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Toronto's well-run fest draws stars, fans


Denzel Washington will be there. Michelle Pfeiffer will be there. So will Salma Hayek, Susan Sarandon, Colin Farrell, Julianne Moore, Robert Duvall, Heath Ledger and an international lineup of star directors (Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes, Mike Leigh, Hayao Miyazaki, Catherine Breillat, David Cronenberg, and Neil Jordan, to name just a few).

The 27th annual Toronto International Film Festival, which opened Thursday and runs through Saturday on 20 screens in downtown Toronto, features 343 films from around the world. Widely considered to be second only to the Cannes Film Festival in terms of prestige, the fest is often the first stop for the fall season's most high-profile films.

The tidy streets of downtown T.O. (as the locals call it) make a perfect setting for a fest that's long been adored by both critics and audiences. Screenings and special events are run with brisk efficiency by a small army of staffers and volunteers who are especially charming at 8:30 a.m., when daily press screenings begin. (Approximately 1,000 movie critics from around the world will attend the fest. From what I could observe at my previous Toronto experience, in 2000, none of them are morning people.)

While there's plenty of industry schmoozing going on, the Toronto fest is still affectionately described as a "people's festival," with seemingly the entire population of Toronto running around with fest passcards around their necks. While many other major festivals (such as Cannes or Sundance) have the reputation of being strictly for insiders, Toronto can be experienced by any movie lover who wants to buy a ticket.

And the festival's Audience Award is a hotly contested honor, with the winning film generally going on to much post-Toronto acclaim. Recent winners include Amelie, American Beauty, Life Is Beautiful and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The status of Toronto as a major film-industry center means there'll be plenty of stars in town - some come for the fest, others to shoot a film. Toronto is second only to Los Angeles in the number of major-release films made there. Celebrity spotting is a highly competitive sport throughout the fest, and I'll admit I've dined out a bit on my story of Standing Right Next to Sarah Jessica Parker at a premiere party.

Never mind the stardust, though - it's really all about the movies. This year, the festival opened with Atom Egoyan's drama Ararat and closes with Brian De Palma's thriller Femme Fatale (set, curiously enough, at the Cannes Film Festival). In between will be Washington's directing debut, Antwone Fisher; Haynes' 1950s-style drama Far From Heaven (starring Moore and Dennis Quaid); Shekhar Kapur's epic The Four Feathers (with Ledger and Kate Hudson); Julie Taymor's Frida, starring Hayek as artist Frida Kahlo; White Oleander, based on the Oprah best seller and starring Pfeiffer and Renee Zellweger; and Michael Moore's controversial guns-in-America documentary Bowling for Columbine.

Also among the festival's 27,157 minutes of film is Duvall's latest directing project, Assassination Tango; Phillip Noyce's adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American (with Michael Caine); Paul Thomas Anderson's Adam Sandler comedy, Punch-Drunk Love; and Almodovar's newest comedy, Talk to Her.

The festival will present special programming to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, which took place during last year's festival. Tomorrow morning, the fest's 20 screens will be dark until 11 a.m., followed by screenings of Sept. 11-themed films. The Guys, starring Anthony LaPaglia and Sigourney Weaver, is a drama about a fire captain who lost eight men when the World Trade Towers collapsed. 11'09"01 is a compilation of short films from international directors, including Ken Loach, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Mira Nair and Sean Penn.

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