Fest titles seek to make impressions

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Perhaps no movie event in North America signals the launch of awards season more clearly than the Toronto International Film Festival. And as the world's largest public film fest, with a roster of more than 300 titles, and given its place on the calendar and proximity to the U.S. industry and media, probably no event more clearly embodies the split personality that increasingly defines major film festivals.

In the shadows beside the red-carpet hoopla of the Gala and Special Presentation screenings, the smaller films in Toronto's various other sections inevitably will come up short in terms of media attention. For some festgoers, Toronto's balancing act between marquee names and obscure potential discoveries is a losing proposition for anyone but Hollywood studios. Others acknowledge the dilemma the fest lineup presents as a workable fact of life.

"There's always a kind of two-track system for most critics in Toronto," says Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor. "There's the high-profile fall/winter releases, which you want to get a jump on and which editors tend to be most interested in. And then there's the smaller movies and the films that don't even get distribution."

Besides the prestige titles that the studios will position as awards contenders, Toronto's 32nd edition offers a chance to catch up on the year's festival fare. Berlin titles unspooling in Canada this year include "Ne touchez pas la hache," by Jacques Rivette, an important figure of the French New Wave whose work gets scant stateside bookings.

Among Cannes titles making the transatlantic trip are Alexander Sokurov's "Alexandra"; "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," for which Julian Schnabel was named best director at May's Festival de Cannes; "Silent Light," from the often maddeningly gifted Mexican director Carlos Reygadas; and "The Banishment," by Andrei Zvyagintsev, the young Russian whose haunting "The Return" (2003) was one of the most disciplined and impressive debuts of recent years. Earlier this year, his sophomore effort drew a collective groan of disappointment on the Croisette; Toronto attendees will be able to judge for themselves.

Also on tap is Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which should be a hot ticket not merely because of its Cannes prize but as the latest work to hail from Romania's filmmaking community, which has produced some exhilarating talents in recent years.

"Because of timing, (these films) begin their lives at other events," Toronto festival co-director Noah Cowan told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year. "We try not to penalize them for that."

Toronto organizers have professed that the increasingly blurry "world premiere" designation doesn't interest them much anymore. That may or may not be true, but while the noncompetitive festival isn't fussy over first-claim status, it probably doesn't enjoy the thunder-stealing premieres at Labor Day weekend's Telluride Film Festival, which operates as a "private" event but nevertheless has been enjoying a higher media profile.

Depending on your perspective, timing is everything or beside the point when comparing Toronto and the earlier Venice festival, whose dates overlap by a couple of days. Toronto gives North American audiences and critics a chance to see films sometimes mere hours after their Biennale bows.

Warner Bros. Pictures' "Michael Clayton," the George Clooney-starring legal thriller from writer-director Tony Gilroy, is one of this year's high-profile Venice-to-Toronto titles, as is the studio's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," from Andrew Dominik, which sets Brad Pitt's James against Casey Affleck's Ford. Warner Independent Pictures' "In the Valley of Elah," meanwhile, offers proof that Oscar winner Paul Haggis continues to attract top talent (in this case, Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron); festgoers can decide for themselves whether he has evolved as a writer-director in terms of subtlety.

And Woody Allen's London-set crime drama "Cassandra's Dream," starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell, is the latest evidence of the New Yorker's continuing evolution as a Euro darling, now not only launching his films on the Continent but making them there and in England. After his first venture into U.K. filmmaking, 2005's "Match Point," proved his most vibrant and compelling work in years, it will be especially interesting to see whether it was a one-shot blast of adrenaline or the beginning of a rich new phase in his career.

All eyes might be on Focus Features' tony "Atonement" to see how successfully Ian McEwan's exquisite novel translates to the screen, but even more intriguing is the chance to see how Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere and Heath Ledger portray Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' long-in-the-works "I'm Not There." Another higher-profile entry from the edgier side of the street is Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park," a portrait of a teenage skateboarder, which was well received upon its Cannes competition screening.

Among the debuting English-language features of note are Noah Baumbach's Paramount Vantage drama "Margot at the Wedding," starring Nicole Kidman, Jack Black and the filmmaker's too-seldom-seen wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh; the intriguing pairing of a behind-the-camera Sean Penn and the talented young actor Emile Hirsch on Vantage's "Into the Wild"; the directorial debut of "Proof" writer David Auburn, "The Girl in the Park," starring Sigourney Weaver; and "My Winnipeg," a "docu-fantasia" by the visionary Guy Maddin, whose black-and-white silent melodrama "Brand Upon the Brain!" is one of the true film events of the past year.

Amid all this, not to mention what looks like a particularly strong docu lineup that includes new work from Werner Herzog and Kevin Macdonald, does, say, a Romanian film entering the fray without Palme d'Or cachet stand a chance? And what's a critic to do?

Rainer notes that most of the Hollywood hoopla is scheduled for the fest's first weekend. After the stardust clears and the luxury suites have emptied, journalists can more easily delve into the lineup's lesser-known quantities.

But because of the growing number of Web-based entertainment writers and what some view as overaccreditation by the smoothly run festival -- which doesn't use a caste system for credentials, a la Cannes -- the must-see factor can create huge lines at press screenings. All of which is good for the films seeking distribution, even if they go on to disappointing business after release.

And Toronto is certainly a thriving buyers' event, as the acquisition execs' precision-paced circuit from theater to theater attests. Whether deserving gems and other small films suffer in the Hollywood-fueled glare might be a given. But whether the festival itself is too big to fully appreciate remains open to debate.
 
"It's nice to have that many movies," Rainer says. "It's just impossible to see them all."
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