It’s hard to pick favorites, but here are the best films from this year’s London Film Festival.
This year’s London Film Festival presented a slate of films of very high quality. I missed some “big” films due to lack of seats at some press screenings (this happened to me twice during two screenings of the same film). I’ll be able to see some of them in the US soon. This is a great year for films shot in 35mm, so see the films in theaters when you can (even better if you can see them projected on 35mm, which is a rare opportunity these days). Speaking of watching movies in theaters, yes, I wore a mask at every screening I attended: I was one of a very small percentage of the audience to do so. I’ve heard a lot of people coughing (including me because I had a cold this week), so here’s your friendly reminder that COVID is still widespread, cold and flu season is inevitable, and the movies aren’t worth it to get sick because of him. However, cinema provides exciting and sometimes calming entertainment in a world that is becoming crazier every day. It’s hard to pick favorites, but my top films from this year’s festival Memory, May December, Wilding, EileenAnd Unmoored.
Memorywritten and directed by Michel FrancoAfter Lucia, Sunset) Jessica Chastain plays Sylvia, a single mother who lives in a small New York City apartment with her teenage daughter Sarah (Elsie Fisher from Eighth grade And Castle Rock). Sylvia works at an adult day care center for people with developmental disabilities; she is a recovering alcoholic and has little social life. She comes from a wealthy family, from whom she lives separately. A colleague convinces Sylvia to go to a high school reunion at a local bar, and Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) comes and silently sits next to her. Sylvia seems to recognize him and decides to leave. He follows her home and stays outside until the next morning. Sylvia understands that the man needs help; She finds a tag on Sol that says he has dementia. She calls his brother Isaac (Josh Charles), who is picking up Saul, and apologizes for the inconvenience.
What follows is a rather complex trajectory that begins with a disturbing glimpse into the past: Sylvia’s faulty memories of the traumatic events of high school are complicated by Saul’s frequent memory lapses. Both Sylvia and Saul have to contend with manipulative family dynamics: Sylvia has problems with her self-absorbed mother (Jessica Harper gives a great cameo); her sister Olivia (a complex, powerful performance from Merritt Weaver) supports her but is wary of acknowledging Sylvia’s troubled past. Some parts of the narrative seem implausible at times, but a great cast holds this somewhat dark, yet tender and redemptive story together.
I’ll write a longer review May December soon, but it’s worth saying that this film marks both a stylistic departure and a return to form for Todd Haynes, who moved away from his melodramatic roots with Dark Waters (based on the landmark case of an environmental lawyer), and now tells the true story that has long been tabloid fodder. The film is based on the life of Seattle schoolteacher Mary Kay Letourneau (played by Haynes’ frequent collaborator Julianne Moore), who was jailed after her sexual relationship with a 13-year-old student was discovered. The script chronicles an event that turns a 20-year marriage on its head. Natalie Portman plays a popular Hollywood actress starring in a film about a famous couple (scripted by Sami Birch – Gracie and Joe). She asks to meet with the family to research Gracie for what could be a career-defining role. This unlikely scenario is rendered with incredibly varying tonal complexity, from soap opera to black comedy to suspenseful psychological thriller. And there are searing performances from Moore, Portman and Riverdale’s Charles Melton as Joe.
My colleague Peter Keogh will be reviewing EileenA stunning new thriller starring Thomasin MacKenzie and Anne Hathaway, but I’d like to quickly point out that the style of this film, directed by William Oldroyd, is period style (Lady Macbeth), stunning, sensual and unforgettable. Superb cinematography by Ari WegnerThe power of the dog), and meticulously executed costume design by Olga Mill (hereditary And First Reformed) pay homage to Todd Haynes’ color symbolism. Carol.
I have seen Eileen that same day I saw Wildingthe documentary I “agreed” to after not being invited to the matinee screening May December. God, how lucky I was to see this beautiful, fascinating, moving documentary on the big screen. WildingThe film, based on the book by Isabella Tree, tells the story of Knepp Manor, a large rural farming estate in the south-east of England where an interesting experiment has been carried out over the past two decades. The owners of the 350-acre site, Charlie Knepp and his wife Isabella, decided to radically change the way the property had been treated throughout its 300-year history. They let nature take over. By restoring ancient species of cattle, pigs and horses, they allowed lands devastated by decades of intensive chemical industrial agriculture to return to their roots. They encouraged the rich natural diversity of the land, which nourished the soil and supported a complex ecosystem of insects, birds, flora and fauna, many of which were on the brink of extinction.
The ambitious project was not without obstacles, including fierce opposition from neighboring farms. But the resulting changes, captured in heartbreaking footage, have been nothing short of miraculous and inspiring, including the return of species not seen in the area for more than 600 years. This wonderfully moving film, narrated by Isabella Tree, is a balm in these troubling times as we move forward on a planet in peril.
Unmoored is a tense psychological thriller from Swedish director Caroline Ingvarsson. Famous TV presenter Maria (Mirja Turestedt) is having a hard time dealing with a scandal caused by sexual harassment allegations against her husband Magnus (Thomas Gabrielsson), a famous writer. The situation exposes tensions in their marriage, including Maria’s grateful hours of work editing her husband’s books. En route to a holiday in Morocco, an angry confrontation with her husband leaves Maria desperate to escape on her own. She travels to England, booking a stay at a remote cottage on the moors. Alone, she recalls the events that precipitated her escape, feeding her paranoia and tearing her away from reality. There’s a touch of folk horror here; Maria’s rapidly developing mental state is influenced by a ghostly nature. A strong cast, including Chris Hitchen as Mark, a kind local who befriends Maria, anchors this delicate story with gritty, believable emotion.
There will be short reviews in my next and last newsletter. Shoshana, Treasure, Stopmotion, Hungry AcreAnd Last summer.
Peg Aloi former magazine film critic Boston Phoenix and a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, Critics Choice Awards and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over ten years. She writes about film, television and culture for web publications such as Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, microphone, Orlando WeeklyAnd fucking disgusting. Her blog, The Witching Hour, can be found on substack.