The London Film Festival starts today.

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The 40th London Film Festival is also the last for its current director Sheila Whitaker. Although she has had to substitute the US box- office hit comedy The First Wives Club for the planned opener, Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady (pulled by Polygram at the last minute), this year's programme builds on her achievements over the last decade. Audience admissions have increased from 60,000 to 100,000 and, not surprisingly, quite a few of this year's films (340 in total) have already sold out.

Punter-pulling is the name of the game in "The Evening Standard LFF Film on the Square" strand which includes Barry Levinson's Sleepers (Fri 15) starring Robert De Niro (above) and Brad Pitt, and Abel Ferrara's Venice Film Festival prize-winner The Funeral (Fri), a superbly dark autopsy of mob family relations with utterly committed performances by Chris Penn, Annabella Sciorra and Christopher Walken. Also featured is Robert Altman's Kansas City, (Wed 20) a hymn to jazz culture in Depression America starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Harry Belafonte. Altman also participates in a Bravo Movie Masters special event on 18 November.

Also showing is Crash (Sat, sold out), David Cronenberg's controversial adaptation of JG Ballard's novel whose British distribution is still uncertain. American Independent cinema makes a predictably strong showing in the festival, including Steve Buscemi's writing-directing debut, Trees Lounge (Fri 22), a low-key blue-collar comedy starring Buscemi and Chloe Sevigny and Julian Schnabel's bio-pic Basquiat (Sat 23 see feature, p8). I Shot Andy Warhol (Mon 11) by British director Mary Harron has a corruscating Lili Taylor as the out-of control Valerie Solanas, who nearly killed Warhol in 1968. A must for any follower of the American Independent cinema is Unhook the Stars (Tues 19), the debut feature by Nick Cassavetes, the son of the great John Cassavetes, which stars his mother Gena Rowlands in an accomplished study of a middle-aged woman relearning life after motherhood duties are over.

The Festival offers a rich range of European cinema, including the world premiere of the new film by Chris Marker, veteran French documentarist and one of the most singular of the 1950s New Wave talents. Level 5 (Fri 16) continues in the style of essayistic, ruminative film-making that distinguished his masterpieces La Jetee and Sans Soleil. France is equally well represented by Jacques Audiard's A Self-Made Hero (Fri) starring Mathieu (La Haine) Kassovitz as an unremarkable opportunist who, in the melee of post-war Paris, remakes himself as a Resistance hero. Also promising are Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (Thur 14), a barbed costume drama starring Fanny Ardant and set in the Versailles of Louis XVI where bon mots become offensive weapons. Olivier Assayas satirises contemporary French cinema through the character of Louis Feuillade's Irma Vep (Tues 19), with Maggie Cheung in a brilliant casting idea, and on the subject of casting, the famous Eurostar-poet and terrace martial-arts instructor Eric Cantona features in Etienne Chatillez's comedy Le Bonheur (est dans le pre) (Thur 21).

The diversity of cinema from around the world is well showcased, with Festival strands devoted to work from Spain, Australia, Canada, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. Particularly worth watching out for are Mexican Arturo Ripstein's Deep Crimson (Thur 21); Georgian director Otar Ioselliani's study of Stalinism Brigands (Wed 20) and Sergei Bodrov's Russian epic Prisoner of the Mountains (Sat 23). One of the most formally ambitious films shown at this year's Venice Film Festival was Elia Suleiman's Chronicle of a Disappearance (Sun 16), an often humorously acerbic account of Palestinian national identity which gets a London Festival screening.

The renaissance in British cinema is showcased in the Festival round- up which includes a gala screening of Carla's Song (Fri 22), Ken Loach's film of a Glaswegian bus driver's getting of political wisdom in wartorn Nicaragua; Stephen Frears's adaptation of Roddy Doyle's novel The Van (Fri) also plays. The "British Cinema Now" strand features 20 new films including new BFI co-productions Gallivant (Tues 19), an eccentric road movie and first feature by comic genius Andrew Kotting, and Stella Does Tricks (Sat), a tough drama of a Scottish teenage prostitute played by Trainspotting's Kelly Macdonald. Other intriguing prospects include the Chris Rea-scripted La Passione (Thur 14), a story of Italian immigrants in Brighton - with musical sequences featuring Shirley Bassey - and JK Amalou's East End gangster-film debut Hard Men (Sat 16), with "Mad" Frankie Fraser among the hoodlums.

Other treats include restored prints of classic films from the world's archives, including Murnau's 1926 version of Faust (Sun) with the great Emil Jannings and the Cinematheque Francaise's restoration of the neglected celebration of 1920s Paris, Minuit... Place Pigalle (Tues 12). Also screening in lovingly restored form are classical Hollywood favourites Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Sun 17) and Giant (Sun 24). For the real hardcore cinephile, the ICA is screening all-day and all-night programmes of US Underground cinema from the 1950s to the present.

Hollywood gets the last say, with a gala showing for Bob Rafelson's thriller Blood and Wine, starring Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine. Like the opening gala, it is sold out, but, as with all LFF screenings, a small allocation of tickets is released half an hour before the start. Despair notn

Ticket info: 0171-420 1122. To 24 Nov

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