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BFI London Film Festival 2023: Critics’ Chat

BFI London Film Festival’s most impressionable films of the year, industry strikes, awards season, and the shoe-leather journalism of a film festival critic.

BFI London Film Festival 2023
BFI Southbank
4-15 October 2023

PopMattersAna Yorke and Paul Risker report from the BFI London Film Festival on the most impressionable films of the year, industry strikes, the awards season, and the shoe-leather journalism of a film festival critic.

Ana: Hi, Paul, great to talk to you! Quite crazy that we didn’t even get to meet during the event – I cannot remember an event as intense as the BFI London Film Festival. This year was my first time there, and I can only say “wow” regarding both programming and the pace. I’m still recovering from the break-of-dawn queues for morning screening tokens. How are you holding up?

Paul: Great to talk to you too, Ana, and as you say, crazy that our paths never crossed. I’m fatigued and yet missing the humdrum of the festival. As exhausting as those early morning queues are, the camaraderie they create between critics offers a unique experience. It’s nice to hear from a first-time attendee that your experience was so positive, even if the festival puts you through your physical and mental paces. For example, you’ve covered the Venice International Film Festival for PopMatters, so how would you compare the BFI London Film Festival and the Venice International Film Festival, and how does a city’s identity fuse with the festivals?

Ana: Ha ha! I figured we’d dive into the fatigue aspect straight away! I don’t wish to compare our caffeinated sedentary rumination over some damn fine celluloid to the actual working toil of the majority worldwide. Still, I will say this much: next year, I hope for no queuing at 7 AM for break-of-dawn screenings and more than just two or three showings of the most sought-after films. The proverbial blood and tears we subscribed to, the sweat not so much. It was a fantastic event, nevertheless.

The question of cities embodying their cultural offering is a great one. La Biennale di Venezia is, by some margin, my favorite film festival globally, but it’s an entirely different beast from the BFI London Film Festival. It is almost entirely contained to Lido, one of Venice’s islands; there is a distinct aura of exclusivity, and very few civilians are welcomed, even as onlookers around the red carpet. There are plenty of high society parties scattered all over the city, but they, too, are invite-only and not for us plebs.

In contrast, the BFI London Film Festival has an “everyone is invited” slogan, and it’s wonderful. The entire Southbank area brims with life and industry buzz, the free content is plentiful and brilliant, and the ticket prices are affordable, even for galas. It really blends well with London’s unique abundance of culture(s). I was blown away by the atmosphere.

Paul: Oh, indeed – fatigue in the best sense of the word. When I wrote about missing the humdrum of the BFI London Film Festival, it’s because there’s something invigorating about the experience that cannot be put into words – it’s a feeling.

As for feelings, I’ve mixed feelings about the queue. On the one hand, you connect with other critics you might not otherwise meet, and the camaraderie this opportunity creates is special. On the other hand, the time before a screening the queues begin forming can make it a logistical nightmare to get into a popular screening if you have an interview to fit in beforehand – interviews being away from the screening venue. And extra time for sleep and writing instead of queuing would be helpful.

The inclusivity of the BFI London Film Festival is special, and reading your response brings to mind the classist and elitist approach of The Cannes Film Festival. It seems the BFI London Film Festival has found a way to embrace inclusivity and the principles of art knowing no boundaries. There will be those who will still say there are issues with the BFI London Film Festival, but it’s putting in the effort to be as inclusive as it can be, with screenings in select venues of select films nationwide during the festival.

Ana: I had exactly the same thoughts on the connections you make in queues – myself being a chatty one. Still wouldn’t queue again unless I had to. That said, I had a great talk with one of the festival’s organizers in the Killers of the Flower Moon queue. We lamented being up at 5 AM; she remarked she wouldn’t even come in to see the film as it’s “out in a few days”, much to the chagrin of the critics around. I replied I was only there so early to get my money’s worth, which didn’t make things better.

Have you seen Killers of the Flower Moon? What do you think of the film? 

Paul: I greatly admire Martin Scorsese. He cemented my love of cinema during my student days. As you can imagine, Killers of the Flower Moon was one of my most anticipated films. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a masterpiece, but it’s pretty darn great.

Scorsese reaffirms why he’s one of the greatest filmmakers. Killers of the Flower Moon transposes his crime narrative to Oklahoma, bringing him as close to making a Western as he has come. Killers of the Flower Moon is a disturbing and unflinching real-life story about xenophobic violence and “white” entitlement that speaks to America’s troubled past, present, and future.

What did you think of the film? Something tells me you’re willing to declare it a masterpiece. Maybe I’m being harsh by not doing so.

Ana: Quite frankly, I’m not a big fan of such epithets, as it’s all but impossible to “objectively” ascertain what makes something a “masterpiece” or a “classic”. In any case, nowadays, the term reads more as an advertising ploy than an honest attempt at a critique.

I, as I believe virtually everyone else, also adore Marty. Can’t think of anything remotely bad when he was behind the camera lens. I loved Killers of the Flower Moon, mostly because of his spectacular command of the narrative and a scathing indictment of generations of White Americans complicit in the erasure of the histories of the native tribes. I don’t have much in the way of negative criticisms, though the film could have comfortably been an hour shorter.

And what about the cast? DiCaprio just doing his thing. De Niro was exquisite. I see plenty of awards buzz for him. It seems like Robert Downey Jr. will have to campaign harder for Oppenheimer to stay in the race, haha. Most importantly, Lily Gladstone, my words! She’s a powerhouse, a shoo-in for the Lead Actress category! Do you echo this?

Paul: You’re right that such adjectives are marketing ploys that have compromised film criticism. The attempt to critique and understand the film and the filmmaker’s intentions supersedes assigning epithets.

The performances of DiCaprio, De Niro, and Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon were something to behold. I honestly cannot see how the Academy could think of leaving Gladstone out of the Lead Actress category. Her performance has a beautiful subtlety, contrasting with the largeness of DiCaprio and De Niro.

Did you notice DiCaprio channeling Marlon Brando’s Godfather in a few scenes? 

Ana: Hahaha, I did! I think it was the mandible prosthetics!

I couldn’t agree more about the performances. Any other roles that stood out to you? I’ll start with Andrew Scott’s performance in Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers. Good god, the entire auditorium wept throughout the film. 

Paul: Andrew Scott offered a fine performance, but others stood out more. In the first instance, Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo’s performances in Yorgos Lanthimos‘ Poor Things. While Stone will get much attention, Ruffalo’s performance is integral to the film’s success. Would you agree?

I loved Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s performances in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, Jodie Comer in Jeff NicholsThe Bikeriders, and Song Kang-ho’s obsessive craziness in Kim Jee-woon‘s Cobweb. Daniel Henshall in Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel was delightfully wicked, while Aisling Franciosi in Robert Morgan‘s Stopmotion shows her natural ability to play dark and tormented characters.

Did you see any of these films? Are there any other performances that stood out to you?

Ana: Yes, Poor Things was outstanding, in my view, easily Lanthimos’ best. I hope nobody will hold this against me, but it has to do with the screenplay being adapted from a novel. Poor Things is more straightforward than his other work, which could sometimes be convoluted. All the performances are remarkable, and Ruffalo certainly adds charm as a histrionic manipulator, but I stick with Stone being the absolute goddess there.

I haven’t seen The Holdovers, but quite a few colleagues were raving about it around Southbank. What did you think? Regarding other performances, Comer was wonderful in The Bikeriders, but now that the film has been postponed indefinitely, we will have to wait and see about the general reception.

I marveled at the dependability of Natalie Portman’s and Julienne Moore’s belligerence in Todd HaynesMay December; they will surely both be nominated this year. Also, I’d likely call May December a masterpiece. Haynes annihilated us. Little did I know it was about pedophilia, among other atrocities. Speaking of this aspect of the May December, Charles Melton gave a performance for the ages. I’m rooting for him to be the Supporting Actor breakout.

Then there’s Barry Keoghan in Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, and Peter Sarsgard and Jessica Chastain in Michael Franco‘s Memory (Sarsgard won the Golden Lion in Venice). To come full circle, you mentioned Mark Ruffalo in Poor Things, and his comedy makes for a good portion of the laughs, but Rosamund Pike in Saltburn stole every show for me. I’m gutted that Saltburn was screened on the festival’s first damn day. No one could outdo her.

Which other performances do you think might make the awards circuit buzz?

Paul: Rewatching Poor Things, I was struck by the structural and pacing issues. Maybe these are concealed by the world-building on a first viewing.

The Holdovers was one of my favorites of the festival. It’s a joyous film, and I loved spending time with the three main characters, who transform through their joint journey, especially Giamatti’s history professor. And my goodness, The Holdovers has some of the best insults I’ve heard in a long time. The audience was howling with laughter. It’s worth seeing just for the insults.

I’m sad that Saltburn screened before I arrived at the festival. I wanted to see this for Keoghan and Pike’s performances.

I’d keep an eye on Giamatti and Randolph, both of whom could make some noise on the awards circuit this year, and of course, Stone and Ruffalo should be part of the buzz. This year’s acting categories should be interesting, with a host of award-worthy performances. Outside of the acting categories, the buzz will be Scorsese being up for Best Picture for two films – Killers of the Flower Moon and Bradley Cooper‘s Maestro, which he produced (if the latter is nominated). 

May December is one of those films you need to digest. Haynes skillfully toys with his audience. So much of the film is about obscuring what we think we see and know. It’s a bold work that digs deep into the dark recesses of human nature.

Ana: Interesting what you say about Poor Things. I’ll have to rewatch it, but I believe that nothing will overshadow the endearing tale of female emancipation and its devastating impossibility.

Can’t wait to see The Holdovers. As I mentioned, everyone who’s seen it loves it. The entire film season is one of the strongest I can remember. Masterpieces or not, we already have a couple of dozen solid releases, with likely a dozen more to come. What would you say about the Best Picture category? I’m sure Oppenheimer is certain, as it should be, Poor Things and Killers of the Flower Moon too, perhaps Maestro, but not 100% on May December and All of Us Strangers, though I’d love them in there.

Maybe Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest? That was a beast of a film. What are your hunches, also for foreign language films?

Paul: You hit the nail on the head with Poor Things. The second viewing emphasized female emancipation and the story’s tenderness.

Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon are almost certain to be nominated. You’d expect Maestro to be – it’s the type of film the Academy loves. I could see May December being overlooked, given the subject matter, and All of Us Strangers may be a long shot.

The Zone of Interest is bleak but an important alternative and a powerful way to discuss the horrors of the Holocaust. Instead of showing us the horror, Glazer is bold enough not to show it, instead inferring it through sound and narrative scenes. He attempts to take us inside the psyche of indifference, cruelty, and apathy, exposing us to a less common depiction of Nazi Germany’s crimes against humanity. The Zone of Interest haunts you.

I enjoyed Rodrigo Moreno’s The Delinquents (Argentina’s submission), a charming film with a political commentary. I have a feeling Wim WendersPerfect Days will be in the running, but I’m not sure of which category. I can’t see The Zone of Interest walking away with an Oscar. Instead, it’ll be a different film – possibly Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist

Ana: Yeah, Glazer is big on haunting. That’s been his credo all the way since the music video for “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” by Radiohead nearly 30 years ago. I’m sad I couldn’t catch Evil Does Not Exist; it was this year’s winner and one of the most lauded releases, at least according to what I overheard across canteens.

Speaking of awards, this year is also quite strange, with the SAG-AFTRA and Writer’s Guild of America strikes still ongoing. There were protests at the Saltburn gala, but the BFI mostly overlooked them. Needless to say, I support the workers, i.e., the actors and writers, but with close to six months without major productions now, I wonder what the implications will be for next season. The Bikeriders has already been delayed, as well as Luca Guadagnino‘s Challengers, which was due to premiere in Venice, not to mention Denis Villeneuve‘s Dune: Part Two. What do you think of this ordeal?

Paul: It’s unfortunate but a necessary struggle to ensure people can make a living, albeit other important issues are at play. When you hear how much Robert Iger, the CEO of Disney, is making, and then he tries to shame actors and writers for striking, you realize that privileged greed needs to be challenged. The delays many shows and films have suffered disappoint me, especially Dune: Part Two, which I can’t wait to see, and I’m disappointed about the third season of Mike White’s The White Lotus, which has also been delayed.

 It’s an essential fight for SAG-AFTRA, and I’m fully supportive. But it definitely hurt the prestige of film festivals not being able to parade a full complement of artists before an adoring public. To have had the cast of The Killers of the Flower Moon alongside Scorsese or Giamatti alongside Payne would have been nice to see, but these are necessary sacrifices.  

Ana: Agreed. Are there any other festival circuit releases you’re looking forward to seeing this season? You mentioned you’ve seen Michael Mann’s Ferrari, the surprise screening at the BFI London Film Festival.

Paul: A final thought to your previous point: Whatever the consequences for next season, it’s an act of self-harm by the “fat cats” of the industry – the greed of the few at the expense of the many. It’s worrying, but it speaks to how broken the film industry is, and whether it’s sustainable in its current form. As a lover of cinema and episodic drama, it’s sad to see storytelling become a casualty.

I’d love to see Viggo Mortensen‘s sophomore feature as a director, The Dead Don’t Hurt. He came storming out of the barn with his debut feature.

Michael Mann’s Ferrari was fun. Adam Driver and Penelope Cruz turned in notable performances. While it’s not amongst Mann’s best, 1995’s HEAT being his benchmark, it’s worth seeing.

I’ve probably seen most of the films I was looking forward to seeing on this year’s festival circuit. Now comes the work of putting pen to paper. How about you? Are there any films you’re looking forward to seeing?

Ana: Yes, so many still. I cannot overstate how elated this season has me. I’m definitely waiting for Cord Jefferson’s feature debut, American Fiction, which won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto. I still haven’t seen the Cannes winner, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall. I love a good courtroom drama and feel we haven’t had one in too long. That one could also be a major awards contender. Then there’s Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. I guess that one’s a given.

Before I forget, in terms of the BFI London Film Festival, I was astounded by David Fincher’s The Killer, too. The satire of the corporate world hits too close to home. It’s a fascinating picture, though I already sense it will mostly be overlooked for its simplicity, the critics making unreasonable demands from Fincher to be “grandiose”. Fincher and Fassbender will surely be streamed plenty on Netflix this fall, but any actually overlooked recent gems you can think of?

Paul: Good shout-outs for American Fiction and Anatomy of a Fall, and I’m excited about Scott’s Napoleon – Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby.

I thoroughly enjoyed David Fincher‘s The Killer. I might have cut it down a touch, but that’s only a minor gripe. While The Killer is not grandiose, its relationship to Fincher’s previous films offers an interesting insight into his work.

I’d go back to May December, and pitch that as a film that will end up under the umbrella of overlooked gems. I’m curious to see the fate of Sofia Coppola‘s Priscilla because it could go either way. It’s interesting to see how films reappraise as the months pass, and some films are elevated while others are relegated. Film criticism – it’s a funny and unpredictable business.

Ana: I could not have wrapped this up better myself. Thank you so much for the great chat, Paul. Let’s hope the audiences are as excited for this season as we are!