Magic from the mavericks

The programme for this year's Film Festival offers a fine collection of work from offbeat directors
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The Independent Culture

The 55th Edinburgh International Film Festival begins tomorrow with a programme diverse enough to please most of the people at least some of the time. It's not a year for big hitters – the threatened US writers' and actors' strikes meant many productions were held back. Cannes turned hopefully to established auteurs with a programme that promised to be a cineaste's dream, but it proved lacklustre, and often just plain awful. Edinburgh has taken a more imaginative tack by focusing on the mavericks of the movie world – a group always championed by the outgoing festival director, Lizzie Franke.

Mavericks can still be household names, and safe bets for sell-outs are tomorrow night's opener, Jean- Pierre Jeunet's delightful fairytale Amélie, and the Coens' noir-pastiche, The Man Who Wasn't There. Terry Zwigoff'sGhost World, his first foray into fiction after his extraordinary documentary Crumb, will be circled in programmes. Most film fans are bound to turn out for Storytelling and Trouble Every Day – from Todd Solondz and Claire Denis respectively – despite fiercely divided critical opinions.

The real coup, though, is The Pledge, if more for the fact that its director, Sean Penn, will feature in an on-stage discussion of his work. Penn's directorial career – The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard – has been marked by a naivety some find hard to swallow. Though The Pledge is a more complex, mature work, it continues to explore his favoured theme of tortured masculinity. Jack Nicholson is a former cop unable to retire gracefully while a child killer remains at large, his obsession blinding him to the moral compromises of his blinkered approach. It's an atmospheric thriller, with terrific performances from Nicholson and Robin Wright Penn as the mother he befriends. If it doesn't quite work – Penn often resorts to symbolism where character development would be better – it's admirably unconventional. I, for one, find it easy to forgive this director's earnest pretentiousness.

Those who prefer their emotions served cold should seek out Lovely Rita, a thoroughly assured Hanneke-esque debut from fellow Austrian Jessica Hausner. This black comedy about the travails of the teenage Rita (a marvellously taciturn Barbara Osika) captures beautifully the awkward ugliness of adolescence before a brutal final punch.

Catherine Breillat's take on teenage sexuality is bound to stimulate and provoke, and the director of Romance has two films screening; the initially banned Une vraie jeune fille (1976); and her follow-up to Romance, A ma soeur!.

The complexities of puberty are also to the fore in one of the festival's most impressive documentaries, Runaway. The follow-up to Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini's award-winning Divorce Iranian Style, it is set in a halfway house for runaway girls in Tehran. It neatly confounds our expectations with honesty, humour and empathy. Longinotto has a knack akin to alchemy in structuring narratives; themes and acute perceptions are seamlessly threaded with a subtlety that makes room for both the emotions of her subjects and the response of her audience.

This cries out to be seen with Jafar Panahi's excoriating The Circle, an exploration of the position of Iranian women. The director of The White Balloon takes seven women, all of whom have transgressed the boundaries of their gender and become eternal prisoners of an unforgiving system. A deceptively simple set of stories builds into a devastating whole, its cinematic poetry never undermining its radicalism.

Life on the margins of our own society is not ignored. The former documentary film-maker Dominic Savage explores life on a northern "sink" estate. When I was Twelve, devised through workshops and research, illuminates the increasing impoverishment of life lived with no money, no work and no hope. It's subtle, perceptive and directed with an impressively light hand.

Danny Boyle has also turned his sights back to Britain with a pair of DV projects – Strumpet and Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise – which grab the technology and run with it hard and fast. Photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle (Festen, Julien Donkey-Boy) these films, screening as a double bill, employ just about every variety of digital camera available – including one designed for rectal examination (happily not used for that purpose here). Wayward, political and almost peversely visually arresting, these films will not increase Boyle's value in Hollywood, but they may regain him some credibility over here.

If you're looking for a laugh, you might be tempted by Lucky Break, Peter Cattaneo's follow-up to The Full Monty, but a better option is Crush, the directorial debut of John McKay. It stars Andie MacDowell, Imelda Staunton and Anna Chancellor as three forty-year-old eternally single professionals. It's very funny, very honest (sometimes brutally so) and only suffers from an injudicious slug of slush near the end.

While a festival not dominated by dead certs can summon true gems, there are inevitably going to be disappointments. He may have a surname to die for, but Roman Coppola's feature debut won't grant him a pass into the directors' hall of fame. CQ runs out of steam before it decides whether it really has anything to say. Genre references abound as a young wannabe auteur spends his days in glorious colour filming brash 1960s sci-fi trash, and his nights in grainy black and white home-movie pieces to camera pondering the value of his life. Its lack of real direction wouldn't be such a problem if it were simply funnier, though its slick look and endless in-jokes will find favour with some.

Far better, but hardly living up to the promise of Suture, is Scott McGehee's The Deep End, an updating of Ophül's The Reckless Moment. It boasts a tremendous performance from Tilda Swinton as the mother who will take any lengths to protect her child.

If The Deep End falters in its attempt to generate sufficient tension to work as a thriller, a similar intellectual coolness permeates Christopher Münch's The Sleepy Time Gal, with Jacqueline Bisset and Martha Plimpton as mother and daughter, separated through adoption and both searching for the missing piece of their lives. It's intelligent, and the acting is good, but its detachment leaves you disconnected.

If this year's programme can claim anything, it is to have sought out films with a unique view of the world, or an argument for changing it. The mavericks are the directors who can't fail to arouse our interest – even when their projects don't entirely come off – and on rare and blissful occasions have the power to change the way we look at cinema and the world around us. You might just stumble across one such marvel in the next fortnight.

The festival runs from tomorrow to 26 Aug;, credit-card hotline 0131-623 8030