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The 31st Toronto Film Festival Starts The Oscar Race

The Oscar race really starts in Toronto Film Festival. It always does.

If you go back over the past 10 or so years, you will discover that about 2/3 of the films nominated for just about any major category have actually premiered here. Oh, sure, a few have played the Venice Film Festival, Cannes or Berlin FF prior to this, and a few weren’t ready yet, but generally, if you want to generate buzz for the movie awards, you just have to be here.

The reason for this is that the festival is convenient. An hour from New York and four and a half from Los Angeles, pretty much any producer, actor, director, or paparazzi worth his or her salt is going to be here. It’s a circus, and the Torontonians love it. This year, 2009, promises to be no different.

One thing that makes Toronto different from the rest of the pack is that it isn’t primarily about independent films, although they make up a good deal of the lineup. It’s all about Hollywood movies, and government sponsored European cinema, the big expensive stuff that might actually make money. These are lavish productions with major movie stars, and even if they’re from impoverished Third World countries, one can expect the best entertainment the local industry can offer…. unless it's from Canada, in which case they make an exception.

The volume of films shown this year is impressive enough -- 335 films from 64 countries to screen over 10 days. These are divided into the following categories:

Canadian Open Vault
City to City
Contemporary World Cinema
Dialogues, Discovery
Future Projections
Real To Reel
Midnight Madness
Short Cuts Canada
Sprockets Family Zone
Special Presentations

While there are both gems and stinkers in every category, the stuff that everybody is most interested are the Galas, which is where the big hits of the Fall and following Spring are to be found.  Masters, where famous directors who aren’t in the Galas, and Midnight Madness, where the best in horror flicks are to be found.

As always, there’s controversy, and this year it is all about a new category: City to City.

The first city to be honored this way is Tel Aviv, Israel, which is celebrating its centennial this year. The reason is that some object to the fact that Tel Aviv is being treated like a normal city by the Festival instead of concentrating only on the plight of the Palestinians, and how horrible Israel is. Several Canadian filmmakers have withdrawn their films in protest.

Also controversial is Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, but then again, that’s what he does.

As it is physically impossible to see all 335 films in a reasonable amount of time, much less ten days, here are the top twelve films this correspondent most wants to see…with descriptions kindly provided by the festival:


director Alejandro Amenabar
North American Premiere
In the fourth century, while Egypt was under the Roman Empire, violent religious upheaval in the streets of Alexandria spills over into the city’s famous library. Trapped inside its walls, the brilliant astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and her disciples fight to save the wisdom of the ancient world. Among the group are the two men competing for Hypatia’s heart: the witty, privileged Orestes and Davus, Hypatia’s young slave, who is torn between his secret love for her and the freedom he knows can be his if he chooses to join the unstoppable surge of the Christians.

The Damned United
director Tom Hooper
United Kingdom
North American Premiere
Set in 1960’s and 1970’s England, this is the confrontational and darkly humorous story of Brian Clough’s doomed 44-day tenure as manager of the reigning champions of English football Leeds United. Previously managed by his bitter rival Don Revie, and on the back of their most successful period ever as a football club, Leeds was perceived by many to represent a new aggressive and cynical style of football. Taking the Leeds job without his trusted lieutenant, Peter Taylor, by his side, Clough encounters a changing-room full of players who - in his mind - were still Don’s boys. An examination of Clough’s belligerence and brilliance, The Damned United stars Michael Sheen, and is written by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon).

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus                                                                                                                 
director Terry Gilliam                                                                                                                                              
United Kingdom/Canada                                                                                                                                 
North American Premiere
This fantastical morality tale tells the story of Dr. Parnassus and his traveling show, the extraordinary ?Imaginarium." Blessed with the remarkable gift of guiding the imaginations of others, Dr. Parnassus is cursed with a dark secret. An inveterate gambler, thousands of years ago he made a bet with the devil, Mr. Nick, and won immortality. Centuries later, on meeting his one true love, Dr. Parnassus made another deal with the devil, trading his immortality for youth, on the condition that when his daughter reached her 16th birthday, she would become the property of Mr. Nick.


Air Doll
director Hirokazu Kore-eda
North American Premiere
This compelling tale of a blow-up doll that becomes a real person and abandons her status of mere sex object comes to life with the superb performance of Korean actress Bae Doo-na.

director Lars von Trier
North American Premiere
This is a groundbreaking, deeply disturbing and graphic nightmare vision about gender relations from one of the most important and influential directors of the last 30 years. The film is a break from von Trier’s previous work in terms of aesthetics, resembling a Japanese horror movie re-imagined by Andrei Tarkovsky. Antichrist features unforgettable and courageous performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe.

The White Ribbon
director Michael Haneke
North American Premiere
In Protestant Northern Germany on the eve of World War I, strange incidents begin to occur in a village community and increasingly take the form of a ritual of punishment. This latest work from Michael Haneke won the Palme d’Or for best film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Midnight Madness

Jennifer’s Body
director Karyn Kusama
World Premiere
The story of small-town high-school student Jennifer (Megan Fox) possessed by a hungry demon and transitions from being “high school evil”—gorgeous (and doesn’t she know it), stuck up and ultra-attitudinal—to the real deal: evil/evil. The glittering beauty becomes a pale and sickly creature jonesing for a meaty snack, and guys who never stood a chance with the heartless babe take on new lustre in the light of her insatiable appetite. Meanwhile, Jennifer’s best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried), long relegated to living in Jennifer’s shadow, must step-up to protect the town’s young men, including her nerdy boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons). Written and executive produced by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (Juno).

Bitch Slap
Rick Jacobson
World Premiere
In this campy action comedy from the creators of Xena and Hercules, three hot-blooded women try to uncover some booty in the desert using feminine charms, fists and machine guns.

George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead
George A. Romero
World Premiere
Master director Romero returns to his world of the undead, this time pitting two feuding clans in the middle of the fallout of a zombie epidemic.

Special Presentations

Bright Star
director Jane Campion
United Kingdom/Australia
North American Premiere
A drama based on the secret love affair between 23-year-old English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and the girl next door, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), an outspoken student of fashion. Intensely and helplessly absorbed in each other, they rode a wave of romantic obsession that deepened as their troubles mounted. Only Keats’s illness and untimely death proved insurmountable.

Capitalism: A Love Story
director Michael Moore
North American Premiere
On the 20-year anniversary of his groundbreaking masterpiece Roger & Me, Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story comes home to the issue he’s been examining throughout his career: the disastrous impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans (and by default, the rest of the world). But this time the culprit is much bigger than General Motors, and the crime scene far wider than Flint, Michigan. From Middle America, to the halls of power in Washington, to the global financial epicenter in Manhattan, Moore will once again take film-goers into uncharted territory.

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