Mexicans, mambo and monsters

OK, so Bruce Willis cried off - but who needs him in this company? Geoffrey Macnab picks a personal top 10 at the Regus London Film Festival
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The London Film Festival, now in its 45th year, still seems to be wriggling on the horns of a ferocious dilemma. It wants to attract top Hollywood talent, with all the hoopla that entails. Yet it's determined to remain a people's festival where cinemagoers have a chance to see films that would not otherwise surface in the UK. ("At least 70 per cent of what we show doesn't get theatrical distribution," the festival's director, Adrian Wootton, has claimed.) Maybe that's what lends the event its richness; the programme is a rag-bag into which is thrown everything from studio blockbusters to experimental shorts, from archive restorations to world cinema. The titles reviewed below may not all be masterpieces, but they underline the extraordinary range of movies on offer over the next fortnight.

1 Y Tu Mama También (And Your Mother Too)

The story of two over-sexed Mexican lads and a beautiful but unhappily married Spanish woman who hit the road in search of a mythical beach, Alfonso Cuaron's new feature combines the zest of the best teen movies with a subtlety worthy of Walter Salles' Central Station. Look out for another exceptional performance from the young Tufnell Park-based heart-throb of Mexican cinema, Gael Garcia Bernal, who starred in Amores Perros.

2 Serendipity

Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb famously observed that film-makers enjoy a"grace period... when you've earned your spurs by directing a feature, and no one knows what kind of a feature it is." One guesses that the British director Peter Chelsom was enjoying just such a privileged lull when he was asked to make Serendipity – his backers hadn't seen Town And Country, which turned out to be the biggest Hollywood disaster since Heaven's Gate bankrupted United Artists. The success of this aptly named romance has rescued Chelsom's career. John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale are the cute lovers who meet in the glove department of Bloomingdales, spend one magical evening together, and then spend years trying to relocate one another. It's mush, but superior mush.

3 Agua E Sal (Water and Salt)

Teresa Villaverde's new feature is set in a small Portuguese coastal town where a political journalist (Galatea Ranzi) lives with her husband (Joaquim De Almeida) and child. Her marriage is unravelling and she is terrified that the husband might kidnap the child. In its own quiet, lyrical way, this is a beautiful piece of film-making but in a sad case of life imitating art screenings have been overshadowed by Villaverde's very public spat with her estranged partner, the director Jon Jost. He has accused her of abducting their child Clara, 4, and of exploiting her by having her play the journalist's daughter.

4 Fausto 5.0

In this reworking of the Goethe classic, Faust is a Spanish surgeon who specialises in rescuing those close to death. The Devil is Santos Vella, a patient he operated on – and apparently saved – years before. At a conference, Dr Fausto keeps running into Santos, who has the power to realise even his basest desires. Shot in grey, desaturated fashion, and playing ingeniously on ideas of doppelgängers and coincidence, Isidro Ortiz's take on the old tale of hubris is impressively mounted. The only problem is the Devil himself. Wearing a tracksuit and shades, Eduard Fernandez's Lucifer Risen looks less like evil incarnate than a 70s DJ fallen on hard times.

5 Nine Queens

Co-produced by The Tequila Gang, the outfit set up in 1998 by Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro and others to nurture new Latin-American talent, this Buenos Aires-set thriller about conmen deceiving one another has already broken box-office records in Argentina, while earning its director, Fabian Bielinsky, praise from critics who see him as a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and David Mamet. It's a fine debut.

6 Dog Days

Ulrich Seidl's quirky tale of human folly and cruelty, lust, laziness and alcoholism, set in the Austrian suburbs over the hottest days of the summer, has sparked huge controversy. Some accuse it of rank misogyny; others say it is one of the most original art-house films of the year. Dog Days was produced by the lugubrious but discerning Paris-based Philippe Bober, who was behind last year's equally bizarre Songs From The Second Floor and Zuzhou River.

7 Bandits

Perhaps Bruce Willis's absence has less to do with Osama bin Laden than with the fact that he is acted off screen here by Cate Blanchett, as the housewife who tags along for the ride with two robbers (Willis and Billy Bob Thornton). Barry Levinson's attempt at welding a Bonnie and Clyde-style thriller with a high-spirited Capraesque comedy is only fitfully effective, but Blanchett is easily a match for the screwball heroines of yore such as Katharine Hepburn.

8 The Big Heat

One of the strongest sidebars of the LFF has always been its Treasures From The Archive. This year, the festival is screening a restored print of Fritz Lang's blistering "noir thriller", notorious for the scene in which Lee Marvin hurls scalding coffee in the face of Gloria Grahame.

9 Monsters Inc

Any adult frightened by the kiddy hysteria at Sunday's Harry Potter premiere will feel for the protagonists of the latest animated fantasy from Pixar (the team behind Toy Story.) The good-natured ghouls and gonks who work for Monsters Incorporated are dedicated to scaring children, but are themselves terrified of kids. When four-year-old Boo (Mary Gibbs) gatecrashes their home town of Monstropolis, they're thrown into paroxysms of panic and despair. This is the first major animated feature the LFF has included in its programme, clear evidence that the old snobbery about cartoons and children's movies is finally disappearing.

10 Millennium Mambo

After the studied formalism of The Flowers of Shanghai, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has changed tack in dramatic fashion. Millennium Mambo unfolds against the seething backdrop of modern Taipei. At its best, the depiction of the chaotic lives of the glamorous, defiant Vicky (Shu Qi) and her jealous, petty-thief boyfriend has wit and energy worthy of Chungking Express. (The film was shot by Mark Lee, who also worked on Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love.) Worth seeing just for the dream-like opening that shows Vicky in slow motion, walking down a seemingly endless subway.

The London Film Festival runs to 22 November 2001 (020-7928 3232)

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