Contrary to the doom and gloom in certain editorial circles, cinema is well and truly back. Ignoring the clickbait and released back into the wild, the BFI London Film Festival returns to – dare we say it – some sense of normality for 2021.

Conscious that many cinema lovers would still prefer to enjoy this year’s bumper programme from the comfort of their own home, LFF remains extraordinarily accessible. The BFI Player will host a large portion of the films playing online, and partner venues the length and breadth of the country will once again make many of the UK, European and even World Premieres on offer available to their patrons. 

As a result of delays in production caused by the pandemic, and with distributors now keen to showcase a backlog of titles, the programme for the 65th edition is a treasure trove of global talent. But we start, in some sense, closer to home with London-born director Jeymes Samuel. His debut feature, the visually and lyrically bold Wild West revenge tale The Harder They Fall, features an astonishing cast (Idris Elba, Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield to name but three) and is the Opening Night Gala. There are big names behind the camera as well as in front of it as some of the world’s greatest working directors come to London this October. 

Joel Coen’s solo directorial endeavour, and one of the year’s most highly anticipated releases, The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, will bring the curtain down and is among a number of films whose murky morality, shadows and light are reflected in stunning monochrome. Few are as well-versed in the Bard’s work as Kenneth Branagh, but his latest project is Belfast, a late 1960s story of sectarian violence, seen through the eyes of Buddy (a big screen debut for young actor Jude Hill), told in beautiful black and white photography. Rebecca Hall makes an assured debut as director with Passing, which features in the Journey strand.  

Starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson as two friends, divided by time, societal constraints and personal circumstance, it is an intoxicating, dreamlike adaptation of the Nella Larsen novel. Visually striking but sombre in tone, don’t miss Alex Camilleri’s Malta-set Luzzu. Sitting somewhere between neo-realism and documentary, this debut feature – like Passing – was a highlight of Sundance earlier this year. So, too, was Fran Kranz’s Mass which features four of the best onscreen acting performances of 2021. A painfully claustrophobic, but exquisitely acted and directed debut, it explores the unanswered questions and grief of a school shooting.

French auteur Jacques Audiard, changing tack and palette, brings Paris, 13th District, a patchwork of love and life in the French capital, starring Noémie Merlant. His compatriot, Julia Ducournau, returns to LFF with her highly-anticipated follow-up to the cannibalistic Raw, which set pulses racing and shredded nerves at the 2016 festival; body horror, Titane. Certainly not one for the feint-hearted, it was not the only film to premiere at Cannes to send waves crashing along the Croisette. Let’s just say that Dutch master Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, an adaptation of Judith Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy really put the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons, too.

Elsewhere, and at long last, there’s Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch; Jane Campion returns with 1920’s frontier drama The Power of the Dog, which has already garnered significant praise; so, too, has Chilean director – and CineVue favourite – Pablo Larraín with his second English-language feature, Spencer, which goes behind Sandringham’s tall curtains for a Christmas weekend with the Royals. 

Incredibly, Edgar Wright appears for the first time at #LFF with Last Night in Soho; Terence Davies directs Jack Lowden as a young Siegfried Sassoon in Benediction, exploring the great poet’s life and loves; Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s slow-burning drama Drive My Car was another favourite at Cannes, and more recently at the New York Film Festival. The list is (almost) endless, but mention must also be made of a stellar documentary line-up. Quite rightly winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in February, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee resonates all the more profoundly after recent events in Afghanistan. It is one of the films of the year and should be at the very top of your list for #LFF.  

Veteran documentarian Sergei Loznitsa’s Babi Yar. Context features in competition, exploring the events surround the titular World War II massacre; after Gunda and Pig, we explore the life of a dairy Cow, thanks to Andrea Arnold; esteemed filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave lays bare the truth of the first months of the pandemic for New York City medical staff; and last but by no means least Mark Cousins continues his journey through cinema, bringing it up to date with The Story of Film: A New Generation. And where better to end this rundown of just a small portion of 2021’s delights – but don’t stop there.

Visit the BFI London Film Festival page to delve deeper into the wealth of films on show this year.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

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