It's October. The dying days of 2003 loom on the horizon, heralding chilly fronts, wind-stripped trees and lashings of rain. Thankfully it's not all bad news, however, because October also ushers in this year's London Film Festival.
It's October. The dying days of 2003 loom on the horizon, heralding chilly fronts, wind-stripped trees and lashings of rain. Thankfully it's not all bad news, however, because October also ushers in this year's London Film Festival. An autumnal fixture for almost half a decade, the London Film Festival is the centrepiece of the city's cinematic life, screening hundreds of features and shorts and welcoming filmmakers and actors from across the world. Arriving long after every other major film festival has shut up shop, the LFF's late appearance often lends proceedings a distinctly 'hand-me-down' air. It's usual for a number of films in the festival to have been shown elsewhere and this year's selection is no different; Dogville, It's All About Love, Lost in Translation, The Saddest Music in the World and The Station Agent are just a few of the films to have been given outings at Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Indeed, in comparison to those three hardy perennials, the London Film Festival looks positively quaint, lacking the razzle-dazzle of Cannes, the prize-giving pizzazz of Venice and the overwhelming opulence of Berlin. Instead, the London Film Festival exists for that most novel of reasons -- the pure love of film. And, hey, even if some of the films seem slightly second-hand, there's still plenty to admire and enjoy, from big budget spectaculars to idiosyncratic independents that will probably never find distribution beyond the festival's boundaries.
This year's opening and closing films both promise to provoke, outrage and entertain in equal measure -� especially if you can afford the ridiculous 25 quid they're charging per ticket. Jane Campion's erotic thriller In the Cut, featuring an unusually steamy performance from Meg Ryan, ushers in the proceedings this week. The expectedly dour Plath biopic Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and the dependably excellent Daniel Craig, sees audiences off on November the 6th. Ticket prices are fortunately not so steep for other gala screenings (the festival's pieces-de-resistance) and although a large proportion of the selection have been screened elsewhere, their quality is indisputable. The Mother, a tale of a middle-aged woman's personal and sexual reawakening from writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell, dazzled audiences at Cannes, as did Bernardo Bertolucci's sensual The Dreamers. Also highly anticipated are Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's follow-up to Amores Perros, 21 Grams, John Sayles' Mexican-set ensemble piece Casa De Los Babys and Girl With a Pearl Earring, the imagined tale of how Vermeer came to create the titular painting.
The rest of the festival is so abundant in goodness that it's difficult to know where to start. Suffice to say, there's plenty of celluloid joy to go round. 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano's resurrection of blind swordsman Zatoichi and Battle Royale II � Requiem should satisfy fans of Japanese slice 'em and dice 'em cinema. Hollywood is well represented by Robert Benton's adaptation of Philip Roth's The Human Stain and the depression-era feel-good flick Seabiscuit but the choicest American films predictably come from independent filmmakers. Prime cuts include the Polish Brothers' dreamlike Northfork, Grand Theft Parsons, a dark comedy based on the real-life theft of country-legend Gram Parsons' corpse, starring Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame and directorial entries from actors Scott Caan and Campbell Scott (Dallas 362 and Off the Map respectively). Elsewhere, the Antipodes get in on the act with the cross-cultural drama Japanese Story featuring the marvellous Toni Collette; Asia throws out a surprisingly diverse number of movies, including wunderkind Royston Tan's satire of Singapore's oppressive nanny state 15 and the bizarre South Korean father-son story Mutt Boy; whilst the Afghan/Japanese/Irish tragedy Osama is the first film to have been shot in the post-Taliban Afghanistan.
European cinema is, as always, well represented in the 'Cinema Europa' segment, with British and French cinema both granted separate strands within the festival. In the 'French Revolutions' section, the romantic comedy A Real Man (Un Homme, Un Vrai), moody crime drama Nickel and Dime (A la Petite Semaine) and the female buddy comedy Only Girls (Filles Uniques) all look particularly juicy, although Bruno Dumont's frightening, claustrophobic California-set road movie Twentynine Palms looks certain garner the most attention. In the 'New British Cinema' section, Blind Flight, starring Ian Hart and Linus Roache as hostages Brian Keenan and John McCarthy stands out, as do Afterlife, a grand tale of death and familial ties starring Kevin McKidd and Wilbur (Wants to kill Himself), the dark romantic English language debut of Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners). Yet if I had to choose just one film to see from this section it would undoubtedly be the digital dating drama The Trouble With Men and Women --not necessarily because the film looks better than any of the others but because you get given a free glass of wine when you go. It's good enough for me.
If free wine isn't your cup of tea, then how about trying one of the documentaries that have invaded this year's festival. Leading the charge is Errol Morris's portrait of former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara The Fog of War, swiftly followed by Festival Express, the freewheeling tale of the Grateful Dead and the Band's 1970 Canadian tour that's sure to appeal to the hippy in your life. Nick Broomfield returns to the subject of his 1992 film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer with Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer, an examination of 'America's first female serial killer' and her execution in 2002. The legendary Frederick Wiseman presents two studies of domestic violence in Tampa, Domestic Violence and Domestic Violence 2 whilst Oliver Stone's examination of the Israeli-Palestine conflict Persona Non Grata is one of the truly essential films of the festival. Features on such idiosyncratic legends as Charles Bukowski (Bukowski: Born Into This), Steve Earle (Steve Earle: Just an American Boy), Jimmy Scott (Jimmy Scott: If Only you Knew), and eccentric Hollywood DJ Rodney Bingenheimer (The Mayor of Sunset Strip) are all favourable additions to what should be a vintage year for the true-life tale.
Beyond the latest features, there are still oodles to enjoy. The festival is rich with animation, experimenta and short films (including Perfect, the debut from photographer Rankin) whilst magnificent film-noir The Reckless Moment, David Lean's Summer Madness and the fantastic document of the soul label Stax's 1972 concert in the riot-torn Watts area of LA, Wattstax, are just a few of the LFF's 'treasures from the archives'. Holly Hunter, Neil LaBute and Peter Mullen are all in interview whilst cinematographer and digital pioneer Anthony Dod Mantle (28 Days Later, Festen), avant-garde film-maker Ken Jacobs and comic genius Christopher Guest give masterclasses in their respective crafts.
And if that none of that excites you, then how about giving the surprise film a shot? There are no clues given before the credits begin (although it's usually a long-awaited American film; last year it was Todd Hayne's Far from Heaven) and the frisson of excitement that surges through the audience as the lights go down is always electrifying. There's nothing quite like going to see a film you know nothing about, experiencing it blind, watching it fresh, without a wealth of prior knowledge and expectation. Essentially it's the joy that only the best film festivals can create.
The 47th London Film Festival, sponsored by The Times, runs from Wednesday the 22nd of October to Thursday the 6th of November. For a full listing of films showing, please visit www.lff.org.uk. To book tickets, either call 020 7928 3232, visit the NFT Box Office or Leicester Square Ticket Booth, or book on-line at www.lff.org.uk.