By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 21, 2013 at 2:25PM
I'm a defender of the Oscar season in general—it's a rare chance to shift the conversation away from superheroes and talking cartoon animals, and onto films made for actual grown-up human beings. But it does also have the unfortunate side-effect of often framing the movies as nothing but competitors in a six-month long sporting season. As such, while it's certainly deserving, I wouldn't mind if no one ever mentioned the words Oscar and "12 Years A Slave" [A] in the same breath again, because a film this good is only cheapened by the awards-chasing.
Steve McQueen was always going to be a bold choice for a film like this; the former Turner Prize-winning artist's previous work has been austere, testing and tough, with a very particular style that wasn't especially tailored for the mainstream. He's certainly dampened it down here a little: there's a more classical feel to the work, even if the long shots remain intact. Nevertheless, perhaps even more so than "Shame" and "Hunger," it's an incredibly tough watch, McQueen refusing to hide the truth of slavery from the viewer for their own sake.
But as difficult as it can be to look at, the film's also enormously rewarding; there's a slow-burn to it that erupts with immense, sob-inducing catharsis at the end. The work across the board (perhaps bar Hans Zimmer's score, which is a little familiar, and a little over-reliant on "Inception"-style fart trombone) is phenomenal, from Sean Bobbitt's photography to the entire cast, with Chiwetel Ejiofor giving a performance for the ages. It's unquestionably one of the year's best films, and if there was any doubt, ensures McQueen's place in the history books.
Ejiofor was at the festival for another prestige-y film, the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's acclaimed best-seller "Half Of A Yellow Sun" [D+]. Written and directed by playwright Biyi Bandele, it tells the story of two well-to-do Nigerian sisters (Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose), and the men they love (respectively, Ejiofor's radically-inclined professor and Joseph Mawle's British ex-pat), as they're swept into the struggle for independence, and the ensuing Nigerian-Biafran War in the late 1960s.
Typically, Ejiofor's excellent, and initially, the film seems to have promise; Bandele clearly has some chops, and there's a flair and scope to his direction that's rare for a first-time filmmaker. But unfortunately, the scripting is much less successful, bouncing from incident to incident without much momentum or purpose, and never really digging into its characters or its setting (it feels like the novel's been faithfully put on screen beat-for-beat, but at the expense of any depth). And Ejiofor aside, the actors are either miscast (Newton doesn't really have the chops for her part here, and Mawle's ill-suited to his role) or wasted (Rose comes and goes from the narrative, and "Attack the Block" star John Boyega gets almost nothing to do as a houseboy). It's great to see a mainstream film about Africa actually focused on Africans, but it's a shame that this one is a bit of a misfire.
Also Nigeria-related, although set in London, is "Gone Too Far!" [C+], an adaptation of Bola Agbaje's hit 2007 stage play by director Destiny Ekaragha, who's made a number of winning shorts in the last few years. A mostly sweet-natured comedy with a little more on its mind, the film sees South London teenager Yemi (Malachi Kirby) come face-to-face with his Nigeria-raised brother (Nollywood superstar O.C. Ukeje) for the first time. Over a single evening, nominally on a mission to buy their mum okra, they clash, bond, and chase the object of Yemi's affections, the shallow Armani (Shanika Warren-Markland).
As a "Friday"-style comedy, the film's not wildly successful—it's broad to the extent that it sometimes feels like a 1970s sitcom, with a stereotype-happy approach to comedy, and while Ekragha has a good feel for local flavour, the lo-fi production values really show. But it's likable and has some smart things to say about multicultural London, particular in the clashes between the African and Jamaican communities. And if nothing else, it's great to see a film set in this world that doesn't even mention gangs or guns.
Looking, to some degree, at the immigrant experience on the other side of the pond is "The Past" [B+], the eagerly-awaited follow up to Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation." But really, that Ali Mossafa's Ahmad is Iranian informs the film, but isn't its focus; like the previous film, this is about the people, not where its from. Again, Farhadi's tracking in a kind of old-fashioned melodrama that hasn't been especially fashionable of late, with big emotions and a twisty plot.
It's the latter that makes this a little lesser than its near-perfect predecessor: in moments, particularly those related to the comatose wife of Tahar Rahim's Samir, it feels far-fetched and even contrived. But if the things driving them occasionally feel forced, the characters are still enormously compelling. Farhadi is one of our most compassionate and humanistic filmmakers, and gets marvelous performances from his cast, especially Cannes Best Actress winner Berenice Bejo, who gives one of the most convincingly hormonal depictions of pregnancy I've ever seen. It might not quite match up to its predecessor, but then, what does?
Another film I turned out to adore in the festival's closing days was "Only Lovers Left Alive" [A], the latest from Jim Jarmusch, which stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as vampiric rock stars Adam and Eve, dividing their time between Detroit and Tangier, whose comfortable, if ennui-filled, lives are upended by the arrival of Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).
The circumstances in which we'd be interested in another vampire movie are minimal, but this is one of them: it's a funny, deeply melancholy picture with a wonderful atmosphere, and a brace of fine performances (Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright and John Hurt also turn in excellent work). We'll be talking more about this one soon, but rest assured that it's probably Jarmusch's best in almost two decades.
"Exhibition" [C+], the latest film from British auteur Joanna Hogg, also deals with an artistic couple, in this case D (Slits member Viv Albertine, in her acting debut), and H (real-life conceptual artist Liam Gillick). The pair share a modern-build house in London, and have for eighteen years, but are in the process of trying to sell up. As with her previous films "Unrelated" and "Archipelago" (which both also featured Tom Hiddleston, who cameos as an estate agent here), Hogg's trafficking in a kind of bourgeois social realism, here leavened with a more expressionistic feel involving dream-like sequences and a nightmarish, borderline-dystopic sound design.
Hogg's never quite had her U.S. breakthrough, but remains an enormously talented filmmaker—that sound design alone is extraordinary, and the way she shoots the house and its exterior is intermittently fascinating. But her subjects are less compelling than in her previous work; Albertine and Gillick aren't bad, given that they're non-professional actors, but feel a little blank, and it doesn't help much that D's apparent dissatisfaction in life is resolved simply and early. There's much to admire here, but it still feels like the least of Hogg's three features to date.
In the festival's closing days, I also enjoyed "Let The Fire Burn" [B], a documentary about the tragic attempt by the city of Philadelphia to remove members of the MOVE group from a building in the 1980s, which ended in the death of eleven people (including children). It's a mind-boggling story, neatly told through archive footage, but the form constricts the film from adding much context or reflection. It's a great piece of journalism, but not quite a great documentary. Despite my distaste for most of his recent work, which has become increasingly self-absorbed, I quite liked Joe Swanberg's "Drinking Buddies" [B-]. Despite strong work from Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, the female characters remain fantasy figures rather than three-dimensional human beings, but the film does still feature some acute observation of the silences and nuances that drive relationships both sexual and platonic.
I had a less of a happy experience with "Gare Du Nord" [C] from French helmer Claire Simon, which melds drama and documentary in a look at contemporary France against the backdrop of its biggest Parisian station. There are some good scenes, and the two central performances, from Nicole Garcia and "A Prophet" thesp Reda Kateb are decent, but it's all a bit pat, and never wildly revelatory. It's still a masterpiece compared to "Blackwood" [F], a British supernatural thriller that wasn't just the worst film we saw at this year's festival, it might be the worst we've seen in ten years of attending the LFF. One of those films that's patently been designed around its late-in-the-game plot twist to the exclusion of anything else, it begins with a man who's recently had a mental breakdown moving with his family to a spooky house in the middle of nowhere, and only gets stupider from then out. The rest of the film competes to prove which is worse, the dialogue, or the actors reading it.
Finally, the festival closed up with "Saving Mr Banks" [B] Disney's delve into their history books to relay the story of how the deal to make "Mary Poppins" was closed. It's snake-eating-its-own-tail stuff, certainly, and only 24 hours on, hasn't lingered much in the memory, but it's charming, moving, and when it's focused on the creative back-and-forth between Poppins creator P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson (in her best performance in years), and the Disney creative team, it's legitimately insightful. Read the full review here.