This year’s London Film Festival has reached the halfway stage, so I thought I would pause from my moviegoing to take stock of what I’ve seen to date and select some of my personal highlights.

Genova

Genova - Colin Firth & Perla Haney-Jardine

Boris Johnson was in inimitably bumbling comic form last night, introducing the Mayor of London gala screening of Michael Winterbottom’s family drama Genova. In a jocular speech threaded with movie references (the hero of Jaws is the mayor, according to Boris), he couldn’t help noting that Genova’s star, Colin Firth, had not been an enthusiastic supporter of his mayoral candidature. Likening himself to Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, however, he vowed to soldier on in defiance of Mr Darcy’s cold indifference. “Boris isn’t going to win me over, you know,” was Firth’s retort. “He can flirt all he wants.” (Genova goes on general release in March 2009)

Boris Johnson in full flight at the LFF gala screening of Genova

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona - Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem & Scarlett Johansson
When Penélope Cruz appeared on stage before the start of Tuesday night’s screening of Woody Allen’s latest comedy drama, the question on everyone’s lips was: “What was it like to snog Scarlett Johansson?” In the movie, Cruz plays the tempestuous ex-wife of Javier Bardem’s amorous Spanish painter, who becomes romantically involved with a pair of American tourists played by Johansson and Rebecca Hall. And, yes, Cruz and Johansson do lock lips in the course of the story. On Tuesday night, however, Cruz’s only disclosure was to reveal that on the day they shot the lesbian clinch, Allen was so preoccupied with a new “stain” that had appeared overnight on his hand that he halted filming to visit his doctor. The film itself, I’m happy to report, is a return to form for the hypochondriac director; not quite vintage Woody, perhaps, but Cruz is hilarious and sexy in her role. (Vicky Cristina Barcelona goes on general release on 6th March 2009)

Penélope Cruz at the LFF screening of Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married - Anne Hathaway & Anna Deavere Smith

If your image of Anne Hathaway is still that of the cute ingénue of The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada, then you’ll be shocked by her blistering performance as a wayward junkie emerging from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding in Jonathan Demme’s documentary-style family drama. Hathaway was in good form too during the Q&A that accompanied Monday night’s screening. Lining up alongside several of the film’s creators, she was fluently witty and smart, though it was left to Demme to reveal to the LFF audience the zinger that Hathaway came up with in Toronto last month when a journalist likened watching her insufferable character in the movie to undergoing a two-hour colonoscopy. Without missing a beat, Hathway responded: “With or without anaesthesia?” (Rachel Getting Married goes on general release in January 2009)

Anne Hathaway at the LFF screening of Rachel Getting Married

Quiet Chaos

Quiet Chaos - Nanni Moretti

This gently humorous and moving Italian film about coming to terms with loss stars writer, director and actor Nanni Moretti (best known, probably, for such films as Dear Diary and The Son’s Room) as a successful executive who puts his life on hold as he comes to terms his wife’s sudden death. Taking his 10-year-old daughter to school on the first day of term, he decides spontaneously to wait for her rather than going to work. He does the same the following day, and the days after that, simply hanging out in a nearby park. Rather than cutting himself off, however, his odd regime actually opens him up to life, as he strikes up tentative rapports with some of the park’s regular passers-by and receives visits from a stream of family members and work colleagues. Below the surface, he is working through his grief. Quiet Chaos is a good deal less intense than The Son’s Room, which also dealt with bereavement, but in its own way it’s perceptive and quietly touching. (Quiet Chaos goes on general release on 24th October) Read the full review.

Hunger

Hunger - Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham

A harrowing and highly controversial account of the 1981 IRA hunger strike led by Bobby Sands, this is the first feature film from Turner prize-winning artist Steve McQueen (yes, I did a double take too when I first came across him, back in the 1990s). McQueen made his name in the art world with a series of austere and minimal gallery films, and austerity and minimalism is what you get in spades with his first work for the cinema. The film won’t go down well with everyone, and not just because of the long takes, sparse dialogue and static, near abstract shots. Plunging the viewer into the heart of the notorious H-Blocks of Belfast’s Maze Prison, McQueen unflinchingly depicts the brutality inflicted on the IRA prisoners (viewers will inevitably draw comparisons with Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay) but deliberately withholds any context to the events he portrays. His film is audacious, startling and formally bold, but its romanticising of Sands and the IRA left me distinctly uneasy. (Hunger goes on general release on 31st October)