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'The Birth of a Nation', Dir. by Nat Turner|©Mandalay Pictures/BFI
'The Birth of a Nation', Dir. by Nat Turner|©Mandalay Pictures/BFI
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The Top 10 Films To See At This Year’s London Film Festival

Picture of Harriet Clugston
Updated: 1 September 2016
With the official line-up for the 60th BFI London Film Festival released in full, one of the world’s premier film festivals, this year’s diverse programme is made up of 193 fiction and 52 documentary features, and includes 18 world premieres and eight international premieres. With a special Symposium event planned to herald the upcoming BFI Black Star project (a season of films celebrating the versatility and power of black actors), this year’s line-up of films feature some extraordinary and powerful black stories, from the tale of a little girl in rural Uganda who grew up to be a world champion chess player, to the African king who defied entire governments to marry a white office worker from London. Here’s our pick of the best films to catch this year.

Lion

Starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, this directorial debut from Garth Davis has been popping up on awards shortlists for some time now. Adapted from the memoir of Saroo Brierley, Lion recounts the true story of how an impoverished five-year-old Indian boy becomes separated from his family on the streets of Calcutta, winding up with adopted parents in Australia after surviving a horrific ordeal that took him hundreds of miles from home. Now aged 25, Brierley (Patel) embarks on an odyssean journey back to his homeland, driven by the memories of his family that have haunted him into adulthood. Brierley’s search for his lost roots is aided by the discovery of a new technology, Google Earth, painstakingly scouring satellite images just hoping to find familiar place names and landmarks. As Patel puts it, Lion is ‘in essence, a story about mothers and sons’; such tearjerker material always goes down a storm (Philomena raked in the awards just three years ago), with the plot’s reliance on technology putting a contemporary twist on a timeless tale.

A United Kingdom

Starring Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo, this biographical film from British director Amma Asante tells the true story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and London office worker Ruth Williams, based on the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams. After meeting in London in 1947, the pair embarked on a whirlwind romance that reverberated around the world, determined to marry in the face of fierce opposition. Facing resistance at every turn, from their own families as well as from the allied British and apartheid South African governments, Khama and Williams’ story of defiance became a powerful symbol of emerging African independence and dying colonial powers. A United Kingdom will receive its European premiere at the LFF, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Botswana’s independence on September 30th.

Free Fire

Closing the festival this year will be the European premiere of the latest film by British director Ben Wheatley, whose brilliant if highly unsettling dystopian satire, High-Rise, left audiences dizzy last year. Wheatley brings his distinct cinematic flair to Free Fire, an equally visceral, punchy action thriller starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson. In Boston in the late 70s, an ammunitions racket between two Irish men and a gang of arms dealers goes badly wrong when shots are fired during the handover in a deserted warehouse, descending into a bloody, messy fight to the death. Produced by Martin Scorsese, Free Fire is set to be a stylish and highly knowing, white-knuckle thriller, that wears its influences — Tarantino, Hawks, Woo — on its sleeve.

First look at Free Fire
First look at Free Fire | ©Film4/BFI

The Birth of a Nation

The thorn in the side of film enthusiasts everywhere, the original film to bear this name was both a landmark epic drama, unparalleled in its importance in the development of early American cinema, and a repugnant, highly racist propagandic exercise. Directed and produced by D.W. Griffith in 1914, it told the story of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan in the wake of the American Civil War through rose-coloured glasses, depicting the murderous extremist group as the heroic saviours of the downtrodden South. Now, American director Nate Parker has reappropriated the title in order to tell the story of Nat Turner, an African-American slave trained as a child to be a Christian preacher to his peers, who grew up to lead a slave rebellion across the plantations of Virginia in 1831. Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (in which he also stars as Turner) is a gruelling, brutal and emotionally affecting drama that provokes a poignant and relevant conversation about the use of violence in the pursuit of freedom and equality.

Snowden

Hotly anticipated political-thriller Snowden from Oliver Stone has been repeatedly pushed back, originally meant for a Christmas release in 2015, but will finally be making its debut at festivals this September. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular whistleblower, this incendiary, super-charged film follows Edward Snowden from the precipice of his infamous leak to The Guardian in June 2013 as well as delving into the personal back story of this extraordinary figure, examining his remarkable intelligence and charting his rise through the ranks of the NSA. Based on the books The Snowden Files written by Luke Harding of The Guardian, and Time of the Octopus, by Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s lawyer, Snowden will build on Stone’s reputation for tackling burning questions about the covert, omnipresent power structures that shape our contemporary world.

Queen of Katwe

Another starring role for David Oyelowo alongside the indomitable Lupita Nyong’o, Disney’s Queen of Katwe is another film whose significance is made all the more poignant by the Black Star project, ‘the UK’s biggest ever season of film and television dedicated to celebrating the range, versatility and power of black actors’; the LFF’s Symposium event will bring together international filmmakers and professionals to ‘question why opportunities for black actors to shine on screen in the US and the UK remain limited and ask what more can be done to effect positive change’. A biographical sports drama, Queen of Katwe tells the story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga), who became the first titled female chess player in Ugandan history at the 40th World Chess Olympiads. Born into enormous deprivation in a slum of Katwe and forced to drop out of school aged nine, Mutesi’s story is an uplifting tale of a young girl’s determination to make something of herself in the face of overwhelming odds.

American Honey

The fourth feature film from festival favourite Andrea Arnold, American Honey has already scooped the Jury Prize at Cannes, after being selected to compete for the Palme d’Or. Arnold’s first film to be set and filmed outside of the UK, American Honey is epic in scale yet intimate in feel, following its central character Star (Sasha Lane) as she joins Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and a nomadic band of travelling teenage magazine hawkers as they journey across the sunny plains of the Midwest’s highways, in a lyrical reworking of the American road trip trope. With an energetic soundtrack filled with popular songs, American Honey is dripping in the fleeting energy and spirit of millennial youth, whilst also offering a timeless commentary on the enduring socio-economic divide in America.

The 13th

This biting Netflix documentary examining race relations in America will open the New York Film Festival this September, the first non-fiction film in its history to be chosen to do so — a fact that speaks both to the film’s aptitude and to the urgency of the issue in contemporary American society. Directed by Ava DuVernay (the first black female director to earn an Oscar nomination for Selma in 2014), The 13th traces the history of racial inequality in the American penitentiary system, its title offering a scathing commentary on the US Constitution’s 13th Amendment: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States’. Covering a century’s worth of material right up until the present day, The 13th lays out an indicting case concerning the exploitation of African American men, and lays the injustice at the feet of those who stand to benefit from its continuation.

The 13th
The 13th | ©Netflix/BFI

A Monster Calls

The dulcet tones of Liam Neeson steal the show in this visually stunning fantasy about a young boy’s struggle to cope with his mother’s terminal illness. Pushed back for release in December, in anticipation of a promising awards season, J.A. Bayona’s surreal film follows 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougal), a boy with a very unusual mind; bullied at school and troubled by a difficult grandmother at home (Sigourney Weaver), Conor escapes the difficulties of his life with the help of a magnanimous yew tree (played by Neeson) from the hillock beyond his garden, which comes to life to tell him stories and to guide him through his troubles.

It’s Only the End of the World

Despite winning the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes festival, Xavier Dolan’s latest film has proved divisive with critics. Based on the play of the same name by Jean-Luc Lagarce (who tragically died of AIDS aged 38), this French-Canadian production tells the emotionally suffocating tale of a young gay writer who, returning home after 12 long years of separation, struggles to tell his family about his terminal illness. Featuring a powerhouse cast that includes the likes of Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, It’s Only the End of the World has been selected to screen as the BFI Flare Special Presentation, in connection with the London LGBT Film Festival. Claustrophobic but beautiful cinematography channels the pain and discomfort of the narrative, communicating the tortuous ‘second coming out’ experience tasked to many gay men, often almost as good as dead to their disapproving families.

The 60th BFI London Film Festival will run from October 5th-16th, 2016. More information and tickets here.