'Eastern Promises' wins top Toronto fest prize


TORONTO -- The Toronto International Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" grabbing the audience award.

The Canadian filmmaker took the top prize at Toronto's 32nd edition after he reunited with "History of Violence" lead Viggo Mortensen to make a thriller about a Russian gangster crossing paths with an innocent midwife, played by Naomi Watts.

The win for Cronenberg, an established filmmaker, contrasts with last year when first-time director Alejandro Monteverde earned the audience award in Toronto for his romantic drama "Bella."

Focus Features is releasing "Eastern Promises" theatrically this weekend in the U.S.

Past audience award winners in Toronto that went on to Academy Awards success include "American Beauty," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hotel Rwanda."

Cronenberg beat out two American indie movies for the best-liked movie in Toronto. The first runner-up was Jason Reitman's "Juno," while the second runner-up was "Body of War," a documentary about an Iraqi war veteran turned social activist from co-directors Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro.

The audience appeal for the Donahue and Spiro documentary capped off strong political debate in Toronto this year as a number of war-themed movies generated buzz, including Roger Spottiswoode's Rwandan drama "Shake Hands With the Devil," Dutch filmmaker Klaartje Quirijns' "The Dictator Hunter," Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" and Gavin Hood's "Rendition."

Other juried prizes handed out Saturday in Toronto included the Discovery Award going to "Cochochi," from Latin American directors Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman, while the FIPRESCI critics prize went to Rodrigo Pla's "La Zona," which bowed in Toronto.

Homegrown movies coming away with trophies Saturday included Quebec director Stephane Lafleur taking the best Canadian first feature prize for "Continental, Un Film Sans Fusil," and Guy Maddin earning the best Canadian feature film award for "My Winnipeg," a docu-fantasy about his hometown.

After picking up his trophy, Maddin praised Toronto as an impressive testing ground for indie films.

"Not that anything is proven with an award, I assert by all the years I came here and lost to others. But it (Toronto) feels like a great festival that's starting to kick into cruise control," he said.

Elsewhere, Chris Chong Chan Fui won the best Canadian short film prize for "Pool," while Anahi Berneri won the Artistic Innovation award for "Encarnacion," a film about an aging B-list actress returning to her hometown.

Toronto closed this year with a flurry of film sales to take its unofficial market over the $50 million mark in dollar value.

Among the last big-ticket deals recorded was First Look Studios and GreeneStreet Films paying around $3 million for the U.S. rights to GreeneStreet's comedy "Bill," starring Aaron Eckhart and Jessica Alba.

Festival co-director Noah Cowan rejected grumblings this year that too few indie films with commercial potential came to Toronto without U.S. distribution deals in hand, and that the market activity this year was subdued, compared to past years.

"We're a festival, choosing films on artistic merit," Cowan said, before arguing Toronto has no control over the "vagaries of the market" dictating the pace of film buying and selling.

Giulia Filippelli, head of the festival's sales and industry office, criticized the media for judging Toronto's film market only by the number of big-ticket sales and frenzied bidding wars.

"The press should learn how acquisitions work. Serious buyers are tracking down what's for sale well before the festival," she argued.

Filippelli said buyers then wait until the festival starts to judge audience reaction and whether to put in bids.

"It's way more important if a smaller indie movie is sold in 20 territories, rather than ‘Thanks for Smoking' selling for $6 million," she added, recalling Jason Reitman's debut feature generating a memorable bidding war in 2005.

In all, 354 films unspooled in Toronto over the last 10 days on 28 screens in the city's downtown core.

Filippelli said the number of industry execs attending Toronto this year rose 15% to around 3,200 delegates, underlining the strength of the festival's unofficial market and industry sessions.

Toronto was set to close Saturday night with a gala screening of Canadian filmmaker Paolo Barzman's "Emotional Arithmetic," followed by the traditional closing night party.