The BFI's 48th London Film Festival drew to a finish last week, ending on a wildly eccentric note with David 'Flirting with disaster' O Russell's I Love huckabees. In a sense Russell was indeed flirting with disaster. If reports are anything to go by, the film is one you'll either love or hate. Given its an existentialist comedy, which for some will leave them none the wiser, clearly it's all in the interpretation!
For the statistics-minded, in the space of 15 days, more than 180 feature films together with a strong programme of shorts too. There were 364 screenings and almost 150 were sold out.
The most popular screenings may have been a surprise. They included Todd Solondz's Palindromes, Saul Dibb's Bullet Boy, Daniel Burman's Lost Embrace, Shang Lu's Tang Poetry, Thai hit Tropical Malady, and Juliet McKoen's Frozen.
Also arousing considerable interest were Wong Kar Wai's melancholic 2046, Mira Nair's Indian-flavoured Vanity Fair, Zhang Yimou's colour feast House of Flying Daggers, Joshua Marston's excellent Maria, Full of Grace, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, and Francois Ozon's 5 x 2.
Six films walked away with garlanded praise from the Fest. Jonathan Caouette won the Sutherland Trophy (awarded to the director of the most imaginative first feature) for his experimenta film Tarnation which was made for the princely sum of just $218.38. Aaltra directed by Gustave Kervern and Benoit Delapine, won the 7th Fipresci International Critics award and Nicole Kassell's thought-provoking film about a child abuser, The Woodsman won the 9th Satyajit Ray award. That in itself must have been particularly gratifying to the film's lead, Kevin Bacon (the subject of a Times Screen Talk) and his wife and co-star Kyra Sedgwick who was in town with her husband.
Other stars to grace the festival included Mike Leigh, Todd Solondz, Jonathan Demme (who took a masterclass), David O Russell, Brad Bird (director and animator of The Incredibles), Mira Nair, Gregg Araki, Todd Williams (director of Room in the Floor), Swedish helmer Lukas Moodysson and Catalina Sandino Morena (winner of the Berlin Fest's best actress award for her part in Maria Full of Grace).
Completing the awards, the best short prize went to Harry Wootliff's Nits and last but not least, the UK Film Talent award went to Amma Asante's A Way of Life (released across the country from Nov 12th).
The Surprise film is always a something that creates a buzz all by itself. In 2002, Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven must have been a great choice, last year it was School of Rock and this year Alexander Payne's Sideways was chosen. It's a film that gets a UK release at the end of January and is thought to be worthy award material.
Overall this seemed a good festival and a credit to organiser Sandra Hebron. It had a good mix of decent films, masterclasses, treasures from the archives, screen talks with actors and directors, a film market for the industry-minded, family films and of course the occasional star to add necessary glamour. "I'm pleased this year's programme brought London audiences out en masse,' Sandra said, on reflection, days after the festival came to an end, 'bringing so many exciting films to the fore that were thought-provoking, proved to me that festival goers wanted to be challenged.'
Certainly memorable in that bracket this year were three films to look out for in 2005: Joshua Marston's Maria, full of Grace about Columbian girls who are drawn into drug trafficking as a career, Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin about the effect of a sport coach's abuse on two young boys seen later rebuilding their lives as adults and Lila Says, a new cutting edge French romance which surely has one of the sexiest bike rides in celluloid history.
Finally, you can see over 30 films in the festival and still regret missing the chance to see one more. Czech Dream sounded hilarious if you're into watching real life scams. Two Czech students hoodwinked the media and most of Prague by the look of it, make-believing that they were building a hypermarket and shopping precinct.
One large advertising campaign later, 4,000 make the trip to be present at the opening and are taken by the boys to an empty field! You can imagine the scene. Five seconds whilst assembled guests look around them, two more seconds whilst the students decide now really is the right time for them to leg it and then anger resulting in a lynch mob heading on a stampede for being made to look like mugs... let's hope it gets a UK release.