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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle