As we come to the end of a turbulent year in global news, we look ahead to find radical joy, meaning and imagination in the cinema.
Our film reviewers below headed to the BFI London Film Festival to search for the films of the year for you to seek. Ranging from the big releases to smaller rewarding films, we arrange them according to our very own special categories.
Heavyweight Champion of the World Award
This year’s London Film Festival was dominated by the return of the heavy-weight auteur, with new films from Michael Mann, David Fincher, Todd Haynes, Hayao Miyazaki, Sofia Coppola, Wim Wenders, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Errol Morris, Catherine Breillat, Jonathan Glazer and even Victor Erice (his last film The Quince Tree Sun was released over 30 years ago).
But in a year where the future of cinema has come under existential threat – actors and writers striking for better pay and better job security against the looming backdrop of artificial intelligence and the streaming boom – it’s fitting that one of the industry’s most revered and outspoken filmmakers returns with a late-career masterpiece.
At 81 years old, Martin Scorsese is finding a new lease of life thanks to an impressive late-career run in Silence (2016), The Irishman (2019) and now his latest American epic Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), an extraordinary dramatization of David Grann’s novel that systemically examines the industrialised gangsterism behind the 1920s Osage County murders of the local Native American population to powerful effect. As Scorsese said on the LFF red carpet when adapting these kinds of stories, “The aesthetics of it [the film] should enhance the journalistic idea”. Killers of the Flower Moon achieves this through a scope matched by unapologetic rage over historical injustice.
Killers of the Flower Moon is available to stream from January 2024 – TS
Most Touching Story Award
In Past Lives, written and directed by Celine Song, we follow Greta Lee’s character Nora reconnecting with her childhood friend Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo) from her youth in South Korea, where her family emigrated from to settle in Canada. We are taken back to scenes from their childhood together, then fast forward to their early adulthood where they find each other again, a virtual reunion filled with feeling and romantic potential. But, as life often reminds us, some things aren’t meant to be: the stars do not align and the couple drift apart once again.
As more time passes, Nora and Hae Sung settle into trajectories that separate and differentiate them, yet life brings them together again. Reconnecting with someone, something or some place that played a part in who you once were can be a challenging confrontation. How does it feel to observe or engage with what could have been? How will you deal with what you find? Past Lives explores just this, subtly and tenderly.
I often find myself wondering about what could have been if my parents made a different choice for their lives, our lives. What they had to let go. Who they would have been. In Past Lives, I see that being content doesn’t mean you are immune to imagining possibilities and mourning lost potential. There is so much feeling in this film, I loved it.
Past Lives is available to stream now – HH
The Everyday Evil Award for Global Trade
Any pact with the devil begins with an attractive proposition. Europa, directed by Austrian-Iranian Sudabeh Mortezai and set in a remote valley in Albania, begins with businesswoman Beate (Lilith Stangenberg) addressing a crowd of female university graduates to tell them they can be anything they want in life. Beate follows with remorseless zeal her mission on behalf of the multinational EUROPA company: to get the custom-bound farmers of a local village to sign away their land. So, be whatever you want to be, so long as it is within the terms and conditions stipulated in the contract. The precise business of the company is never stated, but Beate attempts to achieve their aims with a single-mindedness that begins with bonhomie and the promise to share the miracles of progress, but turns increasingly imploring, cajoling, then threatening, until finally relying on the brutal reality of force. This satire of contemporary neoliberalism exposes the smiling face of corporate practice to be the mask of an occupying power. Meanwhile, the local village heads of family maintain a power of refusal whose steadfastness attains an almost mystical quality.
Europa does not have a release date yet – LB
Best British Film Award
As well as the auteurs, a number of British films appeared in the programme, from crowd-pleasers like Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget to Molly Manning Walker’s immensely powerful debut on female adolescence and rape culture in How To Have Sex that left me emotionally drained exiting the cinema.
But two homegrown products occupied the opening and closing night gala slots representing two class ends of British society. First up was Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s stylish mystery drama about an Oxford Uni student (a type-cast Barry Keoghan) who gets drawn into the world of an aristocrat (Jacob Elordi) in his same year.
More successful was the closing night gala The Kitchen, a brilliant debut from Daniel Kaluuya and Kibwe Tavares set in a dystopian London where all forms of social housing have been eradicated except for a rundown housing block, nicknamed The Kitchen, whose community refuses to move out despite orders from the authorities. The film centres on an unlikely relationship formed between Izi (Kane Robinson, better known by his rapper name Kano), who’s desperate to leave The Kitchen, and 12-year-old Benji (Jedaiah Bannerman, in an exceptional debut performance) who has lost his mother and is searching for familial stability. It includes an outstanding supporting role from football legend Ian Wright as the in-house DJ! Its references to Attack the Block (2011), Blade Runner (1982), Blue Story (2019) and television crime drama Top Boy (2011-2023) – which also stars Kano – add up to a very effective allegory that resoundingly speaks to the current climate of social exclusion, gentrification and knife crime in London. Crucially, it’s a film made by Londoners about London and we thoroughly recommended it when it drops on Netflix in January.
The Kitchen is available to stream from 19 January 2024 on Netflix – TS
“Hand Me the Tissues” Award for Most Tears in the Audience
We go through life like rough-hewn lumps of rock, shaped by the impact from billions of years of astral explosions. Distant stars may draw us for a time into their orbit, before their light goes out and we are once more alone in the cold, dark solitude of the cosmos. This metaphor underlies All of Us Strangers, a relationship drama about the things we wish we could say to those who have long since left us, and the love we neglect while it is by our side. Andrew Haigh (45 Years) directs a dream team of Paul Mescal, Claire Foy, Jamie Bell and star Andrew Scott, who render each character in the fine detail of their warmth and their flaws, their hopes and their traumas. Scott plays a middle-aged screenwriter whose encounter with a younger man prompts him to re-evaluate his life as a gay man and his relationship to his parents. In a story that blends fantasy, memory, feeling and reality, Scott embodies the subtle strength of a subjectivity that defines our relations to others at the same time that it inhibits our ability to fully reach them. It is a film of a devastating sadness and beauty.
All of Us Strangers is in cinemas from 26 January 2024 – LB
Stylish but Disappointing Award
The Bikeriders is a fictional film directed by Jeff Nichols and inspired by photojournalist Danny Lyon’s photo book of the same name. The photos depict the lives of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club of Chicago, a community on the outskirts of society who Lyon spent four years documenting.
Impenetrable and elusive, Lyon’s work gives us an insight to a lifestyle and people many will never encounter, let alone be welcomed into. I find the photographs of this fringe community fascinating and romantic, so I understand director and writer Jeff Nichols’ drive to create a fiction around these evocative photographs.
The result fails to inspire. This film features beautiful shots and an ensemble cast to match, but it’s tied together by a shallow narrative. There is something here about oral histories being held and stewarded by women, namely Jodie Comer’s character Kathy, but the focus persists on the central male characters, Benny (Austin Butler) and Johnny (Tom Hardy) playing out a tale about succession. The jumps in time, and the numerous underdeveloped (though intriguing) characters, left me wanting. Comer’s performance stands out the most and I wish more of the events of the film prioritised her perspective.
The Bikeriders’ release date has been postponed – HH