After 65 Years, London Film Festival Can Still Surprise

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A total of 164 feature films will play at this year’s London Film Festival, alongside an abundance of shorts, TV series and an expanded program of XR (extended reality) works — and that’s in a comparatively slimmed-down era of curation for a public-facing festival that has long aimed to bring the best of the global festival circuit to non-traveling cinephiles.

What has definitely grown is the LFF’s national reach: In what fest director Tricia Tuttle terms the festival’s “new normal” format after a few years of structural shifts and COVID-era adjustments, the capital-centered event will also be hosting screenings in 10 other cities around the U.K., from Manchester to Edinburgh to Belfast — sealing its status as the country’s preeminent film festival. A digital program of up to 20 titles will also be made available for online viewing, while short films and screen talks will be free to stream on the BFI Player platform: “It’s really important to us to get to those places we can’t reach with our venue partnerships,” says Tuttle, adding that their priority is “to give new audiences a taste of what the festival is like.”

World premieres have never been the primary selling point of a festival whose programmers pride themselves on cherrypicking the best of the rest. This year, however, the LFF has secured more enviable first looks than usual, with 24 features in the lineup making their first appearance in London — including Matthew Warchus’ eagerly awaited opening film “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” an adaptation of the stage phenomenon that will bring stars Emma Thompson and Lashana Lynch, among others, to the red carpet. It’s also a rare family-friendly curtain-raiser: “We always want to surprise people with our opening night: We don’t want to get into a ‘this is the type of film that the LFF opens with’ [rut],” says Tuttle of the “really, really joyous” opener.

It’s the second year in a row that the fest has 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 established a new normal on this front too.

Other big-name titles world-premiering at the fest include Guillermo del Toro’s Netflix-backed stop-motion adaptation of “Pinocchio” (hoping to assert itself as the year’s best take on the tale after Disney’s Robert Zemeckis-directed disappointment); Dean Craig’s “The Estate,” a black comedy about dysfunctional family feuding, starring Toni Collette, Anna Faris and Kathleen Turner; and Irish animated fable “My Father’s Dragon,” the latest from director Nora Twomey and the repeatedly Oscar-nominated studio Cartoon Saloon (“The Breadwinner,” “The Secret of Kells”).

Naturally, homegrown British productions make up the bulk of the world premieres: “Showcasing UK talent is always the heart of the festival,” says Tuttle, Oscar winner Mark Rylance headlines “Inland,” a Gloucestershire-set you-can’t-go-home-again horror film from freshman director Fridtjof Ryder; Sam Riley and Haley Bennett star as estranged lovers reunited in prolific Welsh indie filmmaker Jamie Adams’ “She Is Love”; while Oscar-winning docker Asif Kapadia (“Amy”) and revered choreographer Akram Khan have collaborated, along with the English National Ballet, on the indirectly “Frankenstein”-inspired dance film “Creature.” And the plum get of their TV series lineup is the world premiere of the Amazon original “Mammals,” a marital drama from “Jerusalem” playwright Jez Butterworth, starring Sally Hawkins and James Corden.

The festival’s competitive strands remain unchanged from last year, when an additional competition for immersive and extended-reality work was added to established sections for first features, documentaries and short films, as well as the premier Best Film selection.

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

With a surprise Venice Golden Lion in its pocket, Oscar-winner Laura Poitras’ Nan Goldin study “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” now casts a long shadow over a documentary competition lineup that also includes Delhi-centered Sundance victor “All That Breathes” and “Lynch/Oz,” the latest musing from 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 heart-tugging portrait of a Deaf Kurdish child from “The Possibilities Are Endless” director Edward Lovelace.

The Sutherland Award for Best First Feature is the festival’s oldest award — one that has auspiciously gone, in its 64-year history, to such filmmakers as Lynne Ramsay, Edward Yang, Kenneth Lonergan and Julia Ducournau. (Not to mention legends like Ozu and Antonioni in the days when it wasn’t a debut-only prize.) This year, vibrant British debuts from Georgia Oakley (“Blue Jean” and Thomas Hardiman (“Medusa Deluxe”) compete against Pakistani director Saim Sadiq’s trans-themed Cannes crowdpleaser “Joyland” and Mexican helmer Natalia Lopez Galliardo’s muscular Berlinale prizewinner “Robe of Gems,” among others.

As ever, the festival’s hottest tickets — many already sold out — are its A-list red carpet gala premieres, many of them fresh from Toronto and Venice. Rian Johnson’s all-star murder-mystery sequel “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is this year’s closing film, while “Empire of Light,” Sam Mendes’ nostalgic, Olivia Colman-starring ode to movie theaters, is a very English choice for chief sponsor American Express’s gala slot. Other galas include Martin McDonagh’s critically adored Venice prizewinner “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Park Chan-wook’s slinky, Cannes-laureled noir puzzle “Decision to Leave,” Darren Aronofsky’s hothouse actors’ showcase “The Whale” and South African director Oliver Hermanus’ moving, London-set “Ikiru” remake “Living.”

The more mainstream tilt of the gala selection does, however, mean that it doesn’t quite match the diversity stats of the rest of the lineup. For example, of the 14 films, only two have female directors: Maria Schrader’s buzzy MeToo procedural “She Said,” and Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” a historical drama centered on the 1955 lynching of Mississippi teen Emmett Till and his mother Mamie’s crusade for justice.

The bigger picture is the better one: Across the whole festival lineup, 34% of the selected films have ethnically diverse directors or co-directors, while 41% have female or non-binary talent at the helm. Programmers aren’t bound to quotas, says Tuttle: “We do a lot of checking in as we go along, and make sure we’re looking in the right places. Because it’s really about looking, and what you center.”

The festival’s 14 Special Presentations are suitably varied, with a few unexpected selections mixed in alongside the bigger, shinier likes of Ruben Ostlund’s riotous Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness,” Sarah Polley’s starry, critically lauded feminist reckoning “Women Talking” and the fan-hyped Harry Styles starrer “My Policeman”: It’s heartening, for example, to see such high-profile slots for veteran Chilean docmaker Patricio Guzman’s politically charged “My Imaginary Country,” Nikyatu Jusu’s Sundance-winning balance of horror and racial allegory in “Nanny,” and Elegance Bratton’s queer Black military story “The Inspection.”

Meanwhile, the LFF has rarely rolled out the red carpet for a film quite as offbeat (and off the beaten track) as Ann Oren’s Locarno-premiered “Piaffe,” an erotic reflection on female bodily empowerment and growing a horse’s tail. Sixty-five years after its inaugural edition, this venerable fest can surprise us still.

After 65 Years, London Film Festival Can Still Surprise

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