The best of Glasgow Film Festival 2019: Our Picks
Our writers look back at their highlights from the Glasgow Film Festival, with favorite films including a Nordic fantasy, an Indian action comedy, and music films about the Soviet rock movement and 90s rave culture in West Lothian
Glasgow Film Festival has come to a close for another year, and the weather gods proved kinder than in 2018, when the Beast from the East put the kibosh on many of the festival’s screenings and events. No such bother this edition, with news coming in that the total admissions for the festival was 42,224 – a new record.
As well as getting more punters through the door than ever, GFF was peppered with plenty of cinema highlights among its 300 plus individual screenings, talks and events. Here are the highlights from The Skinny’s critics who attended GFF this year.
Jamie Dunn [@jamiedunnesq]
Glasgow Film Festival had one of its all-time great closing galas in Brian Welsh’s Beats, a joyous coming-of-age film set in the dying embers of Scotland’s rave scene. There’s much to recommend in Welsh’s film – the rambunctious humour, the sweet male-bonding, the hallucinatory rave scenes, JD Twitch’s sharply curated music – but it’s Beats’ overall exuberance, personified by Lorn Macdonald’s star-making, livewire turn as one ot the 15-year-old ravers, that makes it such a welcome addition to the Scottish film canon.
Scottish film had a good year at GFF in general. The annual Audience Award went to the homegrown Harry Birrell: Films of Love and War – a cine-essay weaving hundreds of hours of an amateur filmmaker’s footage into a cinematic vision of the 20th century. Meanwhile Wild Rose, a late edition to the GFF programme, proved to be a soaring crowd-pleaser. And no wonder: Jessie Buckley’s knockout performance as a Glasgow ex-con and country-nut with dreams of making it big in Nashville was a joy to behold, and the talented Irish actor endeared herself even more to the locals with a blistering country gig at the Grand Ole Opry after the screening.
A more barbed view of music stardom could be found in Alex Ross Perry’s exhausting but ultimately rewarding Her Smell, which centred on Elizabeth Moss’s self-destructive punk diva with more than a hint of Courtney Love about her. And thanks to the world premiere of Sonic Youth concert film Daydream Nation, shot in 2007, Glasgow music fans got a moving final glimpse of the recently-destroyed ABC back in its prime.
My favourite film of the festival came on the final day, with GFF’s single screening of Patrick Wang’s epic A Bread Factory, a loving and eccentric comedy set in and around a performing-arts centre in New England, which is under threat when a flashy avant-garde duo come to town to eat up all the local art funding. Set over four hours and spread across two films, it’s a glorious celebration of the people and venues that enrich their towns by building a creative community around them. Wang was paying tribute, in fact, to places exactly like GFF’s key venue, Glasgow Film Theatre.
Iana Murray [@suspiriana]
One of the most thrilling aspects of Glasgow Film Festival is that feeling of discovery, when you feel like you’ve struck gold and uncovered a film worth screaming about. That gem for me was Louis Garrel’s farcical romance A Faithful Man, a featherlight comedy about love and fidelity not unlike the more recent work of his father, Philippe. Garrel stars as an aimless journalist in the middle of a love triangle between his ex-girlfriend and the sister of his former best friend. There’s nothing new here, with a recognisable New Wave sensibility to the film, but with a sharp style and an almost slapstick humour, it’s an irresistible treat that I’m dying to revisit.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Leto, a stylised biopic of Russia’s most revolutionary rock musicians, and festival closer Beats, a vibrant coming-of-age adventure set in West Lothian. In their portraits of wildly different music scenes (the Soviet rock movement and 90s rave culture respectively), both films manipulate their black-and-white palette to stunning effect to convey how music provides an escape from the oppressive political structures that threaten to silence them. Leto resonates even more so when considering that director Kirill Serebrennikov was placed on house arrest just days before production ended – apparently for an embezzlement plot, but more likely for his views on Putin. It speaks to the power of art as protest when the real life story mirrors the fictional one so closely.
Ross McIndoe [@OneBigWiggle]
Without particularly meaning to, at this year’s festival I saw a lot of films that returned to well-established genres with fresh eyes, and in particular a lot of films which tried to deglamourise the violence at the heart of them. The Sisters Brothers is a western where the gunslingers are all opportunists and the gunfights are a mess of deafening bangs and clumsy, close-range killshots. Dragged Across Concrete is a pulpy, Dirty Harry-style crime thriller where the violence all happens with a traumatising suddenness, while Killing applies a similar visual toolkit to reduce its katana-wielders from elegant, noble warriors to men slinging long, sharp pieces of metal at one another’s flesh in a hectic jumble of limbs, blood and screaming. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a film filled with guns but almost no gunfire, one which denies the possibility of a heroic ending from the very beginning. The guys who hang out in secret to stash automatic weapons and hand grenades aren’t renegades or badasses, they’re isolated loners with deep grudges and serious emotional problems.
The one film which revelled in its fight scenes was The Man Who Feels No Pain, and it chose to do so with a sort of soft-edged, cartoonish style where everyone gets kicked in the face but no-one really gets hurt (by the good guys, at least). The action is all captured with an exhilarating sense of velocity, but it’s always taking pleasure in the speed and skill of the moves rather than the damage they’re causing. The fight scenes aren’t about people trying to hurt one another, they’re a dance where sometimes someone gets put through a wall.
As someone who loves action flicks and pure genre filmmaking, one of the big questions for me is how to keep indulging in violent stories without playing into the kind of “might is right” sensibility that is often at the heart of them. On top of, as always, introducing me to a host of excellent movies I would never otherwise have seen, GFF19 came up with some great answers.
Gianni Marini [@giannilmarini]
This year’s Glasgow Film Festival featured several excellent debut feature films.
Border felt like a David Lynch adaptation of Beauty and the Beast – the Nordic fantasy film is as unsettling as Eraserhead but often beautiful. It is unusual for a film to make you feel so deeply uncomfortable but still rapturously engaged. The fantastical elements are treated with the same realism as the references to awful child abuse. Swedish-Iranian filmmaker Ali Abbasi explores numerous ideas relating to identity and humanity to an extent that is normally found only in literature. It is troubling, invigorating and left me feeling breathless, and it’s available to see in cinemas from Friday 8 March if you missed it at GFF.
Another striking debut came from American comedian Jim Cummings. His Thunder Road stood out as a beautifully crafted black comedy, with the perfect balance of tears and laughs the result of intelligent writing and editing. Joe Penna, of YouTube's MysteryGuitarMan fame, meanwhile, came to Glasgow to introduce his debut Arctic starring Mads Mikkelsen. Penna manages to craft a nuanced addition to the rather populous survival genre. Both films are due out in the UK in May.
Non-fiction screenings were also very strong. Poetic documentary Living the Light explores the life and work of master cinematographer Robby Müller, who worked with some of the finest filmmakers of the last fifty years. Without relying on interviews with Müller (who died in 2018 after a long illness) the film shows how his home videos demonstrate that he was always interested with how things look. A Q&A with his widow, Andrea Müller, and Pijman following the screening emphasised the private nature of the videotapes. This was footage never intended for exhibition. It was, as Pijman explained, Müller’s own experimentation. But more than that, it was like a glimpse into the biography of someone in the medium through which they expressed themselves – like a painter’s self-portrait.