Judging by the number of packed out public screenings in its opening week, the 2004 London Film Festival look set for one of its most successful years.

The opening and closing night all-star galas, Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake and the existential comedy I Heart Huckabees, are the better end of mainstream English-language cinema, but they underplay the festival’s large selection of foreign-language films. However, if this tactic is pulling in the crowds and making the festival more successful, it will be interesting to see whether the ‘a little bit of everything’ approach is still there in 2005.

Vera Drake should have been the perfect choice for an opening night film – a prolific British director showcasing a film seeped in the culture and traditions of the London working class of the 50s. After winning Best Actress and Best Film at the Venice International Film Festival it was also the film’s home-coming screening. However, Vera Drake just did not live up to the high expectations of its internationals prizes.

Most likely dogged by the very things that may have impressed the Venice jury, it is the story in Vera Drake which disappoints. The magnificent performances from Staunton and co and the meticulous reconstruction of post-war London are impressive, but less so to a discerning Londoner who expected more from the plot.

Vera is an incredible woman, regarded by her friends and family as having a ‘heart of gold’. Her working-class family live happily together, getting the most out of a hard life, and Vera will stop at nothing to help people in need, even if it means breaking the law to help women ‘in the family way’. This inevitably leads to trouble for Vera when the authorities eventually find out, but it also creates difficulties for Mike Leigh’s script. The characters outside Vera’s family circle suddenly evaporate, and the different relationships, lives and fates remain unexplored.

The one-word exchanges, frosty looks, the peculiarly negative turn of phrase, and the constant references to Britain’s love of tea all bring a comic lightness to the film, but they also reinforce the international stereotype of the English, which will probably mean Vera Drake’s global success will not be enjoyed as much at home.

Easily the best film of the first week of the festival, Undertow, David Gordon Green’s latest feature, plays with plot, genre and cliché to create a very unusual blend of the exciting, cheesy and improbable. Influenced by 70’s adventure novels and film thrillers starring Burt Reynolds, Undertow is set in the swampy sticks of the American deep south and follows the story of rebellious teenager Chris and his younger brother Tim who live with their pensive father on a rusty, remote house complete with pigs and lots of muck. When an estranged uncle arrives after tracking the family down, a terrifying adventure begins to unfold. Before long the brothers are on the run with a bag of cursed gold coins, chased by a monstrous adversary.

Unlike Green’s previous film All The Real Girls, Undertow is routed in the drama of the physical not the emotional. There is a lot of violence, blood, mud, sick and running. The result is an extremely sensory cinematic experience, one which David Gordon Green wanted to make even more so – in the Q&A following the screening he said he wished the audiences could have experienced some of the stench the cast and crew had to endure where they were filming.

Undertow is difficult to watch at first due to the deliberately uneven pace, confusing genre and narrative leads and highly stylised cinematography (freeze frames, solirasation, changes from black and white to colour feature within the first five minutes). However, as the bewildering chase takes hold, and the claustrophobic tension of early scenes are gone, we get to enjoy the adventure. The remote rural setting may be familiar territory for David Gordon Green’s films, but this is yet another bold and original film for the young director who has shown once again he and his team are among the most exciting filmmakers in the US today.

Less enjoyable is Roberto Moreira’s debut feature. Produced by City of God director Fernando Meirelles, Up Against Them All is a hellish account of the lives of the family and friends of a Sao Paulo hit man. The look and feel of the film are reminiscent of the Dogme aesthetic, especially Von Trier’s The Idiots, and the unflinching gaze of the camera follows the characters no matter how violent and immoral their actions. Combined with the stylings of the home-movie, referenced in the opening shots of a couple kissing on holiday, and a family that is apocalyptically dysfunctional, Up Against Them All is a frighteningly dark film.

In his introduction to the film, producer Meirelles said that director Roberto Moreira had used similar techniques to Mike Leigh in writing the scenes, using the actors to develop the script. As a result, the astonishing performances from its cast are easily the film’s best feature, particularly Giulio Lopes and Silvia Lourenco playing father and daughter Teodoro and Soninha. However, this low-budget, violent and seedy account of the lawless in Sao Paulo is devoid of any likeable characters, and as a result, of hope. Too dark and cynical to be a telling account of the human condition, the film is not helped by poor subtitling.

Essay documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself is a sublimely deadpan illustrated lecture. 169 minutes long, it takes the form of short film clips with a narrated voice-over. Unsurprisingly, it becomes increasingly difficult to watch after the first hour and a half, but for a film originally designed as a lecture (director Thom Anderson teaches film history and directing at the California Institute of Arts), it is a fascinating account of a city whose identity has constantly being redefined by its film industry.

It was also refreshing to watch a documentary from the US that did not go for entertainment value over substance. However, Los Angeles Plays Itself is perhaps too dry and too similar to a lecture to make it to the cinema, which is a shame, because Thom Anderson’s critiques say a lot about the relationship between life and the moving image.