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Toronto Celebrates Cinema

The time of year when Toronto becomes the epicentre of glamour and excitement for film buffs and celebrity watchers is finally upon us. The 28th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is back for 10 days of inspiring and lauded cinema, celebrating the craft of storytelling through film and honouring homegrown and international filmmakers.

From September 4 to 13, one of the most highly respected film festivals throws open its doors, inviting filmmakers and film lovers to see, discuss and revel in cinematic excellence from around the world. The Festival of Festivals, as it was originally called, still is—TIFF is considered second only to Cannes. TIFF is also highly regarded for being an event that doesn’t bow down to Hollywood blockbusters or politics despite the fact that it premieres a high number of movies that go on to become hits, including such films as Almost Famous, Leaving Las Vegas and Reservoir Dogs. From its inception, TIFF has prided itself on being about the films themselves rather than star power or box-office grosses.

The curtain first rose on TIFF in 1976 as the brainchild of William Marshall, Henk van der Kolk and Dusty Cohl. The first festival featured 140 films from 30 countries. This year, more than 300 films from 50 countries are showcased. While this year’s festival can boast greater numbers than the first, the values and mandate of the first festival haven’t changed. TIFF continues to cultivate new cinematic talent and praise films from around the globe that inspire and educate. Unlike the über-glamourous Cannes, where the highest honour—the Palme d’Or—is coveted, TIFF is noncompetitive. While accolades such as the Toronto-City and Citytv awards are handed out by a panel of industry insiders, the essence of the festival is strictly celebratory rather than contentious.

TIFF features 15 programmes, each focusing on a different film genre. Homegrown talent is featured in Perspective Canada; international talent in Contemporary World Cinema; innovative filmmakers in Visions; skilled directors in Masters; new directors in Discovery and of course, the distinguished Galas.

The Gala Presentations are 18 high-profile screenings that make their world or North American debuts at swanky Roy Thomson Hall. In the past, many gala films have gone on to receive Oscar recognition, including American Beauty, Far From Heaven, In the Bedroom and Life is Beautiful.

This year’s opening night gala honour goes to Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand’s Les Invasions Barbares—already a winner at Cannes for Best Screenplay and Best Actress for Marie-Josée Croze’s performance. Invasions is the story of an estranged son forced to return home to take care of his hospitalized father.

Robert Altman’s The Company pirouettes onto the world stage, giving audiences a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of a professional dance company. The intimate drama features an ensemble cast including Neve Campbell, James Franco and Malcolm McDowell.

Lars von Trier’s Dogville makes its North American première, featuring a star-studded cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, James Caan, Lauren Bacall and Philip Baker Hall. The first installment of von Trier’s trilogy USA—land of opportunities is set in the sleepy town of Dogville in 1930s America, where Kidman, a fugitive on the run, hides from gangsters.

The Masters programme showcases filmmakers whose work has reached international recognition and acclaim. Past showcases include films by Mike Leigh, Jean-Luc Godard, Arturo Ripstein and Hou Hsiao-hsien.

John Sayles’ Casa de los Babys gives birth to its world première, starring a female-rich cast including Academy award-winner Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Moreno, Darryl Hannah and Maggie Gyllenhaal as adoptive moms sharing in the heartache and hope endured on their way to motherhood. Veteran documentary filmmaker Allan King’s examination of death in Dying at Grace and Jacques Rivette’s L’Histoire de Marie et Julien are among other Masters showings.

Contemporary World Cinema is a showcase for international directors. Amélie, Before Night Falls and Bowling for Columbine are among those previously shown. This year’s program includes award-winning Sedigh Barmak’s Osama, Scottish thriller Young Adam starring Ewan McGregor, and Norwegian director Bent Hamer’s Kitchen Stories.

National Cinema spotlights films from a particular country. This year, TIFF pays homage to Brazil’s resurgence in cinema, honouring a country twice for the first time in festival history. Among the films at Vida de Novo: The New Brazilian Cinema are Hector Babenco’s Carandiru, based on the real life experiences of a doctor in a São Paulo penitentiary where 111 unarmed prisoners were slaughtered by police in 1992. Eliane Caffé returns to TIFF with The Story Tellers, José Padilha’s investigative documentary Bus 174, José Henrique Fonseca’s first feature The Man of the Year and Renato Falcão’s silent, black-and-white film Margarette’s Feast round out the Brazilian tribute.

Perspective Canada is one of the foremost showcases for Canadian cinema and filmmakers. Atom Egoyan (Exotica) and Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo) made their debuts here, and films such as The Red Violin and Bollywood/Hollywood premiered here, as well. Gary Burns’s A Problem with Fear opens the programme, where a “fear storm” grips the city and it’s up to a hyperphobic man to save the world.

Although TIFF is about innovative films and filmmakers, it’s also a chance to rub elbows and share sidewalk space with Hollywood’s elite. Star sightings are abundant on Toronto streets and shops as A-list actors and directors do lunch, sip martinis and make deals for the next Hollywood hit.

Colin Farrell, Kate Hudson, Robert DeNiro and Sophia Loren have all done the festival circuit. This year, you might run into Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Robert Altman, Isabella Rossellini or Sir Ian McKellen.

Whether it’s star spottings or fantastic films that make you tingle, TIFF offers plenty of both as Toronto truly lives up to its name as Hollywood North this month.

—Linda Luong

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