At the start of the 2015 London Film Festival, festival director Clare Stewart announced it was “the year of the strong women”. Our summary of the best of the festival suggests that she just might have been right. The likes of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara for Carol, Brie Larson for Room and Carey Mulligan for Suffragette feature heavily in our top picks, proving that the talented female performers who have always existed are finally getting more of the attention they deserve.
Things are less promising behind the camera, but leaving aside gender politics for a moment, this has undoubtedly been a great year for LFF. Whether you’re into slow cinema like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour or high quality blockbusters like Steve Jobs there has been plenty to enjoy. Our team of reviewers – Tom Bond, Tori Brazier, Rachel Brook and Nick Evan-Cook – have reviewed 80 films between them, and watched many more. Here are their highlights:
Nick: This has to go to Ewen Leslie’s searing turn in The Daughter, Simon Stone’s superlative adaptation of his own adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. As fragile family man Oliver, Leslie’s raw emotional power makes him a stand out from an already universally stellar cast. Special mentions go to both Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel for their sensitive performances in the excellent two-hander The End of the Tour, young Jacob Tremblay’s astonishingly mature showing in Room, and Jae-yeong Jeong for displaying some fine nuances in Right Now, Wrong Then.
Rachel: The relatively unknown Ben Foster (Six Feet Under, Kill Your Darlings) elevates Stephen Frears’ rather conventional biopic into a compelling watch. The Program may not be film of the festival, but Foster takes best actor. He inhabits Lance’s uncompromising competitiveness and calculating determination from the film’s opening, even bringing fierce intensity to what should be a casual game of table football.
Tori: Michael Fassbender was charismatically unlikeable as Steve Jobs, and Ben Whishaw provided excellent support in contrasting roles as gruff husband in Suffragette and deranged hotel guest in The Lobster. In the end though, it’s a two-way tie between Johnny Depp’s welcome return to form in Black Mass, where he is virtually unrecognisable, and newcomer Christopher Abbott in James White, who truly defines the meaning of putting heart and soul into your performance.
Tom: Young Max Brebant almost stole this for his fearless turn in Evolution, handling a complex and sinister range of emotions with the skill of someone three times his age. Bryan Cranston and Jason Segel were also superb as two very different types of writer: Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo and David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, but this has to go to Vincent Lindon in The Measure of a Man. His impassive, world-weary expression is heavy with the weight of breadline struggles and the spectre of unemployment, but there’s an inspiring resilience behind the eyes that stays with you for a long time.
Nick: Not counting Cate Blanchett’s monumental turn in the sumptuous Carol (she should be made to act with a paper bag on her head just to level the playing field), the young ones ran away with it this year – all of Odessa Young (The Daughter), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), and Pili Groyne (The Brand New Testament) proved to be excellent finds as they brought a lot to their respective films. However the pick of the bunch has to be Brie Larson’s long-overdue break into the big-time in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. She anchors the film perfectly as she shows both great strength and great vulnerability, often within the same expression. Props also go to Laia Costa’s towering, two-hour, uninterrupted take in Sebastian Schipper’s bravura Victoria.
Rachel: This was a year of awe-inspiring collaborations between pairs of actresses, both in Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, and Senna Lenken’s My Skinny Sister. But there can only be one best actress. While the greatness of these paired performances is partially due to casting directors’ observation of ideal chemistry, Room’s Brie Larson needs no such assistance (though she does have a strong companion in Jacob Tremblay). Get a sneak peak ahead of Room’s January release by watching her raw and unforgettable turn in Short Term 12.
Tori: Carey Mulligan’s central performance is the main reason for Suffragette’s success – her fictionalised laundry worker prevents the film from ramming well-known incidents down the audience’s throat. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are both exceptional in Carol, infusing what is essentially a small, personal story with great meaning and passion. Saoirse Ronan edges it though in Brooklyn, with a seemingly even smaller story of one girl’s journey from Ireland to New York, in a perfectly judged and beautifully nuanced performance.
Tom: If I’d seen Room, I’d probably be voting for the indomitable Brie Larson as well (she was robbed of an Oscar for Short Term 12), but instead it has to be Zhao Tao for Mountains May Depart. She’s sensitive, soulful and simply a joy to watch. Plus, as great as my runners-up were (Blanchett, Mara and Mulligan), none of them ended their films by dancing to Pet Shop Boy’s Go West in a snowy field.
Nick: This is probably slightly biased as I absolutely revere long-take cinema, but the top two here are Son of Saul’s László Nemes and Sebastian Schipper of Victoria – both favour the intricately choreographed long-take as they push the boundaries of what cinema is capable of. For the sheer ambition of Victoria’s enterprise, Schipper squeaks it as he proves that a genuine one-take film can go beyond being just an interesting exercise, showing it as a viable and scintillating method for shooting a thriller.
Rachel: In Assassination, his sprawling fifth feature, Dong-hoon wrangles a large cast and a complex narrative, managing not only to make it coherent, but also to juggle what could be contradictory tones without jarring or detracting from the drama of the plot. Best of all, from this epic border-crossing tale a perfectly formed and profound familial tragedy emerges.
Tori: John Crowley directs Brooklyn with a light touch, enabling all of his actors to utilise their own personal strengths, be they quiet and honest (Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson) or goofier and more vigorous (Julie Walters, Emory Cohen). The Witch, however, as a first feature, sees Robert Eggers demonstrate an amazing capacity to handle both a more ‘basic’ genre (horror), and imbue it with depth and sophistication, as well as direct commanding performances from the children and adults alike.
Tom: I’m a bit of a Boyle-sceptic, so I was delighted to find a new level of focus and restraint in his direction for Steve Jobs. Petr Zelenka was also close for his masterly control of comedic tone in Lost in Munich, but in the end Todd Haynes was just too good with Carol. In many ways he had the easiest job in the world directing two such magnificent performances from Blanchett and Mara, but he deserves a lot of credit for shaping that relationship on-screen and echoing it in his lonely and longing visuals.
Nick: Both Carol and The Daughter have their worlds and their moods stunningly and woozily evoked by their gorgeous photography, but in terms of sheer beauty Ping Bin Lee’s work on The Assassin is on another level altogether. Limiting himself to a 1.41:1 aspect ratio, Lee packs more beauty into single frames than many films manage within their entire duration. Whether it’s the jaw-dropping shot of a cloud descending slowly onto a mountaintop, a lush birch forest or a simple curtain-adorned interior, The Assassin is a showcase for this master of his craft working at the peak of his powers.
Rachel: Although both Queen of Earth and Couple in a Hole utilise their natural settings to lovely aesthetic effect, in A Perfect Day Alex Catalán’s cinematography distinguishes itself for unusual camera angles, visual rhymes, and by finding the unlikely beauty in a war-torn country. A clear winner.
Tori: James White demonstrates great use of handheld cameras, particularly in its claustrophobically long opening shot of Christopher Abbott’s face as he stumbles home from a rave. Yves Bélanger’s work in Brooklyn triumphs though, because of his gorgeous shots of rural Ireland and smoky Brooklyn, alongside a muted but rich colour palette reflected in the costumes – natural beauty has never looked better.
Tom: There are two clear front-runners for Best Cinematography. Laurie Rose’s photography in High Rise is comfortably the best thing about an otherwise flawed film, bringing bottomless claustrophobia and vivid punctuations of colour to the nightmarish tower block, but he’s no match for Manuel Dacosse. His cinematography in Evolution is mesmerising, and powerful enough to conjure a feeling of dread all on its own. Visual motifs repeat and evolve, and Dacosse is always in the thick of the action, letting darkness seep into every frame.
Nick: This goes hands-down to playwright Donald Margulies’ adaptation of David Lipsky’s book for The End of the Tour. Brilliantly played by its two leads, what really shines in this script is the dialogue – the film is essentially just two guys talking, and little happens in terms of narrative – but so absorbing and poignant is this dialogue that you’ll find yourself wishing that The End of the Tour could go on forever. Honorary mentions here go to Sang-soo Hong’s equally dialogue-rich two-hander Right Now, Wrong Then, Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch’s brash, uproarious Tangerine, and the ever-reliable Aaron Sorkin for the propulsive Steve Jobs.
Rachel: Queen of Earth’s dialogue has got some absolute zingers. Thankfully this time they’re uttered by characters who, though deeply flawed as people, are far more enjoyable to spend time with than the insufferable lead of Alex Ross Perry’s last outing, Listen Up Philip. Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston play off each other ferociously, flinging Perry’s barbed digs back and forth with the wild abandon of two people who know each other almost too well. This isn’t just the best script on show at LFF 2015; Queen of Earth also features some of the best delivery which realises the potential of Perry’s screenplay.
Tori: Aaron Sorkin may be in fine fettle for Steve Jobs, but it’s not quite enough to rival John McNamara’s work on Trumbo, which is nothing short of sparkling in its witticisms and wisecracks. Some may argue that this reflects badly on the more serious aspects of the film’s blacklist topic, but it is such a welcome surprise that I beg to differ.
Tom: Petr Zelenka’s script for Lost in Munich is a masterpiece of absurd comedy that turns the tables on its viewers with gleeful abandon and no little skill at every opportunity. Even so, it’s not quite as good as the script for El Club, written by Pablo Larraín, Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos. It deals with incredibly dark and complex moral issues in an incredibly complex way, turning over the problem from every angle in search of answers. At the end of it all, you just don’t know what to think; not through confusion, but a finely balanced set of conflicting lives.
Nick: Those keeping up with the sheer pace of reviews coming out on ORWAV over the course of the festival will be unsurprised to learn that this one goes to Simon Stone’s The Daughter, with Carol, Room, The Lobster and The Pearl Button (which I didn’t see at LFF but caught at Berlinale) making up the list of those that came closest. The Daughter – whilst occasionally veering into histrionic territory that may not suit all tastes – is an immaculately put together slice of familial drama, every single beat of which is sold utterly to the audience by its universally outstanding cast. It says much about the calibre of acting on show that the great Geoffrey Rush is not a particular standout (though brilliant and understated all the same). The score (from Top of the Lake‘s Mark Bradshaw) and cinematography (Mark Commis of The Rocket) combine to make The Daughter a film of aching beauty as Simon Stone, “enfant terrible” of Australian theatre, shows a deep and rich understanding of his material and the human emotions it evokes.
Rachel: From spiritual sisters, to actual sisters in Sanna Lenken’s masterpiece, an unassuming yet undeniably powerful drama which slam-dunks its way to best film. My Skinny Sister offers exciting ice skating choreography, a catalogue of youthful anxieties, meaningful consideration of an important and relevant issue, and a torrent of truthful emotions which it feels almost too intrusive to keep watching. The final half hour is an especially nerve-wracking watch; expect agitated fidgeting and desperate breath-holding – in short, total engagement.
Tori: With no standout film, this year’s LFF still provided several very good ones. For outstanding acting, Carol would be the best; for subversion of expectations, it would be Steve Jobs; and for sheer enjoyment, Trumbo would come out on top. Brooklyn’s lush looks and poignant story could be enjoyed time and again – but perhaps the best overall film in terms of atmosphere, impact and a fine cast, and one which has already provoked a strong reaction, is Suffragette.
Tom: Carol leaves an indelible mark on your mind, but it’s not as inspiring, as playful or as joyous as Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. The Iranian director has been banned from making movies by his government, and this film is a revolutionary act, proving that voices of dissent and hope cannot be silenced easily. It’s not just a gimmick either; it’s a powerful, thoughtful piece of social commentary in its own right. More than any other film at the London Film Festival it shows how important cinema can and should be.