BFI London Film Festival 2012: The Highlights

The Skinny picks ten films that shone at this year's London Film Festival. Look out for them on general release over the coming twelve months

Feature by Philip Concannon & Jamie Dunn | 02 Nov 2012

Mea Maxima Culpa (Alex Gibney)

A sober but enraging companion piece to his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa is another exemplary documentary exploring the cover-up of institutional abuse. Beginning with the tale of Father Lawrence Murphy, who molested 200 children at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee over the course of two decades, Gibney methodically traces links that show how the highest powers in the Vatican are complicit in the worldwide sexual abuses perpetrated by Catholic priests. The film is driven by a sense of righteous anger at these grievous crimes, but Gibney never allows emotion to cloud the issue, and Mea Maxima Culpa unfolds like a great piece of investigative journalism: incisive, illuminating, and giving voice to victims whose stories must be heard. [Philip Concannon]

Simon Killer (Antonio Campos)

Simon, played by Brady Corbet, is an American neuroscience graduate visiting Paris after being dumped by his girlfriend. His expertise, as he explains twice in the film, is peripheral vision. It’s a nifty joke, as Simon is blind to the world around him. Director Antonio Campos mirrors this blinkered perspective, turning Paris into a hazy blur of tight closeups in shallow focus and asymmetrical framing. Like Peeping TomTaxi Driver, and Campos’ chilling debut, Afterschool, we’re trapped within the unravelling psyche of an unpleasant protagonist with whom it becomes difficult not to identify. After weeks of loneliness Simon worms his way into the life of a prostitute (Mati Diop) who takes pity on him – a big mistake. After Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin), Afterschool and this fascinating examination of masculinity and madness, Borderline Films (the team of Campos, Dirkin and Josh Mond) are a production company to watch. [Jamie Dunn]

The We and I (Michel Gondry)

It's the last day of school and a horde of chattering adolescents squeeze on to a Bronx-bound bus. The backseat is the elongated throne belonging to four bullying alpha males; down front an assortment of geeks, freaks and beauty queens jostle for space on the food chain. Even more energetic than The We and I's greenhorn cast is its director, Michel Gondry. The Frenchman's chaotic love letter to teen turmoil crackles with wit and imagination. Visually and sonically we could be watching a movie from the late 80s: the washed out, sun bleached aesthetic looks like early Spike Lee, while the soundtrack (Young MC, Run DMC, Slick Rick) belongs to these kids' parents. Rather than being a period piece, however, we're very much in the here and now, with smart phones used to communicate as often as smart mouths. The film's claustrophobic one-location setting is continually opening out thanks to comic digressions and gonzo flashbacks, which are vividly brought to life in Gondry’s trademark sticky-back-plastic style. It’s not all whimsy, though. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director doesn’t shy away from the cruelty kids can inflict on each other when they move in packs or the loneliness felt by those who find themselves excluded from the crowd. [JD]

In the House (François Ozon)

François Ozon is a frustratingly inconsistent director, but when he’s good he’s very, very good. After the empty camp of his Potiche, In the House is a sparkling return to top form. Like the director’s earlier Swimming Pool, this is a story about storytelling, but the dark threads of voyeurism and manipulation are here leavened by a sly sense of humour. Fabrice Luchini is the schoolteacher who takes a particular interest in the essays written by enigmatic student Ernst Umhauer, as they involve clandestine visits to his classmate’s home. When the teacher and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) encourage further installments, they become involved in the action – literally in some cases, as Ozon has Luchini pop up in the middle of scenes to critique his pupil’s narrative. Craftily structured and sharply performed, this ranks among the finest entries in this director's uneven body of work. [PC]

Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)

Few directors use offscreen space as potently as Abbas Kiarostami, and Like Someone in Love grabs our attention from the marvellous opening shot, in which we overhear a telephone conversation when observing a cluttered restaurant scene. The setting of Tokyo may be a new one for this great filmmaker, but so much of Like Someone in Love feels reassuringly familiar, with Kiarostami’s mastery of composition and pacing, and his playful approach to identity and perception, creating an intoxicating puzzle of a movie that's even more mysterious – and potentially more rewarding – than his previous feature, Certified Copy. As ever, cars play a central role, with a late-night journey illuminated by Tokyo’s neon lights being one of the most vivid and gorgeous sequences Kiarostami has ever filmed, and the film keeps us guessing right up to the abrupt climax. That surprising denouement throws the audience off-balance; Like Someone in Love will surely require repeat viewings to reveal its deepest treasures, but most viewers will be keenly anticipating the opportunity to experience this beautiful film again. [PC]

Wadjda (Haifaa al-Mansour)

In a country that has no cinemas, the existence of the Saudi film Wadjda is remarkable, especially when you consider that its director, Haifaa al-Mansour, is a woman and had to direct some of her film while hiding in the back of a van. The position of women in Saudi society is the central theme of Wadjda, but al-Mansour subtly details the various ways in which women are oppressed through the engaging and deceptively simple story of a young girl who only wants a bicycle. Winningly played by Waad Mohammed, Wadjda is a spunky and independent 10-year-old whose creative attempts to raise money for the bike constantly contravene the strict Saudi moral code. Wadjda is funny, heartfelt and moving, but it’s also a vital feminist statement from a country in which women are rarely heard. [PC]

West of Memphis (Amy Berg)

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s haunting 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (and its two follow-ups) was an on the ground investigation into the 1993 murder of three children and the three teens accused of ritually mutilating them. It felt marinated in the secrets and lies of the small West Memphis community that was so keen to bring justice to the boys who were stripped, hogtied and dumped in a river that it committed an equally heinous crime and sent three innocent heavy metal fans to prison. Amy Berg’s Peter Jackson-produced documentary is more of a desk study: a meticulously researched overview that doesn’t quite have the power of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s roughhewn trilogy. Nevertheless it does have the gift of hindsight, and gives the most compelling evidence yet as to who was responsible for the murder of those three eight-year-olds. In all the darkness, West of Memphis also finds a happy ending. [JD]

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Alain Resnais)

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet is rumoured to be legendary filmmaker Alain Resnais’ swan song. If so, what a send off! The film begins like a creaky old horror flick, with 13 actors being invited to a crumbling mansion to hear their former stage director’s last will and testament. The baker’s dozen of talent (including Pierre Arditi, Mathieu Amalric, Sabine Azéma, Anne Consigny) are all Resnais regulars and are playing themselves. This is just the first layer of self-reflexivity that builds to a dizzying theatrical Ouroboros. The late director wants the assembled players to appraise a posthumous reboot of his play, Eurydice, with a new young cast. But as the older generation sit down to watch a video of the new production’s whippersnappers the fourth wall is eviscerated as they begin performing their original roles. By the end there are three versions of the play unravelling across split screens and expressionistic CGI tableaux, creating a witty hall of mirrors. [JD]

Silence (Pat Collins)

Documentarian Pat Collins makes his feature film debut with Silence, an Irish film that blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction to mesmerising effect. Beginning in Berlin, the film follows sound recordist Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde (playing himself) as he travels back to his native Ireland to record in areas completely free of man-made sounds. This project requires him to spend a lot of time in some of Ireland’s most remote areas, and Collins exploits these locations brilliantly, framing his protagonist against a series of striking landscapes. These scenes are interspersed with conversations between Bhríde and the locals he meets on his travels, conversations that involve us in the history of the place and their own personal memories, while Bhríde himself seems to be searching for something more than just a specific natural sound, a sense of inner calm. That sense of calm is one shared by the audience, as Silence’s gentle rhythms create a haunting and soothing effect. [PC]

Eat Sleep Die (Gabriela Pichler)

While watching Eat Sleep Die, the impressive debut from Swedish director Gabriela Pichler, I thought to myself, Why aren’t we making films like this in the UK? It’s a heartbreakingly humanistic examination of a young girl and her immigrant father as they try to make ends meet in a financial climate that’s suffocating them. Lead protagonist Rasa (Nermina Lukac) has the go-getting attitude that the Welfarefinder General, Iain Duncan Smith, would admire. When Rasa’s sacked from her job at a fruit and veg packing factory she gets on her bike (and behind the wheel of a car, despite being unable to afford driving lessons) looking for work, but a brick wall is thrown up down every avenue of employment. Her baby-faced buddy Nicki (Jonathan Lampinen), who’s also laid off, reveals that he’s an animal lover. “Perhaps I could be a vet?” he naïvely suggests to an unemployment officer. He does achieve this ambition to work with animals: he joins the slaughtering team at a local abattoir. As a metaphor for the current generation of young people having their hopes crushed, it’s brutal and effective. [JD]

The 56th BFI London Film Festival ran 10-22 Oct