LFF17 Official Competition, Gala & Special Presentation reviews: “Downsizing”, “Call Me By Your Name”, “Lady Bird”, “Good Manners”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, “You Were Never Really Here”, “Thoroughbreds”, “Loveless”, “The Shape of Water” and 13 others…

Films reviewed: “Battle of the Sexes”, “The Breadwinner”, “Breathe”, “Call Me By Your Name”, “Downsizing”, “A Fantastic Woman”, “The Florida Project”, “Good Manners” (pictured above), “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, “Lady Bird”, “Last Flag Flying”, “Lean on Pete”, “Loveless”, “The Lovers”, “Mudbound”, “120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)”, “The Shape of Water”, “Sweet Country”, “Thoroughbreds”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, “You Were Never Really Here” and “Zama”.

“Battle of the Sexes”, “Breathe”, “Call Me By Your Name”, “Dark River”, “Downsizing”, “A Fantastic Woman”, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”, “The Final Year”, “The Florida Project”, “Happy End”, “Journey’s End”, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, “Lady Bird”, “Last Flag Flying”, “Looking for Oum Kulthum”, “Mudbound”, “The Party”, “The Shape of Water”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, “You Were Never Really Here” and “Zama”.

London Film Festival 2017 was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, First Feature, Journey, Laugh, Love and Thrill. Here are the Official Competition, Gala and Special Presentation reviews. Follow @halfacanyon for more. Here are the reviews…


Battle of the Sexes
– 5/10

Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue
Strand: American Express Gala
UK release: 24 November, 2017
US release: Out now
“Think about it: male chauvinist pig battles hairy-legged feminist.”

Dayton and Faris – a filmmaking couple retrospectively hated for Little Miss Sunshine but sometimes accidentally praised when mistaken for Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck – serve up a tennis biopic as by-the-numbers as the sports pun used within this very sentence.


The Breadwinner
– 7/10

Director: Nora Twomey
Writers: Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis (novel)
Starring: Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Laara Sadiq
Strand: Official Competition
UK release: 25 May, 2018
US release: 17 November, 2017

A beautifully animated, thought-provoking tale which is more for adults than children. I plan on writing something more in-depth next year.


Breathe
– 3/10

Director: Andy Serkis
Writer: William Nicholson
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander
Strand: Opening Night Gala
UK/US release: Out now
“So I just lie here and you do all the work.”

Serkis’s live-action debut, a decade-spanning biopic of Robin Cavendish’s battle with polio, could be mistaken for a fake-film-within-a-film. Even though the aggressively upbeat, surface-level drama advances through the years Boyhood-style, it feels as if the rushed shoot was done within a week. Breathe is almost certainly a personal project for its producer, Jonathan Cavendish, but perhaps some emotional distance was needed. As it is, Garfield, as Robin, has one trick: to over-smile throughout the pain. Meanwhile, Foy, as his wife, Diana, gets reduced to a cardboard cut-out who efficiently stands in the background while Garfield proves he can cry on cue.


Call Me By Your Name
– 9/10

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: James Ivory, André Aciman (novel)
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Boisshall
Strand: The Mayor of London’s Gala
UK release: Out now
US release: 24 November, 2017

I tangentially wrote about this wonderful film here. (Also, according to Twitter, I was the first person to make the now-tenuous “absolute peach” wordplay.)


Downsizing
– 3/10

Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
Strand: BFI Patrons’ Gala
UK release: 19 January 2018
US release: 22 December 2017

The festival responses to Downsizing have, in a way, matched the trajectory of Matt Damon’s everyday (aka painfully bland) protagonist in Payne’s small-minded sci-fi. The plot synopsis and Venice premiere were met with ecstatic responses and plenty of 5-star reviews. Then something happened. When I saw it at LFF, there was a gigantic press queue and the fevered excitement was palpable; afterwards, you could hear the murmurs of disappointment. In other words, the critical support has gradually shrunk, and hopefully there’s no turning back.

It’s not that I needed – or even wanted – a Honey, I Shrunk Myself & We Will Never Have Kids scenario, but what’s the point of Downsizing if, aside from a single rose, everyone and everything we see on screen is the same size? It’s just a messy setup for a stale, painfully unfunny second half that introduces one-note characters and posits some ugly politics – and that’s even without the racist caricature. Even if we give Payne the benefit of the doubt that he’s subverting stereotypes, the laughter I heard at the screening suggests viewers are happy to laugh at an Asian woman’s broken English. It also didn’t help that the critic next to me found it funny just to hear that Chau’s name is Ngoc Lan Tran.


A Fantastic Woman
– 7.5/10

Director: Sebastián Lelio
Writers: Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra, Amparo Noguera
Strand: BFI Flare Special Presentation
UK release: 2 March 2018
US release: 2 February 2018
“Sorry if this is crude and overblown, but I really think this is just perversion.”

Daniela Vega deserves all the plaudits she hopefully receives next year. Vega plays Marina, a transgender woman whose life is not only rocked by the death of her husband, Orlando, but also the subsequent transphobia she receives from, well, everyone. “Was he paying you?” and “Go destroy somebody else’s family!” she’s told. These micro-aggressions and not-so-micro-aggressions accumulate, causing Marina to feel the weight of the world and its elements against her. But she resists and battles back. Above all, it’s a rich, moving portrait of a woman who, like the title character of Lelio’s underrated Gloria, has a confident, engaging command of the screen.


The Florida Project
– 8/10

Director/Writer: Sean Baker
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones
Strand: Festival Gala
UK/US release: Out now
“You’re not supposed to be having fun.”

I wrote a mini-review of it here. Also, my interview with Sean Baker for Tangerine two years ago is here.


Good Manners
– 7/10

Original title: As boas maneiras
Director/Writer: Juliana Rojas, Marco Dutra
Starring: Isabél Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano, Miguel Lobo
Strand: Official Competition
UK/US release: TBC
“Aren’t you looking for a nanny?”

There’s plenty to chew on in Brazilian duo Rojas and Dutra’s shape-shifting movie about shape-shifting characters. At first, it seems to be a typical social-realist drama, involving a posh, pregnant white woman, Ana (Estiano), who expects her black nanny Clara (Zuaa) to contribute to housework. But then there’s a midnight make-out session, a half-eaten cat and – well, it’d spoil it to say too much. Above all, though, Good Manners is a fun romp which mixes genre pleasures with weightier subjects like class inequality, homosexuality, and that sometimes you have to accept dodgy CGI in an otherwise elegant movie.


The Killing of a Sacred Deer
– 7/10

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Efthimis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone
Strand: Headline Gala
UK/US release: Out now
“Can I have your MP3 player when you’re dead? Please, please, please.”

My interview with Yorgos Lanthimos and Colin Farrell is here.


Lady Bird
– 8.5/10

Director/Writer: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet
Strand: Surprise film
UK release: 16 February, 2018
US release: Out now

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is as wonderful as you’d hope. I wrote about it here.


Last Flag Flying
– 6/10

Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan
Starring: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne
Strand: Headline Gala
UK release: 26 January, 2018
US release: Out now

So that wasn’t the last detail? Linklater’s contemplative drama operates best as a semi-comedic road trip comedy; the central trio, all terrific, slide into the director’s trademark chatty, lackadaisical rhythms. But when it morphs into serious mode, the gravitas feels unearned, and you realise it’s time to hit the street. (I know it should be “hit the road”, but I didn’t want to use the word “road” twice in a three-sentence review.)


Lean on Pete
– 7/10

Director: Andrew Haigh
Writers: Andrew Haigh, Willy Vlautin (novel)
Starring: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny
Strand: Official Competition
UK release: 16 February, 2018
US release: TBC
“All the best women have been waitresses.”

When you’re a film journalist, a lot of people ask if it’s like that scene in Notting Hill when Hugh Grant pretends to be from Horse & Hound. Well, it is, a bit, and I’m considering pitching an Andrew Haigh interview to Horse & Hound just so that I have a one-sentence anecdote next time I’m at a party and am cornered by the pretzel table and have nowhere else to go.

Anyway, Lean on Pete, despite its hokey title, is a rather tender coming-of-ager about loneliness and coming to terms with the awfulness of life. 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) is the somewhat unlikeable lead who reacts to the hospitalisation of his father by running away with a horse, also called Leon on Pete, in search of his aunt and, he hopes, a mother figure.

There’s a comparison to be made here with American Honey, another youth-filled drama about hitchhiking in America by a British filmmaker. But Haigh goes for a less showy film, absent of Rihanna on the soundtrack, and he instead presents a young kid on a solo mission. Charley rejects the affection shown towards him – many of the supporting roles are grumpy but supportive men (Steve Buscemi) and kind women (Chloe Sevigny) – and his poor decision-making might be off-putting to most audiences. Yet Haigh captures the recklessness of being young, naive and desperately yearning to leave everything you’ve ever known behind. And with Plummer, it feels like you’re actually watching someone grow up on screen.


Loveless
– 7/10

Original title: Nelyubov
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Writers: Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Maryana Spivak, Alexey Rozin, Matvey Novikov
Strand: Official Competition
UK release: 9 February 2018
US release: 1 December 2017

Only shallow? Zvyagintsev’s follow up to Leviathan has a plot that’s not too dissimilar to the sketch in Chris Morris’ Jam where two parents take days to realise their child is missing. Except Loveless is composed, confident filmmaking, eking out every bit of hopelessness from a family scenario that’s supposed to mirror contemporary Russia. (Or maybe I’m reading too much into this.) It’s such a draining watch, in fact, that it’s taken me a while to take it all in, but there are certain images (a crying child behind a door; a visit to the morgue; a jog on a running machine; the final shot) that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.


The Lovers
– 5/10

Director/Writer: Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aidan Gillen
Strand: Official Competition
UK release: TBC
US release: Out now

Winger and Letts are, of course, excellent, as is the concept of a couple no longer in love yet still unable to part – regardless of younger alternatives waiting on the side. But unlike Terri and Doll & Em, Jacobs’ divorce drama feels too detached and lacking in emotional weight. Despite a neat moment involving Madness’ “It Must Be Love”, the music is totally at odds with the script and performances.


Mudbound
– 7/10

Director: Dee Rees
Writers: Dee Rees, Virgil William, Hillary Jordan (novel)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J Blige, Rob Morgan, Garrett Hedlund
Strand: Royal Bank of Canada Gala
UK/US/Netflix release: 17 November 2017

Dee Rees’s poetic, evocative period-drama should really be seen in a cinema, not on a laptop. That said, I saw it at 8:30am on one of London’s biggest screens and I can’t wait to watch it at home with full concentration.


120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)
– 8.5/10

Original title: 120 battements par minute
Director: Robin Campillo
Writers: Robin Campillo, Philippe Mangeot
Starring: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel
Strand: Official Competition
UK release: 6 April 2017
US release: Out now
“He threw the blood too soon. It’s happened before.”

Brilliant. I’ll have more thoughts next year when my interview with Robin Campillo goes online.


The Shape of Water
– 6.5/10

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Strand: American Airline Gala
UK release: 16 February 2018
US release: 8 December 2017

Del Toro’s anti-fascist fairytale is certainly gorgeous, inventive and rich in cinematic pleasures – yet it doesn’t quite step into the extra gear that made the Mexican director’s other films feel so personal and essential. Only when the monster eats the cat does it touch the emotional complexity of his best work.


Sweet Country
– 7/10

Director: Warwick Thornton
Writers: Steven McGregor, David Tranter
Starring: Sam Neill, Ewen Leslie, Thomas M. Wright
Strand: Official Competition
UK release: 9 March 2018
US release: TBC

I hate westerns and period-dramas, but even I found Thornton’s devastating drama was taut, moving and compelling. Make sure you see it in a cinema.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
– 6/10

Director/Writer: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
Strand: Closing Night Gala
UK release: 12 January 2018
US release: Out now

As pointed out by Richard Brody in the New Yorker, Three Billboards feels like a movie written in reverse: the plot contrivances are mapped out with such delicacy that the characters’ traits (or lack of) come across as retrofitted. Still, McDonagh executes his revenge tale with some killer dialogue (aided by a superb cast, of course) and is mainly let down by an eagerness to punch down at every other opportunity.


Thoroughbreds
– 5/10

Director/Writer: Cory Finley
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin
Strand: Official Competition
UK/US release: 9 March 2018

Everything about it the concept, direction and acting is brilliant – except I just didn’t find it funny. Worth noting that, from what I’ve heard, it’s been a total crowdpleaser at press screenings and festival outings. But I saw it during the daytime, at a public screening, and there was almost no response to any of the jokes. Maybe I’ll need to see it again.


You Were Never Really Here
– 8.5/10

Director: Lynne Ramsay
Writers: Lynne Ramsay, Jonathan Ames (novel)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Strand: Headline Gala
UK release: Early-ish in 2018
US release: 23 February 2018

The new Drive (as opposed to being the new Only God Forgives). I’m in total awe of Johnny Greenwood’s score. Will write more about this next year. Watch a different space!


Zama
– ?/10

Director: Lucrecia Martel
Writers: Lucrecia Martel, Antonio di Benedetto (novel)
Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele
Strand: Special Presentation
UK/US release: TBC

Martel said after the screening that Zama should be consumed like a shot of whiskey, and that if you fall asleep it means you liked it. Which suggests that I’m a fan. It’s bewildering and will require a second reading before I write about it. And also because I’m at no liberty to maintain this blog and I don’t even advertise it on social media and I’m not sure why I spent so long writing up every film I saw. See you next year!

Follow @halfacanyon for more. Unfollow @halfacanyon for more.

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About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Feeling pullovered apart by clothes horses. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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