(14/10/08) – This year’s BFI London Film Festival – the 52nd – was launched in the shadow of an apparently appalling Venice line-up, following lukewarm on the heels of an average Cannes and a tepid Berlin. The consensus view – that 2008 is a less-than-vintage year for cinema – was openly addressed by Artistic Director Sandra Hebron at the launch, but placed in context. Its position in the calendar means that the LFF has always been about surveying the year, and is in an enviable position of being to corral the ‘best of the best’ – or so it boasts.

The truth is that even in a strong year, a festival the size of which London has ill-advisedly become is going to carry a fair bit of mediocrity in its baggage and this year’s press launch showreel (mercifully shortened from previous years) did little to dispel the widespread view that this year the festival will do well to tread water. Although there are a lot of solid festival regulars featured – new films from Oliver Stone, Michael Winterbottom, Steven Soderbergh and Jonathan Demme – the absence of a truly star turn is keenly felt. Into that vacuum has been catapulted the first public showing of Daniel Craig’s second Bond outing, Quantum of Solace, but this has the ring of a publicity stunt. Showing immediately after the film’s world

premiere on October 29, it is effectively a glitzy paid preview as the film opens nationally two days later. While this has generated the sort of publicity the LFF rarely garners, what, truly, is the point? The film is hardly representative of the festival as a whole – although this may not be the case for much longer, should the public utterances of the BFI Chair, the cine-illiterate Greg Dyke, be taken seriously.

None of which is to say there isn’t quite a bit worth seeing between 15-30 October across London. Leaving aside both the opening and closing films – the world premiere of Frost/Nixon, about which advance word is very strong, despite it being a Ron Howard film; and the European premiere of the new Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire, which went down a storm in Toronto (although the clip I saw looked like warmed-over City of God) – I list below a short selection of truly interesting-sounding films, one or two of which may go wide after the festival, but more than likely be restricted to the dreaded ‘selected cinemas’ – fates not necessarily related to their respective merits.

1. Che (pictured) – Parts 1 and 2 (Steven Soderbergh)

While it’s safe to assume Benicio del Toro’s role-of-a-lifetime performance will be seen in some version or other in the months ahead, it’s by no means a safe bet that Soderbergh’s dramatisation of Che Guevara’s campaigns in Cuba and Bolivia will be widely seen theatrically in the way the director intends – as two complementary but distinct films, each of them over two hours (ominously, at the time of writing imdb.com lists no US precise release date other than a screening at the LA Film Festival under the title, ‘Guerrillia’), so grab this chance. (Screening: 25, 27, 29 October.)

2. The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel)

Director Edel and screenwriter/producer Bernd Eichinger revisit their own formative years in this account of the infamous Red Army Faction, the militant left wing Germans who became radicallised in the early 1970s by what they saw as the increasing imperialism of the US allied to the strong arm tactics of the West German state. Framed essentially as a historical thriller – although scrupulously authentic – this should reinforce the case for a re-emergent German national cinema. Don’t expect many laughs, though. (Screening: 26, 28 October.)

3. Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)

After director Sorrentino’s obscure, if playful, tract on the nature of love (amongst other things), The Family Friend, he has turned his attention to Italian politics with this account of the career of post-war Italian Premier, Giulio Andreaotti. Describing it as a ‘bio-pic’ is probably to undersell both its artistic prospects – Sorrentino is genuinely at the forefront of European cinema – and it’s contents (Andreaotti was Prime Minister seven times and withstood repeated allegations of corruption and Mafia involvement). Toni Servillo, the magnetic star of Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love, stars. (Screening: 21, 23 October.)

4. Of Time and the City (Terence Davies)

Liverpudlian director Davies’s documentary about his home town has been widely admired since its Cannes premier, although some find his lyricism hard to take. As a Scouser myself, I am ambivalent. While I find the slightly camp tone of some of his work hard to take – all crushed red velvet and Received Pronunciation voiceovers – its raw truthfulness cannot be denied. As just about the youngest member of a packed audience for Distant Voices, Still Lives in the Odeon (the Odeon!) in Liverpool city centre in 1988, I sat rapt both by the spectacle on screen and the naked emotion on display in the stalls. There probably won’t be a dry eye in the house this time, either. Calm down calm down, etc. (Screening: 18, 21 October.)

5. Franklyn (Gerald McMorrow)

Why can’t there be more British films like this? An ambitious debut from director McMorrow that tells parallel stories cross-cutting between contemporary London and the futuristic ‘Meanwhile City’, it sounds like it might be everything V for Vendetta wasn’t quite – in tone, if not style. A great cast – Ryan Phillippe, Control‘s Sam Riley, Bernard Hill – put themselves at the mercy of some truly original sounding material. I haven’t seen a frame of it and already I want to know what McMorrow will do next. (Screening: 16, 19 October.)

The London Film Festival opens tomorrow, 15 October 2008. Please follow link for more details.