Film programmer Sandra Hebron wanted more originality and variety in this year's London Film Festival programme, which runs 20 October to 4 November. She's managed that with a strong line-up of features, shorts, the funny trailers and screen talks.
The 2004 London Film Festival opens with a film that is already an award winner and gives us something to crow about: it's British too. Mike Leigh's latest, Vera Drake won the Golden Lion in Venice in early September and it receives the red carpet treatment on Wednesday 20 October. A period drama co-starring Phil Davis, Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton as Vera (in her first film for Mike Leigh), it takes you into the confines of a working-class family in the 1950s and the life of a wonderfully selfless and giving woman who finds herself unexpectedly running into conflict with the law.
Three weeks later, the festival will close on a zanily high note with David O Russell's crackpot comedy I Love Huckabees where the Three Kings director finds himself flirting wildly with existentialism. The cast is more of a case of who isn't in it, given that on screen you've got the likes of Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Hubbert, Lily Tomlin, Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts, to name but a few.
If last year's festival was dominated by Scarlett Johansson, this year the East Asians take centre stage. Zhang Yimou's The House of the Flying Daggers is sure to be a hot ticket for lovers of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Edinburgh's loss is London's gain with the centrepiece Gala of Wong Kar Wai's 2046. The film, which is being coined as the dark flip-side of In The Mood For Love, was apparently not finished in time for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It has screenings on Fri 29 and Sat 30 October.
Other popular gala screenings include Francois Ozon's 5 x 2 and The Incredibles, which comes from Pixar Animation Studios and is a very funny tale about an out-of-work superhero. It's sure to a hit with family audiences who adored Woody and Buzz.
This year's Lantana, We Don't Live Here Anymore is the subject of the Time Out First Night screening on 21 October. As you'd expect this is the study of the impact of adultery on two marriages in a small New England town and it co-stars Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause and huckabees star Naomi Watts.
Asian directors continue to bring modern takes on English classics. About to be released (on 8 October) is Gurinder Chadha's dashingly audacious musical Bride and Prejudic, which gives Jane Austen the Bollywood treatment. Following a similar theme but in a much more linear form, is Mira Nair's adaptation of Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair, with Nair's take on British colonialism providing a fresh angle on the novel much as Shekhar Kapur did in The Four Feathers (2002). Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, Eileen Atkins and Rhys Ifans lead an all-star cast.
If you're looking for a really good black comedy in the fest, look no further than Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa where Billy Bob Thornton plays a womanising, cursing and often blindingly drunk Father Christmas who's into a little crime on the side. It's very much a teen to adult alternative view of Yuletide but one that deserves to be a real Christmas hit. If you liked Zwigoff's last film Ghost World you're sure to love this one.
Also strong in the alternative comedy stakes is the beautifully titled Napoleon Dynamite where director Jared Hess introduces you to the wilfully absurd world that in effect, to quote a Gus Van Sant film, is his own private Idaho, and yes its an offbeat one.
The new British section includes Amma Asante's A Way of Life, which explores slice of life racism in Wales in a way that Ken Loach would have approved of. Tracy Emin forgets unmade beds to turn her hand to a part-documentary part-autobiography in a rites-of-passage focus on six girls in Margate in Top Spot, Saul Dibb's Bullet Boy is a realistic rites of passage tale about two black boys growing up in Inner City London, the excellent Paddy Considine is reunited with director Pawel Pawlikowski in the offbeat lesbian romance My Summer of Love (they last worked together on The Last Resort) and Paddy Breathnach's Man About Dog is a ballsy and breezy Irish comedy about bookmakers, dog stealing and a dodgy bookmaker.
The London Fest always throws up a few curiosities and this year's leader of the pack is sure to be Visions of Europe showing on 23 and 27 October. It's a 140 minutes in the company of no less than 25 filmmakers across Europe, including the UK's Peter Greenaway, Aki Kaurismaki from Finland, and Fatih Akin from Germany, who have all been asked to make a 5-minute vision of their own country, making up a patchwork quilt kaleidoscope of present-day Europe.
Fatih Akin also pops up in the festival with an uncompromising take of modern Germany in Head On, which leads neatly into some of the highlights in the World Cinema section such as In The Battlefields, a study of innocence and cruelty in 1980's Beirut. There's also the winner of this year's Cannes Fipresci award, Thirst, a debut feature from Palestinian director Tawfik Abu WAEL Directors Meeting, and the Japanese film Vital, a study of a man suffering from trauma after a car crash starring well known Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano.
Live interviews with Kevin Bacon, Reese Witherspoon and David O Russell are to be found in the NFT on 31 October and 3 November, there's also a Skillset Masterclass worth booking for on 23 Oct, since the subject of it is Jonathan Demme, and there's even a few free events such as a debate organised by Hollywood Reporter focusng on the effect of US investment in European cinema at the NFT on 22 Oct.
For those bored with the delights or otherwise of modern cinema, there are screenings of fresh prints from the archives of classics like On The Waterfront starring the late but great Marlon Brando, and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory.
Finally two decent remakes to look out for in the Screen on the Square section: Gregory Jacobs's faithful take of the 2001 con classic Nine Queens, Criminal produced by Steven Soderbergh and one George Clooney, and starring John C Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Mullan.
Also worth considering is Jonathan Demme's reworking of the Richard Condon novel The Manchurian Candidate, now set in the Gulf War, Kuwait 1991, where Army Officer Denzel Washington finds in the heat of battle, his mind has been messed about with by disgraced Genetics doctor Simon McBurney and worse, ruthless Senator Meryl Streep and her brain-affected ambitious Vice-president elect son Liev Schreiber seem to be at the heart of it.
As opening film director Mike Leigh put it, "get out there and see some films, because you're bound to see some gems and if you pass me in the street, I'll probably be rushing along because I'll be on the way to see one too." It promises to be a lively 2004 fest and of course on Sunday 31 October in the evening, there's the surprise film too.
London Film Festival website where you can book online. If you'd prefer to speak to a bookings agent, call 020 7928 3232, where public bookings can be made from 7 October.