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The Quietus' London Film Festival 2009 Roundup
Val Phoenix , November 7th, 2009 07:05

Val Phoenix takes in the best of the Times-BFI 53rd London Film Festival.

While most of London was out enjoying the unseasonably warm weather of the past few weeks, The Quietus was indoors, in dark rooms full of over-caffeinated cinephiles packed like cattle, clawing tooth-and-nail [tooth and hoof, surely? Ed] to see the best new films of the year. There were the usual suspects: Herzog, Soderbergh, Jarmusch, Jeunet; the American tweeness and French pretension we've come to expect and some dark horses we didn't see coming.

The festival may be over, but you'll find many of the films from the programme on wide release in the coming months. So for your reading pleasure, here are some of our picks of the festival - some obvious, some not. The Quietus' David Moats (DM), Robert Barry (RB) and Val Phoenix (VP) are this year joined by independent filmmaker and critic Alex Barrett (AB), who saw more films than any healthy person should.

Alex runs the blog Night On Planet Earth and is currently in development on his debut feature film Life Just Is.

Stay tuned for longer reviews of some of the key films.

What are these iguanas doing on my coffee table?

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Herzog's films always have little flashes of humour (normally the kind of nervous laughter derived from existential dread) but Bad Lieutenant proves he's actually a comedy genius. Although the idea of the great Herzog dirtying his hands not only with the dubious cop movie genre, but also with Hollywood actors is mildly distressing — fear not. This is a great watch (depending of course on your tolerance for Nicholas Cage). It delivers the sincere enjoyment of great 80s action comedies sych as 48 hours, which were all about character before Michael Bay and co made them all about explosions. Why he chose to make his film the nominal sequel to Abel Farrara's stern original, which he's admittedly never seen, is another matter. -DM

Enter the Void

Inspired by a teenage viewing of Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake under the influence of magic mushrooms, the latest feature from French provocateur, Gaspar Noé takes us on a no-holds-barred, stream of consciousness trip (in every sense) through the neon lights of Tokyo and the inner space of a young American drug dealer. Shot with the same roller-coaster camera moves as Irreversible, and once again featuring sounds and music designed by Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter, Enter the Void is somehow both more and less visually, aurally, thematically extreme than its rape-revenge predecessor, opening up hitherto undreamt cinematic possibilities without bludgoning us into queasy submission. If the premise betrays the film's juvenile origins, in execution, Enter the Void, is evidently the work of mature director with a unique vision. -RB

Oil City Confidential

The final film in Julien Temple's trilogy focusing on British music, Oil City Confidential follows The Filth and the Fury (about the Sex Pistols) and The Future is Unwritten (about Joe Strummer) to look at the less well known Dr Feelgood. Billed as a 'noir' documentary, the film incorporates clips from old gangster flicks, talking heads, and concert footage. Some striking photography aside, the 'noir' theme begins to grate a little and at times the storytelling isn't clear, but it's nevertheless a great portrait of a band who, judging by the live footage on show, are ripe for large-scale rediscovery. -AB

Precious

In Precious, Harlem teen Clarice 'Precious' Jones is at her lowest ebb: abused at home, pregnant with her second child and kicked out of school, she finds salvation in an alternative school that teaches her literacy and self respect. Truly visceral film-making, Precious includes a great deal of hard-to-watch domestic violence--audience members gasped and covered their heads as Precious's mother (Mo'Nique in a blistering performance) aimed a television set at the girl from on high. But, this is no torture porn. At the heart of the story is Precious's development, fired by ambition, which illustrated by fantasy sequences in which she imagines herself as a star. -VP

The Informant!

Matt Damon gives a believable and sympathetic performance as a narcissistic FBI informant who's penchant for compulsive lying puts him in increasingly sticky situations. The film centres on the awkward relationship between Damon's character and his FBI contact played by Scott "Quantum Leap" Bakula. It's too bad Soderbergh spends so much effort stamping "early 90s period piece" all over the proceedings - to the point that the entire film stock seems yellowed like 20 year old plastic. The sometimes goofy music also detracts from what is an inherently funny, true tale of human comedy and should require no cues to tell you when to laugh. -DM

Starsuckers

Made in top secret over the course of two years, Starsuckers seeks to dupe the dupers, playing the fame engineers at their own game: binding publicists and paparazzi in hidden cameras and release forms, arranging hoax job interviews and auditions and selling made-up stories (ever read about Sarah Harding's secret interest in quantum physics, or Guy Ritchie's chemical peel? Well, both of those stories were invented for this documentary and swallowed whole by the red tops). Over the course of this gripping and entertaining 100 minute documentary, we see parents in Bluewater eagerly auditioning their pre-teens off as model abattoir workers, journalists caught attempting to buy celebrity medical records, and Live8 systematically debunked and revealed to be little more than a cheap attempt to distract attention from the political protest taking place in the streets. A timely film, executed with savage wit and surgical precision. -RB

The Limits of Control

The latest film from American indie maverick Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control skirts around pretentiousness and tedium with its continuing set of variations on a theme and near-endless repetitions of dialogue and scenarios. Thankfully, some nice moments of humour, some intriguing ideas, and Christopher Doyle's ever-dependable cinematography add interest to the proceedings and make it a worthwhile, if tiring, viewing experience. Although the stream of celebrity cameos soon becomes distracting, there's also no denying that it's an impressive list of individuals who are a pleasure to watch. -AB

Trash Humpers

Less a standard narrative film than the hoax of a found object: the video diaries of the insane. Shot on video - and not the digital kind that everyone uses, the kind that sometimes flickers into static or says 'play' in the corner of the screen and 'auto-tracking' in the middle, in a particularly ungainly typeface - and with neither story arc nor character development to ground us in the comfortable traditions of the bourgeois novel, Trash Humpers is probably the only film at this year's festival to really hack away at the limits of cinematic acceptability. Judging by the amount of walk-outs most screenings seem to inspire, for some this is evidently one transgression too far. For everyone else, the latest from 'beautiful loser', Harmony Korine, can be both funny and disturbing whilst warping our sense of what it means to be a film. -RB

The Road

The biggest blockade on The Road's journey to commercial success will no doubt be its bleakness. But just as the film's visual palette mixes the cold pale greys of its post-apocalyptic landscapes with the warm hues of burning pyres, so too is there a fire inside the unnamed protagonist and his son, their love for one another acting as a beacon of light and hope in the darkness that surrounds them. Although gruelling at times, many of the true horrors are only hinted at. Based on Cormac McCarthy's celebrated book, the film unfolds at a gripping but unhurried pace as the characters do their best to stay alive – and keep a moral conscience – in a world torn apart by an unspecified disaster. While the ending may not totally convince, this is an otherwise superbly made piece of moving, tense and disturbing drama. -AB

Dear Lemon Lima

One of the better American indie comedies on show, Dear Lemon Lima, finds dorky teen Vanessa Lemor being rejected by Philip, her social-climbing paramour, as she enters high school in Fairbanks, Alaska. On the rebound, Vanessa gathers the assorted FUBAR (F_ed Up Beyond All Recognition) geeks in the school and sets out to beat Philip at his own game in the school's Snowstorm Survival competition. Well-crafted and with a strong girl-bonding theme, this film will resonate for anyone who was an outsider at school, even if the ending is a bit pat. -VP

Trimpin

"I didn't want to be an engineer or just a musician or composer. The interest for me was lying somewhere in between", claims sculptor, composer, inventor, Trimpin, in this affectionate and inspiring tribute to a truly unique artist. As we watch him prepare for a concert with the Kronos Quartet with toy violins and computer-controlled mechanical noise-machines, or construct a vast musical sculpture out of hundreds of electric guitars for Seattle's Experience Music Project, what comes across most clearly is the man's extraordinary attention to the soundworld he passes through. Every object, every situation seems to contain the seed of some new idea or avenue of research. In an age when everybody seems intent on privatising their own acoustic experience with iPods and mobile phones, the atunedness that Trimpin has to his environment should be an inspiration to us all. -RB

No One Knows About Persian Cats

The new film from Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi sees him return to form after the lacklustre Half Moon, from which it thematically follows on. Dealing specifically with the widespread ban on music in Iran, and more generally with the wider censorship issues and restrictions faced by Iranians, the film is as witty and charming as it shocking. Although a work of fiction, the film plays like a cross between a drama, a documentary and a series of music videos. -AB

American: The Bill Hicks Story

This loving and thorough documentary about the late, great Bill Hicks appears to have been made entirely with Adobe Flash and in some cases, seems to have the same resolution. It's an interesting solution to the lack of visual source material, which is only occasionally distracting (but a lot better than zooming in and out of the same four photos ad nauseum). The film might have benefited from longer clips of his stand up, which is what we all want to see, but some of the amateur recordings they unearthed are real gems. Unfortunately, it's hard to learn much more about a man who was so ruthlessly forthcoming on stage. At least now we know he was telling the truth. -DM

Dogtooth

This third feature from Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos, takes the form of a speculation on the future of the family. Christos Stergioglou's draconian patriarch struggles to maintain an idyllic fantasy life by instilling in his children a paranoid fear of what lies outside the gates of the family home (flesh-easting creatures called "cats") and wilfully distorting their sense of reality ("A 'zombie' is the name for a small yellow flower"). Praised at Cannes, but evidently completely baffling to message board trolls, Dogtooth is a decidedly odd film with a strangely dissociative atmosphere. Mining a similar vein of unsettling surrealism as Peter Baynham's sketches for Jam without the relief provided by episodic brevity and the occasional punchline, it is rather like entering a secret world, superficially utopian yet fundamentally deranged. You watch in stunned horror, not in identification with any of the autistic characters or tense anticipation of the next plot twist but rather in a sort of catatonic helplessness. -RB

Bluebeard

Strikingly simple and quietly beautiful, Bluebeard weaves together a dramatisation of the fairy tale with a second strand of two young girls reading the story in a book. At times the strands interlink; the fairy tale is filtered through the imagination of the girls, and hence we share their sense of innocent childlike wonder at the girl in the book learning to fend for herself. Featuring superb, nuanced performances, especially from the young leads, the film also contains some genuine humour and one or two genuine shocks. -AB

Ander

Set in the Basque countryside, Ander depicts the stagnant home life of the title character, a farmer, disintegrating around him. Forced to take in an immigrant worker, Jose, to help while he is bedridden, Ander finds himself attracted to the man and questioning the order of his world. Denying his feelings in the face of societal disapproval, he finds an unlikely ally in the local prostitute. As the film develops, one family unit unravels and is replaced by another, as alliances are severed and relationships coalesce quite beautifully. Some of the most powerful scenes feature next to no dialogue but say a lot. -VP

Cold Souls

Playing a jaded version of himself struggling to get to grips with performing in Uncle Vanya, Paul Giamatti visits a ‘soul storage’ facility, where he swaps his soul for that of a Russian poet. Unfortunately not quite profound enough or funny enough to really succeed, this existential comedy nevertheless raises a smile, and provides more interest and entertainment than the last high-profile attempt to conquer the genre, I ♥ Huckabees. -AB

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