LIFF31: The Best Films

And the Leeds International Film Festival is almost over. Before we emerge from the darkened cinema room, blinking in the crisp November sunshine, its time to hand out this year’s awards. The film festival itself has some awards, obviously, but I’m talking about the highly-esteemed, much-coveted, Rum and Popcorn Film Awards. So without further ado, it’s time for the Rum and Popcorn 2017 award ceremony!

The 2017 Rum and Popcorn Documentary Award

Brimstone and Glory

Documentary was a mixed bag this year, but Brimstone and Glory and Gaza Surf Club shone through as best in show. While I almost certainly learned more from Gaza Surf Club, Brimstone and Glory was so fabulously cinematic that it just had to claim the prize. Both excellent films.

The 2017 Rum and Popcorn Re-screening Award


An astonishingly strong line-up this year. Volver only narrow beat the likes of The Wages of Fear and Nikita to this prize. It’s an absolute joy to watch from start to finish.

The 2017 Rum and Popcorn LIFF Official Selection Award

The Florida Project

The strongest of the official selection was Sean Baker’s tale of life, struggles and loss in Florida motels. Visually stunning, fantastically cast and absolutely full of joy and life and beauty. And sadness. Superb film-making. Honourable mention here goes to The Stuff of Dreams which was a completely unexpected favourite of mine.

And finally…

The 2017 Rum and Popcorn LIFF Films of the Festival

The Breadwinner Mutafukaz Canaries

There were a few very near misses – The Bar, Dave Made A Maze and Summer Time Machine Blues were so nearly on this list – but these were each truly fantastic in their own way. Animation had a strong year this time round: The Breadwinner and Mutafukaz are probably at opposite ends of the spectrum in many ways but I was gripped by both from start to finish. Canaries was a much later entry and just shows how great low-budget genre film can be with a little imagination. A stylish, self-contained, clever film.

Even. More. Films.

A few days ago I was writing my summary of the first 20 films of the film festival. Suddenly, we’re up to 40! And just as it was a strong first 20, it’s been a strong second chapter.

It was followed by Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum, a documentary on the Magnum photography agency’s interactions with film over the years. All in all it was just a little too slight. There were some pretty pictures, a few funny anecdotes, but that was it really. Similarly weak as a documentary was Suzanne Ciani : a Life in Waves. It could easily have been subtitled “how one trailblazing, innovative and imaginative woman wasted decades making crummy new age ballads”. A whole lot of self-congratulatory patting on the head but not a lot of much interest.

Gaza Surf Club was the first documentary that really lived up to that word. Fantastic stuff. We’re taken on a tour of the beaches of Gaza city where Palestinians are riding the waves. Faced with the impossibility of importing surfboards, limited materials and repair skills, social condemnation (especially of the women) and more, they keep doing what they love. It’s a touching and illuminating little documentary that crucially refuses to take sides. It never explicitly condemns anyone, which is particularly rare in the charged atmosphere of Israeli-Palestinian affairs!

Equally enthralling, although perhaps slightly less educational was the astonishing Brimstone and Glory. The story of the annual celebrations in the Mexican town of Tultepec – home of the fireworks – its one of the most impressive cinematic spectacles I think I’ve ever seen. The residents built enormous pylons to which they strap tonnes of fireworks (“castles”) and build huge bulls which they – you’ve guessed it – stuff with fireworks. Then they proceed to wander about, climb the pylons, run with the bulls etc. all while the fireworks explode in all directions. Its terrifying stuff and I never, ever want to visit Tultepec but it’s truly astonishing.

There were a lot of strong retrospective screenings in this chapter. The Wages of Fear is a fabulously tense road trip with a truckful of nitroglycerine (only let down by being too long), whilst The Man on the Roof is a film that has no real idea what it wants to be. It starts as a police procedural murder mystery, swiftly abandons that and becomes an action movie that quickly moves from being at least halfway serious to being almost slapstick. It’s a weird one.

Diva, Nikita and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were all fab to see on the big screen, bringing international conspiracy, espionage action and grisly murder investigations respectively. Elsewhere, El Diputado brought a heady mix of post-Franco Spanish politics, homophobia and communism and The Vanishing contributed kidnapping and some seriously creepy characters. There was a good range to the retrospectives this year – a nice mix of big screen famous and unearthed Euro-thriller gems.

Which brings us, finally, to modern fiction! The Stuff of Dreams was a fantastic retelling of the Tempest on a Sardinian prison island. Simple, focused and beautiful it was one of my surprise favourites of this batch. Following that, Arcadia was an astonishingly beautiful montage of a century of BFI footage of Britain; Under the Tree a truly tragicomic depiction of loss and neighbourly-hatred in Iceland; The Teacher a small-town satire of authoritarian control and corruption in a school classroom. Better still were The Florida Project – Sean Baker’s touching tale of life in Florida motels – Bad Genius – an absurdly over-dramatic story of Thai students cheating their way to STIC exam success – and the truly fabulous Summer Time Machine Blues. This ticked every time-travel cliché in the book as it managed to make an expansive, fun and silly film despite being pretty much limited to one room and 6 characters. With heaps time-travel silliness, this doesn’t take itself too seriously at all and was a joy to watch.

It would easily have been the best of the fiction if Canaries hadn’t dropped in at number 40 to challenge it. Canaries is (mostly) British genre film done right. As with Summer Time Machine Blues they manage to make a little go along way – aside from a few shots in American hotel rooms, pretty much everything here revolves around a handful of people in one house in a small Welsh town. And yet it manages to create the feeling of global threat, of a real disaster taking place that is much bigger than what we see. An absolute gem. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they do next.

Best five new films:

  • The Stuff of Dreams
  • Summer Time Machine Blues
  • The Florida Project
  • Canaries

Best two re-screenings:

  • The Wages of Fear
  • Nikita

Best two documentaries:

  • Gaza Surf Club
  • Brimstone and Glory

So. Many. Films.

Oh my. So many films. It was naive to think I stood a chance in keeping up with reviewing these. With hardly any time leftover for essentials like eating and sleeping, there’s no way I can write up full reviews of all of these films. I’m 24 films in already, having blogged properly about just 7. Ouch.

So rather than worrying about that, it’s probably time to take stock of what I’ve seen and fast-forward over a handful of things I’m just not going to review. So this is a round-up of the first 20 films I saw of LIFF31 (or LIFF2017 as they seem to insist on calling it this year).

The Square and The Killing of a Sacred Deer got their own write-ups. Veronica, The Bar, Dark Owl Shorts, Cold Skin and The Endless were covered under the Day of the Dead 11 post. Happy End was just OK. So what else?

Leeds United! was a moving tale of the 1970 Leeds clothworkers’ strike. Compelling viewing. And then animation day brought a whole slew of wonders. I think Lu Over The Wall (beautiful Japanese tale of kinda-vampiric-kinda-friendly mermaids) and The Breadwinner (Afghani girl earns for her family after her father is imprisoned) each merit their own write-up – watch this space – as they were easily amongst the best things I’ve seen. Likewise for Mutafukaz (a fast-paced crime-filled action romp through Dark Meat City. In French). Perfect Blue rounded out the day: a thrilling slice of anime crime-drama from the 1990s. The only real disappointment was Big Fish and Begonia which had a lot to like about it (crazy rat lady! dragon spells! crossing between the worlds of life and death!) but never really came together as an interesting film. Even so, animation day was great this year.

And that takes us to 14. Next up was The Lodge – organ accompanied Hitchcock murder thriller in a foggy 20s London (fab stuff). I was less impressed by Gabriel and the Mountain. G&tM follows the (true) story of Gabriel the Brazilian as he explores Africa. It’s actually a fantastically put together film. The landscapes are stunning, the scenes of daily life in Tanzania, Kenya and around are fascinating and its filmed sensitively: you never feel like a tourist, and nor does Gabriel. Instead you’re invited into people’s homes, out on hunts, and to marketplaces. It’s only really let down by Gabriel himself being such an utter… twerp that viewing becomes painful. He’s unpleasant to his girlfriend, short-tempered, arrogant and egotistical. Ugh. As he puts himself in danger by steadfastly ignoring sensible local knowledge and advice you (I) just stop caring about him.

Next up If I Think Of Germany At Night was a slice of behind the scenes techno documentary. It was a little thin. A handful of talking heads explain why they think their scene is important. A few scenes of techno playing in clubs and festivals. And that’s it. It felt a bit of a missed opportunity really: I can’t believe anyone watching learnt anything very new from it.

The first 20 was rounded out by a trio of retrospectives. We get classic Fulci giallo Don’t Torture a Duckling – child-killing mysteries in a small town. Is it black magic? Or something worse? – bonkers Czech political satire The Party and The Guests – I suspect this could do with another viewing. I think some of the cleverness went over my head a bit – and Almodovar materpiece Volver. It was absolutely stunning to see Volver on the big screen, from a 35mm print no less. The colours, the music! Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura steal the show but every bit of this film is a treat. Especially Chus Lampreave’s bonkers old Tia Paula! This is classic Almodovar, combining social criticisms, Spanish superstitions and family drama to stunning effect.

And that’s it. First 20 done.

But what were the best? What’s up there as candidates to win one of the uh… much coveted Rum and Popcorn film awards? I figured I’d trim each twenty down a bit. So here’s the summary of chapter one:

In no order, best 5 new films:

  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • The Bar
  • Lu Over The Wall
  • The Breadwinner
  • Mutafukaz

In no order, best 2 old films:

  • Volver
  • Perfect Blue

Day of the Dead 11

It’s the weekend at the Film Festival and the films are coming thick and fast. With no more than 45 minutes between each film, trying to do individual write-ups is probably a doomed gesture. So here’s the Day of the Dead 11 round-up, just dipping into each film as it whizzes past.

First up was Veronica from [REC] director Paco Plaza. Given that [REC] was a zombie series with a serious leaning towards demonic possession, Plaza’s already demonstrated his skills in this area. Here, though, he goes full on and really ramps up the demonic elements. We get ouija, blind nuns, shattering glasses, occult symbols, shadowy figures and all the fun and games you’d expect. This is definitely a solid and creepy possession film but… it’s probably not much more than that. Plaza sticks to the tropes and imagery you’d expect and doesn’t really challenge the genre too much. This is fine, and it means this is a tight, efficient thrill ride – lots of foreboding, lots of jump-scares, lots of tension – but at the end of it all I’m left feeling a little bit like I’d seen it before. The focus on children was pretty neat though, and certainly helped to ramp up the scares.

Next up was a strangers-trapped-in-a-small-place thriller, de la Iglesia’s The Bar. It started tense – snipers are picking off everyone who leaves a Madrid bar, a disparate bunch of strangers have to band together to survive – and just keeps on turning it up a notch. There are a few missteps – the amazingly tight, fast-paced narrative loosens a bit towards the end and it loses focus a little – but its a genuinely thrilling ride. The characters are almost all rich and well-developed, far better than the simple types you often get in these kind of films, each with their own complexities, weaknesses etc. And how is it possible that a film about a bunch of strangers dying one by one actually makes me miss living in Madrid? No idea. Great stuff.

The shorts were a very mixed bunch. Some Kafka-esque weirdness (Gone), some plot-scrawled-on-the-back-of-an-envelope-and-probably-should-have-stayed-there disappointments (Sons of Bitches), some why even bother making that (Strays), some decent-zombie-film-but-way-overlong-at-more-than-30-minutes (Lau and Laudrup) and some others (Witches Milk). The star of the show was undoubtedly Clankerman. So very British in its bonkers belief in a hidden bureaucracy carrying out petty annoyances. It’s also available online. You should go and watch it now.

Penultimate feature was Cold Skin. It was… OK. Some blue scampering merman-fishmen-sort-of-like-Avatar people attack a British weatherman, stationed on the island for 12 months to record the wind. He spends most of the rest of the film fighting them as they attack the lighthouse he’s holed up in. And it’s about as much fun as that sounds. There are definitely some colonialism overtones (whose island is it anyway?) to unpick but I can’t really be bothered. This felt ever so much like a short that someone had accidentally made into a feature film.

The day was rounded out with The Endless, in which we follow two brothers who got escaped an “alien death cult” a decade ago… back to the cult they left. I was flagging a bit by this point so perhaps it didn’t really get the attention it deserved, but it never really quite got going. The premise was interesting, the characters were well-developed and intriguing and – without giving too much of the plot away – the scifi/fantasy elements were intriguing and well presented but something was off. Enjoyable, but largely forgettable.

Really, the surprise of Day of the Dead this year was quite how light on horror it was. Veronica was the only one of the day with real horror credentials. As much as I loved The Bar, enjoyed the shorts and The Endless, none of it was really scoring high on the horror notes. Great fun. Needed more scares and/or splatter.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

If The Square was somewhat less than I was expecting, The Killing of a Sacred Deer pulled it back by going way beyond what I was hoping for. To be fair, this is partly because I’d forgotten almost everything I knew about it… I’m usually a little suspicious of big name actors doing intense genre thrillers – too often they pull their punches and aren’t as tense, brutal or imaginative as you might expect from a more indie offering. So Colin Farell and Nicole Kidman didn’t exactly leave me optimistic about this one. Add on the fact it’s getting a full cinema release and you start to wonder whether its even worth it being in the film festival at all.

But wait.

I’d forgotten who the director is. Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t mess about. Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t pull punches. Yorgos Lanthimos makes The Killing of a Sacred Deer every bit as unsettling as you could hope for. If you’ve seen Dogtooth or Lobster you know that this is going to be intense, weird, and fascinating from start to finish. It’s nothing much like either of those two films but the same touch is present here.

It’s fantastic he’s getting to do such high-profile projects. I think if you’d told me as I left Dogtooth at the Hyde Park Picture House many years ago, that Lanthimos would be directing Farell and Kidman in an English language film on general release I’d have laughed at you. Or assumed he’d have sold out, toned it down for a wider audience. But the weird keeps going at full pace.

The big name cast are excellent here. The script gives Kidman a lot less to do than Farell, but there’s no doubting that the real star here is Barry Keoghan as Martin. I’m especially keen to give nothing of the plot away, so let’s just say that Martin is an odd boy.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a treat. If you like a thriller, or have enjoyed Lanthimos’ films, it should be right up your street.

The Square

And so here we are. Another year, another film festival. This one’s got heaps of goodies to explore – screenings of Nikita, some exciting looking horror, the who-knows-what-it-will-be-like craziness of Dave Made A Maze… And once again, pass in hand, I’m going to as many as possible. And writing up as many as possible here. Will I make it to the end? Will I give up writing reviews halfway through? Will I fall asleep in the comfy seats at the Everyman (again)? Who knows?

So without further ado, onto the first film of the year!

The Square won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This makes it serious cinema. Not a serious film, you understand, but serious cinema. A proper film. A film that people-who-know-about-film think is a really good film.

I didn’t much like it.

We follow museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) in his descent from suave media-savvy middle class chic to broken man, rummaging through the bins. Via daylight robbery, one-night stands, threatening letters, showdowns with children, and a monkey impersonator. So far, so good.

But the film sacrifices what little it has by way of narrative for a series of spectacular set-pieces. I can be as negative as I like about this film but I could never deny that it has some truly memorable (and toe-curling!) scenes. Similarly, there’s no escaping that its a beautiful film: some of the shots are absolutely stunning.

The strength of these elements only serves to throw the things it lacks into stronger contrast though. Put simply: I don’t care. Every other character in the film only really serves as a backdrop against which Christian’s flaws can be demonstrated – we scarcely see a conversation in which he is not involved. And at the end of the day that means I spent two and a half hours watching a man make some crummy decisions, employ a PR agency straight out of Nathan Barley, alienate everyone he should be close to, etc. etc. etc.

It looks amazing. Bits of it are fantastic. But as a film it just doesn’t hit the right notes. (But I’m not the Cannes jury…)