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  • Writer's pictureJames Green

14 Films to Watch at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival | JG Review

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Saltburn, dir. Emerald Fennell (2023)


You might not realise it, but you already know Emerald Fennell. She became British suburbia’s favourite nurse following her stint as 'Patsy' in Call the Midwife, before going on to star in The Danish Girl (2015) and, more recently, as Camilla in The Crown. She recently wrote, produced and directed Promising Young Woman (2020) starring Carey Mulligan, and took over from Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the lead-writer on series two of Killing Eve. She's even attempted to take on theatre-land, albeit less successfully; I had the displeasure of watching Lloyd Webber's Bad Cinderella just over a year ago, which was dysfunctionally penned by our own Fennell.

Saltburn is set to be a return to form, however. Set in the mid-2000s, the film follows Barry Keoghan's Oliver who struggles to settle in at Oxford University before falling for his aristocratic college-mate Felix (Jacob Elordi). The homoerotic thriller boasts masterful visuals as well as an indomitable supporting cast (Richard E. Grant, Rosamund Pike and Carey Mulligan all appear), though early detractors have suggested it may hold more style than substance—"Saltburn certainly has attitude, but nothing new to say," (Peter Debruge). Still, this is one of the buzziest presentations scheduled for this year's LFF, and it's set to screen at the Opening Night Gala.

The Kitchen, dir. Daniel Kaluuya, Kibwe Tavares (2023)

CREDIT: Netflix

Everyone's favourite British export, Daniel Kaluuya, makes his directorial debut alongside Kibwe Tavares with The Kitchen. This action drama set in near-future London sees its protagonists struggle in a landscape dominated by the 1%, who have eradicated the welfare state and health service. Kane 'Kano' Robinson stars as Izi, who attempts to go-straight before his son falls ill, forcing him back into criminality and into a gripping heist. A commentary on gentrification and the impact of austerity politics, this layered flick promises a sharp take on London's political backdrop at a time where the cost-of-living and the impacts of gentrification are wilfully ignored by the ruling class.

Fittingly, The Kitchen will have its world premiere at the 2023 London Film Festival.

One Life, dir. James Hawes

Director James Hawes, whose previous works include two of the more middling 'Black Mirror' episodes ('Hated in the Nation' and 'Smithereens'), has set himself up for an epic awards race with this Anthony Hopkins-led biopic One Life. The film memorialises Nicholas Winton, a man whose vigour in the build-up to WW2 saw him save the lives of hundreds of vulnerable children from the Nazis.

The film releases against the backdrop of the current refugee crisis, which has proved politically polarising across the globe; One Life reminds us of the importance of empathy not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s brave. Despite its stellar cast (Jonathan Pryce and Helena Bonham-Carter co-star), One Life has garnered some muted reviews following its debut at the TIFF. Regardless, Hopkins has been tapped as a key player in the upcoming Oscar race, with his "shattering" performance in the film's final act having "brought down the house in Toronto," (Benjamin Lee).

All of Us Strangers, dir. Andrew Haigh (2023)

CREDIT: Film4 Productions

Paul Mescal rose to fame after his star-turn as 'Connell' in BBC Three's Normal People, and last year found himself nominated for Best Actor for his performance in the moving Aftersun (2022). Andrew Scott, his co-star in All Of Us Strangers had a similar trajectory, with his enigmatic take on Moriarty in BBC's Sherlock making him a household name overnight. In this fantastical romance, the two heartthrobs share the screen as a couple in a romantic fantasy loosely based on 1987's 'Strangers' by Taichi Yamada.

The film premiered at Telluride this August to universal acclaim, with The Playlist's Gregory Ellwood remarking; "despite the actor’s excellent contributions, this is still the work of a confident auteur. Andrew Haigh has many skills as a director and letting the action play out subtle manner is one of them."

The Bikeriders, dir. Jeff Nichols (2023)

CREDIT: 20th Century Studios

This star-studded leather jacket of a production comes from writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud [2012] and Loving [2016]). Starring Jodie Comer, Austin Butler and Tom Hardy, The Bikeriders charts the growth of (and internal tensions within) a midwestern American biker club. This has been loosely based on a 1967 photo-book of the same name by Danny Lyons, who also has a writing credit for this release.

Following its debut at the Telluride Film Festival this summer, the film has been labelled a "striking memory piece" by the Hollywood Reporter. It currently sits at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Book of Clarence, dir. Jeymes Samuel (2023)

CREDIT: Sony Pictures

This bold new film from Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall [2021]) offers a provocative new take on the New Testament. This script doesn’t follow the lift of Jesus Christ, but instead focuses on his social rival Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) who, having fallen on hard times, seeks to forge his own path as he yearns for messianic notoriety and fortune. Despite not being released yet, The Book of Clarence has already been accused of blasphemy, its inherent suggestions that Jesus may have been a conman ruffling the feathers of many a conservative or Christian. Expect Clarence to feature on Fox News, then, when it goes on wide release early next year.

This biblical dramedy boasts a fine cast; Stanfield shares the stage with James McAvoy, Omar Sy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Anna Diop. Notably, Jay-Z acts here as a producer, with new music from the mega-star set to build out the film’s soundtrack.

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, dir. Sam Fell (2023)

CREDIT: Netflix

The original Chicken Run (released in 2000 by Aardman Studios) is, to this day, the highest grossing stop-motion animated film ever released at the box office. The comedy flick, set on a farm in which a group of plucky chickens manage to escape their dinner-plate fate, stars Mel Gibson (unfortunately) alongside Julia Sawalha and Miranda Richardson, and the characters from that first film are finally making a long-awaited return to the screens with this sequel, 23 years down the line.

Thankfully, Gibson has been replaced by Zachary Levi—though the replacement actor's recent turn toward conspiracy and anti-vax conservatism perhaps indicates the role of Rocky the Cock is ever so slightly cursed. Dawn of the Nugget has come under fire, too, for refusing to keep on Sawalha (the actress has been replaced by Thandiwe Newton, in what has been labelled an ageist shake-up). This new release will debut at the BFI London Film Festival, showing at The Mayor of London's Gala.

The Killer, dir. David Fincher (2023)

CREDIT: Netflix

Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton star in this thrilling neo-noir, the latest release from David Fincher (Gone Girl [2014], Zodiac [2007]). This visually striking adaptation of 'Le Tueur', a french graphic novel, has been on Fincher's to-do list for some time; Variety reported the emergence of the project back in November 2007. The film, which was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival this year, follows a professional hit-man (Fassbender) who must question all of his relationships, including his relationship with himself, as he takes on a daring, ever unravelling manhunt.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, who had the chance to review the film, gave it a glowing, perfect score; "It is all entertainingly absurd and yet the pure conviction and deadpan focus that Fassbender and Fincher bring to this ballet of anonymous professionalism makes it very enjoyable."

The Holdovers, dir. Alexander Payne (2023)

CREDIT: Focus Features

The film festival circuit has made its name on emotionally challenging material, but new comedy The Holdovers promises to bring some levity to the proceedings. From Alexander Payne - producer of the Clooney-led The Descendents (2011) – The Holdovers takes place at Christmastime in a boarding school, where the only people in the vicinity have nowhere better to go. Brought together by their gloomy circumstances, our leads end up making the most of the festive season and end up forging a connection they didn't anticipate.

The Holdovers will show at the BFI London Film Festival as part of the Cunard Gala, with cruising company Cunard acting as one of the festival's official sponsors this year (alongside long-time partner American Express).

Killers of the Flower Moon, dir. Martin Scorsese (2023)

CREDIT: Apple TV+, Paramount Pictures

Martin Scorsese. That name alone should be enough to get your tongues wagging, for his recent collaborations with DeNero and DiCaprio have been nothing but stellar must-sees (The Wolf of Wall Street [2013], Shutter Island [2010], and so on). After previewing The Irishman at the festival in 2019), Scorsese returns to London with true-crime Flower Moon, tackling the grim murders of Osage tribe members in 1920s rural America.

The 3 hour and 26 minute long epic (no water before the screening!!) has already been shown at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival; The Observer's Xan Brooks notes "De Niro’s on powerhouse form as big Uncle Bill Hale, a man who combines the folksy authority of Lyndon Johnson with the steely twinkle of Bill Cosby. It’s a performance so potent that it might have unbalanced a lesser movie. [...] Barely a second is wasted."

Maestro, dir. Bradley Cooper (2023)

CREDIT: Netflix

Maestro is - very clearly - a Bradley Cooper star-vehicle, undoubtedly intended to boost his credibility in Hollywood as he co-writes, produces, directs and stars in this new Netflix release. Unfortunately for Cooper, the film is already embroiled in allegations of antisemitism. The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Fienberg noted that his "critiquing of Bradley Cooper converting to Latex Judaism [in reference to the film's choice to use a prosthetic nose in its depiction of real-life protagonist Leonard Bernstein] caused me to fail to even notice Carey Mulligan as Bernstein's first wife, who was Chilean-Jewish. That's a LOT of ethnic cosplay for one movie."

Bernstein's family have come out in defence of the project, adamantly defending Maestro and Cooper; “Bradley chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that. We’re also certain that our dad would have been fine with it as well.” Critics who have already seen the movie have been mostly positive about the overall production - controversy aside - but it will be telling to see how this sticky discourse impacts Maestro—not just in the awards race, but at the box office too.

May December, dir. Todd Haynes (2023)

CREDIT: Netflix

Legendary auteur Todd Haynes (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story [1988], Velvet Goldmine [1998], Carol [2015] and so on...) returns to the BFI London Film Festival with May December, a Julianne Moore-led thriller which explores an age-gap relationship through diegetic research and character study.

The film, which debuted at Cannes earlier this year, has been tipped as "an intoxicating reflection on identity and authenticity," with many fawning over the chemistry between co-stars Moore and Natalie Portman; "Portman and Moore make for wickedly camp frenemies, but [Charles] Melton’s quietly heart-breaking grace steals the show," (Stephen A. Russell).

NYAD, dir. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (2023)

CREDIT: Black Bear Productions, Netflix, Vanity Fair

Vasarhelyi, best known for her Academy Award winning documentary Free Solo (2018, co-directed with her husband), is coming to the BFI London Film Festival to debut her new narrative-feature: Nyad. The film is a biographical drama focusing on the achievements of Diana Nyad--the first swimmer to allegedly cross the distance between Florida and the Bahamas without the aid of a shark tank…at the age of 64!

The film stars Jodie Foster and Annette Bening, and the pair spoke to Vanity Fair earlier this year to unpack the demanding shoot; Foster explained "Annette faced all the hardest challenges. Swimming in the water for hours and hours, stomaching salt water, fluctuating body temperatures, wearing that weird silicone mask, long hours in every weather condition, day and night—and all of it in a bathing suit. [...] That woman [Bening] has the strongest will I’ve ever seen on a movie set.”

Poor Things, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (2023)

CREDIT: Film4 Productions, Searchlight

The final flick on this list is Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things. You may know Lanthimos from his recent directorial releases, The Lobster (2015) andThe Favourite (2018), but he's also produced the recently-cancelled The Great, which I'd highly recommend to any fans of his work. This film is one of the more anticipated to release at the festival, with its debut in Venice garnering it the coveted Golden Lion. The film acts as a re-imagining of 'Frankenstein', with Stone re-teaming with Lanthimos to portray a depraved, sex-mad re-animated corpse.

One fun fact about Poor Things is that a disastrous self-makeover ended up defining the look of Stone’s character; according to TotalFilm, Stone accidentally dyed her hair jet-black before filming began, but Lanthimos loved the look so much he requested it be kept in her depiction of Bella Baxter.



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