Guest Post – A guide to navigating art-house cinema in London

Note from Sasha: My lovely friend Kitty and our mutual friend Esmerelda recently introduced me to director Michael Haneke and I went to see The White Ribbon at the BFI. I absolutely loved it and it got me thinking that I really love art-house films (stemming from my mum taking me to the Edinburgh Filmhouse  when I was a kid), but I don’t know enough to work out what’s on in London and what’s good.  So I asked Kitty, a 30-year-old South Londoner, lecturer and freelance film critic, to write a guide for people like me on art-house in London. I love what she came up with (most of which is entirely new to me) and hope you will too!
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I recently read a lovely article on the overwhelming choice available at the cinema by the critic Mark Cousins. “Don’t know what to watch right now?” he asks, “Who’ll tell you? Your cool friend, or Sight and Sound, or Martin Scorcese [a walking film encyclopedia], that’s who”.

Which makes me, I guess, Sasha’s cool friend. Which is very flattering, but while I’d strongly recommend picking up a copy of Sight and Sound, or googling Martin Scorcese’s favourite films, or even, in fact probably best of all, checking out anything that the quite amazing Cousins has written, I hadn’t a clue what to recommend when Sasha asked for some film tips.

Partly that’s because I feel it’s futile to give a blanket recommendation – tell me a film you like and I’d be willing to bet I can suggest another you’ve never heard of that you’ll enjoy too; ask me what the best films are out at the moment and I could guarantee you’d hate at least one of them. But also because, at least as far as arthouse or foreign language films are concerned – which is what Sasha asked me to write about (having discovered a hidden gem through a mutual acquaintance: so for once I was the cool friend!) – by the time I’ve finally sent this to her half of them will have come and gone.

I won’t get into the various reasons why so many brilliant films disappear in a flash – suffice it to say it’s principally a question of cash, which is the same reason you rarely see posters for them emblazoned all over the tube and buses. But most small releases are lucky to have a two-week run, and that’s in London. Which happily, offers some of the best opportunities to catch these films outside Paris, acknowledged capital of art-film culture.

What I’ve suggested to Sasha, then, is that rather than give you my pick of the upcoming releases, I gave her a guide to navigating the world of art-house in London.

  • Step one is do your research. Pick a broadsheet critic – my heart lies with the Independent on Sunday’s Jonathan Romney - and read them religiously. Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian has been known to make or break a small film and while I don’t always agree with his tastes he does cover a wide range of films. Better yet, subscribe to a magazine with a non-mainstream bent, like Sight and Sound (I’ll admit to a bias here), Vertigo, Electric Sheep, or, if you can get your hands on it, Little White Lies. The criticism varies widely in quality, but you will get a sense of the buzz surrounding certain films, which the monthlies often review some time before their UK release.
  • For the dedicated, the BFI Southbank is Mecca. While they don’t often release new films, preferring to stick to retrospectives in the main, they are one of the only places left in London to see older films by celebrated, forgotten or overlooked directors, and a great place to catch up on your film history as well as to catch a lavishly restored print of a Hitchcock, Spike Lee, or Jean-Luc Godard film. The two bars and restaurants are really nice places to spend an evening (if you can bear the pseudo-buffs), and they have an unsurpassable film bookshop stocked to the rafters with magazines. Their mailing list is also a great source of information. 
  • Which is another great way to stay informed. Cinemas such as the Picturehouse group (Brixton Ritzy, Clapham PH, Greenwich, etc), and the Curzon (Soho, Renoir) send out monthly brochures about what’s coming up there and when as well as running mailing lists – and with three free tickets plus a discount at the bar an annual membership can pretty much pay for itself. Be warned though, these two groups are, as far as I know, programmed by the same person and stick to pretty much the “crossover” films: European costume dramas, low-budget Brit flicks, literary adaptations and so forth . These are often the safe bets, or the “dinner party” films, ones that they know will appeal to a (mainly middle-class, educated) audience that is curious, but unwilling to go too far out of its comfort zone. I’m not knocking them at all (particularly since I am frequent habituee) but they’re probably not the place to discover that weird and wonderful Tahitian film that no-one else has heard of. 
  • If that’s what you’re looking for, then the Institute of Contemporary Arts might be worth a shot, although their programme can be extremely hit and miss and there’s no guarantee that because it’s on, it’s any good. A better bet is London’s awesome array of film festivals. Now I fall down here, because there are so many it’s hard to keep track. But the obvious starting point is the London Film Festival, which is one of things that makes me most proud of London. Contrary to most major international film fests, it’s completely open to the public, and has a huge a variety of films. It’s also imminent so maybe I can be vaguely topical here: get on the mailing list, get a programme, and read it from cover to cover. Book for the ones you just fancy the sound of, or just the ones you can get – it’s always a bit hit and miss, the best one I saw last year was a tiny indie film set on a cruise ship called Wah Do Dem (I only went because I couldn’t a ticket for the one I really wanted – which when I finally did see it turned out to be awful) [Note from Sasha - I just checked out the trailer on the FB page and it looks brilliant and is on from 27 August - 2 September 2010 at Brixton and Greenwich Picturehouses]. But keep an eye on the festival reports and “best ofs” in the press: they’re usually a good indication of what to go and see over the coming 12 months. On which note it is always always a good idea to read the Cannes reports in May. 
  • These are the big ones though – also there’s the Bird’s Eye View festival (which focuses on women filmmakers), Raindance (London’s indie fest) the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and the French Film Festival (I think those are obvious), not to mention the myriad other options: Tibetan film festival anyone? If you’re particularly interested in French, German, Spanish cinema and so forth it’s worth checking out the relevant cultural institute, which is easy via google, and seeing what they organise. 
  • If it all sounds a bit overwhelming, then the more you go to, the more informed you become, and the more lists you subscribe to the more you’ll hear. Sifting through the mails and programmes can be tiresome, but if the initial approach is a bit scattershot, it pays off. Find a director you like? Keep an eye out on imdb for his next film. Use the internet to find out what his influences are, or what’s recommended for fans of her films.

A few extra tips, if you can call them that. The Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square pays less money for film prints by showing them later: if you think you’ve missed something, keep an eye on their website – it might just show up. Find some blogs you like – I recommend spout.com – and see what they’re following. Listen to Francine Stock’s Radio 4 show, The Film Programme. Novelty acts like Secret Cinema, the Somerset House series or the Scoop might not offer the classical film experience, but they’re often a really good chance to catch some classics. And Lovefilm (and its variants) is amazing when you’ve found a star, director, or producer you think you might be hooked by and want to see more of. Most importantly, don’t listen too hard to the critics. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve championed films that my colleagues have derided as facile, sentimental, or too commercial: the same colleagues who have heaped praise on the films I thought were slow, emotionally cold, or pretentious, and vice versa. I think it helps to get a sense of what’s out there to read about films; but only you can decide what you love.

For what it’s worth, since Sasha asked, five films I’m glad I’ve seen recently (although I haven’t necessarily “enjoyed” (which might still be on somewhere!):

1. Samson and Delilah
2. Bluebeard
3. Enter the Void (it’s a car crash of a film, but one worth seeing for its sheer insanity)
4. London River
5. Heartbreaker (as commercial and schmaltzy as a film gets, but it’s got dirty dancing and the wonderful Romain Duris in one film!)

And the five I’m going to try to catch soon:

1. The Illusionist
2. The Maid
3. Mother
4. The Secret in Their Eyes
5. Winter’s Bone

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7 responses to “Guest Post – A guide to navigating art-house cinema in London

  1. I just wanted to be the first to say what a brilliant post this is – thank you so much Kitty! I knew pretty much nothing but now feel inspired to hang out at the BFI and postulate about Jean-Luc Godard and similar…

    Seriously got loads of ideas of fun things to do so thanks – hoping to see Wah Do Dem at the Ritzy this month and also The Illusionist and the Maid – good tip about being only on a short time, cant believe how quickly they stop playing!

    Much appreciado x

  2. That’s the best blog I’ve ever read or seen. I was at the BFI last night to see the BFI’s latest restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a truly memorable evening; I just cannot imagine how many painstaking hours went into doing the restoration. I may write a blog on it but it was a one off showing so I might stick to my braking news blogs. Pay a visit. http://spatchmerlin.com/blog2/wordpress/

    Well done Kitty, for such a great effort.

    • Hi Peter – I’ll let Kitty reply to you personally but just wanted to say thanks for the comment and really like the look of your blog – will take a more detailed look this week. Its really nice to see reviews of both current and old films – the Prince Charles cinema plays old movies as does the BFI, plus I’m on Lovefilm, so always good to get some tips!

      Thanks again for your comments! Sasha x

  3. Pingback: The Illusionist @ Brixton Ritzy cinema | The Happiness Project London

  4. Pingback: The Illusionist @ Brixton Ritzy cinema | The Happiness Project London

  5. Chekc out the Cinmema Museum, they do regular film shows and interviews with directors and writers, plus the building is awesome, it’s the Masters House and Chapel of the old Lambeth Workshouse where Charlie Chaplin ended up with mother and brother.

  6. This is a great post – really informative, and highlights the many great rep cinemas we have in London.

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