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10 must-see films at this year's BFI film festival

Experimental documentaries, hardcore Asian crime-thrillers and everything in between

The BFI London Film Festival is that glorious, upside-down time of the year when the movie options suddenly become brilliant, diverse and plentiful. From October 4 to October 15, a host of cinemas across the UK capital will screen the finest selection of films to have been up for grabs since, well, last year’s festival. Whether you’re thirsting for experimental documentaries, hardcore Asian crime-thrillers and everything in between, or just eager to catch major arthouse masterpieces several months in advance, it’s all there waiting for you.

After all, if you pick wisely, you’ll wind up seeing your new favourite film, with a like-minded, respectful audience (no popcorn munchers!), and probably with the director participating in an in-person Q&A. It’s your chance to tell Lynne Ramsay, “This is more of a statement than a question, but…” (Please, don’t do that.) Plus, many of these films, especially the straight-to-Netflix delights, will never be shown again on a big screen, and some may never be viewable again at all. It’s FOMO central.

So now we’ve established there are too many wonderful movies to see, you might be wondering what to do next. Well, we’ve picked out 10 essential films you should be keeping an eye out for. Tickets go on general sale on September 14, with more released on September 28, and if you miss out, you’ll only have yourself (or your slow broadband) to blame.

I AM NOT A WITCH (Rungano Nyoni)

Rungano Nyoni’s bold first feature caused a stir at Cannes, with many commenting that they’d never seen anything like it before. Which is understandable: Nyoni really seems to have cornered the “blackly comic social satire allegory regarding witch camp tourism” market. Set in Zambia, nine-year-old Shula is sent to a witch camp to be, among other things, paraded in front of spectators. From there, she’s tied to a ribbon (so that she can’t fly away – duh!) and is forced to endure a series of jaw-dropping record scratch, how did I get here? moments. Won’t someone please think of the children falsely accused of witchcraft?

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (Sean Baker)

Sean Baker, the iPhone maverick behind Tangerine, returns with another hyperactive, dark comedy, this time exploring a rundown motel around the corner from Disney World. For six-year-old troublemakers Moonee and Scooty, this entails living in an oversized playground, but in reality it’s populated by the hidden homeless. That this poverty exists within spitting distance of the Magic Kingdom is ironic and heartbreaking, but the film also bursts with childlike, candy-coloured wonder. What’s more, the co-lead is the excellent Bria Vinaite, a first-time actor discovered via Instagram. Baker may be operating in 35mm widescreen, but the spontaneity and vibrancy of Tangerine is very much present, and it’s his sixth film in a row to feature a fantastic vomiting scene. What’s not to love?

ROLLER DREAMS (Kate Hickey)

Here’s some 80s nostalgia actually worth celebrating. Back then, in the aftermath of Xanadu, the roller dream was alive and kicking: young, talented, mostly non-white Californians would take their skates and strut their stuff in front of appreciative crowds at Venice Beach. And, as Kate Hickey’s documentary proves, it was awesome. Roller-skating was not only a vibrant form of escapism, it was also in stark contrast to life in LA’s suburbs. (Until – sad spoiler alert – gentrification ruined the roller scene.) As one skater puts it: “You can be so graceful and it’s so much fun. It’s just like sex on wheels.”

BEACH RATS (Eliza Hittman)

In Eliza Hittman’s sun-kissed, ab-filled coming-of-ager, the societal pressures of male sexuality go under the microscope. Frankie (Brit actor Harris Dickinson) is a Brooklyn teen leading a double life. By day, he’s chatting up girls in front of his fellow beach bros, but after dark he’s hooking up with older male hotties he’s contacted via topless selfies. What’s more, Frankie’s father is dying, and he’s deeply unsure which of his loved ones will accept his sexuality. Anyone who’s seen Hittman’s previous teen drama, It Felt Like Love, will know what to expect: she’s a filmmaker with enormous empathy and a knack for writing authentic young characters. Plus it’s in 16mm and looks gorgeous.

120 BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE) (Robin Campillo)

120 BPM may have been awarded the Grand Prix (basically runner-up) at this year’s Cannes, but the critical consensus was that Robin Campillo’s invigorating drama deserved to scoop the festival’s top prize. Watch the trailer and instantly recognise why. The film is a sprawling document of the invaluable efforts of ACT-UP Paris during the early 90s, and it captures the sheer exhilaration of how the AIDS activist group protested hard for their rights – and also their lives. Campillo, who helmed 2013’s queer gem Eastern Boys, was an ACT UP militant himself, and calls it an attempt to “recreate the music and electricity between all these people”. We’ll see you there in a heartbeat.

THELMA (Joachim Trier)

No one expected Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier to go genre, but we’re eager to see the results. In his fourth feature, Thelma, a young biology student of the same name falls head over heels for another female classmate, but in doing so she discovers more than love – the sexual awakening unleashes her hidden supernatural powers. And as if releasing pheromones isn’t dramatic enough at that age. Not only has Trier listed Stephen King and John Carpenter as influences, but his history with sombre dramas (including last year’s underrated Louder than Bombs) suggests you can expect a teen horror that actually prioritises character development.

FIVE FINGERS FOR MARSEILLES (Michael Matthews)

“My mother was struck by lightning the night I was born,” says Tau, with a growl. “I came out like this.” Unfolding in Marseilles, a small town in the Eastern Cape, Michael Matthews’ South African spin on the western genre is a much-needed contemporary thriller about violence and colonialism. When five persecuted locals – nicknamed Five Fingers – defend themselves against police oppression, it leads to gunfire and Tau fleeing for safety. 20 years later, Tau returns seeking peace, but he swiftly learns, with dangerous consequences, that the ramifications haven’t worn off. Nearly a decade of research was poured into the production, with screenwriter Sean Drummond observing, “The time is more right than ever before for this film.”

A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Sebastián Lelio)

For Marina, a transgender woman, the death of her husband, Orlando, leads to even more heartbreak: the small-minded police treat her with suspicion and she faces further prejudice from Orlando’s accusatory family. However, A Fantastic Woman – Lelio’s follow-up to underseen disco drama Gloria – is entirely about Marina’s side of the story: her perspective, her singing career, her sensuality, her larger-than-life personality, and how she kicks back against the transphobes. As the title indicates, the film is a celebration, and you’ll want to catch the acclaimed lead performance from trans actress Daniela Vega in only her second-ever film. A star is born!

BAD LUCKY GOAT (Samir Oliveros)

Behold, a coming-of-age road-trip comedy about a mystical goat on the Colombian island of Old Providence. When two young siblings accidentally kill the aforementioned creature with their father’s truck, they face a dilemma: there’s 24 hours left to fix the vehicle or the family business is in trouble. The elephant in the room is the goat carcass on the road, which summons up a series of musical, magical adventures. “It’s always the same typical, traditional film about the lower class and how they suffer,” says Oliveros. “I believe we have to break those preconceptions of Latin American cinema.” So that means tonnes of fun for everyone – except the goat.

LAWS OF THE GAME (Aegina Brahim)

Who likes short shorts? Aegina Brahim’s mini film (which screens as part of the Short Film Award programme) is a topical story that tackles the uglier side of the beautiful game. Zeola, a young black female referee in Suriname, already feels like the odd (wo)man out whenever she officiates in the men’s league, but then the Surinamese Football Association completely screw her over – will she get her FIFA license? And before you ask, yes, it is based on real events. Laws of the Game will line up alongside other short films such as Robot & ScarecrowDelete Beach and Gabber Lover, with a possible half-time break for oranges.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 4 to October 15. More info can be found here

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