The London Film Festival has recently been criticised in some quarters for becoming a `best of the rest' event. Yet, with so many fine films slipping through the net in this country, it's good to have a celebration of cinema dedicated to showcasing the diverse and often fascinating pictures that either fail to secure a theatrical release or are overlooked by the UK's other festivals. Thus, for the 54th time, cineastes across the country should be saying `thank goodness for the LFF', as it essentially sets the arthouse agenda for the remainder of the year.

Indeed, with the imminent demise of the Film Council, the London Film Festival looks set to become one of the primary champions of British cinema and it seizes this initiative by premiering new works by three of the UK's most lauded directors.

Now in his sixth decade as a film-maker, Ken Loach examines the privatisation and commercialisation of the war in Iraq in Route Irish, as Scouser Mark Womack revisits the country where he saw active service to investigate the death of buddy John Bishop on the notoriously dangerous road between Baghdad airport and the city's Green Zone. However, if this marks a return to the kind of trenchant political drama that Loach does best, Mike Leigh's Another Year is a gentler treatise on family, friendship and the passage of time that centres on contented couple Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen and the less idyllic travails of their respective friends Peter Wight and Lesley Manville, who are finding growing old in isolation a traumatic experience.

And completing this impressive triptych is Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, a Simon Beaufoy-scripted recreation of Aron Ralston's ordeal in Utah's Blue John canyon in April 2003, when the American climber was trapped by a half-tonne boulder and spent five days examining his life on a small video camera before deciding on a drastic course of action that would alone afford him a chance of survival. With cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak viscerally conveying James Franco's plight, this has already caused controversy with a particularly brutal scene. But what is more notable is Boyle's refusal to be pigeon-holed following his Academy Award success.

Seeming certain to feature at next year's Oscars is Tom Hooper's The King's Speech, which stars Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush as Prince Albert and Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, who was hired to try and help the second in line to the throne overcome his crippling stammer. With Helena Bonham Carter heading a stellar supporting cast that also includes Jennifer Ehle, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Spall and Michael Gambon, this provides a poignant insight into relationships within the Royal Family in the run up to the 1936 abdication crisis and the outbreak of the Second World War. Director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's best-selling novel Never Let Me Go is also likely to be an award magnet. Flashing back from a present in which Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are struggling to cope with dark secrets and unresolved emotions, the action returns to the boarding school of their youth, when Izzy Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe seemed to lead an idyllic existence, despite the lingering suspicion that all might not be as straightforward as they have been led to believe in the world beyond the exclusive institution's protective walls.

A very different kind of childhood is recalled by Peter Mullan in Neds, which takes its title from the nickname given to Non-Educated Delinquents in the Glasgow of the 1970s. Conor McCarron is determined to make something of himself on entering secondary school. But can he escape from the poverty, violence and disillusion of his dysfunctional family and the gangland culture of his neighbourhood to follow the example of middle-class pal Martin Bell? Re-imagining Lindsay Anderson's If... (1968) in the style of Ken Loach and Alan Clarke, this offers a grittier insight into life in the margins than Andy de Emmony's West Is West, which continues into the 1970s the Ayub Khan-Din's semi-autobiographical story of a mixed-race Salford family that was started in East Is East (1999). Ruminating on contemporary issues of ethnicity and identity, this is primarily played for laughs, as Linda Bassett heads for Pakistan to reclaim husband Om Puri and their rebellious son Aqib Khan, after the highly traditional chip-shop owner decides that a spell in the home country will help Khan overcome his problems at school and his increasingly Anglicised attitudes.

Those familiar with Oxfordshire and Berkshire are most likely to be enthralled by Patrick Keiller's latest odyssey, Robinson in Ruins. But there is plenty to engross and provoke in this meticulously researched and beautifully photographed essay. Drawing comparisons between the enclosures of the 19th century and the recent government bail-out of the struggling banks, while also suggesting that Britain has been occupied by the United States since the 1940s, the ruminations voiced by Vanessa Redgrave require close attention. However, there are several satisfying pay-offs as the strands tie together against images of derelict domestic and industrial architecture and the resilient flora and fauna that manage to survive in the face of human folly. Not easy viewing, but compelling nonetheless.

Equally impressive is Clio Barnard's The Arbor, which returns to the Buttershaw estate in Bradford that inspired playwright Andrea Dunbar to produce such social realist outpourings as The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob, Too in the 1980s. But, while this stylised docudrama recalls the troubled life of a distinctive talent (who died of a brain haemorrhage at 29), the emphasis eventually falls on the legacy of Dunbar's success, alcoholism and complex relationships on her three children, Lorraine, Lisa and Andrew. Using actors lip-synching to taped interviews and excerpts from Dunbar's plays staged outdoors in Brafferton Arbor itself, this is an artistically audacious and deeply moving human drama that uncompromisingly explores working-class attitudes to sex, family, fame, race and addiction.

Working in a similar manner to Barnard, New Zealander Gaylene Preston uses her interviews with her father Ed as the basis for her Second World War memoir, Home By Christmas. Tony Barry actually speaks the words consigned to tape, but the mix of talking-head and reconstruction is executed with equal acuity, as Martin Henderson and Chelsie Preston Crayford play Ed and his wife Tui in flashbacks that are interspersed with newsreel footage to chart his ANZAC progress through North Africa and Italy (before he became a POW and managed to escape to Switzerland) and her sense of loneliness back in Greymouth after she gives birth to their son and allows a local photographer to help her cope with the news that Ed is missing.

Fortysomething architect Tom Fisher also finds the pressure of family life too much to bear and abandons his wife and child to live rough in London in Jamie Thraves's Treacle Jr. However, a chance meeting with the dysfunctional Aiden Gillen brings him into contact with the sassy Riann Steele and a cute kitten, who help Fisher reassess his priorities and rediscover his sense of purpose. Marta Lubos and Nia Roberts similarly undertake journeys of self-discovery in Marc Evans's Patagonia. Lubos is a grandmother in her eighties, who dupes young neighbour Nahuel Pérez Biscayart into accompanying her on a pilgrimage to Wales to see the farm where her mother was raised, while the broody Roberts takes out her frustrations with Cardiff photographer boyfriend Matthew Gravelle by flirting with Matthew Rhys, their handsome guide around Argentina's southernmost point.

Richard Ayoade makes an assured directorial debut with another rite of passage saga, Submarine, which chronicles Swansea teenager Craig Roberts's bid to prevent mother Sally Hawkins from cheating on dull dad Noah Taylor with new-age evangelist Paddy Considine, while also attempting to lose his virginity with Yasmin Paige, the eczematous classmate who has introduced him to pyromania. Contrasting with this genial sitcom is Archipelago, Joanna Hogg's second laceration of middle-class mores after Unrelated (2007), which accompanies Kate Fahy, daughter Lydia Leonard and cook Amy Lloyd to Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, as they strive to give son Tom Hiddleston a rousing send off before he embarks upon a volunteer mission in Africa. However, with tensions mounting before the arrival of Hiddleston's father, a failure to communicate exposes the fissures in the family make-up.

The holidaymakers scarcely have more fun by the wintry East Sussex coast in Carol Morley's Edge, despite the efforts of maid Anna Wendzikowska to connect with them. However, Maxine Peake and Marjorie Yates seek solitude for very different reasons, while Joe Dempsie and Nichola Burley want some privacy to further the relationship they started online. Only musician Paul Hilton appears to seek company, as he searches for inspiration by scouring the tables in the cliff-top hotel's dining room. The northern German seascape is more desolate in Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf's English-language debut, Womb, which centres on Eva Green as she raises the son cloned from dead lover Matt Smith. However, as the years pass, she finds her feelings changing for the twentysomething who is becoming increasingly desperate to leave her claustrophobic nest and establish a life of his own.

Domestic tensions also threaten to erupt in Brian Welsh's In Our Name, as Joanne Froggatt returns from a tour of duty in Iraq and struggles to acclimatise to ordinary life. Husband Mel Raido is also a soldier. But he feels intimidated by her achievements and the company she keeps and her inability to discuss her memories and emotions place an increasing strain on the marriage. Identity and representation are also the themes of artist Gillian Wearing's debuting documentary, Self Made, which joins drama teacher Sam Rumbelow as he guides the film-making enterprises of the seven successful respondents from London and Newcastle to an advertisement that had asked 'If you were to play a part in a film, would you be yourself or a fictional character?'

Also on the UK actuality slate are Chris Hall and Mike Kerry's The Ballad of Mott the Hoople (about the 2009 reunion of the 1970s glam group); Danny O'Connor's self-explanatory Upside Down: The Creation Records Story; Julie Moggan's insight into the world of romantic fiction, Guilty Pleasures; Stevan Riley's memoir of the golden age of West Indian cricket, Fire in Babylon; Kim Longinotto's study of discrimination against low-caste women in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Pink Saris; Hannah Rothschild's intimate profile of a political maverick, Mandelson: The Real PM?; and a gloriously restored print of Herbert Ponting's The Great White Silence (1924), which was the official record of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole.

The American documentary contingent is headed by Errol Morris's Tabloid, which recalls the sensation caused in 1977 by the pursuit to Britain of Mormon missionary Kirk Anderson by former Miss Wyoming, Joyce McKinney. Creating lurid headlines, Anderson insisted that McKinney had kidnapped him and chained him to a bed in order to satisfy her carnal lusts. But McKinney insisted that no coercion was required to lure the Latter-Day Saint to a romantic reconciliation in Devon. As ever, Morris allows the audience to make up its own mind, as he combines the recollections of McKinney and the Mirror and Express hacks who covered the story. However, no one presents fact with such an enigmatic and teasing manner - certainly not Frederick Wiseman, whose tried and trusted method of Direct Cinema makes Boxing Gym so riveting. Founded in Austin, Texas in the mid-1990s by ex-fighter Richard Lord, the gym has its share of promising pugilists. But it also attracts professional people, ex-cons, young mothers, students, hairdressers and scrappy kids and they are all treated with the same courtesy and professionalism. Superbly capturing a bustling sense of community, while also presenting a microcosmic snapshot of American society, this is a typically astute miniature from one of cinema's most perceptive observers.

Concerted efforts to ensure that the truth will out are made by Charles Ferguson in Inside Job and Amir Bar-Lev in The Tillman Story. Narrated by Matt Damon, the first points the finger at America's financial institutions, government and academia in revealing that the global economic crisis was anything but an accident, while the last dispels the myths that were allowed to build up around Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals footballer who was killed by friendly fire after putting his career on hold to serve in Afghanistan with the Army Rangers. Respectively containing damning testimony from Wall Street and Washington insiders, these contentious pictures expose the corruption and decay at the heart of American life during the Bush years.

Completing the documentary line-up are Michael Epstein's LENNONYC, which charts the ex-Beatle's final decade in Greenwich Village; William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, Yony Leyser's dissertation on the cult novelist's life, work, drug use and sexuality; Smash His Camera, Leon Gast's snapshot of the methods employed by paparazzo Ron Galella; Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski's profile of the Hawkwind and Motorhead frontman, Lemmy; Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara's tribute to an influential musician, Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields; Aaron Schock's travelling circus odyssey, Circo; Meghan Eckman's investigation into the meter maid mentality, The Parking Lot Movie; and Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's disconcerting disclosure of social media deception, Catfish.

A fascinating documentary could be made about the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles. For the moment, however, it provides the stylish setting for Somewhere, Sofia Coppola's Venice-winning drama about 11 year-old Elle Fanning's restorative impact on her father - jaded Hollywood actor Stephen Dorff - as he finds a better way than pills and partying to recover from a minor injury. Culminating in a publicity trip to Rome, this is a subtle insider's insight into the crazy world of movie celebrity.

A very different take on childhood is provided by Matt Reeves in Let Me In, a Hammer-produced remake of the Swedish vampire chiller, Let the Right One In, which relocates the action to New Mexico in 1983 and stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as the tweenage outcast who befriends the mournful Chloe Moretz without knowing her blood-curdling secret. The hint of a couple of horror classics also informs Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, as this backstage ballet thriller owes as much to Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby as it does to The Red Shoes. Despite Barbara Hershey stealing scenes as a driven stage mother, Natalie Portman reveals a darker side, as she seeks to tap into the wilder sexuality that artistic director Vincent Cassel needs to see to convince him she is better suited than Mila Kunis for the lead in his New York production of Swan Lake.

George Clooney also plays against type in Anton Corbijn's The American, as his ruthless assassin seeks to escape from his past in a remote Italian village in Abruzzo. Yet, despite forging relationships with Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten and local priest Paolo Bonacelli, Clooney finds himself unable to resist a request for his weapons expertise. Will Ferrell similarly departs from his trademark persona in Everything Must Go, Dan Rush's adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story `Why Don't You Dance?', which sees a suburban loser enlist the help of new neighbour Rebecca Hall and savvy kid CJ Wallace to hold a yard sale of the possessions that his departed wife dumped on the lawn before locking him out of their apartment.

A semblance of normality is restored to middle-class life in Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, which teams Julianne Moore and Annette Benning as the lesbian parents of teenagers who were conceived with the help of an anonymous sperm donor. However, when Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson decide to contact their father, Moore and Benning's cosy routine is disrupted by footloose organic farmer-cum-restauranteur, Mark Ruffalo. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams's relationship begins to fray in more anguished circumstances in Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, which employs both 16mm and digital stock as it flits between past and present incidents to assess notions of memory and temporality.

College dropout Cris Lankenau's relationship with Robyn Rikoon ended unsatisfactorily and he now prefers to stay home reading crime fiction when not working in an ice factory in Portland, Oregon. However, sister Trieste Kelly Dunn and workmate Raúl Castillorefuse to let Lankenau to become a recluse and when Rikoon disappears as suddenly as she unexpectedly shows up, they assist the would-be sleuth in the search for clues in Aaron Katz's slick and extremely entertaining mumblecore noir, Cold Weather.

The early stages of a new romance are outlined with typical panache by Gregg Araki in Kaboom, which pits Thomas Dekker in a Southern California creative arts college, as he transfers his affections from surfer roommate Chris Zylka to the free-spirited Juno Temple. However, a trippy night on the tiles leaves him uncertain whether he witnessed a murder or was simply hallucinating. And 16 year-old Keir Gilchrist has a similarly hard time coping with reality in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's adaptation of Ned Vizzini's bestselling novel, It's Kind of a Funny Story. However, things begin to look up when he's billeted in the adult psych ward of the local hospital after failing in a bid to throw himself off Brooklyn Bridge and is taken under the wing of the worldly wise, but determinedly eccentric Zach Galifianakis.

Savannah Stehlin essays another outsider in JB Ghuman, Jr's debut feature, Spork, as a frizzy-haired, trailer-park hermaphrodite who not only has to take a crash course in krumping, but also has to compete against some vicious Britney lookalikes and a Judy Garland wannabe in order to win a small-town talent show. And there's more kitsch on offer in Geoff Marslett's Mars, a rotoscoped slice of slacker sci-fi that blasts a trio of misfitting astronauts (voiced by Mark Duplass, Zoe Simpson and Paul Gordon) on a mission to the Red Planet that ultimately succeeds in spite of itself, as the bickering threesome learn the meaning of love and loyalty.

Returning from the final frontier to the Louisiana-Mississippi border, Alistair Banks Griffin announces himself as a talent to watch with Two Gates of Sleep, a contemplation of nature, death and isolation that takes its title from Homer's Odyssey and reveals the influence of Lisandro Alonso and Carlos Reygadas in telling the story of siblings Brady Corbet and David Call, as they prepare to leave the security of their home to escort mother Karen Young on her final journey. Kelly Reichardt adopts an equally pared-down approach in Meek's Cutoff, a tale of the Oregon trail in the mid-1840s that follows mountain man Bruce Greenwood, as he convinces three families to take a shortcut along an unmarked route over the high desert plain.

John Sayles come forward half a century for Amigo, a treatise on religion in politics and the imposition of democracy set against the Philippine-American War of 1900, when the US forces sought to liberate territories from Spanish imperial rule. However, as Colonel Chris Cooper soon finds out, winning hearts and minds can be a tricky business, especially when the only interpreter on hand is a Hispanic priest and the chief he hopes to convince of his good intentions is the brother of the local insurgency leader.

The War on Terror is addressed more directly in Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing and Eyad Zahra's The Taqwacores. The first turns on the relationship that develops between escaped Taliban prisoner Vincent Gallo and deaf-mute Emmanuelle Seigner, who tends to his wounds when she finds him living rough in an unnamed European country. The second recreates the Muslim sub-culture that was devised by Michael Muhammad Knight for the 2003 cult novel that was not only hailed as the Catcher in the Rye for young American Muslims, but which also inspired the rise of such punk bands as The Kominas and Al-Thawra.

Published at the height of Eisenhowerian conformity, Allen Ginsberg's poem `Howl' proved to be an equally seismic event in US counter-cultural history. In the film of the same name, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman cast James Franco as the gay poet whose 1957 trial for obscenity turned on the nation to the Beat aesthetic and did much to reassert the right to free expression in the United States. With Joe Hamm cameoing as Franco's attorney, this astute mix of monochrome flashbacks and courtroom melodramatics finds echo in Tony Goldwyn's Conviction, another true-life bid to avert a miscarriage of justice. Set in 1980s and starring Hilary Swank as Betty Anne Waters, the Massachusetts wife and mother-of-two who put herself through law school (despite being a teenage drop-out) to challenge the murder conviction of her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell).

The Irish triptych of Charlie McCarthy's Home for Christmas, Tom Hall's Sensation and Risteard Ó Domhnaill's documentary The Pipe complete the English-language programme. But don't forget to check out the longer reviews of Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Ruins, Clio Barnard's The Arbor, Marc Evans's Patagonia, Jamie Thraves's Treacle, Jr., Brian Welsh's In Our Name, Frederick Wiseman's Boxing Gym, Aaron Katz's Cold Weather and Gaylene Preston's Home By Christmas in the In Depth article.

Moreover, don't overlook either the Experimenta line-up of Sharon Lockhart's Double Tide, Thom Andersen's Get Out of the Car, Janie Geiser's Kindless Villain, Duncan Campbell's Make It New John, Ben Rivers and Paul Harnden's May Tomorrow Shine the Brightest of All Your Many Days As It Will Be Your Last, John Akomfrah's The Nine Muses and James Benning's Ruhr, or the Treasures from the Archive selection that includes David Butler's Sunny Side Up (1929), William Keighley and Howard Bretherton's The Match King (1932), Archie Mayo's The Mayor of Hell (1933), Hal Roach's Turnabout (1940), Joshua Logan's Picnic (1956), David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Elia Kazan's Wild River (1960) and Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977), a documentary about the developing gay rights movement in the United States that was co-directed by Peter and Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown and Rob Epstein.