LONDON // The 52nd London film festival is hosting a record 15 world premieres alongside the pick of the pictures to have made their bows at Cannes, Venice and Toronto earlier in the year. Together with London, those festivals comprise the grand slam of the circuit, so it is only fitting that the year's celebration of cinema should finds its endgame in Leicester Square.
Sandra Hebron, the artistic director of the festival, described the tent-poles of this year's selection as "politics, history and memory". Setting up strong expectations then. Some have argued that this has been a poor year for the film festival. Cannes was seen to be a sombre, less starry-than-usual gathering. Venice was widely regarded as throwing up one of its most meagre selections in a long time. Toronto did not quite ignite any Oscar buzz-campaigns in the way it usually does. So with that, everyone's attention has now turned to London. On the basis of the half-hour clip-reel that wrapped up the press launch, and the two strong statements of intent in the films selected for the opening and closing night galas (Frost/Nixon and Slumdog Millionaire respectively), there appears to be no such cause for concern here. In fact, the line-up is looking to be one of the most diverse and striking yet.
With that, here are my 10 picks of the festival fortnight: Che Part One and Part Two Perhaps the most audacious and ambitious of all the films showing at this year's festival, Steven Soderbergh's twin studies of Che Guevara's campaigns deliver a one-two punch on the theme of revolution. Part One shows Che's role in overthrowing the Batista regime in Cuba, sliced with flash-forwards to his sensational, image-defining appearance at the UN in 1964. Part Two is a piece on bloodshed and political martyrdom in the Bolivian jungle. Benicio Del Toro is so compelling in the title role that, come February, he may well carry off a second Oscar for his efforts.
The Class Laurent Cantet's Palme d'Or winner is an unadulterated delight. Parisian junior high school teacher François Bégaudeau stars in an adaptation of his own book Entre les murs, a tale of good intentions, and broken taboo boundaries, in which he endeavours to engage his inner-city students in language and literature. Sure to be one of the festival's fizziest pop moments.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney garnered a major coup in getting Johnny Depp to narrate his film chronicling the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - not to mention the founder of Gonzo journalism. But Gibney's unearthing of new archive footage from Thompson's year on the road with the Hell's Angels is the real draw here.
Hunger With the simplest yet most stunning poster-and-trailer campaign currently gripping London, Turner prize-winning Steve McQueen's debut feature is a surefire hot ticket - and a work of outstanding beauty and boldness. The artist has crafted a chilling account of the stand-off between the wardens and the IRA political prisoners at Long Kesh, which led to the hunger strike of 1981. There is an anger at the heart of Hunger, but also an eerie abstract quality - its bravura 24-minute single take being one of the most compelling episodes of cinema I've yet seen.
Salt of This Sea Annemarie Jacir's elegiac debut feature follows Soraya, a young Palestinian-American woman in search of her family's native land for the first time. Landing at Tel Aviv airport, where she encounters a humiliating interrogation, she soon sets off for Ramallah to reclaim her grandfather's small fortune from a Palestinian bank account dating back to 1948, the year of the partition and creation of the state of Israel. It is a restless, righteous film, capturing the stolen beauty of a land, questing on behalf of a people too-long denied a home of one's own.
Synecdoche, New York Having penned many a recent critical darling, from Being John Malkovich to Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman bursts out of the writer's shadow in requisite flamboyant fashion with his directorial debut. It is the story of theatre director Caten Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his pursuit in making his masterwork in Schenectady, New York. For all the film's reported complexities and narrative freefalls, there is real, restrained emotion here too. The top-drawer cast - a veritable smörgåsbord of indie starlets, including Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams and Samantha Morton - explores what it means to be lonely and the fear of failure that plagues us all. Head-spinning, singularly inventive stuff.
Tokyo! Letting loose one Korean and two French directors in Tokyo to make a baggy, impressionistic omnibus film may not sound like much of a highlight, but this one works for its mélange of masters at the helm. First up is Michel Gondry, responsible for the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and here in similarly exhilarating mode: a young artist and his girlfriend arrive in the city one rainy night, only to have the world as they know it delicately collapse around them. Bong Joon-Ho (director of The Host) finds a lovely love story in translation, focusing on two quintessentially Japanese phenomena: hikikomori and earthquakes. Leos Carax's segment spins things 180 degrees, as he follows a mysterious man spreading confusion on the city streets with random acts of not-so kindness.
Touki Bouki One of two major restorations by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation, Djibril Diop Manbéty's 1973 film from Senegal is the pick of this year's Treasures from the Archives strand. Two disaffected young lovers from Dakar dream of a passage to Paris in this nostalgic take on the road movie. Loaded with symbolism, psychedelic colourways and extraordinary music, this is a zigzag odyssey firmly rooted in the West African oral tradition. A barely intelligible yet highly intelligent trip into the heart of lightness, its vibrant colours appear unfaded - miraculously so - in this new digital print courtesy of Bologna's L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona Woody Allen is back on form with his tale of Americans abroad. Straight-laced Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and spontaneous Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are bosom buddies set to spend a summer in the Catalan capital before Vicky weds in the autumn. No sooner do they land than they meet the artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who suggests a wild weekend in Oviedo, imagined here as a bohemian's enclave - all paint and wine and song and Patricia Clarkson. The result is a picture bathed in a luscious, honeyed light that is just gorgeous to look at - courtesy of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe's native's eye. But events take a surprising turn, even more so when Juan Antonio's fiery ex-wife Maria (Penélope Cruz) enters the picture. As always, Allen is there to capture the intricacies of romance and passion with his inimitable lighter-than-air sleight of hand.
Waltz with Bashir Set during the Israeli army's mission in the first Lebanon War of the early eighties, the documentary filmmaker Ari Folman has produced a potent anti-war movie, presented in animation form. From its jolt of an opening sequence - in which a fellow comrade is chased by a baying pack of hounds - the film's haunting, visceral visual style is relentless in its documenting of the horrors of war, going so far as to draw parallels between Nazi death camps and the refugee camps in which Palestinians were housed and persecuted in Lebanon. A solitary bugle call on the surreal, futile nature of conflict, this is set to be this year's Persepolis.