BFI London Film Festival turned sixty in some style with a stunning lineup. As London navigates its global role post-Brexit, the selection of world cinema on show for the festival’s 60th birthday showed that the capital remains very much open for business, open to the world and an enviable showcase.
The festival has established itself as a keystone on the international film festival circuit and has come along way from its humble beginnings as an idea hatched at a film critics dinner party. And it was to be just one day after Princess Margaret opened the British Film Institute’s brand new cinema under an arch of Waterloo Bridge on London’s Southbank, that the inaugural London Film Festival opened there in 1957.. The first film shown was Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood setting out its stall as an outward looking platform for the best in world cinema.
Fast forward to 2016 for a slew of fascinating films big and small. But nothing can gainsay that illusive word of mouth buzz. Screening in the Headline Gala section La La Land instantly confirmed its status as the hottest of hottest tickets telling the story of ambition and pitfalls in Hollywood as a homage to the golden era of Tinsel Town musicals. Leading man Ryan Gosling showed himself a nifty hoofer alongside his leading lady Emma Stone for some Strictly Come LA moves. This latter day Ginger and Fred were a delight to behold and held audiences spellbound.
Opening the 60th festival was A United Kingdom, a true story set in the decade before the festival got underway. Appropriately this was a very British story of the King of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana) who insisted – in the face of African and British prejudice – on bringing his white English bride back to his homeland as his queen. A lush sweeping story of love spanning two continents and cultures. She was not initially seen as the country’s answer to Grace Kelly but through determination and devotion the couple acceded to the throne as husband and wife – king and queen.
Another period piece from the Forties was Their Finest. Again it focuses on the female experience in less enlightened times. Set in the wartime world of propaganda films it stars Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy. This is period social drama told with comic flair.
Among the 380 films from 74 countries screening at this sixtieth cinematic feast were some hidden gems, including Paterson which won a posthumous Palm Dog for Nellie who portrayed Marvin the British Bulldog. This tender tale of a young married couple plays out against the backdrop of poetry and was a big Cannes hit from American Indie cinema darling, Jim Jarmusch.
A Festival Special Presentation gave an indie darling, this time British, the chance to shine with Andrea Arnold’s take on the carefree freewheeling world of traveling youthful magazine sellers. American Honey is a road movie with va va voom, starring macho heartthrob Shia LaBeouf but is very much the perspective of its alternative British director.
Another alternative talent got a London showcase with It’s Only The End of The World. Starring Chanel fragrance poster boy Gaspard Ulliel this adaptation of a stage play is very much anchored in the world of Canadian Enfant Terrible Xavier Dolan, who scooped the Grand Prix du Jury at this year’s Cannes festival. This raw drama makes for uncomfortable viewing when a writer returns home to his suburban family to announce some dreadful news. There were stand out performances from Vincent Cassel, recently seen in Jason Bourne, and Oscar winning actress Marion Cotillard.
London Film Festival was launched on a mission of being a form of catch up for cineastes who did not have the chance to make it to the big European festivals like Venice and, especially Cannes, a role it continues to fulfil with distinction. The range is unparalleled and offers a true global snapshot. Meanwhile back in the early years the more limited offering was decidedly arthouse and, at the same time. continental passion made its way across the Channel. At the third LFF in 1959, director François Truffaut turned up to the screening of his film Les Quatre Cents Coups without a ticket and unable to speak English. He managed to charm the ushers, who found him a seat in the audience. That would have been an amusing ‘do you know who I am ‘ moment which would have gone down in cinema history.
But passion was not just reserved for securing seats for festival goers in the early years. The 1960s also saw one of the LFF’s most notorious moments when, in 1968, it showed Godard’s first English-language film, One Plus One. When producer Iain Quarrier took to the stage to explain why he had tinkered with the ending, the director launched across the stage and punched him in the face.
And since those fist swinging Sixties the festival has firmly positioned itself as the showcase of the avant garde with programming choices which were not always universally welcomed. In 1974, programmers took the bold decision to show Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which – in line with classification guidelines – had to be restricted to BFI members only.
Major filmmakers with debut features in the festival during the 1990s included Danny Boyle with Shallow Grave in 1994, Shane Meadows debuted with Small Time in 1996 and Sofia Coppola took her London bow with The Virgin Suicides in 1999.
In 2008, the Festival line-up included Hunger, the feature debut of Steve McQueen, whose third film 12 Years a Slave would go on to win the best picture Oscar and best film BAFTA for 2013. McQueen received the BFI Fellowship at this year’s Festival.
2012 saw the introduction of a jury-judged formal competition, with awards for Best Film, Best Documentary, Best First Feature and Best British Newcomer. Competitors for Best Film that year included Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, David Ayer’s End of Watch and, eventual winner, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone.
Now at the rather grand age of 60 the BFI London Film Festival has established itself as a cornerstone of the international festival circuit. While London’s BFI South Bank remains at the heart of the festival there are a host of other venues which spread the love of film across the capital. From the glamour of the red carpet galas in Leicester Square to the edgy glamour of the Ritzy in Brixton , the grandeur of the Mayfair Curzon spreading east to connect with hipsters at the Hackney Picturehouse.
This concept hatched at a film critics dinner party is now celebrating its golden jubilee safe in the knowledge it is a global player in touch with it’s grassroots doing a global city proud.
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