The 45th London Film Festival opened last night with its director hailing it as the new first port of call for American film makers to launch their Oscars offerings.
The festival, which has grown considerably in stature in recent years, hosted the world première of Robert Altman's Gosford Park for its gala opening in London. Stars of the film – Dame Maggie Smith, Alan Bates and Sir Derek Jacobi – were at the Leicester Square première, which was followed by a dinner party and dancing.
That a leading international director should choose the London Film Festival to launch a movie that is likely to be in the running for the Oscars is a testament to how the event has matured.
Among other premières of the 180 films slated for the next 16 days is K-Pax, about a hospital patient who claims to be from another planet. It stars Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges.
Adrian Wootton, the festival's director, said: "Our advance sales are up 10 per cent on last year and this is the biggest opening night we have had for five years. To show the world première of a Robert Altman film that was actually completed only a week ago is quite a coup. The reason that we are getting these films is that we have demonstrated that because of our profile and international status it's worth the big boys coming. And people are undoubtedly using the festival as a pre-Oscars launch."
Other highlights of this year's festival include Francis Ford Coppola's reworking of his cult classic Apocalypse Now; Last Orders, an adaptation of Graham Swift's Booker prize-winning novel, starring Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren; Mulholland Drive, directed by David Lynch; Novocaine, a black comedy with Steve Martin and Helena Bonham Carter; and Monsters, Inc. by the animation studio Pixar, featuring the voice of Billy Crystal.
One prominent absentee will be Bruce Willis, who was expected for the screening of his film Bandits but has decided against flying in the present climate. His decision to miss the event has attracted criticism.
Adrian Wootton added: "It is only four years since we took on the re-engineering of the London Film Festival into one with a truly international reach ... More and more film makers want to be at our festival, while distributors are even happier to work with us now that we offer a European-wide platform."
The London Film Festival is one of the best regarded in the world among those that don't give prizes. Its new, high international profile contrasts with the occasional hilarious, if memorable, events of previous years. A few years ago, Lord Attenborough gave a speech on the uniqueness of being in a cinema and how video could never compare – then the projector broke.
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