Maybe it's because it's the London Film Festival

Dennis Lim picks the ones to watch at an eclectic and intruiging celebration of cinema
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The Independent Culture
The London Film Festival can always be counted on for a representative sample of recent world cinema. The festivals that precede it - Toronto and Venice in particular - can usually boast bigger names and more world premieres, but the expansive, eclectic LFF, now in its 42nd year, consolidates many of their respective highlights into one manageable package. If the 1998 line-up seems slightly lacklustre compared to previous years, that has little to do with the programming (which is as admirably broad-minded as ever) and is more a reflection of the current state of world cinema: undoubtedly strong, but less exciting than a year or two ago.

Even more audience-friendly than before, this year's LFF has been decisively streamlined, with just over 150 features, a good 30 to 40 fewer than last year. This is, according to festival director Adrian Wootton (in his second year at the helm), in response to extensive industry and audience research. The programme has also been significantly revamped. The British Cinema strand remains, but the rest of the world is now represented by Cinema Europa and World Cinema. This mercifully does away with the American Independents, an increasingly weak section in the last few years. (On the other hand, the absence of an Asian Cinema category - in light of the region's continued creative vitality and especially after last year's exceptionally strong selections - seems like a miscalculation.) This year's festival opened last Thursday with a small-ish, homegrown crowd pleaser (Little Voice) and closes next week with an unusually thought-provoking Hollywood satire (Warren Beatty's well-meaning but muddle- headed Bulworth). And here, a guide to the highlights (please note, these films have not yet received certificates from the British Board of Film Classification):

The Apple (Thursday): An unemployed man and his blind wife keep their twin daughters locked up in their Tehran home; only after neighbours and social workers intervene are the girls allowed contact with the outside world. A fascinating first film by 18-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf (daughter of director Mohsen), The Apple is a quasi-documentary re-enactment of a true story. As in Abbas Kiarostami's Close Up (one of the great works of recent Iranian cinema), the characters are all played by their real- life counterparts.

Buttoners (Friday & Saturday): This ingeniously plotted black comedy by the young Czech director Petr Zelenka plays like a smarter, funnier, decidedly more demented version of Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth. Consisting of six intricately interlocked episodes (the first set in Japan on the night of the Hiroshima bombing, the remaining five exactly 50 years later in Prague), the film has a surreal streak, a heightened sense of irony and a bold satirical edge.

Central Station (18 & 19 November): Winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film at this year's Berlin film festival,this panoramic Brazilian road movie explores the unlikely relationship between an embittered former schoolteacher (the wonderful Fernanda Montenegro) and a street urchin in search of his long-lost father. The heartstring-tugging gets a little too blatant at times (a nomination for Best Foreign Film Oscar is virtually guaranteed), but there's no denying director Walter Salles's deep-seated humanism, which, at its most affecting, echoes that of the great neo-realist films.

Festen (Friday & Sunday 15 November): Along with Lars von Trier's The Idiots (also showing in the festival), this film by Thomas Vinterberg is the first to emerge from "Dogme 95", a collective of presumably loopy Danish filmmakers centered around von Trier and guided by "the Vow of Chastity", which consists of 10 strict yet bizarrely random tenets (among them, "shooting must be done on location" and "genre movies are not acceptable"). Festen takes place at a family gathering punctuated by one bombshell after another. The movie's shock value is considerable, but it mainly feels like the work of an inveterate prankster, one with a slightly warped mind and a flair for camera trickery.

First Love, Last Rites (today): This unusually gimmick-free American indie is based on a 12-page Ian McEwan short story about the psychic fallout of a teenage love affair. Not obvious movie material, but director Jesse Peretz turns it into a remarkably resonant first feature. He transposes the story from an English seaside town to Louisiana bayou country, and with subtlety and precision, invokes the feverish confusion of young love. Giovanni Ribisi gives an understated, complex performance as one half of the smitten couple, and New York trio Shudder to Think, who did a couple of stand-outs on Velvet Goldmine, come up with a winning, imaginative soundtrack.

I Stand Alone (Tuesday & Friday): Lars von Trier's explicit The Idiots is already causing a pre-festival stir (it features an erect penis and graphic sex), but it's Gaspar Noe's unremittingly brutal film that'll have audiences gasping if not running for the exits. One of the ballsiest movies in recent memory, I Stand Alone is like a much, much sicker Taxi Driver; it's set within the fractured psyche of its ferociously misanthropic protagonist, a French butcher who always seems on the brink of a murderous explosion. Watching it is an intense experience, to say the least; Noe employs shock cuts, intertitles, loud gunshots as sudden sound effects, and a hate-fuelled stream-of-consciousness voiceover. The film is something of a stunt, to be sure, but its despair and abjection feel horribly real.

Out of Sight (Thursday, Friday and Sunday 15 November): The sort of movie you thought Hollywood didn't know how to make any more. Steven Soderbergh's return to big-budget filmmaking is an Elmore Leonard adaptation that puts both Jackie Brown and Get Shorty to shame. Romantic, sexy, generous, light on its feet, and seductive, Out of Sight is a busy crime caper whose strength lies in vivid characterisations. Soderbergh has somehow persuaded George Clooney, the film's bank-robbing anti-hero, to abandon the coy, head-ducking routine that passes for acting in his book, and turn on a completely revelatory leading-man charm.

LFF box office: 0171 928 3232, to 19 November.

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