Toronto will be a U.S. invitational

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The Toronto International Film Festival on Wednesday unveiled its most U.S.-friendly lineup in years, capped off with new titles from Renny Harlin, Paul Schrader and Robin Swicord.

Toronto boasts no official competition. But the Hollywood contingent booked for the twice-nightly gala screenings at the festival's Roy Thomson Hall looks set to turn the high-profile venue into an industry shindig.

Among the six new gala titles are Harlin's "Cleaner," a Sony Pictures thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson as a cop-turned-street cleaner; the Richard Attenborough-directed love story "Closing the Ring," starring Shirley MacLaine, Mischa Barton and Neve Campbell; and Schrader's "The Walker," a ThinkFilm release starring Woody Harrelson and Lauren Bacall that comes to Toronto by way of Berlin, Cannes and Sydney.

Also joining the Roy Thomson Hall party are two Sony Pictures Classics releases: Kenneth Branagh's Michael Caine-Jude Law starrer "Sleuth," which first bowed in Venice, and Swicord's "The Jane Austen Book Club," starring Jimmy Smits, Amy Brenneman and Maria Bello. Also booked for a gala is French director Alain Corneau's "Le deuxieme souffle," starring Daniel Auteuil and Monica Bellucci.

Those titles join such earlier entries as Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe," Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream," Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton," Gavin Hood's "Rendition," Terry George's "Reservation Road" and Aristomenis Tsirbas' "Terra."

Toronto, which in recent years has stepped up efforts to make its festival more Hollywood friendly, also has included 28 U.S.-produced films in its 50-strong Special Presentations sidebar.

The latest Special Presentations titles include the Michael Moore documentary "Captain Mike Across America," Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," Melisa Wallack and Bernie Goldmann's "Bill," Gillian Armstrong's "Death Defying Acts" and Jason Reitman's "Juno," the follow-up to "Thank You for Smoking," which was a Toronto festival breakout hit two years ago.

Also joining are the latest works from Jonathan Demme, Alison Eastwood, Brian De Palma, Thomas McCarthy and Anand Tucker.

Toronto will unspool 352 films Sept. 6-15 — 261 features and 91 shorts. The lineup includes 101 world premieres and 108 North American premieres, many of which will bow in Venice before jumping the pond to Toronto. In addition, 71 of the films are directorial debuts.

The festival lineup promises a strong French contingent, including a dozen titles arriving in Toronto with U.S. distribution deals in hand.

High-profile French titles looking for U.S. distribution include Amos Gitai's "Disengagement," Claude Chabrol's "La fille coupee en deux," which will bow in Venice, and Eric Rohmer's "Les amours d'astreet et de celadon," another North American premiere by way of Venice.

John Kochman, executive director of Unifrance USA, said the strong French presence in Toronto is primarily because of festival co-directors Piers Handling and Noah Cowan remaining "unreconstructed Francophiles" eager to program French titles in their event.

Other new titles announced Wednesday include Wayne Wang's "The Princess of Nebraska" and "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," both portraits of Chinese emigrants in the U.S. Wang will bring the two indie films to the festival's Masters program.

Toronto added eight more docus to its Real to Reel section, including films by Paul Crowder and Murray Lerner, Olga Konskaya and Andrea Nekrasov, Julian Schnabel, Ran Tal, Philippe Kholy and Grant Gee.

In addition, the previously announced "Body of War," co-directed by Ellen Spiro and talk-show legend Phil Donahue, will see its premiere accompanied by a live performance by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who wrote original songs for the Iraq docu.

The festival has its usual complement of films about war and political protest that, according to festival co-director Cowan, reflect a "seriousness of purpose and a real sense of drive to tell political stories."

"In many ways, the body of films recalls the American independent movie of the 1970s," he added.

American auteur films coming to Toronto include Alan Ball's "Nothing Is Private," a drama about sexual politics and bigotry set against the backdrop of the 1991 Gulf War; De Palma's war drama "Redacted"; and Sean Penn's "Into the Wild." Each reflect anti-war "provocation," Cowan said.

Toronto's lineup also includes a surprising number of crime-themed dramas, including Alexi Tan's "Blood Brothers," a drama about three friends taking on a life of big-city crime; Comeau's fugitive drama "Le deuxieme souffle"; Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," a thriller about a botched robbery; Brad Furman's "The Take," about the aftermath of an armored car heist; and Ira Sachs' "Married Life," a drama about a husband who kills his wife to spare her the shame of divorce.

Cowan said that the crime-themed movies this year recall the 1970s-era vigilante movies that coincided with Vietnam.

"When the U.S. is faced with wars that are frustrating in their inability to be totally understood, that comes out in their films," Toronto's top programmer said.

"Just as the 1970s, there are films that reflect paranoia about government and police corruption and which come from a frustration and rage about what's happening in the world," he added.

Other Toronto highlights announced Wednesday include talks by President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, an update on Bill Maher and Larry Charles' anti-religion docu and a briefing on the ongoing crisis in Darfur, courtesy of International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and Don Cheadle.

Toronto is set to open Sept. 6 with Jeremy Podeswa's "Fugitive Pieces" and will close 10 days later with another Canadian film, Paolo Barzman's "Emotional Arithmetic."
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