BFI London Film Festival Announce 2021 Competition Films

Justin Kurzel, Mamoru Hosoda, Paolo Sorrentino films amongst those in running for festival’s best film award

Next Tuesday 7th September we will learn what cinematic delights away for us when the BFI announce the 2021 London Film Festival line up. The festival today have teased our excitement by announcing the contenders for the Best Film Award in this year’s Official Competition selection.

The 2021 nominated films showcase an diverse range of filmmaking talent from across the world; 11 countries are represented with a  thrilling thematic breadth. Everything  from a gentle social realist comedy with a potent political punch from Iran, to a Japanese animated reimagining of Beauty and the Beast for the virtual age, made by one of the world’s great anime artists.

The 8 films in Official Competition are:

BELLE (Japan, dir-scr. Mamoru Hosoda)

Oscar-nominated anime director Mamoru Hosoda returns with an outstanding tale, following a socially awkward girl who transforms herself into a megastar within a virtual world.

High-school student Suzu finds everyday social conventions difficult to deal with and is increasingly drawn into an alternative, virtual world via the U app – an Internet-based environment with five billion members. Here, she excels as singing megastar Belle; her alter-ego even providing her with a confidence boost in reality. U allows people like Suzu, who battles to cope with the loss of her mother, to find some sanctuary from the pain and struggles of their real lives. Yet, within its atmosphere of beauty and wonder, an underlying danger surfaces. Belle/Suzu’s life becomes entwined with a disruptive presence known as the ‘Dragon’, as she recognises that behind this threatening façade someone pained is crying out for help.

Belle is another triumph for LFF favourite Hosoda (Mirai, LFF 2018). It’s a captivating, magical voyage and an insightful snapshot of how technology has transformed all our lives.

IL BUCO (Italy-Germany-France, dir. Michelangelo Frammartino)

A decade after his acclaimed Le Quattro Volte, Michelangelo Frammartino returns with a meticulous and engrossing true story of cave mapping.

In 1961, a group of young speleologists mapped one of the world’s deepest caves in the Calabrian mountains. In this fictional story about them, Frammartino constructs a slow but entirely gripping rhythm; we see the cave explorers in extreme long-shot as they prepare tools and each day embark on a perilous journey, venturing further into uncharted crevices. Much of this action is viewed from the perspective of an old, grizzled shepherd moving his herd across the mountains. Almost entirely without discernible dialogue, but featuring arguably the year’s richest sound design, Il Buco unfolds at a spellcasting pace – shifting back and forth between the shepherd and adventurers, and punctuated by glimpses of life in a remote mountain village where the two briefly intersect. This is unique, singular filmmaking from Frammartino. And a film made for the big screen.

THE HAND OF GOD (Italy, dir-scr. Paolo Sorrentino)

Paolo Sorrentino’s bitingly funny, semi-autobiographical family tale is set during the Maradona-obsessed Naples of the 1980s.

A tight-knit Neapolitan family’s supposedly settled lives are beset by old history, jealousies and not-so-hidden infidelities. This is all set against the febrile backdrop of 1980s Naples, a city gripped by a quasi-religious fervor, due to the city’s team signing football genius and larger-than-life figure Maradona. Depicting all this rich cultural tapestry Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, The Young Pope) has reached into his own history and fashioned a bold, visually striking drama that uses its glorious locations to full effect. By turns touching, grotesque and savagely funny, and featuring an excellent ensemble cast (including the ever-brilliant Toni Servillo), The Hand of God comes replete with some jawdropping scenes that are typical of Sorrentino, a filmmaker at the top of his game.

NITRAM (Australia, dir. Justin Kurzel)

The disturbing true story of a young man who, in 1996, went on a killing spree in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur.

The depiction of mass murder is a thorny topic that Justin Kurzel confronts head-on in Nitram, a lightly fictionalised but resolutely unsensational account of the real-life events that saw a 28-year-old Tasmanian shoot 35 people dead and injure 23 more. Caleb Landry Jones takes the title role, a boy nicknamed ‘Nitram’ because his real name is Martin and the community thinks he’s ‘backward’. He’s a selfish, violent young man whom his parents love but can’t control and who, somehow, ends up with a deranged lottery heiress. Nothing about his life is normal, but red flags about his erratic behaviour go unheeded. Could he have been stopped? Nitram always appeared profoundly troubled, but Australia’s lax gun laws made him a murderer.

HIT THE ROAD (Iran, dir. Panah Panahi)

Panah Panahi’s thrilling debut is by turns tender, quirky, even laugh-out-loud funny – a wondrously-observed reflection on family and the ambivalence of saying goodbye.

Like every great road movie, Panahi’s drama is all about the journey. In the chaotic claustrophobia of the car, an energetic child (Rayan Sarlak) clambers over his surly father (Hassan Madjooni) whose broken leg – and mood – take up considerable space. In the front, mother (Pantea Panahiha) fusses over her other son in the driver’s seat (Amin Simiar), whose sullen face stays fixed on the deserted horizon. Nobody mentions where they are going, but knowledge of their unspoken destination causes concern, turning despair into affection and some very eccentric behaviour. The car stutters along to a bold, brilliant soundtrack of 1970s Iranian pop, full of heart, nostalgia and the melancholy of separation.

Deftly navigating a sea of conflicting emotions, Panahi’s debut heralds an exciting new talent. This journey along the dusty road of life is a treasure that might just break your heart.

SUNDOWN (Mexico-France-Sweden, dir-scr. Michel Franco)

From a filmmaker unafraid of tackling life’s more challenging questions comes a complex, searing study of what it means to try and become someone else.

The Bennett family are on holiday in Acapulco when mother Alice receives a call that necessitates a return home. Only when they get to the airport, one of the party, Neil, notes a problem and returns back to the city while Alice, and her children Colin and daughter Alexa fly home. Working with Tim Roth again following Chronic, Sundown is similarly a portrait of a man in crisis, inventing a new existence for himself where he doesn’t have to account for who he is or what he does. Franco’s camera observes, often from a distance, as Neil navigates this new existence.

Following the epic qualities of the defiant, nihilistic New Order (LFF 2020), Sundown is a return to the more intimate character studies of Franco’s earlier cinema, rooted in a complex performance by Tim Roth as the awkward, mysterious Neil. Be prepared to be surprised and unsettled by the latest feature from one of contemporary cinema’s most original filmmakers.

LINGUI, THE SACRED BONDS (Chad-France-Germany-Belgium, dir-scr. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

Following his international success with A Screaming Man, Daratt and Abouna, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s powerful new drama once again celebrates the heroic individualism of ordinary people.

Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), a single mother and practicing Muslim who lives on the outskirts of the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, discovers that her 15-yearold daughter (Rihane Khalil Alio) is pregnant. Having been expelled from school, Maria also announces that she doesn’t want the child. In a country where abortion is severely punished, Maria’s situation reveals the scale of gender imbalance across all strata of society. However, Amina believes in the sacred bonds that bind humanity, or the Lingui – invisible to the eye and with its roots deep in the fabric of African culture. Finding solidarity with other women, Amina becomes increasingly determined to support her daughter. Haroun’s profoundly humane and visually ravishing drama is powered by Abakar’s towering performance as a woman caught between her faith and her love for her daughter.

TRUE THINGS (UK, dir. Harry Wootliff)

Harry Wootliff returns to the Festival with this fascinating psychological drama, starring Ruth Wilson and adapted from Deborah Kay Davies’ novel True Things About Me.

Wilson gives a career-best performance as Kate, a disenfranchised woman on the fringes of society. Bored by the daily tedium of her job at the benefits office and deflated by the disappointments of the dating scene, she craves something more. Then one day, a cocky ex-prisoner (Tom Burke) arrives at her desk, and before she knows it the pair are having a quickie in the nearby car park. Awakened by her risky encounter, Kate finds herself inexplicably drawn to this mysterious new man. But will he provide the escape she so desperately desires? Having detailed the heartaches and complexities of love in her acclaimed debut Only You (LFF 2018), Wootliff’s richly nuanced second feature ventures into darker territory, deftly exploring the fine line between infatuation and obsession, and the destructive power dynamics of a toxic relationship.

Tricia Tuttle, BFI London Film Festival Director, said: “With Official Competition our aim is to present a curated programme that showcases the breadth and richness of international cinema for our audiences. Anyone new to the LFF should consider Official Competition a big neon sign that is blinking: “enter here”. This 8 film selection is full of individual cinematic diamonds – each one unique and beautiful in its own way. Together they are dazzling and demonstrate the endless potential of cinema in the hands of a great filmmaker. With a selection like this we have made the jury’s job very difficult indeed.”

The winner will be chosen by the Official Competition Jury, the members of which will be announced in the coming weeks. This year also sees the return of the popular Audience Award, which was won last year by Thomas Vinterberg’s fantastic Another Round .

The winner of the Best Film Award will be announced at a special virtual LFF Awards Ceremony event on Sunday 17th October via social media.

The 65th BFI London Film Festival takes place from Wednesday 6th October – Sunday 17th October. The Programme Launch will take place on Tuesday 7th September, and we will bring you the line up when we get it.