LONDON — This year's London Film Festival has Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman and the Rolling Stones — and it's bookended by one of the city's premiere cinematic couples.
Britain's biggest film showcase opens Wednesday with the European premiere of London-based American director Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," the animated tale of a boy and his beloved — but dead — dog. It ends Oct. 21 with Mike Newell's adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations," which stars Burton's partner, Helena Bonham Carter, as haunted Miss Havisham.
Festival director Clare Stewart said she was happy to be "bracketing the festival with one of London's great love affairs" — the ghoul-loving filmmaker and his gothic muse.
Stewart, in her first year at the festival's helm, has chosen a crowd-pleasing opener for the showcase of 225 features and 111 shorts from around the world. "Frankenweenie" — an expansion of Burton's 1984 live-action short of the same name — has been praised as charmingly macabre, luscious-looking homage to Burton's filmmaking roots. Combining state-of-the-art 3-D with old-fashioned stop-motion animation, it features Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short and Winona Ryder among its voice cast.
"It's a pet project for Tim Burton in every sense of the word," said Stewart, an energetic Australian who comes to London from the Sydney Film Festival. "It leaves you feeling the way you should be feeling on opening night — energized, excited, full of joy."
Founded in 1957 to show the best of the year's world cinema to a British audience, the London festival has in the past few years tried to carve out a place on the international movie calendar with bigger pictures and more glittering stars.
While many of the films in the lineup have already made their debuts at Sundance, Cannes, Toronto or Venice, there are 14 world premieres — notably the first-ever public screening of "Crossfire Hurricane," a documentary about the Rolling Stones released to coincide with the band's 50th anniversary. The band members are expected to rock up on the red carpet for the Oct. 18 premiere.
High-profile galas include Hoffman's directorial debut, "Quartet," which features "Downton Abbey" grande dame Maggie Smith in the story of a group of aging opera stars; Affleck's Iran hostage thriller "Argo"; Roger Michell's "Hyde Park on Hudson," a comedy-drama starring Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt; and "The Sessions," in which a polio patient in an iron lung enlists a sex surrogate so he can lose his virginity.
Stewart says she's also excited about Sally Potter's Cold War-set "Ginger and Rosa," Michael Winterbottom's domestic drama "Everyday" and "Seven Psychopaths," a crime comedy from "In Bruges" director Martin McDonagh.
Several of the big titles come trailing praise from other festivals, including Michael Haneke's Cannes Palme d'Or winner "Amour," Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone," Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" and Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."
Stewart has taken steps to shake up the event in a bid to boost its profile with both London audiences and Hollywood heavyweights.
This year's festival is four days shorter than last year's and, organizers hope, more streamlined. Categories such as European cinema have been replaced by themes including Love, Debate, Laugh and Thrill — intended, Stewart said, as "navigational tools" to help moviegoers choose films to suit their tastes.
She has also expanded the festival to movie theaters across London, outside its traditional city-center heartland. "Frankenweenie" will be screened simultaneously Wednesday in 30 movie theaters across Britain.
And Stewart has introduced new competitive sections to the program to raise the profile of the festival's awards for best picture, best first feature, best documentary and best British newcomer. The goal is to make London a more important stop for movies during Hollywood's ever-lengthening awards season.
"The September-October period is where the films looking for awards recognition really break," Stewart said. If they can break in London, so much the better.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://twitter.com/JillLawless