the lives of several dissident writers, and their principal target is Kasra, an author who hopes merely to leave Iran and see out his last days in Canada.

Presented in a dispassionate matter-of-fact style, the phone calls, interrogations, and acts of violence take on an equivalent charge of to-the-marrow horror. Though the tone and pacing are not always spot on, this is a film which, given it was made illegally, could hardly be more devastating.

— Nick James

Manila in the Claws of Light

Screening Saturday 19

Lino Brocka was the sharpest thorn in the side of the Marcos dictatorship, a gay director of commercial melodramas who always did his best to foment social unrest and protest against the regime’s lies and injustices. The ‘moth-to-the-flame’ metaphor in the title of his greatest film refers to Julio, a country boy who comes to Manila to look for his kidnapped fiancée and inevitably finds himself stuck in the city’s lower depths: dangerous labouring jobs, treacherous friends, even a disastrous stint as a male prostitute.

The archetypal ‘third world’ story of rural-to-urban migration and the traps waiting for innocents in the slums was never better told. Brocka worked with idealistic producer-cinematographer Mike De Leon and with actors from PETA, the theatre-group he ran for underprivileged kids, but the film is never naively humanist. On the contrary, by drawing on his memories of John Garfield movies Brocka is inventing a new form of Filipino film noir.

— Tony Rayns

Laugh

Computer Chess

Screening Thursday 10, Friday 11, Sunday 13

Shot in woozy period-era black-and-white video, Bujalski’s meticulous low-tech recreation of a 1980s cybernetic conference competition between computers that play chess establishes its potent nerd charm from the boot-up. Amusingly cerebral and peculiar males (plus one female), each given to hapless puzzlement at technical failure – and indulgence in conspiracy theories as to the causes thereof – ponder the many arcane byways and cul-de-sacs of perhaps transient knowledge.

Watch out for the cameo appearance of film critic Gerald Peary as Henderson, the chess master whose task it is to beat the winning computer.

— Nick James

Love

Child’s Pose

Screening Thursday 10, Friday 11, Wednesday 15

This compelling drama centres on well-heeled Cornelia Kerenes (Luminita Gheorghiu), who has doted on her grown-up son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) so overpoweringly that he avoids her altogether. But when he kills a child in a road accident, she and her well-connected sister Carmen (Illinca Goia) move in to influence the outcome.

A film straight out of the recent Romanian tradition of acute psychological realism, Child’s Pose (an awkward translation which apparently refers to the position of the foetus in the womb) compiles a tragedy of Greek proportions out of keenly observed detail, all of which comes to a harrowing climax when Cornelia visits the family of the dead child.

— Nick James, reviewing from Berlin in our April 2013 issue. See also Geoff Andrew’s blog post The best of the Berlin Film Festival 2013

Gloria

Screening Thursday 17, Sunday 20

With the growth of the ‘grey’ audience, we’ll likely see many films in the near future that focus on people in their fifties and sixties, but Gloria is the first I’ve seen that follows a Chilean woman of that age who’s active on the singles scene. An energetic dancer and game flirt, Gloria (Paulina García, who won Berlin’s Best Actress prize) handles partners and potential dates with a realistic aplomb that shields her desire for sincere affection.

When Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), owner of an amusement park, persuades her to date him, he seems a considerate, gentle lover. Though he takes many calls from his children, he claims to be recently separated from his wife. The crisis comes when he vanishes from the seaside resort he’s taken Gloria to for the weekend and she, in her despair, goes on a bender.

What’s so refreshing about Lelio’s social observation here is its subtle acuity. Rarely does a film centred on one person achieve such satisfying and consistent grace notes. And the way García performs Gloria’s tiny rituals of self-preservation would win over the hardest of hearts.

— Nick James, reviewing from Berlin in our April 2013 issue. See also Geoff Andrew’s blog post The best of the Berlin Film Festival 2013

Model Shop

Screening Saturday 12, Monday 14

A romantic dirge traced in the hazy endlessness of LA, Model Shop was likely the opposite of what Columbia Pictures had in mind when it enlisted Demy after The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. With the Vietnam draft hanging over him, uninspired, unemployed architect George (Gary Lockwood) lets his girl go, avoids the repo man who’s after his Green MG, hangs with Psychedelic band Spirit (whose muffled tunes waft through the rest of the soundtrack) and follows glamorous muse-in-white Lola (Anouk Aimee) to her day job as a rent-a-model who poses in flimsy sets behind a cheap storefront.

Nothing unfolds predictably, as the tight-T-shirted Lockwood becomes as potent a visual object as Aimee. Model Shop mines the same vein of wanderlust, frustration and spirituality that pervades the darkest moments of Bacharach-David or the Beach Boys.

— Edward Crouse, selecting Model Shop for our 75 Hidden Gems: The Great Films Time Forgot feature, in our August 2007 issue

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

Screening Friday 11, Monday 14, Wednesday 16

The latest feature from Canadian Côté (Curling, Bestiaire) is arguably his best yet, a low-key one-off that often pleasurably wrong-foots the viewer as it gradually flowers into something subtly affecting and memorable.

Two female ex-con lovers seek sanctuary in an isolated shack deep in tranquil Quebec woodland and attempt to put their lives back on track, notwithstanding the unwelcome intrusions of a prying parole officer, some unfinished nasty business from their criminal past, and their own inevitable demons.

Côté’s expert melding of genres and touches of black humour never feel self-consciously quirky or mannered, and give the film an engaging freshness and unpredictability. He’s admirably served by his two leads, Romane Bohringer and Pierrette Robitaille, their lived-in bodies and faces providing all the backstory the viewer really needs – Robitaille especially is a perfect, heartrending incarnation of wary reticence and coiled fatalism.

— Kieron Corless

Thrill

Heli

Screening Wednesday 16, Saturday 19

It begins with the eponymous head of the family (Armando Espitia) bloody, bound and gagged in the back of a pick-up truck, seemingly headed for his execution. Flashback shows his teenage daughter love-struck about a dumb soldier, whose idiotic scheme to realise their romantic dreams leads to violent revenge and torture (the latter includes – look away now – setting fire to genitals).

Journalistic consensus in Cannes had it that these scenes would prevent Heli from winning anything, yet the jury gave Escalante a well-deserved Best Director prize. For this is a rigorously constructed, painfully evocative film about drug-gang violence, busted hopes and good-natured Mexican passivity getting pushed to breaking-point.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issue.

Omar

Screening Sunday 13, Monday 14, Thursday 17

This study of resistance and political double-cross from Palestinian director Abu-Assad (Paradise Now) is everything a genre film should be: convincingly acted, sure of its world and constantly surprising.

Three friends collude in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, only to find themselves compromised by the military police. Betrayed by one of his pals, Omar (a brilliant Adam Bakri) must prove his continuing loyalty to the cause while fending off the threats of his torturers.

The film is like the best episode of Homeland you’ve never seen, except that it’s much more convincing.

— Nick James, reviewing from Cannes in our July 2013 issue.

Experimenta

From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf

Screening Sunday 13

The cool, faux-objective gaze of Direct Cinema receives a twist in this film collaboration with Indian cargo sailors, a singular and delightful self-portrait-cum-sea-shanty. The mariners’ journeys across the Arabian sea to Pakistan, Somalia and the Persian Gulf aboard wooden boats loaded with everything from livestock and cars to boxes of pasta were not only recorded by the filmmakers but also by the sailors on their mobile phones.

Meals on deck, packed hulls, the hive of Dubai’s port in the shadow of its gleaming towers, dolphins, boats on fire, shipwrecks – everyday life aboard these precious vessels is intimately detailed in grainy footage, and serenaded by the sailors’ choices of soaring Bollywood ballads of lust and woe.

— Isabel Stevens, from her FID Marseille blog report Docs go wild.

Mille Soleils (in Cinema (Redacted))

Screening Saturday 12, Sunday 20

Diop’s fantasy documentary is an epilogue of sorts to her now-deceased uncle Mambéty’s ground-breaking 1973 Senegalese road movie Touki Bouki, whose restless young lovers Mory and Anta dreamt of the riches and heady times awaiting them in Paris.

Mory, of course, in that film’s final scenes, turned back while the ship sail off with Anta onboard. Diop returns to Dakar 40 years later to discover what happened to Magaye Niang, who disappeared from cinema after that one performance. Yet this isn’t an ordinary, interview-based coda, more a film that is suspended between Mambéty’s fiction and Diop’s.

For all the deliberate echoes of Mambéty’s film (particularly the all-pervasive sense of longing), Diop has her own style: she doesn’t just riff on his film nostalgically, rather exploring the political situation in Dakar now and critiquing the hedonism of 1970s youth.

It’s also a love letter: a contextualisation and tribute of the sort often made in homage to canonical American and European films, but which African cinema rarely receives.

— Isabel Stevens, from her FID Marseille blog report Docs go wild.

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