Category: Five star films

Leviathan

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Winner of the BFI London Film Festival’s best film award and definitely one of my favourites of the festival, Leviathan is a tale of modern Russia, in turns hilarious, harsh and heartbreaking.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev has created a film that carries its grand themes on small shoulders, focusing on one man’s battle with a corrupt politician. Zvyagintsev skilfully blends in enough humour to lull you into a false sense of security, so that when the film plunges into darkness, it’s that much more shocking.

Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) is a mechanic whose family have lived in a small, barren village by the sea for generations. The environment is grey, full of striking landscapes and forbidding clouds. Decaying fishing boats slump in the harbour and on the beach, the skeleton of a whale lies like the remains of a prehistoric creature, its bones slowly being bleached by the light. Most of the villagers live in small, dingy concrete apartments, a far cry from the beautiful house Kolya has built with his own hands. So it’s easy to see how quickly Kolya’s world crumbles when the local mayor decides he wants the land for himself and Kolya is faced with a compulsory purchase order that will leave him, his attractive young wife and his teenage stepson with no option but to move to the concrete bunkers. He has to fight back. But bringing in an old army friend to give him legal advice has consequences way beyond anything he could have foreseen.

The mayor has more than a touch of Boris Johnson about him, a bumbling buffoon drunk on power and vodka – a dangerous combination. He’s brilliantly played by Roman Madyanov who pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Serebryakov is superb too as Kolya, a man who is desperately clinging on to everything around him and unable to comprehend or battle the injustices being heaped upon him. Injustice, it appears, is the one thing you can’t fight in modern Russia.

The desolate, beautiful landscapes provide the perfect frame for Leviathan’s stoic but fragile characters. And Zvyagintsev’s habit of letting the big dramatic moments happen off-screen only adds to the atmosphere of tension and helplessness.

Leviathan blew me away, it’s one of those films you immediately want to see again once you’ve got your breath back – full of grand themes and powerful imagery, and giving a harsh reminder of the corruption at every level in Putin’s Russia.

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Boyhood

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Richard Linklater has got some patience. To start making a film, knowing it isn’t going to see the light of day for over a decade, not be really sure how it’s going to pan out or what stories might emerge – and then to be able to persuade his cast to take the same leap of faith, is a remarkable feat. Filmed for a few days a year over 12 years, it was a big risk for all involved. But it’s paid off: Boyhood is one of those films that changes your perception of film-making and reminds you how amazing it can be to step into the darkness with someone else’s vision.

It’s a simple tale: we follow Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family as they adjust to life after divorce, dipping into their world for a few days each year. Mason goes through gawky, spotty and all the awkward stages of puberty. His sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) goes from show-off child to sulky teen. Mason’s mother Olivia, Patricia Arquette at her best, struggles to find a real purpose in life while giving her children a stable home, and Ethan Hawke is the slacker father who flits in and out of his children’s lives when it suits him, and who has plenty of maturing to do himself. It’s often hard to see the joins as the years pass, but you always feel them.

Boyhood is, of course, all about the boy. But in its portrayal of family life, it’s much more than that. It’s about how we continue to grow up throughout our lives. It’s about the things that drive us, the things that move us and the things we fear. And it’s about how those things never really leave us, we just learn how to use them to our advantage, and how to be happy despite them.

Linkater has created a seamless record of the journey into adulthood. It’s a bit like looking through a family photo album containing all the disjointed memories you have of growing up – the good ones, the bad ones and some of the ugly ones too. There’s something magical about the way Linklater has so tenderly captured this sense of slowly fading memories.

Boyhood is about all our lives, and in its simplicity and brevity it really is quite wonderful.

Inside Llewyn Davis

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Watching the trailer here for the first time reminded me just how much I loved Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s a real gem from Ethan and Joel Coen, easily up there with their best. I think it was my favourite at LFF this year, though it had some strong competition.

Llewyn Davis (a beautifully gentle performance from Oscar Isaac, rocking a corduroy jacket and beard in the sexiest way possible) is a folk singer in 60s New York. Newly solo after losing his singing partner, he’s flirting with a solo career, reluctant to give up the chance of success. This vague hope is all that he has – Davis has never really grown up. It’s as though he is expecting success to make him a man, and the lack of it has stunted his emotional development. He doesn’t have a home, relying on friends to put him up on their lumpy couches and helping himself from their larders. When he’s rude to one friend, he just moves onto the next, assuming that they’ll have forgotten how rude he was last time he outstayed his welcome. They usually have, there’s a charm in Davis that seems to carry him through. And which carries him a bit too far when impregnates one half of a folk duo (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, also rocking tremendous jumpers).

There’s a heavy sense of what might have been about Davis, he’s a man who can see off any glimmer of hope that appears, leaving a trail of self-pity in its wake. It’s as if he has failed so much in life that he expects nothing else, and soaks up each new blow with the stolidity of a boxer. You’re torn between wanting him to make a success of things, and thinking that he really doesn’t deserve to.

That all makes it sound a bit sombre, but fear not – the Coens have filled the darkness with plenty of their trademark humour as well as some memorable performances (John Goodman pops up as a frankly quite terrifying jazz musician). The songs are perfect and will make you want to listen to folk music, at least for a short while, when you leave the cinema. If you can sit through Hey Mr Kennedy without giggling and tapping your foot then you’re dead inside. There’s a great cat too, which for a while lets Davis show his caring side. Only for a while though.

Inside Llewyn Davis is nothing short of wonderful – I hope Oscars shower upon it.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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If you like fast moving action films with lots of car chases then this one might not be for you. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is long and slow, filled with shots of darkly glorious steppes and lengthy conversation. It’s superb. Nuri Bilge Ceylan has directed a film that sucks you in slowly and keeps you there, until suddenly you realise two and a half hours have passed. The story is simple, two men have confessed to a murder and the local world weary police chief is taking them, along with a doctor, prosecutor and assorted other officials into the hills at dusk to dig up the body. Trouble is, they can’t quite remember where they put it now the sun’s gone down. We follow the solemn group of men as they drive from site to site through the night, with Kenan, the suspected killer, a brooding and silent presence. As they pass through the ever darkening steppes we are treated to some beautifully dramatic photography, not least an early scene of the police cars coming into view for the first time, their headlights almost like fireballs blazing through the stormy night.

The story unfolds slowly, and what little we learn about the men unfolds through the conversations the men have with each other as the night gets darker and longer. They start off by discussing the merits of buffalo yogurt, but end up uncovering some (ironically) deeply buried truths. The overriding theme is of fatherhood and loss – we learn that the police chief works long hours because he can’t bear being at home with his sick son, leaving his wife to cope. The prosecutor (who thinks he looks like Cary Grant and has a dodgy prostate) has been in denial over the death of his wife. The doctor is divorced from his beautiful wife and says that he never wanted children although we never learn why this might be (and a poignant shot at the end of the film makes us think there could be more to this than we’re told). And a question of paternity over the murder victim’s son looks like being the motive behind the killing.

In a central and perfectly paced scene, the beautiful daughter of a local Mayor passes out drinks while unknowingly stealing into the souls of all the men, reducing the killer to tears and giving them all pause for thought. This gently shot scene changes the mood of the film entirely – things become much more personal from here on, they’re all searching for something, the body is almost incidental.

Ceylan’s epic film is filled with long beautiful tracking shots, some perfectly composed imagery, moments of humour and moments of sadness all of which add up to a graceful, mesmerising look at life and death. It’s a film that will stay with you long after the closing credits and, despite its length, make you want to watch it again.

The Artist

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It’s true that a lot of the films at this year’s festival were a touch on the dark side – but halfway through, a little gem raised all our spirits. The Artist is a corker – I had a grin on my face from the opening credits and all the way home, even in the back of a minicab that smelled of farts. You could tell you were onto a good thing when it was introduced by Harvey Weinstein whose fervent support for Michel Hazanavicious’s vision really got this made. It’s totally my film of the festival and one of the few that had me shedding a tear – and that was of joy.

The Artist tells the story of a silent movie star and his reaction to the arrival of talkies, and offers more than a few nods to classic Hollywood, not least Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born (have to declare a bit of personal interest here too as my great grandad was part of the introduction of talking pictures to Britain when he worked for RCA in the 1930s.) It’s done in brilliantly authentic style, and is touching, funny and clever – and the sweeping score must be a shoe-in for an Oscar. It’ll be a shocker if this isn’t somewhere on the best film list too, and if the wind is in the right direction you never know, it could win.

Everything about The Artist is a joy, I defy anyone not to love every minute of it. Am not going to spoil it by rabbiting on here – it’s perfect, just see it. Then see it again and dance all the way home.