Louis Bayman and Theo Smith offer a glimpse of the films that will be jostling for position come awards season, as well as a chance to find out about the films that won’t appear elsewhere on British screens.
If we were to sum up the main gala presentations at the festival in a word, it would be: mixed. Sam Mendes’ 1980s-set Empire of Light offers some touching moments. But its shifts from comedy to more serious political and emotional subject matter don’t really come off as all that convincing, leaving this a pleasant but insubstantial experience. Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry make Lila Neugebauer’s Causeway a watchable character study. An army vet finds difficulty overcoming her injuries – both physical and emotional – but, rather like its central character, this film struggles to really go anywhere beyond its opening premise. The Wonder, which sees Florence Pugh’s English nurse called to a rural town in 1860s Ireland to attest to the miracle of a girl who apparently survives without eating, has moments of psychological thriller, religious commentary and folk horror that were a bit too sporadic for us to really enjoy. We were surprised that Corsage won the Official Competition for the Best Film of the festival. Last year’s winner, the Iranian comedy-drama Hit the Road, was a classic for the ages, whereas Corsage’s intriguing aspects make it worth a watch but don’t really merit the highest accolade of the festival.
A number of international auteurs polarised critical opinion at the festival. Alejandro Iñárriu’s Bardo was either visionary self-referentiality or bloated self-indulgence. Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave had some audience members falling asleep and others praising a return to the crime-story verve of Oldboy and sexual tension of The Handmaiden. Both Florian Zeller’s The Son and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wale were praised, respectively, as touching portrayals of mental illness and eating disorders, while also receiving criticism for being mawkish exploitation. Noah Baumbach either succeeded in filming Don DeLillo’s ‘unfilmable’ postmodernist novel White Noise or produced an incoherent mess.
So here we get to the good news: our critics’ picks of the festival. Unlike the films already mentioned which divided opinion, we have decided to make our picks the unambiguous winners of their own custom-made categories, all the better to guide you through this autumn’s upcoming cinema releases. – LB
Best female feature debut
The year 2022 will easily go down as a vintage year for debuts by women filmmakers at the festival. From Australia, there was artist Del Kathryn Barton’s Blaze, a visually sublime and audaciously crafted portrayal of a young suburban girl (Julie Savage) who retreats into a fantasy world constructed in her bedroom after witnessing a horrific act of sexual violence. This was a fascinating yet riveting watch from a neurodivergent stance. From the crowded American indie market rose Liquor Store Dreams, a personal documentary from So Yun Um that uses her father’s business as a springboard to explore generational family gaps, historical Asian stereotypes in pop culture and racial tension between Korean-American and Black-American communities – a sweet sincere film from a distinctively fresh voice. Meanwhile, on UK shores, Georgia Oakley’s low-key drama Blue Jean (nominated for Best First Feature Award at the festival) is a quietly searing look at the plight of the queer community in Thatcherite Britain when a woman’s dual life from PE teacher by day to frequenter at a local lesbian bar by night comes under threat.
But amid this rich selection, nothing came close to topping one of the festival’s most sought-after entrees, Aftersun. Hot off the heels from critical acclaim in Cannes and Edinburgh, Charlotte Wells’ debut arrived with huge anticipation amongst critics and public audiences alike, especially with involvement of rising star Paul Mescal from Normal People playing a divorced father who takes his young daughter (newcomer Frankie Corio in a breakout role) on holiday in Turkey. But within this deceptively simple premise evoking summery nostalgia in its ‘90s setting (particularly in its subtle music choices taken from bands like The Lightning Seeds and Catatonia) is an autumnal reflection on childhood memories, how they get framed in our subconscious or become relics on camcorders, and how the naïve innocence of childhood our own parents’ struggles. And it is the achingly sad afterthought at the end of these long reflections which Wells sharply articulates through subtle visual suggestions and carefully crafted performances from Corio and Mescal, where the film finds a devastating emotional tug. Not just an impressively confident opening statement from Wells, but one of the finest films to be released this year and we urge you to seek it out when it hits UK screens in November. – TS
Best blockbusting entertainment
We were asked to give away none of the many spoilers to this sequel to whodunnit Knives Out. So let’s just say that it joins the exclusive ranks of a sequel that actually improves on the original film. Knives Out was best when its ensemble cast bounced off each other to showcase the devious stupidity of the idle rich. Such moments are extended here to cover the entire runtime of the film, making this the best-orchestrated, paciest, most note-perfect film you’re likely to see all year. – LB
Most bittersweet feelgood film
Just as a sequel will nearly always fail to live up to the original, one of the key rules of filmmaking is that only fools remake a classic. We therefore didn’t go into Living with especially high expectations. The original film, 1952’s Ikiru, is acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa at his bitter, philosophical finest, with a story about a lowly clerk who finds out he only has a few months left to live. The remake is not better than Kurosawa’s original, but its retro evocation of the final actions of a 1950s bureaucrat, played by Bill Nighy, has more than enough heart to make it well worth your time. The setting displays the manners and understatement of a lost world of regulation, hierarchy and colourless administration. However, the film’s nostalgic longing is for the possibility that this same world of constraint might also contain the values of mutual assistance that really make life worth living. – LB
Best extended display of evil
The festival continued Netflix’s reputation for dramatic adaptations of true crime stories, with two films that are already available to watch on the platform at the time of writing. Joel Edgerton stars in The Stranger, about the undercover operation that captured a child murderer. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain discovers the gruesome truth about Eddie Redmayne’s treatment of vulnerable patients in The Good Nurse. These are grim stories taken from real life told with sombre thoughtfulness. If you want to revel in the pure wicked fun of evil then try instead to see L’origine Du Mal, a French thriller in the mould of the suspense dramas of Claude Chabrol. A worker from an anchovy-packing plant arrives at a luxurious family mansion claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of its commanding, but ailing, patriarch. The question is not so much whether she has secrets to hide, but which family member’s wicked secrets will ultimately triumph in this domestic battle of mutual self-interest. – LB
Tommy Wiseau tribute act award
And then there was My Policeman, an adaptation of Bethan Roberts’s novel about a policeman called Tom in a friendship triangle involving two conflicting relationships: one is a closeted sexual relationship with art curator Patrick (David Dawson) and the other is his own marriage to schoolteacher Marion (Emma Corrin from The Crown). It has the middle-class comfortability of an early-2000s TV Soap drama destined for repeat on ITV3 but, most intriguingly, features a leading performance from current music sensation Harry Styles as Tom in his second film outing of 2022. I think Styles has the potential of becoming a fine actor in the future which is evident in his brief impactful appearance in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and even in Don’t Worry Darling as Florence Pugh’s picture-perfect husband. But his performance in My Policeman is the result of shoving a very inexperienced actor into a lead role requiring complexity that takes years of work to achieve, and the acting deficiencies are accentuated by a terrible screenplay and inert directing. One-note lines like “I think you have a dirty mind” are delivered with such emotional bluntness, plates are thrown across dinner tables in child-like tantrums, and orgasms are confusingly expressed; to say there was inappropriate laughter during the screening is an understatement. – TS
Most batshit crazy film
This year’s festival served up some enchanting animated films. From Cartoon Saloon’s latest tale, My Father’s Dragon, set on a sinking island with adorable animal designs that effectively harness the studio’s trademark 2D animation, to a more robust auteur offer in Guillermo Del Toro’s long-awaited adaptation of Pinocchio, which uses gorgeous stop-motion set against the backdrop of 1930s fascist Italy. But none of these are as batshit crazy and idiosyncratic than Spanish-French anti-war animation Unicorn Wars, about an army of religiously bigoted teddy bears raging a bloody war against environmentally friendly unicorns who reside in the magic forest. It is quite literally a fever dream hybrid of Care Bears meets Apocalypse Now as it delves into areas of phantasmagorical grotesque, even though its allegorical rhetoric is well-worn (for one, all the bears are male while all the unicorns are female). To put it simply, if a teddy bear priest throwing a grenade with a pink love heart on it into a bunch of charging unicorns sounds like a perfect night at the movies then be our guest. – TS
The BFI London Film Festival took place 5 to 16 October 2022. Select films mentioned in this review are now available to see at the cinema or on Netflix.
LB – Louis Bayman
TS – Theo Smith
Featured Photo: My Policeman (Michael Grandage)