Category Archives: BFI

10 great films with DIY special effects

Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s Strawberry Mansion is set in the near-distant future, where a surveillance state conducts audits of people’s dreams in order to collect taxes on the populace’s unconscious existence. One government agent (Audley himself) heads to a remote farmhouse to audit an eccentric elderly artist’s lifetime of dreaming. Made on a scant budget, it’s an independent film heavily reliant on a DIY aesthetic: a virtual reality helmet resembles a bin lid, VHS tape recurs throughout, and its masks and stop-motion animation have an appealingly crude quality to them.

Given the limited budgets usually involved, independent genre fare and experimental cinema are often host to creative effects, both practical and digital. You can still get professional makeup artists and special effects wizards to help your dream project reach fruition, but when it comes to achieving that key visual component lingering in the back of your mind, there’s something to be said for giving it a go on your own: be it depicting a journey to outer space or turning yourself into a metallic monstrosity.

To mark the UK release of Strawberry Mansion, here are 10 key films that rely on what we’ll broadly label ‘DIY effects’. With one notable exception, this list sticks to films with no major-studio-backing during initial production, and, where budget information is available, nothing with a reported production budget exceeding $1 million…

Full feature for the BFI

10 great British films of 2002

Looking back on a nation’s output for any artform 20 years removed, there’s a risk of rose-tinted glasses misrepresenting the quality or wider health of the medium at the time. But while certain contemporary commercial successes should perhaps remain left in the past (Ali G Indahouse and The Guru, to name two), a not insignificant portion of the British films of 2002 have endured with audiences in the decades since.

In terms of acting talent, 2002 saw the release of breakthrough films for actors who are still major names 20 years later, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keira Knightley, Naomie Harris, Sean Harris, Benedict Wong, Nicholas Hoult and Martin Compston. Regarding early career directors, Lynne Ramsay proved Ratcatcher (1999) was no fluke with her second feature, Morvern Callar. Another key Scottish filmmaker of the last few decades, David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Starred Up, Hell or High Water), also had his debut feature as director – the thriller The Last Great Wilderness – premiere this year. And actor-director Peter Mullan won the Golden Lion prize at Venice for his second feature, The Magdalene Sisters, which explores three teenage girls’ experiences of Ireland’s infamous ‘Magdalene laundries’. 2002 also saw premieres of key films in the careers of Ken Loach, Danny Boyle, Stephen Frears and Michael Winterbottom.

While not all of the same quality as Boyle’s 28 Days Later…, 2002 was a particularly interesting year for British genre cinema. Neil Marshall’s ambitious debut feature Dog Soldiers transplanted the formula of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) to the werewolf movie; Jamie Bell followed up Billy Elliott (2000) with First World War supernatural tale Deathwatch; westerns influenced Shane Meadows’ Once upon a Time in the Midlands; and ouija board horror Long Time Dead made solid earnings worldwide. The American-set British thriller My Little Eye is very dated in some ways, yet its story of an online reality show experiment with a deadly twist makes it a crucial text for how internet-rooted horror would later develop.

With a new restoration of Dog Soldiers surfacing on physical media, here – in the order they premiered – are 10 of the best films made in Britain that fertile year…

Full feature for the BFI

‘Men in Black’ at 25 and the end of the practical effects era

Centring on a secret organisation monitoring extraterrestrials on Earth, Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black (1997) may have spawned three wildly inferior sequels, but the original endures as a sci-fi comedy triumph, thanks to storytelling and production methods largely absent from the blockbuster landscape that followed.

While there was a considerable marketing blitz (see Will Smith’s inescapable tie-in single), the fact that Men in Black became summer 1997’s biggest hit domestically (and close worldwide) is surprising in many ways. Even in comparison with the same era’s TV mega-hit The X-Files, it boasts a very cynical worldview. Most alien invasion narratives incorporate some kind of sense of wonder (see Smith’s hit of the previous year, Independence Day), where a close encounter of the third kind is treated as the biggest thing to happen to our species. With Men in Black, it’s the opposite.

Smith’s rookie agent aside, everyone in the organisation maintains the perspective that everything happening on Earth is ultimately irrelevant. Tommy Lee Jones’ agent K delivers one particularly fun line about our place in the universe’s pecking order: “Human thought is so primitive, it’s looked upon as an infectious disease in some of the better galaxies. That kind of makes you proud, doesn’t it?” Positing that mankind doesn’t really matter – and is a minuscule part of a much grander story of the universe – is still a pretty unique driving concept for a movie aimed at getting millions of bums on seats. Yet somehow it worked…

Full feature for the BFI

François Ozon on his assisted-suicide drama ‘Everything Went Fine’: “The film is like a thriller”

French writer Emmanuèle Bernheim died from cancer in 2017, a few years after the publication of memoir Tout s’est bien passé (Everything Went Fine). That book chronicled how she and her sister, Pascale, handled the instruction from their 85-year-old father, André, for an assisted suicide in light of paralysis following a stroke. As such actions remain illegal in France, they looked into getting him to a specialist clinic in Switzerland.

Bernheim’s work has previously been adapted for cinema by Claire Denis, who turned her novel Vendredi soir into a feature in 2002. But her most frequent screen collaborator was the prolific François Ozon, with whom she co-wrote screenplays for his Under the Sand (2000), Swimming Pool (2003), 5×2 (2004) and Ricky (2009). Now, Ozon has honoured her memory in adapting Everything Went Fine, with Sophie Marceau playing Emmanuèle, André Dussollier as André, Géraldine Pailhas as Pascale, Charlotte Rampling as her mother, Claude de Soria, and Hanna Schygulla as the Swiss clinic representative.

As Everything Went Fine is released in the UK, we spoke with Ozon about tackling this complex subject and his past flirtations with other controversial content…

Full interview for the BFI

Vikings don’t cry: Thomas Daneskov on his off-grid comedy ‘Wild Men’

Dark comedy Wild Men opens in wintry Norwegian mountains, their visual majesty disrupted by a soundtrack of sobbing. Cut to a man, draped in furs and carrying a bow and arrow, crying his eyes out. Pulling himself together, he tries catching a ram in nearby woods. He appears to wound it, but it escapes. Unable to find further prey, he clubs a frog to death, cooking it that night. The next morning, he’s throwing up. 

Then, this apparent Viking finds a chocolate bar wrapper that’s floated upstream, revealing that we’re not in fact watching a period piece in the vein of Robert Eggers’ The Northman (2022). The man journeys to a gas station, attempting to buy groceries and cigarettes but forgetting his debit card.

This is Denmark resident Martin (Rasmus Bjerg), a husband and father who, experiencing a midlife crisis, has abandoned his family to live in a huge Norwegian forest, adhering as closely as possible to the lifestyle of his ancestors a thousand-plus years ago. It’s only been 10 days in the wilderness, and wife Anne (Sofie Gråbøl) still thinks he’s just away on a work trip…

Full interview for the BFI

10 films to watch out for at Glasgow Film Festival 2022

New Claire Denis, new Terence Davies and a spotlight on the first woman to direct a film noir. This year’s Glasgow Film Festival offers plenty to get your teeth into…

Full feature for the BFI

Fred Baillif on La Mif: “Social work is the best film school for storytelling”

Ensemble drama La Mif is a riveting look at the inner workings of a Swiss residential care home for at-risk young people, which is undergoing a shift back to being an all-girls facility, following an incident where one 16-year-old initiates sex with an underage teenage boy also living there.

Written and directed by Fred Baillif, who is a former social worker himself, the film stars an entirely non-professional cast of people with direct experience of social care. Aside from the seven main teenage girls, this also includes the mesmerising Claudia Grob as their main social worker.

Ahead of an event with Baillif at the BFI Future Film Festival and the film’s UK release on 25 February, Baillif spoke to us about how it all came into being…

Full interview for the BFI

Where to begin with Shinji Somai

Critic Shigehiko Hasumi once suggested that Japanese filmmaker Shinji Somai – who died young aged 53 in 2001, after directing 13 features – “is the missing link between the end of the studio system of Japan and the rise of independent filmmaking”. In their compassionate depictions of loneliness and alienation, you can certainly see the influence of Somai’s films in the works of several younger directors who followed, including Shunji Iwai (All About Lily Chou-Chou) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse).

So why is Somai relatively unknown in the west? It’s all down to the mysteries of international distribution. For whatever reason, none of Somai’s films got released in the UK, with opportunities to see them relegated to festival appearances or one-off repertory screenings. Even a particularly high interest in contemporary Japanese cinema in Britain in the early 2000s – the time of the J-horror boom – didn’t result in distribution for Somai’s final features, Wait and See (1998) and Kaza-hana (2000).

In recent years, the Edinburgh International Film Festival showcased a full retrospective of his work in 2012, while Moving (1993) was part of the touring programme in support of Mark Cousins’ A Story of Children and Film (2013). At the time of writing, we’ve just seen the first ever home-video outing for any of Somai’s features in the west: Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981). It’s hopefully a sign of good things to come, as Somai’s CV includes some of the finest Japanese films of the 1980s and 90s…

Full feature for the BFI

Martyrs Lane (Ruth Platt, 2021)

The spectre of unprocessed grief looms large in writer-director Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane, an effective British ghost story with religious undertones. Told almost entirely from a child’s point-of-view, it sees a devout minister’s daughter invite a believed angelic presence into her family’s home, only for the guest’s intentions to gradually turn sinister…

Full review for Sight & Sound

Wildfire: Cathy Brady and Nora-Jane Noone on their Irish border drama

The title of Cathy Brady’s debut feature, Wildfire, references how rumours and malice spread, but also the intensity of potential damage once a dangerous spark is lit.

Inseparable sisters raised in a small town on the Irish border, Lauren and Kelly faced a devastating loss as children with the mysterious death of their mother, their father having also previously perished in a fatal bombing. Now adults, their bond is about to intensify further as the spectre of mental illness that surrounded their late mother remains thick in the air, thanks to town gossip that’s never really faded. 

After a year of being missing, presumed dead, Kelly (Nika McGuigan, who sadly died at 33 from cancer during post-production) returns to Northern Ireland amid Brexit border uncertainties on the news. Her own erratic and distressing behaviour chips away at the façade of normality that Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) is barely maintaining.

Talking to us ahead of the film’s UK and Irish release, writer-director Brady and star Noone discuss the unique way in which their drama came together…

Full interview for the BFI