Social realism meets sci-fi at the BFI London Film Festival 2023
Louis Bayman

Our film editor Louis Bayman previews the 67th BFI London Film Festival. Here’s what to look out for.

While 2023 will go down in film history as the year that, inexplicably in my opinion, audiences chose Oppenheimer over The Flash, the BFI London Film Festival offers a chance to look ahead to the year to come. It is a prestigious affair, which means that it is dominated by big-name directors whose films will soon be queueing up for Oscars recognition, along with many lesser-known films that won’t make it to UK cinemas outside of the festival.

This year is especially notable for the number of distinguished directors lining up who are returning to the big screen for the first time in years. Wim Wenders makes a return with not one but two films: the documentary profile of artist Anselm Kiefer Anselm and the Tokyo-set drama Perfect Days. David Fincher teams up again with his co-writer from Seven for The Killer and Lukas Moodysson presents the sequel Together 99. Meanwhile Victor Erice’s Close Your Eyes wins the prize for longest absence, coming a full 30 years since the Spanish director last made a feature film.

Joining them are Sofia Coppola’s biopic of Elvis’s wife, Priscilla, Richard Linklater’s neo-noir comedy Hit Man and festival favourite Koreeda with Monster. Steve McQueen widens his epic vision after the Small Axe film series that chronicled racism and immigration in the UK, with Occupied City. Occupied City is a four-and-a-half-hour chronicle of 130 locations in Amsterdam, contrasting their present-day to historical footage when they still hosted the persecuted Jewish community. The Nazi past is also revisited in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which promises a more dreamlike or hallucinatory experience than McQueen’s exploration of archival memory.

If instead it is actors who draw you to the cinema, then you will keenly await All of Us Strangers, an intimate portrait of a friendship that brings Andrew Scott (the ‘hot priest’ from Fleabag) together with man of the moment Paul Mescal. Bradley Cooper stars in and directs Maestro, about the life of legendary 20th century conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick feature in the Australian Outback thriller The Royal Hotel, reuniting Garner with director Kitty Green after the excellent study of workplace abuse The Assistant.

Intersecting with the discovery of oil in Oklahoma and the beginnings of the FBI, the story is a reminder of the brutality underlying capitalism, racism and state force.
Louis Bayman

The film that picked up the greatest buzz over the summer festival circuit is Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things. Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo star in this Victorian-set sci-fi adaptation of Scottish writer Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel. Lanthimos has made a career in staging the unruly clash between imprisoning convention and sexual desire, each time in a more outlandish setting. Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon instead plays its historical re-enactment in a more sombre key, recounting one of the most unremittingly grim episodes in the genocide of the Native American population – with Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio playing the leads. Intersecting with the discovery of oil in Oklahoma and the beginnings of the FBI, the story is a reminder of the brutality underlying capitalism, racism and state force.

The Kitchen (Daniel Kaluuya)
The Kitchen (Daniel Kaluuya)

Two British productions provide the opening and closing night galas, neatly representing two contrasting views of the nation. The first is Saltburn, a tale of privilege and desire in Oxford University with an ensemble cast that includes Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant. The second is The Kitchen, the directorial debut of actor Daniel Kaluuya. Set on an estate in 2040, the film is a near-future critique of gentrification and its effect on working class family and community.

You may have noticed that both The Kitchen and Poor Things use sci-fi to insert flights of creative imagination in the otherwise more imprisoning genres of, respectively, social realism and costume drama. This seems in fact to constitute a new trend. Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal are taken into space in the relationship drama Foe, while the 80s-set coming of age story Croma Kid promises to be ‘the only Dominican-set scifi you will see this year’ according to the BFI’s programme. Add to this the romance Fingernail and the character study Sky Peals and sci-fi is now boldly going into genres where it had rarely gone before. While the sci-fi boom of the 50s came at a time of the space race and the atom bomb, this intimate, lower-budget sci-fi is perhaps more appropriate to a time when technological change has more lowly ambitions than the post-war attempt to conquer the universe.

Before we go, we would like to draw your attention some films that are unlikely to make it to the multiplex – but will be well worth your time to seek out. Cobweb is a 70s-set thriller comedy amid the South Korean film industry. Housekeeping for Beginners provides a queer perspective on status and sexuality in what is the latest entry from the small but impressive Macedonian film industry. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, director of the slow, beautiful Drive My Car, takes a poetic look at community and the environment in Evil Does Not Exist. Europa promises a thrilling critique of neoliberal capital and rural landscapes by Austrian-Iranian director Sudabeh Mortezai. Starve Acre is a return for Daniel Kokotajlo after his impressive debut Apostasy. While Apostasy examined the cult mindset of a Jehovah’s Witness, Starve Acre sees him move more firmly into folk horror, a genre which is now everywhere, offering as it does the chance to expose the unsettling weirdness underlying the everyday habits we take for granted.

See new book, Folk horror on film: Return of the British repressed, edited by Kevin J. Donnelly and Louis Bayman, out this October. The BFI London Film Festival takes place 4 to 15 October 2023.

Featured photo: Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese)
Louis Bayman

Louis Bayman


Louis Bayman is a film critic and academic based at the University of Southampton. He has co-edited a new book 'Folk horror on film' due October 2023. He is the co-editor, with Natália Pinazza, of The Directory of World Cinema: Brazil and World Film Locations: São Paulo, both published by Intellect Press.

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