With AFI and Rome the only major festivals left in the calendar, the close of the 57th BFI London Film Festival last night with the world premiere of "Saving Mr. Banks" signals the winding down of festival season. I'm starting to just about recover from a twelve-day binge of movies (although thanks to early press screenings and screeners, it actually went on for more like four weeks), but it's not too early to say that, in over ten years of attending the festival (and five as press), this was the best I can remember.
Last year saw long-time festival director Sandra Hebron make way for Clare Stewart, the former head of the Sydney Film Festival, and the result was a slightly awkward transition, with the 2012 fest proving to be a rather weak selection given the films that were available. But it's all been turned around in 2013, with strong opening and closers (including the first major world premiere at the festival since "Fantastic Mr. Fox" in 2009), a wide-ranging and expansive line-up, and a remarkably high quality of films in general, offering more testament to what a strong year for cinema 2013 is turning out to be.
You can catch up on all the coverage of the festival here but, as a taster, I've picked out five favorite films from the last few weeks. Excluded is anything we saw in Venice already ("Gravity," "Under The Skin" and "Tom At The Farm" might have been contenders otherwise), but fear not, because and there was more than enough excellent work amongst the fresh looks for that not to be an issue. Take a look at below and if you were there, let us know what you enjoyed in the comments section.
For all of the high-profile pictures that screened at glitzy premieres in London, the one that turned out to be my favorite of the festival was a film that barely registered on my radar going in, and that I watched on a screener at home. That film was Pawel Pawlikowski's stunning, enriching "Ida," which also happened to win the Best Film award at the festival, in a rare case of my own taste matching up with a festival jury's. The Polish-born Pawlikowski was behind two of the best British films of the '00s with "Last Resort" and "My Summer Of Love," but has had a tough decade: he'd shot more than half of an adaptation of Magnus Mills' "The Restraint Of Beasts," in the mid '00s, before having to pull out when his wife became ill (the film was never completed, and she died not long after). He returned last year with "The Woman In The Fifth," which got fairly mediocre reviews, but he's back on top form with "Ida," which also sees him making a film in his native Poland for the first time. Following a nun-in-training in the 1960s who discovers that she's really Jewish, and sets out on a road trip with her only living relative, an alcoholic aunt, it's undoubtedly indebted to Bresson in look and feel but still manages to be its own thing, rich in character and flavor, proving unexpectedly funny, sexy even, and featuring two star-making performances from Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza. And not to be too much of an aesthete, but it's also the most beautiful looking film you'll see all year: shot in Academy ratio black & white (digitally, but the best-looking digital you'll ever see), every frame is strikingly and stunningly composed. Music Box Films have the rights in the U.S. so keep a keen eye out for this in 2014.
2. "12 Years A Slave"
We only spoke about this one yesterday and even though it's now open in limited release, there remains a lot to be said about "12 Years A Slave"—it's the rare case in which, for all the rave reviews, your expectations will likely be exceeded. The last month or so has seen preponderance of survival narratives—"Gravity," "All Is Lost," "Captain Phillips," "How I Live Now" et al—but they're concerned with principally with surviving in terms of simply not dying. Solomon Northrup's story involves that, of course, but first and foremost it's about surviving in the body and soul, and how far the human spirit can be pushed before it breaks, as is made clear in the stand-out scene where outstanding debut actress Lupita Nyong'o begs Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon to kill her. As such, for all it's brutality, it ultimately remains hopeful about the human spirit, if not humanity itself. We spoke about Steve McQueen's direction yesterday, which is top-notch, but so much of the film's success comes from the work of its outstanding cast. Some viewers found the star-wattage of the film distracting, and we'll acknowledge that Brad Pitt's late-in-film appearance isn't the most successful, but it can be useful to see familiar faces to delineate a narrative that's decidedly episodic. More importantly, everyone who does turn up is superb, especially when you have one-sceners doing work of the quality that Alfre Woodard or Garret Dillahunt manage, while Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson and Adepero Oduye are particularly impressive in more substantial parts. As we said, Nyong'o has a star-making turn, while Michael Fassbender continues to get better and better, somehow bringing a glimmer of humanity to an otherwise out-and-out monster, and towering above them all is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He's long been one of our favorite actors but has never had a role like this, his charisma shining through even when Northrup has become a shell of a man. In other words: yes, it's as good as you've heard, and is most likely the best film ever made about slavery.