As public booking for the 64th BFI London Film Festival opens, our critic picks the premieres you won't want to miss in the first fest to be widely accessible across the UK.
While things have moved partly into the digital realm for 2020 — there are some cinema events taking place, but many of the showings will be on BFI Player — the quality of the line-up certainly hasn't dimmed, with screenings of an Elisabeth Moss-starring biopic, Steve McQueen's illumination of a pivotal moment in black British history and plenty more to enjoy.
Steve McQueen revisits a crucial moment in British history: a 1970 protest over police harassment in Notting Hill that led to nine black activists being put on trial. In a genius piece of casting, Black Panther’s Letitia Wright plays British Black Panther leader, Altheia Jones-LeCointe. All hail a London-set film with global appeal.
One Night in Miami
The directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King expands Kemp Powers’ stage play. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), fresh from beating Sonny Liston, meets up with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and NFL footballer Jim Brown (played by Britain’s Kingsley Ben-Adir, Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr and Aldis Hodge respectively). While all the actors are being talked up as awards contenders, Odom Jr seems to be inspiring the most swoons.
Topical and timeless, Chloe Zhao’s third feature took Venice by storm. It revolves around sixtysomething Fern (Frances McDormand), forced to look for work miles from home. Her interactions with other folk who’ve been “put out to pasture” prove quietly shattering.
Elisabeth Moss is stunning as defiantly frumpy, fiercely witty US author Shirley Jackson (stuck with a sleazy professor husband) in this liberty-taking biopic from indie film-maker, Josephine Decker. In the latter’s tense psychodrama, Madeline’s Madeline, the fragile heroine had a vibrant, violent, imagination. It’s the same, here. O Shirley, you’re our new bloody valentine!
October 9-11 & 13
Riz Ahmed, the puckish star of Four Lions, co-wrote and takes the lead in the nuanced tale of a rapper forced to reconnect with his roots. Zed’s been living the high life in New York but, during a flying visit to see family in Wembley, he’s diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. Nifty rapping and a fine cast make this a London fable you can’t afford to miss.
October 10 & 13
The word “dementia” is never uttered in Natalie Erika James’s claustrophobic Australian thriller. Yet it’s clearly about the terrors that our own brains can unleash. Edna (Robyn Nevin) starts behaving oddly. The more her daughter and granddaughter (Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote) try to keep her safe, the more trapped she feels. Suffice to say, Relic is funny, smart and not in the least old hat.
October 9-12 on BFI Player
Miranda July’s jagged comedy casts Evan Rachel Wood as the daughter of two anti-capitalist grifters (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger). The trio’s lo-fi existence is forever changed by the appearance of Melanie (Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez). It’s especially cool to see Winger in a main role. A kajillion thanks, to July, for reminding us this actress is ace.
October 7 on BFI Player
In Dublin, a housewife (Clare Dunne; super) leaves her abusive husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) and decides the best way to rehouse herself and her two daughters is to make a home from scratch. Phyllida Lloyd has made an edgy crowd-pleaser that, by the by, gives Harriet Walter her best film role in years. It deserves to be massive.
Sharad (Aditya Modak) is a singer of Raag (Indian classical music) and wants to excel. Bit by infinitesimal bit, his dreams are crushed. It might sound like a downer, but Chaitanya Tamhane’s character study is weirdly invigorating, and pleasantly ambiguous.
Harry Macqueen’s love story/road trip stars Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as Sam and Tusker, who’ve been together for 20 years and are now desperate to contain Tusker’s early-onset dementia. Sexy Firth. Cute Tucci. It’s what hankies were made for.
October 11-12, 14 & 18
Don’t expect this period romance about paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) to be fragrant. It may star A-list actresses (Saoirse Ronan co-stars as Charlotte Murchison, who became Anning’s constant companion) but director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) is all about primal, sweaty urges.
This fish-out-of-water dramedy from Scottish film-maker Ben Sharrock is a joy. A group of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers are sent to a remote Scottish isle where (as their lives are placed agonisingly on hold) they’re given surreal lessons in sexual etiquette. All the acting is excellent but Amir El-Masry — as home-sick, guilt-ridden, musician Omar — is heaven-sent.
October 16 on BFI Player
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Spike Lee’s concert film serves up David Byrne’s hit Broadway musical in a way that’s both epic and intimate. We get hits from the Talking Heads’ years (Once in a Lifetime), plus audience participation (Byrne invites the crowd to list black men and women who’ve been killed by the police). Not especially personal, but definitely profound.
October 14-15 & 18
Delia Derbyshire: the Myths and Legendary Tapes
Caroline Catz’s wonky love-letter to the cult British musician behind the Doctor Who theme song is a visual and aural treasure. Even those nonplussed by the term ‘psycho-acoustics’ will find the shy, wayward Derbyshire fascinating. She was a one-off and her time has come.
October 15-18 on BFI Player
You don’t have to be a kid to love the work of Irish animator, Tomm Moore. A fan of grim myths and bewitching animals, Moore gave us sublime wolf-girl, Aisling (in his breakout hit, The Secret of Kells). Obviously, he has a thing for wolves. Here, a young English girl (whose dad has been sent, by Oliver Cromwell, to annihilate Ireland’s last “pack”) goes loopy for all things lupine.
October 10 on BFI Player
Booking for the BFI London Film Festival opens today; bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival