The reel deal

Chinese sci-fi, Belgian road movies, the latest Woody Allen... the London Film Festival offers a sneak preview of the best new flicks before they're released. But what to see? Our chief film critic, Jonathan Romney, presents his pick of the bunch
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The Independent Culture

Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, USA)

Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, USA)

For anyone who felt that the home-movie footage in Capturing the Friedmans was a touch intrusive, Jonathan Caouette's extraordinary confessional feature will make alarming viewing indeed. This film opens up the pages of its maker's personal photo album, as it were, and rubs your face in it. Caouette started filming his life aged 11, documenting such precocious moments as his early drag acts impersonating soap-opera trailer-trash moms. A couple of years later, he adopted the role of a goth girl to get into clubs. The self-documenting urge has never seemed so urgent a necessity as it does with Caouette, whose highly dysfunctional background appears to have forced him into role-playing as the only possible survival tactic. His ex-model mother Renee experienced depression and shock treatment, while his grandparents may have been abusive towards her - at least, that's Caouette's accusation in one of Tarnation's most alarming scenes. Yet this nightmarish material is given a poetic, vibrant treatment, with Caouette using iMovie editing software to create an assemblage that's personal to the last frame. Cinema as therapy, possibly - and you have to wonder whether Caouette isn't more screwed up now that he's bared his soul to thousands of viewers - but certainly one of the most arresting screen self-portraits ever.

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong/China)

Not just the most awaited, but also surely the most mysterious film of the year, 2046 was premiered at Cannes in May, after it was rushed from the airport to the press screening at the eleventh hour. British viewers nearly got to see it in Edinburgh, but then the film dropped out of the programme: south-east Asia's most unpredictable auteur had decided to rework it further, apparently even to shoot further material. So it remains uncertain precisely what relation the film seen in London will bear to this summer's version. Will the then-sketchy CGI images be fully fleshed out? Will there be more of the barely-visible Maggie Cheung, and will we get to see Gong Li photographed a little more flatteringly? Will there still be wall-to-wall Nat King Cole? And what about the action sequences that Wai supposedly shot but which have so far been tantalisingly absent? Judging from what has been seen so far, 2046 is less a film in any conventional sense than a reverie, a floating possibility of what a Wong Kar-Wai film might be, unanchored from standard conceptions of plot, character, time or place. Set in a Hong Kong hotel in the 1960s and in an imagined version of the future, 2046 is either the most poetically perplexing time-shuffle narrative since Alain Resnais' heyday, or a shameless indulgence in cinema as moody Vogue shoot. Until we have a definitive version (and who knows when that'll be?), the jury is out...

Aaltra (Gustave Kervern, Benoit Delepine, Belgium)

A Belgian road movie about disability... I know what you're going to say, but Aaltra is the most evil-minded fun anyone has had in the cinema with two wheelchairs and the open road. The two directors, Kervern and Delepine, play two avowed enemies who wind up paraplegic after an agricultural accident. They head off to Finland to complain to the company that made the offending machinery. En route, they manage to offend and/or exploit just about everyone foolish enough to give them the time of day. The film uses dazzling black-and-white photography to make the most of its outrageous sight gags, but much of the humour comes from the characters that the film encounters along the way - including some of the most forlorn karaoke singers ever filmed.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, US)

The word "Hollywood" makes film and Los Angeles virtually synonymous - and it's this misunderstanding which makes Thom Andersen's investigation into the real nature of this cinematic city so necessary. Key locations on the movie map are explored, allowing Andersen to make some unexpected observations on the city's ideology (for example: "Is there any other city that puts its [police force's] motto, 'To protect and to serve,' in quotation marks?"). Andersen's far-reaching investigations are political, cultural, architectural, and to do with the way we watch (or fail to watch) cinema. It's better than going there - assuming you ever wanted to.

5 X 2 (Francois Ozon, France)

Francois Ozon for years had a reputation as the shock-jock of French cinema, with such skittish provocations as Sitcom. Then he became known as one of the most unpredictable film-makers, switching between high camp ( Eight Women) and sombre seriousness ( Under the Sand) without warning. Any doubts about Ozon staying the course are dispelled by his latest film. 5 X 2 is that French staple, the story of a marriage - the laughs, the tears, the rest (and don't be put off by the awful trailer). What's different is that Ozon tells the story backwards, from divorce to first meeting, in an ironic structure that proves emotionally merciless - and not simply ingenious, as in Memento.

Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France)

French critics sometimes use the term OVNI (UFO) to describe those films which descend inexplicably out of the mists and take everyone by surprise. The debut feature by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, partner and sometime collaborator of Gaspar Noe, is definitely one of those. The hit of the recent San Sebastian festival, this is a strange, hermetic film set in a strange, hermetic world - a girls' boarding school located in a forest, apparently in the early years of the 20th century. Young girls of various ages are arranged into "houses", age groups identified by different colours of hair ribbon. Innocence looks almost as if it could be the record of some strange performance-art ritual enacted in the summer hols at Malory Towers. But Innocence is more Angela Carter than Angela Brazil - a contemplation of girlhood, its myths, fears and archetypes. Bewitching and disconcerting in equal measure (how cynically is Hadzihalilovic playing with what appears to be borderline-paedophile imagery?), Innocence is certainly one of the most boldly conceived films in recent French cinema, with a genuinely enigmatic quality that makes Bunuel comparisons anything but idle.

Kevin Bacon talk

One of Hollywood's Stakhanovites, Kevin Bacon's ubiquity might have made him into something of a Hollywood in-joke, ever since the parlour game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" established him as the nodal point through which all Hollywood connections must run. But Bacon has probably vindicated more films than any other actor in Hollywood, either by giving lacklustre projects a pinch of savourous character salt (his snake-hipped hustler cameo in JFK) or by adding some laconic sanity to films that were otherwise drowning in self-importance (the cop, and the convincing human factor, in Mystic River). And as early as giant-worm scare story Tremors, he proved he knew how to enjoy himself. Bacon recently caused a stir with his lead role in LFF choice The Woodsman, in which he plays a paedophile trying to build a new life after being released from prison. One of Hollywood's saving graces discusses his career.

Treasures From The Archives

The annual opportunity to rediscover films you thought you knew - or to find out that that film you'd never heard of had in fact haunted your memory ever since you saw it on TV at an impressionable age. This year's crop features James Stewart in his bright-eyed mode as a Frank Capra hero, in Mr Smith Goes to Washington and in his baleful grim-jawed Western mode, wearing that famously soiled Stetson, in Anthony Mann's The Man From Laramie. You can also see the late Janet Leigh in a rare musical, My Sister Eileen, alongside a troupe of dancing Portuguese sailors (which even Marion Crane would have balked at). Among the big names this year are Stanley Kubrick ( Paths of Glory), Jean Renoir ( The River, pictured) and Fritz Lang ( Spione). But the exotic jewel in the crown may turn out to be the tinted 1924 French historical epic The Miracle of the Wolves, a 15th-century tale of warfare, daring and lupine intervention.

The Holy Girl (Lucretia Martel, Argentina)

"Dazzling" would be the word for The Holy Girl, if that term weren't so thoroughly disarmed by the sly subtlety of the film. One of the most original interpretations yet of that over-mined theme, troubled female adolescence, The Holy Girl is set in a crumbling hotel where young Amelia lives with her glamorous mother. A lonely, middle-aged man has taken an improper interest in Amelia. She's noticed him too, but largely because this convent-school pupil feels it's her vocation to save him. The Holy Girl never lays its meaning conveniently on our plate, but gradually works up a novelistic richness that demands you see the film twice, at least. Unfortunately, there's only one screening in the festival, which will just have to do until the film's release next February.

The Consequences of Love (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)

The one that got away in Cannes this year, and one of the most stylish discoveries. In turns glacial and racy - as if an Antonioni existential puzzler had been sliced up with excerpts from a super-sleek Fiat ad - Paolo Sorrentino's feature is dizzyingly strange. Toni Servillo plays a middle-aged man who ekes away his lonely days in a Swiss hotel, smoking cigarettes, shooting up heroin, and every now and then delivering suitcases of money to a high-security bank. A Mafia intrigue is in here somewhere, but of a type that suggests Pirandello getting to work on a Michael Dibdin thriller. Some critics rejected it as arty posturing, but The Consequences of Love is only superficially a superficial film. See it as an art movie with fast cars, or a crime movie with philosophical leanings - either way, its grace and mischief will surprise you.

The 48th London Film Festival runs from Wednesday to 4 November at various venues. For more information and tickets, visit www.lff.org.uk or call 020 7928 3232

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