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The Independent Culture
THE LFF is a curious sort of festival. Coming near the end of the year, and without a competition, it forms a sort of mopping-up operation, screening movies that usually have premiered elsewhere (though they shouldn't have been seen in the UK before). I used to think this devalued the LFF. But now, having experienced the hype and mayhem of the major festivals abroad, I see the point of London. It presents the pick of the rest - with one or two surprises of its own - sifting out many of the disappointments. This year's line-up is the most impressive for years. Here is a punter's guide, divided into the LFF's key sections.

FILM ON THE SQUARE: The most mainstream section, with plenty of chances to get an early look at forthcoming releases. The festival's opening film is a daring, some might say reckless choice: Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days (Odeon Leic Sq, 7.30pm 2 Nov), a futuristic thriller, starring Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett. It should be one of the most talked-about films of next year. As should be the closing film, Casino (Empire Leic Sq, 7.30pm 19 Nov). Martin Scorsese gets back with the mob, and Robert De Niro, in Las Vegas. A rumoured three hours long, the film receives its world premiere in London. Other highlights: The Horseman on the Roof (Odeon WE, 3.30 & 8.45pm 6 Nov), a lavish 19th-century French epic starring Juliette Binoche; Woody Allen's latest, Mighty Aphrodite (Odeon, 3.45 & 8.45pm 8 Nov); Carl (One False Move) Franklin gives a new twist to noir in Devil in a Blue Dress (Odeon, 1.15 & 6.15pm 8 Nov), with a black detective (Denzel Washington) hunting a missing woman in 1948 LA. Theatre director Robert LePage makes an accomplished debut with the tortuous, Hitchcockian thriller The Confessional (Odeon, 1.15 & 6.15pm 3 Nov). Smoke (Odeon, 1.15 & 6.15pm 14 Nov), based on a Paul Auster story, is an ensemble comedy with Harvey Keitel, William Hurt and Forest Whitaker. Two epic, award- winning features set in the Balkans arrive at last: the great Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze (Odeon, 7pm 5 Nov) and Emir Kusturica's Underground (Odeon, 7pm 14 Nov). Finally, if you only see one film in the festival, make sure it is Leaving Las Vegas (Odeon, 1 & 6.15pm 6 Nov). An astounding Nicolas Cage plays a screenwriter who has an affair with a hooker (a superb Elizabeth Shue). It's already being hailed as one of the American films of the 1990s - and it's directed by an Englishman, Mike Figgis.

EUROPE: Sadly, the British entry looks weakest, but Anthony Waller's Moscow-set thriller Mute Witness (Odeon, 6pm 11 Nov, 4pm 14 Nov) has been well received. Likewise, two BBC films: Karl Francis's slice of Welsh working-class life, Streetlife (NFT, 11am 4 Nov); and the late Nigel Finch's Stonewall (Odeon, 1.30 & 6.30pm 8 Nov), an examination of the 1969 gay riot in New York. Pick of the French may be Nelly and Mr Arnaud (Odeon, 1.30 & 6.30pm 7 Nov), Claude Sautet's follow-up to Un Coeur en Hiver. Michelangelo Antonioni's first film for over a decade, Beyond the Clouds (NFT, 9pm 18 Nov), won't disappoint his fans. Pasolini, an Italian Crime (NFT, 2 & 6.30pm 15 Nov) examines the murder of another great Italian film-maker. Flamenco by Carlos Saura (Odeon, 11.30am 12 Nov, 1.30pm 13 Nov) is a dance extravaganza, photographed by the great Vittorio Storaro. Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal (Odeon, 1.30 & 6.30pm 6 Nov), set in the heart of "the troubles", was a hit at Venice. If you have five hours to spare, check out The Kingdom (ICA, 6pm 11 Nov), Lars Von Trier's highly rated, soapy black comedy set in a hospital.

WORLD CINEMA: Highlights are Sam Neill's astute essay on NZ film, A Cinema of Unease (MOMI, 6.30pm 8 Nov); The White Balloon (NFT, 3.45 & 8.45pm 13 Nov), a beguiling modern fairy-tale from Iran; and Cyclo (Odeon, 1pm 5 Nov), Golden Lion winner at Venice, a Vietnamese Bicycle Thieves, combining brutality with tenderness.

SPECIAL EVENTS: Murnau's peerless silent film Sunrise has a one-off screening with full orchestra at the RFH (7.30pm 7 Nov). My tip for the Surprise Film (Odeon, 8.45pm 11 Nov), despite denials, is that the festival will get Get Shorty.

! For tickets phone 0171 928 3232.