To close out our coverage of the London Film Festival for 2018, here is the obligatory Top 10 list. You can find all 39 (39!) individual reviews over at this here link or hop to the full reviews of each film mentioned in this countdown by clicking on the respective links in each entry. This was, on the whole, a pretty excellent year in terms of pure quality at the Festival and there was no shortage of potential candidates, but here are the ones who made it.
Timur Bekmambetov decides to show everyone else what the potential of a ScreenLife movie can be when handled correctly with this gripping, tense, uncomfortable, and at times wilfully silly thriller based (in very broad strokes) on the true story of a journalist going undercover to get in contact with online ISIS recruiters following a wave of female conversions. The tone is wild and overblown as is Bekmambetov’s specialty, but the ScreenLife conceit not only fits the undercover journalist genre like a glove, it also allows the film to make genuinely insightful points about identity, connectivity, and empathy in the digital age, without actually denigrating technology as a whole by recognising that these are topics that human beings and societies as a whole have been grappling with for millennia rather than something inherent to that evil Bogeyman, the Internet. Tense, innovative, and surprisingly deep for those willing to engage with it, Profile is the best example yet of what this mode of storytelling is capable of.
09] A Family Tour
Ying Liang goes semi-autobiographical in this tone poem of a Chinese filmmaker forced into exile in Hong Kong because of her refusal to capitulate her personal politics to the whims of an authoritarian Chinese government, and the soul-crushing strain it has put upon her and her family life as a result. Liang’s film courses with an exhausted anger over government censorship and suppression, of being truly angry about this injustice and the pain it causes but being too tired from the hoops he has to jump through daily in order to keep on living that he is physically unable to raise his voice beyond a sigh, but it’s his ability to situate this introspection within a world that brims with life outside of this story that provides the film its biggest kick. It’s something a lot of East Asian art cinema directors forget or fail to include, and Liang here demonstrates how powerful that additional life can be to your movie.
There are only a few ways that Matteo Garrone’s latest feature – about a sweet-natured dog-groomer living in a low-income Italian village and the thug cocaine addict who bullies and abuses him at every turn – could end up, but that predictability is actually an asset for this harrowing pressure-cooker drama which tightens the noose remorselessly and in gripping fashion. What elevates the film into true greatness, however, is Marcello Fonte giving one of the year’s best performances, perfectly embodying the character of a kind-hearted doormat being pushed to levels of desperation that scare him, backed into corners he’s forced to lash out from, and so innately likeable a presence that it only makes the shit he gets put through hurt that much more.
07] The Fight
“That was her debut!” one critic exclaimed in absolute shock when The Fight was brought up in conversation, and her reaction was not unfounded. Jessica Hynes’ first time behind the camera has a confidence and skill that can elude directors who have been doing this for years, crafting one of the most accurate-feeling depictions of working-class British life I have ever witnessed, free of grand gestures or kitchen-sink operatics and operating in a tired melancholy that’s brutally honest for how mundane it is. Her screenplay examines bullying and abuse across generations with empathy and tact in a manner that hit me right in the gut based on my own experiences with those, and that’s a power that many similar dramas would kill for. I can only hope Hynes has an itch to get back in the director’s chair post-haste because I want to hear what else she’s got to say yesterday.
Mamoru Hosada plays the long game with this domestic family dramedy. Downplaying his signature flights of fantasy into something explicitly metaphorical, and focussing on communicating the mundane fears of parental life and the jealousies of a four-year-old upon the arrival of a younger sibling with a specificity that makes each joke and each dramatic beat land with a surprising relatability. Mirai spends about 80 minutes as the best depiction of a stressed family trying to adjust to a new-born child since The Rugrats Movie, but then Hosada unleashes his sucker-punch with a finale that celebrates all the impossible coincidences and seemingly insignificant decisions that bring each of us into this world and, in the process, the beauty of family. It’s the perfect cherry on top of the Festival’s only major animated feature this year, but what a feature!
05] Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Just pure joy from start to finish. Even if you have no idea who Fred Rogers was or what Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood represented or how much he and it meant to generations of Americans, Morgan Neville’s documentary about the man and the show is essential viewing. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a patient, ultra-sincere, unapologetically kind film without a single ironic bone in its body. A monument to decency and goodness, a reminder of the value in being good in this cruel world, and an ode to what children’s entertainment is capable of when it stops insulting the intelligence of its target audience, all delivered in a way designed to ensure that there’s not a single dry eye left in the house by the time it ends. Simply wonderful.
04] I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story
Jessica Leski’s joyous corrective to a collective societal dismissal of boybands on systemically-misogynistic grounds was the most purely enjoyable moviegoing experience I had at the Festival this year. A fun nostalgia trip, a loving ode to fandom and teenage girls, and a firm rebuttal to the sexist notion that women of any age aren’t eloquent or sure in their mind when it comes to what they like, Leski’s documentary celebrates four ordinary women for who they are by letting them speak their minds and tell their personal stories free from judgement or mockery. We need more films like I Used to Be Normal in our current society, writing ingrained wrongs and fighting back against negative gender stereotypes through love and compassion.
03] Sorry to Bother You
I cannot stop thinking about Sorry to Bother You. I believed that I was doing it dirty by chasing my viewing with that of another movie immediately afterwards instead of letting it sit for a while, but those fears turned out to be completely unfounded since Boots Riley’s incendiary debut film absolutely refused to be lost in the shuffle of this past fortnight. Ambitious, audacious, stingingly funny, more inventive over the course of 111 minutes than other films an hour longer and some directors display across careers spanning 30 years, and an utterly scathing takedown of late-Capitalism as nothing less than the rebirth of White supremacy genially repackaging slavery as the humane product of benevolent tech-bro billionaires… Words cannot fully describe Sorry to Bother You, do any kind of justice to the provocative genius encased within, or prepare you in the slightest for it. My biggest regret across this entire year is that I didn’t give this the full “A grade” when I had the chance.
02] If Beale Street Could Talk
Were Barry Jenkins’ masterful follow-up to Moonlight being released in the UK this year, rather than being arbitrarily withheld until next February for no goddamn reason, then my Top 5 for the year would entirely consist of Black films by Black filmmakers. (This is not a coincidence.) But even with that additional fact, this beautiful adaptation of James Baldwin’s lyrical 1974 classic of American literature stands apart thanks to its empathetic portrayal of two childhood lovers done wrong by the systemic racism of the American justice system. A film that bristles with fury over the broken and prejudiced law that punishes innocent Black folks for the apparently unconscionable “crime” of being Black in America, a film that may be set in the past but knows it doesn’t need to belabour the parallels to how little has changed today, yet also a film that refuses to give in to the cynicism and despair that such a system is designed to breed by clinging onto the support systems of love and a devoted family that can make staying alive in the face of such a rigged game worthwhile.
It is extremely rare for a film that sounds absolutely perfect on paper to not only live up to those expectations but exceed them in every single facet, yet the 2018 Opening Gala made such an achievement look like a complete cakewalk. Steve McQueen updates Lynda LaPlante’s seminal 1980s British TV series, with aid from co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn, for present-day Chicago and the result is what snobbier critics typically deem a “thinking man’s blockbuster,” serving up pulse-pounding genre thrills alongside examinations of abuse in its many forms, political corruption, and a patriarchal society that alternately beats and completely ignores women. It’s a wide-ranging film that somehow moves with such focus and precision that it’s not until the house lights come up that the viewer realises they haven’t breathed properly for two full hours. Sensational.