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Score cards ready?

Often, this Canadian gathering is the place to be seen. With the indie scene shaky, it's especially important.

September 03, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Set to begin this Thursday, the Toronto International Film Festival will show 249 feature films and 63 shorts from 64 countries over 10 days. Now in its 33rd year, the annual festival comes at an especially trying time for the independent film business. With specialty films performing poorly at the box office and a number of key distributors recently closing their doors, the picture for filmmakers, producers and sales agents is looking particularly troubling this year.

In addition to its film market, Toronto is, of course, known as an important launching pad/whistle stop for movies on the long trail of the Hollywood awards season. Last year, for example, four of the five eventual best picture nominees for the Academy Award had their North American premiere at the festival. And for the last 10 years, the winner of the best foreign-language Oscar has had its North American premiere in Toronto.

This year's festival looks thin on the sort of big studio Oscar hopefuls like last year's "Atonement" or "Michael Clayton." Rather, the festival may provide a kickoff for more strategic campaigns, in particular for best actress. Keira Knightley in "The Duchess," Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married," Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky," Michelle Williams in "Wendy and Lucy," and Dakota Fanning in "The Secret Life of Bees" could all get a major boost from a warm reception.

Each year at festivals such as Toronto, programmers and journalists alike struggle to find a common thread in the wide array of films being shown. Recently, films about the war in Iraq have dominated this conversation.

While Toronto is certainly hosting its share of war-themed movies this year (including "The Lucky Ones" and "The Hurt Locker"), programmers point to other through lines for the festival.

From the documentary selections, festival Co-Director Cameron Bailey highlights the films "Food, Inc.," "Upstream Battle" and "At the Edge of the World" for their interest in environmental issues. Among the fiction films, Bailey sees an increased interest in domestic issues rather than larger sociopolitical narratives, as borne out by films such as "Lyme- life" and the German-language "A Year Ago in Winter."

"It is important for us to show a wide cross-section of cinema," said festival Co-Director and Chief Executive Piers Handling. "We've always believed in that and I have very catholic tastes myself. I like everything from low culture to high culture, pop culture to very marginal, experimental materials.

"The original vision of the Toronto festival was to be inclusive in that way, to have something for everybody."

Here is a short list of films (many of which have already screened for journalists) likely to create buzz as the festival unfolds.

"Burn After Reading"

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Just as they followed up their relatively mainstream "Fargo" with the curveball of "The Big Lebowski," the Coens move on from "No Country for Old Men" to this arch, odd pastiche of airport spy novels peppered by sly social commen- tary and an ensemble cast that includes mega-stars George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Even though it is hitting theaters only one week after it screens at the festival, four words make this a must-see: Coen brothers, new movie.


Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Screening as both two separate films and a single four-hour-plus epic, this ambitious biopic of the controversial revolutionary leader Che Guevara was probably the single most-talked-about item at this year's Cannes Film Festival, with divisive, love-it or hate-it responses. Even the film's biggest detractors were wowed by Benicio Del Toro's immersive, elusive lead performance. Soderbergh remains one of the most grandly unpredictable directors working today.

"The Hurt Locker"

Directed by Kathryn BigelowHoping to buck the trend of audiences turning their back on contemporary war-themed material, Bigelow ("Point Break") -- who has always made wildly watchable action flicks -- takes a look at an Army bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Written by Mark Boal, a previously embedded journalist, the film plays like a full-throttle, you-are-there combat picture, but there is also deft insight into the psychology of war and what it does to those who fight.

"Me and Orson Welles"

Directed by Richard Linklater

Having its world premiere in Toronto, this is the latest from Linklater, known to some as the director of "School of Rock" but beloved by others for the indie touchstone "Slacker." Where in that continuum this British-produced film lands remains to be seen, but this look at the backstage dramas of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre, starring Zac Efron and Claire Danes, with Christian McKay as one of the most legendary figures of theater and film, likely will be a festival standout. Whether it can find a distributor at the festival will be another issue.

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