After 65 years, the London Film Festival can still surprise

A total of 164 feature films are screened at this year’s London Film Festival alongside a plethora of shorts, TV series and an expanded program of XR (Extended Reality) works – all in a comparatively scaled-down era of single-audience curation. Festival that has long aimed to bring non-traveling cinephiles the best of the global festival scene.

What has definitely grown is the national reach of the LFF: in what festival director Tricia Tuttle is calling the festival’s “new normal” format after a few years of structural changes and COVID-era adjustments, the capital-centric event will also host screenings in 10 others Cities across the UK, from Manchester to Edinburgh to Belfast – cementing its status as the country’s pre-eminent film festival. A digital program of up to 20 titles will also be available online, while short films and screen talks can be streamed for free on the BFI Player platform: “It’s very important to us to go where we can’t with our venue partnerships,” says Tuttle, adding that their priority is “giving new audiences a taste of what the festival is like”.

World premieres have never been the main selling point of a festival whose programmers pride themselves on picking the best from the rest. This year, however, the LFF has secured more enviable first views than usual, with 24 feature films on the program making their London debuts – including Matthew Warchus’ much-anticipated opening film Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, a stage adaptation Phenomenon that will bring stars Emma Thompson and Lashana Lynch to the red carpet, among others. It’s also a rare family-friendly opener: “We always want to surprise people with our opening night: we don’t want to get into, ‘This is the kind of movie that starts the LFF with’. [rut]’ Tuttle says of the ‘really, really happy’ opener.

It’s the second year in a row that the fest kicked off with a high-profile world premiere — last year it was Jeymes Samuel’s flashy, ultimately BAFTA-winning western The Harder They Fall — so Tuttle’s team may have created a new normal on that front, too .

Other well-known titles making world premieres at the festival include Guillermo del Toro’s Netflix-supported stop-motion adaptation of Pinocchio (hoping to claim the year’s best version of the story after the disappointment of Disney’s Robert Zemeckis ); Dean Craig’s The Estate, a dark comedy about dysfunctional family feuds starring Toni Collette, Anna Faris and Kathleen Turner; and Irish animated fable My Father’s Dragon, the latest from director Nora Twomey and repeat Oscar-nominated studio Cartoon Saloon (The Breadwinner, The Secret of Kells).

Of course, domestic British productions account for the majority of world premieres: “Showcasing British talent is always at the heart of the festival,” says Tuttle, Oscar winner Mark Rylance headlines “Domestic,” a Gloucestershire set you can’t visit -home- again horror film from freshman director Fridtjof Ryder; Sam Riley and Haley Bennett star as lovers reunited in prolific Welsh indie filmmaker Jamie Adams’ ‘She Is Love’; while Oscar-winner Asif Kapadia (“Amy”) and esteemed choreographer Akram Khan collaborated with the English National Ballet on the indirectly Frankenstein-inspired dance film Creature. And the highlight of her TV series is the world premiere of the Amazon Original “Mammals,” a marital drama by “Jerusalem” playwright Jez Butterworth, starring Sally Hawkins and James Corden.

The festival’s competition strands remain unchanged from last year, when an additional competition for immersive and extended reality works was added to the established first feature, documentary, short film and best film sections.

Eight films will compete for the latter award, which was established in 2009 and has seen winners ranging from A Prophet to Ida and Certain Women to last year’s lovable Iranian champion Hit the Road. Hoping to join their ranks this year are Cannes luminaries such as Austrian captain Marie Kreutzer in her elegant Vicky Krieps film Corsage, Icelandic author Hlynur Palmason’s ravishingly austere church drama Godland, who cryptic folk horror “Enys Men” by British Mark Jenkin and British-Syrian co-production “Nezouh”. French-Senegalese director Alice Diop’s radical courtroom drama ‘Saint Omer’, fresh from the Venice Grand Prize, will also appear, along with Lido premiered titles ‘Argentina, 1985’ by Santiago Mitre and ‘The Damned Don’ t Cry” by Fyzal Boulifa. Clement Virgo’s Jamaican-Canadian family drama “Brother” rounds out the field.

With a surprise Golden Lion of Venice under her belt, Oscar-winner Laura Poitras’ Nan Goldin study All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is now casting a long shadow over a string of documentary competitions, including Sundance-winner All That Breathes ‘ Heard from Delhi. and “Lynch/Oz,” the latest reflections by Swiss cine-essayist Alexandre O. Philippe. Two world premieres are also included: Leah Gordon and Eddie Hutton-Mills’ colorful ‘Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters’ and ‘Name Me Lawand’, a heartbreaking portrait of a deaf Kurdish child from the director’s The Possibilities Are Endless Edward Lovelace.

The Sutherland Award for Best First Feature is the festival’s oldest award – one which has happily gone to filmmakers such as Lynne Ramsay, Edward Yang, Kenneth Lonergan and Julia Ducournau in its 64-year history. (Not to mention legends like Ozu and Antonioni in the days when it wasn’t purely a debut award.) This year feisty British debutants from Georgia Oakley (“Blue Jean” and Thomas Hardiman (“Medusa Deluxe”) take on Pakistani director Saim Sadiq’s cross-themed Cannes audience film Joyland and the muscular Berlinale-winning Robe of Gems by Mexican pilot Natalia Lopez Galliardo.

As always, the festival’s hottest tickets – many already sold out – are the A-list red carpet gala premieres, many fresh from Toronto and Venice. Rian Johnson’s all-star crime sequel Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is this year’s graduation film, while Empire of Light, Sam Mende’s nostalgic ode to the cinemas starring Olivia Colman, is a very English choice for the Gala Slot from main sponsor American Express. Other galas include Martin McDonagh’s critically acclaimed Venice Award-winner The Banshees of Inisherin, Park Chan-wook’s alluring Cannes laurel-decked noir puzzle Decision to Leave, Darren Aronofsky’s window actor show The Whale and South African director Oliver Hermanus. moving “Ikiru” remake “Living” set in London.

However, the mainstream slant of the Gala selection means it can’t quite match the diversity stats of the rest of the line-up. For example, of the 14 films, only two have female directors: Maria Schrader’s feisty MeToo procedural “She Said” and Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” a historical drama based on the lynching of Emmett Till of Mississippi and his mother Mamie’s crusade in the Year 1955 focused justice.

The big picture is better: Across the festival program as a whole, 34% of selected films have racially diverse directors or co-directors, while 41% have female or non-binary talent at the helm. Programmers aren’t bound by quotas, says Tuttle: “We check in a lot over time and make sure we’re looking in the right places. Because it’s really about looking and what you focus on.”

The festival’s 14 special presentations are suitably varied, with some unexpected selections set alongside the bigger, shinier ones like Ruben Ostlund’s riotous Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness”, Sarah Polley’s radiant, critically acclaimed feminist reckoning “Women Talking” and fan-hyped Harry Styles star “My Policeman”: It’s heartening, for example, to see such high-profile slots for veteran Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman’s politically charged “My Imaginary Country” and Nikyatu Jusus’ Sundance-winning balance of horror and racial allegory seen in “Nanny” and Elegance Bratton’s strange black military story “The Inspection”.

Meanwhile, LFF has rarely rolled out the red carpet for a film as unconventional (and off the beaten path) as Ann Oren’s Locarno-premiered Piaffe, an erotic reflection on women’s physical empowerment and growing a ponytail . 65 years after its inaugural edition, this venerable festival still surprises us. After 65 years, the London Film Festival can still surprise

Charles Jones

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