Now in its tenth year, the Glasgow Film Festival is fast becoming an essential fixture in the UK film calendar. Like the city itself, it's friendly, welcoming and its enthusiasm is utterly infectious. Running for eleven days and predominantly based at the Glasgow Film Theatre and the huge Cineworld on Renfrew Street, the festival programme is divided into sixteen contrasting strands. This results in a rich and varied selection of films and with competitive pricing, it's one of the most accessible festivals I've attended.
The opening night gala was the prestigious UK premiere of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson himself delivered a video introduction that was as mannered and awkward as you'd expect and all the more entertaining for it. The film was also a terrific opener. Containing all of Anderson's trademark quirks and detail, it feels like his most accomplished artistic vision yet and is a delight to behold. The plot is a relatively straightforward caper involving the famous hotel concierge, Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) who is framed for the murder of a wealthy guest (Tilda Swinton), who bequeaths him a priceless painting in her will. Joining Fiennes is a cast list that borders on the ridiculous. Every Anderson regular returns and he proves what a draw he is for actors by adding a host of high profile first-timers. It was a thoroughly charming and intoxicating way to start the festival and all attendees floated to the post-gala party on a cloud of Eau de Panache and moustache wax.
Perhaps the cinematic highlight of the first weekend was the UK premiere of darkly comic revenge thriller Blue Ruin. Macon Blair plays Dwight, a homeless drifter who learns that the perpetrator of a violent crime against his family is set for early release from prison. With nothing left to lose, Dwight seeks to administer his own form of violent retribution. What follows is a daring, tight-as-a-drum thriller that thrills and surprises in equal measure and has understandably drawn lofty comparisons with the Coen brothers' debut film, Blood Simple. Dwight's actions and their consequences are thoroughly convincing and there are a handful of scenes that are likely to be amongst the most tense on screen this year. I was wound tighter than a Swiss watch for the duration and it took me a further half hour to calm down. It's in cinemas on 2 May, so save the date.
Another highlight was David McKenzie's Starred Up. Jack O'Connell (if you don't know the name, you will very soon) plays Eric Love, a 19-year-old who has been starred up - moved from a young offender's institute to adult prison, because he's such a troublemaker. Once in adult prison he encounters his father, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn), a long-term inmate who has been incarcerated since Eric was five. It's essentially a father-son drama set within the confines of a maximum security prison. Shot on location at Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, Starred Up bleeds authenticity from every shiv inflicted wound. It's a wholly believable depiction of prison life and features a quite extraordinary performance from O'Connell. In fact this is one of those films that is so perfectly cast it's hard to imagine anyone playing either of the lead roles better than O'Connell and Mendelsohn. Some of the details feel a bit familiar but clichés often exist for a reason and Starred Up never feels less than utterly real.
Another highlight was Oscar-nominated documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Telling the story behind the backing vocals in some of the most famous songs of all time, it's a terrific story that makes you wonder why it's not been told before. Wisely the film focusses much of its running time on the vocal performances themselves and the pleasure to be had from Darlene Love or Merry Clayton belting out famous songs at the top of the lungs is huge. There's also contributions from some heavyweight names, including Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger and some of the archive footage is stunning. It's a genuine crowd-pleaser and Oscar recognition is fully deserved. The film was followed by a Q&A with Claudia Lennear, one of the backing singers featured, who was the inspiration behind The Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar. Lennear was a wonderful speaker who finished the Q&A with an impromptu song, another of the many pleasures of festival attendance.
Another of the joys of any film festival is taking a chance on a film you may not have heard of. LFO and Hank and Asha were two such pleasures. Billed in the brochure as similar to Berberian Sound Studio, LFO was an ultra-low budget Swedish thriller about a reclusive widower who discovers that he can influence people's behaviour using the low frequency oscillation of the title. Comparisons to Berberian Sound Studio were a bit misleading because apart from the focus on sound, there was little else in common, but it was an admirable and amusing thriller that made the most of its limited origins. Hank and Asha was another film that used its low budget to its advantage, telling the story of a New York based documentary film-maker and a Prague based film student who strike up a relationship via videoblogs they send to each other. The film is told solely from the perspective of the blogs and although the conceit means visually, the film is a bit flat, the story develops in ways that are touching and surprising. It was a delight and although it's unlikely to get a cinema release in the UK, you should search it out on VOD or similar when it gets released.
Another of the strands is entitled 1939: Hooray For Hollywood, celebrating the year often cited as the greatest in cinema history and showcasing some of the films that made it such a special year. Films screened include Mr.Smith Goes To Washington, The Wizard of Oz and legendary John Ford western, Stagecoach, which I was fortunate enough to catch on Saturday morning. The print was scratchy but nothing could detract from an ensemble piece that undoubtedly deserves its exalted reputation. It made John Wayne a star and defined many of the characteristics we often associate with the genre. Tickets for the screening were just £5 and the cavernous GFT 1 screen was as busy as I saw it all weekend with nobody leaving disappointed.
The festival continues until Sunday and the closing night gala is Jonathan Glazer's visionary, Glasgow-set sci-fi, Under The Skin, which is one of the best films of the year. There's still tickets available for many of the screenings and if you're a horror fan, the Frightfest strand starts on Thursday and is not to be missed. If you've never made the GFF part of your yearly festival going, set aside a few days in February 2015. You won't regret it.