Cinema's choice cuts

The London Film Festival cherry-picks the top movies from the year's other events. That's why Roger Clarke loves it
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The Michael Caine voice-over said it all: "Bringing film to the public," he declaimed over the opening credits of each offering at the London Film Festival (LFF) 2004.

Was this 48th festival any good? How did the artistic director Sandra Hebron do in her second year? And was it sensible to choose a film like Vera Drake - bereft of glamour and pizzazz, some said - for the opening night gala, despite its plaudits from Venice?

The LFF is actually a festival of festivals; unlike, say, Cannes and Venice, there is no emphasis on world premieres, competitions and star visitors. The LFF simply takes the best films from all the other festivals, showcases them in London and then sends them off round the regions.

For directors and producers, the festival circuit is like a rock tour; a gruelling series of bad hotels (not in London - the salubrious new Sofitel was the hotel of choice) in search of distribution and funding. Interestingly, it's London that often proves most useful in pure business terms.

In Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, Imelda Staunton plays Vera, a working-class woman in 1950s London, a humanitarian who performs backstreet abortions and gets into trouble for it. Her performance deserves an Oscar nomination. All the same, voices were raised against the film. Where's the glamour? Why not open with Finding Neverland and get Johnny Depp, Julie Christie and Kate Winslet on the red carpet?

As it happens, the festival was never offered Finding Neverland and the choice was a characteristic one by the gifted Hebron. Besides, along with My Summer of Love - also in the festival - Vera Drake is one of the best British films of the year.

I like the LFF precisely because it is about bringing "film to the public". Funding has been increased for its national tour, and it retains its old-fashioned educational remit. Its programmers are experts in their fields - The Independent on Sunday's Jonathan Romney on French films, for example, and Tony Rayns, who programmes the Asian section.

One can pick holes. Is a large section on French cinema necessary any more? Better, surely, to have a big section on Korea, China and Japan. And films such as The Incredibles by Pixar/Disney - wonderful though it is - are just Hollywood previews.

The fabulous Isabelle Huppert jetted in, as did Liev Schreiber, and Kevin Bacon gave a masterclass at the National Film Theatre (he was in town to promote his controversial paedophile drama The Woodsman). Other visitors included Jonathan Demme with The Manchu-rian Candidate and Todd Solondz with Palindromes. Wong Kar-wai came with 2046, his follow-up to In the Mood for Love and up there with his best work.

Because the LFF is a festival of festivals, there are far fewer duff films, with the good far outnumbering the bad. There were two queercore highlights in Tarnation and Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin, easily his best film. Mondovino, a documentary about the US corporate takeover of European winemaking, is very good. In the Realms of the Unreal, another documentary, is about the private world of a recluse and the paintings and stories he wrote, which only came to light after his death. A Latin-American film set in a sock factory, Whisky, was a gem, as was the Japanese comedy The Complete Japanese Showa Songbook. The closing film, I Love Huckabees, brought just the right level of lightness, intellect and amiability to the last night.

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