Preview: Ten of the best at this year's London Film Festival

Tickets for LFF 2013 go on sale on this Thursday (12 Sept). Our film critic Ryan Gilbey picks ten of the most promising films from this year's line up.

With booking for this year’s London Film Festival opening to BFI members on Thursday 12 September (and to the public on Friday 20 September), it’s time for the customary lucky-dip round-up of some of the most promising titles in the programme. As usual, I’ve tried to exclude the big, headline-grabbing movies that will doubtless be sold out within seconds, or which go on release anyway within a few days or weeks of being unveiled at the festival.

The opening film, Paul Greengrass’s factually-based Captain Phillips, which puts Tom Hanks at the helm of a US container ship hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, will be hitting cinemas nationwide a week later, where you can see it for a fraction of its £32 Opening Night Gala price. Similarly, why grab a two- or three-week jump on Stephen Frears’s Philomena (which won Venice’s Best Screenplay award for Jeff Pope and star/co-writer Steve Coogan, and opens on 1 November) Alfonso Cuarón’s admittedly long-awaited Gravity (8 November), this year’s Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour (15 November) or The Selfish Giant (25 November), the Oscar Wilde-inspired new film from Clio Barnard, director of the visionary semi-documentary The Arbor? Go digging instead.

Surprisingly, neither of the films which took the top prizes last weekend at the Venice Film Festival are currently to be found on the LFF horizon—Golden Lion winner Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA, a documentary set on and around the Grande Raccordo Anulare (Rome’s ring road), and the runner-up, Tsai Ming-liang’s Jiaoyou (Stray Dogs), which Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times described as “a kind of madly lyricised Lear of the Taipei underworld.” But there is always time for last-minute additions, even outside the Surprise Film category (which tends to be reserved for something English-language and broadly audience-pleasing: last year the slot was taken by Silver Linings Playbook). Below are ten try-your-luck picks, some big, some small, taken from those titles already confirmed for the 57th London Film Festival:

At Berkeley

Master documentary-maker Frederick Wiseman takes four hours to explore life at Berkeley University as it is shaped and threatened by budgetary cuts of more than 50 per cent.

Computer Chess

Andrew Bujalski is one of the progenitors of the US indie “Mumblecore” movement (along with Greta Gerwig and director Joe Swanberg, whose new film Drinking Buddies is also in the LFF). I’ve heard great claims made for his 1980s-set study of chess geeks developing a computer program that can trounce a human opponent at the game.

Eastern Boys

Writer-director Robin Campilo usually co-writes and edits with Laurent Cantet, branching out every now and then with his own work. He made Les Revenants, which inspired the recent hit TV series The Returned, and now he has directed this drama about the relationship between a middle-aged French man and a Ukrainian teenager.

Exhibition

The only title on this list that I’m not recommending sight unseen is this creepy but compassionate third feature from Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago), about an artist couple preparing to sell the spectacular Modernist home in west London that has been their protective shell.

Great Passage

The compiling of a new dictionary over 14 years is the starting point for this humorous tale from Japan. The LFF brochure calls it “Dickensian.” That’s enticing enough for me.

Kon-Tiki

The incredible story of Norwegian explorer and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, who set out in 1947 on a hazardous raft-trip from Peru. A Canadian friend said of one CGI-enabled sequence in the film: “For a moment, I felt the way I did seeing movies as a tyke, awestruck at the cheap thrills movies can provide.”

Night Moves

Kelly Reichardt frustrated as many viewers as she impressed with her doggedly realistic western Meek’s Cutoff (for the record, I was in the latter camp). Her new film is a thriller about environmental activists played by Jesse Eisenberg (who can also be seen in the LFF in Richard Ayoade’s The Double) and Dakota Fanning.

12 Years a Slave

Rave reviews have flooded in from the Toronto Film Festival for the third film from British artist and director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). This reportedly powerful slavery drama stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Under the Skin

An obvious pick, perhaps—I selected it at the start of this year as one of the films I was most looking forward to in 2013—but the polarised reaction from Venice to Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel about a predatory alien (Scarlett Johansson) has surely only inflamed the sense of anticipation.

We Are the Best!

There was relief at the festival press launch when a trailer for this comedy-drama about a female, teenage punk band in 1980s Stockholm indicated that the filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, here adapting a graphic novel by his daughter Coco, had returned to the wit and energy of his early features (Show Me Love—aka Fucking Amal—and Together).

The London Film Festival runs 9—20 October.

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose film "At Berkeley" will play at the LFF on 12 and 14 October. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories