The 58th London Film Festival did not disappoint. The press screenings and industry events started days before the official public screenings began October 8, and finished with a flourish on October 19 with both the press screening and press conference for Fury, the closing-night movie with Brad Pitt.
First, let’s look at some numbers: The festival screened a total of 248 fiction and documentary features, including 18 world premieres, 9 international premieres, 35 European premieres and 19 films dusted off from the archives, and screenings of 148 shorts, all from 70 countries.
The films were supported with over 120 actors in attendance including Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Damian Lewis, Reece Witherspoon, Sienna Miller and Emily Blunt. These stars of film brought much buzz to London\'s Leicester Square and the surrounding hotels and restaurants. Star spotting became a sport at the local pubs and bars. At one, the person who spotted the most was rewarded with a free beer.
The industry screenings and events were attended by 703 industry delegates and 906 press delegates. This year’s industry offering included an extensive screening programme – with a total of 13,129 attendances at 154 industry and press screenings.
Now a little about the delivery of the festival. The professional organisation of the press element of the film festival was welcome and, given the numbers, impressive. Members of the press were able to attend any press screenings by showing their badge for a quick scan. Evening public performances were open to all press via an email request 48 hours prior. If you were successful in securing a seat, an email notification was sent to you the night before the showing. All daytime films were open to press, providing the cinema still had tickets available – as easy as showing up, flashing your badge and, ticket in hand. No need to join an early morning queue (as the English would say), no need to head to the press office and, most important, success for most of the public screenings desired.
The press website had an impressive amount of material for each film and event, plus, both shorts and some full feature length films were available to watch in your own time. Any questions were replied to within a few hours via email or within seconds at all the various press events.
All the red carpet screenings were shown to the press in the morning, followed by a press conference. If you hustled, it was easy to see the movie, walk to the press conference venue and score a seat. If you were lucky enough to be one of the press who received a ticket to the red carpet showing you could walk the same path as the stars and interview them as the cameras flashed. No side door for the press in London!
Finally, the good stuff! Leicester Square, always a vibrant hub in London, was, as expected, heaving! Packed with fans, film goers, celebrity spotters, autograph hounds and general looky loos - wondering what all the noise was about. Even with all the screaming, flash bulbs and celebrities getting in and out of the red carpet, films went without a hitch. I must have one of those faces, because many tourists accosted me and asked what was going on as they pushed against the barriers outside the theatres. In the pouring rain they still waited, having no idea what they were waiting for and didn\'t seem too disappointed when a little-known supporting actor or director showed up.
The festival kicked off with The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch and co-starring Kiera Knightley. The film was based on the true story of Alan Turing and his activities as a code breaker during the Second World War. The 8th was a wet and windy night but that didn’t stop this British film and these British stars from satisfying their fans. The general hubbub and rain continued for most of the 10-day event but the red carpet was always full with stars and directors stepping out to show off their movies.
Although the films themselves are an attraction, the \'extras\' you acquire when actors, directors, producers, or writers attend the public screenings and/or the press conferences are, for me, the reason for going. Whether as a press delegate or a member of the public, the complete view you obtain from listening to the actors, the chat of the directors and the interaction between the \'team\' involved in the film takes a movie off the screen and provides the viewer with a very touchable cinema experience.
I tried to attend as many press events as possible, which kept me moving from venue to venue in the lovely London weather. This constant running was my excuse for falling asleep in Leviathon, winner of best film, although I am not sure how I managed a \'nap\' given there was much yelling in Russian throughout. Here are some of the tidbits that I found so interesting and which kept me going during the movie gorge.
Men, Women and Children – Jason Reitman, director and writer, cast Emma Thompson as the narrator since she can \'deliver naughty in a nice way\'. Originally a novel, this adaptation shows that human connections are more important than the virtual connections which are more and more prevalent in our world today. The producer, cast and director all agreed that, after filming wrapped up, they had been making a real effort to exist in the \'now\' and not via technology.
The Salvation – A western by a Danish director (I know!) Kristian Levring stars Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. This film really did deliver the genre perfectly, a spaghetti western with shoot outs, damsels in distress and an authentic western feel. The filming took place in South Africa and the actors were mostly from Europe but the director assured everyone he researched everything to ensure no one could point out any mistakes. Kristian Levring\'s reason for \'doing\' a Western? When he was a kid growing up in Denmark they only had a couple of channels which showed \'Spaghetti Westerns\' on Saturday afternoons and he loved them. So, “Why not?”
Charlie\'s Country - an Australian film directed by Rolf de Heer was co-written by and stars David Gulpilil, the winner of the best actor at Cannes. This film is an indictment of Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals through the decades since \'white\' settlement. This is the third collaboration between actor and director, Ten Canoes and Tracker being the prior films and worth a look. David Gulpilil\'s performance is convincing and heart -felt as he has, in most instances, experienced the various elements of this film himself.
Son of a Gun - This Australian thriller provided Julius Avery in his directorial debut with a feature film. Ewan McGregor stars in this engaging film, however, not one of the better heist movies around. The characters were believable but I enjoyed the director’s typical Aussie accent which had many in the audience muttering \'what did he say\' particularly with the farewell \'harooh!\'
Wild - Adapted from Cheryl Strayed\'s book of the same name this film stars Reece Witherspoon. If you haven\'t read it yet, you should. The recounting of the 1,100 mile solo hike that Cheryl undertook to \'rediscover the women her mother brought up\' is worth your time. The interaction at the press conference between these two women was entertaining to watch. Cheryl not only apologised to Reece for being such a \'slut\' in her early twenties but also for ensuring the backpack that Reece carried throughout the film was heavy and not packed with newspaper as Reece expected.
There is a very interesting reason for Cheryl\'s last name of Strayed. Cheryl chose the name because she \'did not want to use the last name she had shared with her former husband, nor did she want the last name she had in high school since she could not go back to being the girl she used to be\'. So Cheryl chose Strayed because, "its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress."
Fury - Another World War II drama closed the film festival with yet another charismatic leading man, Brad Pitt. The press conference was packed to the gills and I couldn’t keep my eyes off Brad. He has always been a favorite of mine, however, his current look, a moustache, side burns and a mullet reminds me of the ‘70s and isn\'t working for me. Mr. Pitt\' s comments that \'even vets have said war is ludicrous\' and \'that it is an amazing fact of human nature that no matter how much we evolve, we will always devolve into conflict.` hit a cord with all in the room.
And the winners of the vast smorgasbord of film were:
Best Film: Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev. Tells the tragic story of one man’s fight against a corrupt local government in a small town in Russia. (Snore)
Best First Feature: The Tribe, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. Many of the film club watched this film at the Hamburg Filmfest, acted completely in sign language by non-professional deaf people.
Best Documentary: Silvered Water, Syria Self-portrait, Ossama Mohammed & Wiam Simav Bedirxan. This is an account of life in Syria during the war.
Best British Newcomer: This award is presented to the most promising writer, actor, producer or director with no previous track record in feature films or television. Sameena Jabeen Ahmed- for her performance in Catch Me Daddy.
Finally, here are the main takeaways for the 2014 London Film Festival season. Movies can provoke, challenge, and increase the audiences understanding of something, be it an emotion or an issue. Watching a film, listening to the directors, actors, or producers provides the viewer with accounts of how, what and why and other further insights into the purpose of the movie. However, it is up to you to either like, dislike, discuss, review or feel ambivalent about the film. It\'s ok not to like a movie, even if it does win the \'Best Film\' category. Just like I don’t like cauliflower but many people do does not make it a good or bad vegetable. Most important is to appreciate a film for its purpose. Be entertained and if not...nap!