Things I’ve loved about the opening days of the LFF

It’s been a lively few days as the 62nd BFI London Film Festival kicked off and I’ve been getting my new podcast together. 

Tuesday night I was lucky enough to be at a great gala for IWC and their annual film maker bursary which awards £50,000 to a first or second-time film maker with a British film in the festival.

I was on a table with past winners Hope Dickson Leach (The Levelling) and Daniel Kokotajlo (Apostasy), alongside the ever-enthusiastic Col Needham, CEO and founder of Imdb.com (yes, that ImDb).

The competition was tough this year and here’s my take on the nominees:

A scene from Ray & Liz

Ray & Liz

Ray and Liz

Ray and Liz is the cinema debut of artist Richard Billingham, revisiting scenes from his childhood in Birmingham in the early 1980s.

With the young Richard looking on from the sidelines, we experience stories about his father Ray and his mother Liz. 

Stitched together as a short series of small vignettes, Ray is a quiet, depressive alcoholic. Liz is an angry chainsmoker. There’s an episode with an uncle who comes to babysit but gets drunk. An episode where the little brother visits Dudley zoo, and a later framing device about Ray living alone in his room, downing pints of beer before breakfast.

This film is like the collection of photographs on which it is based, an extraordinary memoir that bursts with pungent detail and is still suffused with affection and sympathy. Ella Smith’s performance as Liz is particularly powerful.

It’s a film of unique texture and a brilliant eye for the comic and tragic aspects of British poverty.

Billingham makes a highly impressive leap from photography into cinema, bringing his images and his memories to dramatic life, and harnessing the pure emotional power of film at its best.

Only You

Harry Wootlif writes and directs Only You, a romantic story set in modern Glasgow, about a couple who meet over a row about a taxi on New Year’s Eve.

Jake is 26, while Elena is 35, and Spanish; he’s a DJ and marine biologist, she works at an art publishers. They experience a giddy love affair and we follow them as the harder realities of modern relationships kick in.

To say more would be to spoil it, but it’s tender and charming and it’s triumph is in making it all feel very real. Wootlif’s dialogue and style is naturalistic, yet with a heightened visual poetry, sensitive to the various lights of the seasons, the parks, the hills, the buildings, the institutions, the pubs and the nightclubs.

Both actors, Laia Costa and Josh O’Connor keep you watching and wavering, our sympathies rocking to and fro among them.

Wootlif has a European flair for this sort of thing – rather than any British film, she withstands comparisons to film makers such as Eric Rohmer or perhaps Richard Linklater. But it’s a film that reveals a sensitivity and honesty about the human heart and body where love is concerned.

A scene from Wild Rose

Wild Rose

Wild Rose

Writer Nicole Taylor takes a rollicking look at modern motherhood in Wild Rose, through the story of wannabe country singer Rose-Lynn, who’s just come out of  jail and is reunited with her two primary school-age kids. But what Rose-Lynn really dreams of doing is taking her talent out of Glasgow and going to Nashville.

Jessie Buckley is a powerhouse of contradictions as Rose-Lynn. She misbehaves but you want her succeed, even though she tries to sabotage herself. Julie Walters is her long-suffering mother and frustrated London producer Sophie Okendo becomes her local svengali.

With several heart-soaring musical numbers to chorus the action, it’s a clash of reality meets big dreams and disappointment  – the very stuff, of course, that country is made of.

Taylor’s writing is astute and attuned to the rhythms and pains of country, and Buckley, always in her white cowboy boots, delivers the role to perfection.

Taylor, who’s already won awards for her TV work on The C-word and Three Girls, is a female writer with bags of wit and wisdom, and she’s a deft hand at balancing emotions that subtly plucks at your heartstrings until they twang.

And the winner was… Richard Billingham.

Totally deserved, too, as Ray & Liz is a real work of art and I’d love to see more of what Richard can do with the movie camera. As for the others, Nicole is already in demand as a writer and I”m looking forward to seeing what Harry does next – I’ll be catching up with her and her cast on my London Film Podcast…

A scene from Widows

Widows

Opening Night was Steve McQueen’s Widows, which I thought was a great, thumping mix of arthouse meets heist movie, always surprising, supremely stylish and immaculately put together with wonderful performances from the actresses, particularly Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki. I loved the look of it, harking back to Sidney Lumet’s corruption movies, while forging a cool modern aesthetic and texture of its own. Plus always nice to reminisce about great British telly shows of the 80s and this update does the memory full justice.

I enjoyed seeing the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs again  – it was more exquisite than I thought, perfectly formed, six little minor movie masterpieces in one handsome volume. I got to hosted a revealing and entertaining (I thought so, anyway) Q&A with stars Tim Blake Nelson (re-uniting with the Coens after O Brother ), Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck and Harry Melling, who was Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potters and is brilliant in this.

Carol Morley’s Out of Blue was a real treat, a superbly atmospheric, original and fluid serial killer mystery set in New Orleans and starring Patricia Clarkson – it really seeps into your skin. Carol was a great guest on my second podcast, and well worth listening to as she explained her methods of working.

Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records

Dandy Livingstone in Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records

I loved Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records. What a cool documentary, using reconstructions to fill in the gaps of a story that begins in Jamaica and comes to west London, full of top tunes such as Dandy Livingstone doing A Message To You Rudi, and Desmond Dekker on British TV. Nick Jack Davies director with great energy and style, but also with a great grasp of the soul and cultural importance of the story of this brilliant record label.