Sheffield Doc Fest 2014

26 Jun, 2014 Posted in: Events, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray on her top picks from the 2014 Sheffield Doc Fest: Best Film, Best Talk, Best Q&A, Best Panel and Best Party.

The Millennium Gallery

The story of Sheffield Doc Fest is one of growth. The festival has expanded exponentially in its 21 year life span, from a gathering for mainly hardcore British documentary enthusiasts to its present status as one of maybe the top three documentary focused film festivals in the world. My favourite thing about Sheffield however, is not its size, but the variety. Like SXSW, it plays host to a bewildering array of panels, talks, masterclasses and mixers, in addition to the expected films. It makes it difficult to compile a Cannes-style top ten – you’d be comparing apples and oranges. With that in mind, I’ve picked a favourite from each category instead…

Best Film: 112 Weddings

112 Weddings

The potentially twee concept of catching up with couples several years after he shot their wedding videos is anything but in the capable hands of Doug Block, who achieves a fine balance between questioning the institution of marriage itself, gently unveiling weaknesses in certain relationships, celebrating the people who make marriage work, and exploring why it so often doesn’t. It’s a clear-eyed film that comes across as neither cynical nor rose-tinted.

Best Talk: Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry's In The Best Possible Taste

Managing the nifty trick of making a huge event for a massive audience feel intimate and engaging, An Evening With Grayson Perry (plus Q&A chaired by Channel 4 Deputy Chief Creative Officer Ralph Lee) was by turns funny, illuminating and touching. If you’ve yet to encounter Grayson Perry’s particularly piquant brand of social insight mixed with a dissection of our tribal signifiers that occasionally borders on pitiless, do check out In The Best Possible Taste on 4oD.

Best Q&A: Steve James

Life Itself

One of the most personal post-screening Q&As unfolded in the humble surroundings of the Library Theatre, after Life Itself, a documentary unfolding the late film critic Roger Ebert’s life in parallel with his final months. The film itself left many in the audience wiping away a tear and as a result, this Q&A had a different tone to most: less industry-focused, more personal and clearly full of people still feeling the gap in film criticism that Ebert’s death has left.

The Crucible

Best Panel: International Distribution Strategies

Bringing together senior figures from every stage in the distribution chain, this panel at The Crucible, chaired by Film4’s own Anna Higgs, provided a comprehensive look at the challenges and opportunities opening up in international distribution as a result of changing digital landscapes. Click here to see our Storify of the panel!

Best Party: Dogwoof’s 10th Birthday

Dogwoof are the distributor for docs in the UK, so it felt only fitting that they celebrated their tenth year with a huge party featuring the Dressed Like A Girl dancers and a stage invasion. Happy birthday Dogwoof!

And finally…

Personal highlight: Beyond Clueless with live score

As well as being at the festival for Film4, I was lucky enough to be attending as a filmmaker, with the first feature I’ve produced, Beyond Clueless, getting its UK premiere in Sheffield’s biggest venue, The Crucible, with a live score from the composers, brilliant pop duo Summer Camp. Obviously I couldn’t rank a film I’d worked on alongside my other picks – there’s a small chance I might be biased – but equally it was such a magical evening, I didn’t want to leave it out entirely! If you’d like to know more about the film, check out or listen to the title track below:







Cannes 2014: top ten

26 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion

Catherine Bray rounds up her best of the fest, with films from all sections of the festival making the cut in an edition of Cannes marked by quality across a diverse range of strands and countries.

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner

As ever, the response to Cannes has been a mixed bag, with some critics declaring it a vintage year and others pooh-poohing the selection. As a relative newcomer myself – this was my fourth year at Cannes – perhaps I don’t have the long-view required to really judge the festival as a whole, but for what its worth, I thought it was a brilliant selection, particularly if you didn’t restrict your movements to the main Competition. My (alphabetical) top ten reflects this, with three films plucked from the main Competition, one from Un Certain Regard, four from a very strong Directors’ Fortnight and two from the small but perfectly formed independent strand that is Critics’ Week.

A quick note about Film4 films first: since they’ll be covered in depth elsewhere on the site and it might seem a teensy bit biased to include them objectively in our top ten(!), I’ve excluded Film4′s Cannes slate from this list, but it should go without saying that I adored Mike Leigh’s masterly Mr. Turner (featuring a richly deserved Best Actor turn from Timothy Spall), Daniel Wolfe’s gripping debut Catch Me Daddy (interview here) and Ken Loach’s heartfelt, timely and passionate Jimmy’s Hall (interview here).

But what about the rest? Without further ado, here are my favourites:

Force Majeure
Un Certain Regard, Jury Prize winner
Sweden, dir. Ruben Ostlund
Ruben Ostlund’s painfully acute comedy of human behaviour is merciless in its dissection of the morals, manners and expectations swirling around contemporary notions of masculinity and family – Ostlund is an expert in making you squirm in your seat with embarrassment one moment and laugh out loud the next.
Read the full review

Main Competition, Best Director winner
USA, dir. Bennett Miller
A brilliantly performed and elegantly suspenseful tragedy, written and directed with sure-footed grace by Bennett Miller, this is among the very finest pieces of really classic storytelling at Cannes this year and its prize for Best Director marks the first step in an award campaigns that will run all the way through to the Academy Awards.
Read the full review

Directors’ Fortnight
France, dir. Céline Sciamma
With a stunning breakout performance from newcomer Karidja Toure, Tomboy director Céline Sciamma’s gorgeous third feature is a spry and lively coming-of-age drama that oozes with character and style.
Read the full review

It Follows
Critics’ Week
USA, dir. David Robert Mitchell
David Robert Mitchell’s second feature is a spine-tinglingly creepy and fantastically enjoyable indie horror movie that has real compassion for its characters, but otherwise invokes the best of 1980s slasher flick tricks in its use of Steadicam and a synthy score to get all the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.
Read the full review

Main Competition, Screenplay winner
Russia, Andrei Zvyagintsev
Though honoured with a win for screenplay, Leviathan could easily have won the festival’s top prize – it’s a fierce epic that binds together inter-generational melodrama, a Kafkaesque fight against officialdom, black comedy, a menacing thriller and an indictment of the political and clerical classes in contemporary Russia.
Read the full review

Maps To The Stars
Main Competition, Best Actress winner
Canada, dir. David Cronenberg
I’ve already written at length about why I like Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars but to put it succinctly, I just had such a blast watching this film, a wild Swiftean satire on a monstrous, exaggerated imagining of Hollywood, seen through a haze of ego and ambition – just don’t in go expecting anything too subtle.
Read the full review

The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Directors’ Fortnight
Japan, dir. Isao Takahata
The final spellbinding film from the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, this is a beautifully rounded and even feminist interpretation of a classic fairy story about an old bamboo cutter who findings a supernatural foundling in the forest and raises her as his own. The gorgeous Raymond Briggs style animation gives everything a picture-book feel, but the titular princess’s dilemmas are very much those of many modern young woman.
Read the full review

The Tribe
Critics’ Week, winner
Ukraine, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
The explicitly violent boarding school teen drama The Tribe seemed like an inevitable win in the Critics’ Week strand from about 10 minutes in. It is a unique cinematic experience: no dialogue, no subtitles, no voiceover – all the speech is conducted in sign language, and yet it is totally comprehensible, an exercise in transcending language that absolutely works as a gripping narrative and never strays into gimmick or experiment.
Read the full review

Tu Dors Nicole
Directors’ Fortnight
Canada, dir. Stéphane Lafleur
A gorgeous and very amusing indie comedy shot in black and white, Tu Dors Nicole is the latest in a strand of cinema whose family tree includes Ghost World (2001) and Frances Ha (2013) – low-key female-focussed slacker comedies with an ear for the absurdities of Millennial post-adolescence.
Read our capsule review

Directors’ Fortnight
USA, dir. Damien Chazelle
Miles Teller is an actor who consistently stands out for his charisma and off-kilter charm in a number of films located far outside the festival circuit, genre-wise – films like Footloose, 21 and . With Whiplash, he really gets his teeth into a properly meaty role and is superb as an obsessively ambitious student in the Mark Zuckerberg/The Social Network vein, except that his area of special skills isn’t coding, but drum-playing, making for an unexpectedly compelling – and unexpectedly plotted – outsider-on-the-rise story. It’s fantastically accomplished work from director Damien Chazelle (born 1985).

Click here to read Film4 Channel Editor David Cox’s pick of 12 Cannes 2014 favourites

Film4 Productions at Cannes

24 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion, Review

We round up the enthusiastic reception in Cannes of the three Film4-backed films which played at Cannes 2014: Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, Daniel Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy and Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall

Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner was developed and co-financed by Film4 and Mike Leigh was even good enough to point out at the premiere that “without Film4 putting in very early support for research Mr. Turner wouldn’t have happened”. It has been one of the hits of the festival so far and we’re incredibly proud of the filmmakers and delighted by the rave reviews it has received (five stars from The Guardian, Telegraph, Times and Independent!) As it’s a Film4 film (Mike Leigh was even good enough to point out at the premiere that “without Film4 putting in very early support for research Mr. Turner wouldn’t have happened”), it wouldn’t be fair for us to review it, but we thought we’d share this pic of Mike and the gang on the red carpet:

Left to right: Marion Bailey, Lesley Manville, Mike Leigh


Catch Me Daddy

The second Film4-backed film at the festival was the premiere of Daniel Wolfe’s debut feature, which was one of the first films selected by Directors’ Fortnight this year, a strand noted for promoting internationally acclaimed auteurs early in their careers. Reviews for Catch Me Daddy reflected this sense of discovery, with The Telegraph judging it “a terrifically bright start for its director” and Time Out lauding an “unblinking and upsetting debut”. (Read our interview with Daniel Wolfe here)

Sameena Jabeen Ahmed stars in Catch Me Daddy


Jimmy’s Hall

Our final Film4-backed film of the fest is from a director we’re proud to have worked with for many years – the inimitable Ken Loach. Originally rumoured to be his final film, it’s now thought that he will announce another before long! We’re delighted to report it’s been very warmly received on the Croisette. Variety call Jimmy’s Hall an “eminently enjoyable work by a master craftsman” while Time Out say it’s “an unusual story, vividly and intelligently told, and one that leaves you with a stirring sense of joy, injustice and hope.” Jimmy’s Hall is released in the UK on 30th May 2014.

Left to right: Producer Rebecca O’Brien, actor Barry Ward, director Ken Loach and actor Simone Kirby (just about) at the press conference for Jimmy’s Hall.



Cannes review: Leviathan

24 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is one of Catherine Bray’s favourite Competition experiences at Cannes 2014.

Somewhere on the Russian coast, waves crash against the shore. In a slack-water creek, the skeletal hulks of long-rotted boats jut out of the water. Wind ripples across a bare but beautiful wilderness. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s regular cinematographer Mikhail Krichman captures a lovely pale quality to the light in these opening scenes – there is something distinctively northern about it. But don’t get too attached to the chilly beauty of the natural world, because Zvyagintsev is about to plunge us into a thorny tangle of human lives, in all their inglorious tragicomedy.

Leviathan is a textured and humane epic loosely inspired by both the trials of Job (“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down its tongue with a rope?”) and the concerns of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the 17th century political treatise on the need for strong government, without which the life of the common man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is ironically inverted in Zvyagintsev’s witty drama, as the common man is crushed by the machinations of local government officials who take their cue from Moscow.

This probably all sounds very heavy going. Actually, one of the delights of Leviathan is how often it is laugh-out-loud funny in a range of registers, shifting from sly Kafkaesque satire on the bureaucracy encountered by sort-of protagonist Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) as he attempts to navigate obstructive receptionists (“I am not authorized”), stone-walling uniformed officials, and a court whose judge delivers her dialogue in a non-stop machine gun rattle of barely comprehensible speed, right through to much broader Coen brothers-esque dark farce – as found in a vodka-fueled hunting trip we know will end badly.

Yet the tragic humour, as in Dostoyevsky’s work, with which Leviathan has quite a bit in common, never entirely upstages the sense of monstrous machinations going on beneath the surface. These dark forces are represented with grotesque plausibility by Roman Madyanov  as Vadim, the local mayor who wants to force Kolya and his family out of their picturesque house without proper compensation in order to develop the land. Never has the question “Are you baptised?” sounded so sinister, but when Vadim poses this question to the lawyer fighting Kolya’s case, the implications are clear.

The contentious house itself is allowed to quietly seep into our consciousness and even affections very subtly – I was surprised by how visceral my response was to its eventual fate. It’s an effect partly achieved through editing, one of the film’s all round trump cards. Often a shot is allowed to linger longer than seems intuitive, to the point at which we move beyond our first impressions of the image, as experienced in a traditional motion picture reading, and into something more lived in, with the feel of browsing a gallery.

I’m not often a fan of so-called “slow cinema” in general, but these well-judged lingerings, situated within a larger picture than could never be accused of dragging (at times, it plays as a thriller) really connected for me. I think one reason this approach works so well is that the film as often goes in the other direction, cutting away from the action and leaving gaps in what we’ve seen where instead of amply scrutinising a minor image we’re left to imagine moments of key drama. Its an artistic strategy that ensures engagement, making us participants in the storytelling, and our reward is a rich and hugely invested experience.

As I write, Leviathan is a frontrunner for the Palme d’Or, which will be announced this evening. There are other credible contenders, but this is certainly a choice with which few could argue.




2014 Cannes Film Festival: Closing Credits

24 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion

Film4 Channel editor David Cox rounds up some late Competition contenders and give us his top twelve across all Cannes sections.

Even though this year’s festival hasn’t delivered a point of genuine excitement to pull it all together, it’s remained steady throughout. There have been a few films that should either help launch or re-define a filmmaker’s career – always the hallmark of a rewarding festival – and the early Competition high point of Mr. Turner has been matched a few times, with the penultimate film to screen arguably surpassing Mike Leigh’s wonderful biopic.

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is precisely the sort of late entry that turns the Competiition upside-down, and is the film that will move the director into the international big leagues (his debut The Return instantly established him as a major talent, while subsequent films The Banishment and Elena never quite caught on despite their strengths). Set in a fishing village that’s clearly seen more prosperous days, the film begins with a volatile family man Kolya developing a strategy with his lawyer friend to keep his land from being stolen by a criminal local mayor. However, the full force of a merciless state, bureaucratic and theocratic, is very much against Kolya; everything around him, from his family to his own liberty, is liable to be crushed in the jaws of a monstrous system.

Leviathan is formidable stuff – heavy, sad and savage but with a humour that one wouldn’t expect to find in either the slate-grey world of the film itself or Zvyagintsev’s overall work. Furthermore, the powerful expressive elements that the director wields to highlight the futility of struggle in modern Russia never get in the way of what is ultimately a very clear and compelling story. There have been a lot of good films in this year’s Competition but they all feel, in one way or another, like they’re missing something. Leviathan manages to pull together the complete picture.

Another consummate achievement – this time in Directors’ Fortnight (and not a Cannes discovery, following its premiere in Sundance) – is Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating Whiplash. The film stars the fantastic young actor Miles Teller as a 19-year-old jazz drummer determined to push himself as far as he can in his attempt to become more than just a professional player. His aided – and obstructed – by a famously brutal tutor at his New York conservatory, played with frightening intensity by J. K. Simmons. The psychological sparring between Simmons and Teller (as well as two other drummers competing for the spotlight) is fascinating enough, but the film goes up a level when the dramatic action turns physical in its extended musical workouts. Chazelle, expanding on a prize-winning short and working from his own experiences, stages, shoots and cuts each scene in lucid and dynamic fashion. The result is extraordinary.

A lot has been made of the amount of ‘masters’ bringing films to Cannes – returning grandees such as Cronenberg, Leigh, the Dardennes and Loach whose every film seems guaranteed a place at the festival regardless of quality. However, two veterans who really excelled are Jean Luc Godard and John Boorman, both brought to the festival some of their strongest work in years.

Godard’s Adieu au Language appeared in Competition and in three dimensions. The director unveiled a 3D short film here last year, but this feature really explores the technology and pulls off at least one visual coup that had the audience in the Grand Theatre Lumiere both rubbing their eyes in astonishment and applauding wildly (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it). Just over an hour in length, the film takes the film  of a beautiful, rapid-fire montage full of delight at how technology can enhance our appreciation of the natural world but also dismay at how it can dull our senses and out curiosity. There’s plenty more here, of course – abstract, direct, purely imagistic, textual – but as usual it’s hard to make sense of after one viewing (I’m always impressed by those who seem to be able to unpack a new Godard film directly after its premiere). It’s a fun, frustrating and fully alive film, causing your mind and your eyes to head off in different directions and then meet up at the end to discuss the experience.

Boorman’s film is an altogether more sedate affair, a continuation of the autobiographical story that he began with Hope & Glory in 1987. This second chapter moves forward a decade to the 1952, with the young Boorman (who becomes ‘Bill Rohan, played by Callum Turner, on-screen) leaving his family home in Twickenham to enter National Service and face the possibility of heading out to fight in Korea. The style is perfectly suited to the period – Boorman seems to have filtered his memory of that time through films of the era – and the gentle comedy is shot through with a poignancy that one would expect from such an unapologetically nostalgic piece (though there’s no attempt to idealise the 1050s or hide the pain of a post-war generation). The film won’t win any awards for innovation but that must be the furthest thing from Boorman’s mind – instead he offers a cast of richly human characters in a story that will resonate deeply with a lot of viewers, young and old. Here’s hoping a third film, following Boorman as he moves through the worlds of dry-cleaning and journalism before entering the film industry, follows quickly.

With the festival finishing today I’m going to end up with a festival Top Twelve, drawn from all sections of the festival. It’ll have to be alphabetical – I’ll leave the hard work of putting them in order of merit up to the juries:

ADIEU AU LANGUAGE (Godard, in Official Competition)

FORCE MAJEURE (Ostlund, in Un Certain Regard)

THE HOMESMAN (Jones, in Official Competition)

IT FOLLOWS (Mitchell, in Critics’ Week)

LEVIATHAN (Zvyagintsev, in Official Competition)

LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT (LES COMBATTANTS) (Cailley, in Directors’ Fortnight)

MR. TURNER (Leigh, in Official Competition)

TIMBUKTU (Sissako in Official Competition)

THE TRIBE (Slaboshpitskiy, in Critics’ Week)

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Dardennes, in Official Competition)

WHIPLASH (Chazelle, in Directors’ Fortnight)

THE WONDERS (LE MERAVIGLIE) (Rohrwacher, in Official Competition)


And finally, my prediction for the Palme d’Or is TIMBUKTU, by Abderrahmane Sissako, with Leviathan, Adieu au Language and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy making it a close race.