Tales From The River

Film still for Tales From The River

The British Film Institute's London Film Festival wants to bring the best of the world's cinema to the city, but what else other than good taste influences the programme, wonders Edward Lawrenson

Cheaper technology has created a glut of auteur films throughout the world, without necessarily increasing the number of those worth seeing. With so many festivals competing for the best, programming an event of London's range and ambition requires sound judgement, expertise and sheer bloody-mindedness. Given these circumstances, director Sandra Hebron and her team are to be congratulated for a selection that is at least equal in scope and quality to last year's, confirming the reputation of the British Film Institute's Times LFF as England's premium showcase for the best contemporary cinema.

But if a festival is to achieve the successful alchemy of films, discussions and happy audiences that mark a great event, it must depend not just on solid programming but also on good luck. London has been fortunate again this year with a late crop of quality titles becoming available. Its opening film, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, arrives having triumphed at Venice (see page 10) after being unaccountably rejected by Cannes, its portrait of a severe 1950s London given the unexpected lustre of international honours and glowing advance publicity.

The fairly new late-October start date allows the LFF to bid for the movies the major distributors are about to release in the run-up to the Oscar nominations: David O. Russell's madcap existential caper I Heart Huckabees and the new Pixar comedy The Incredibles among them. (By contrast Edinburgh, launched towards the end of a summer drought of intelligent mainstream pictures, scored fewer such coups.) Whether London's luck will hold long enough to host the European premiere of the reworked 2046 is in the lap of Wong Kar-Wai, who has been furiously re-editing the film since showing a "finished" work-in-progress at Cannes (a concept only possible in Wong's world - Edinburgh had to pull the title from its closing-night gala).

As ever, the bfi's Times LFF - which has trumpeted the high attendances of recent years - is keenly sensitive to the needs of its audiences, and Londoners, already the best-served filmgoers in the UK, can count on a smart blend of the popular and the challenging, the former tending to be shown at the Odeon West End and other Leicester Square cinemas, the latter south of the Thames at the National Film Theatre. Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers combines sumptuous visual imagery and swooning romance to repeat the crossover potential of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang's own belated hit Hero; Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate is a cunning reworking of John Frankenheimer's 1962 movie that gives a Gulf War spin to the Cold War paranoia that infused the original (Demme is one of a number of big-name talents, including Vanity Fair star Reese Witherspoon, slated to attend the festival). The experimental strand is headlined by Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, a stream-of-consciousness assembly of his family home-movie archive (edited on Apple's i-movie software) that plays as a poignant meditation on his personal history. There's also a typically strong programme of world cinema with the usual accent on East Asia.

In a year that's seen some press disquiet over the future of the bfi's National Film Archive following restructuring plans, it's good to see a selection of vintage films in the 'Treasures from the Archives' strand (part of it from the bfi's own collection). The programme admittedly errs on the side of well-known classics rather than forgotten gems, but when we're being offered the chance to watch good prints of Paths of Glory or Mr Smith Goes to Washington (a future double bill with The Manchurian Candidate?), who's complaining?


Also recommended:

A Hole in My Heart
Lukas Moodysson, 98 mins
The Holy Girl/La niña santa
Lucretia Martel, 106 mins
House of Flying Daggers
Zhang Yimou, 119 mins
I Heart Huckabees
David O. Russell, 107 mins
Ousmane Sembéne, 124 mins
Fritz Lang, 140 mins
Jonathan Caouette, 88 mins
Wong Kar-Wai, 125 mins
Vera Drake
Mike Leigh, 125 mins
The World/Shijie
Jia Zhang Ke, 130 mins
Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012