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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Toronto festival points to Oscars
By entertainment correspondent Tom Brook in Toronto
Toronto's 26th International Film Festival has got off to a rousing start with an army of Hollywood celebrities and top film talent arriving in this lakeside Canadian city for a 10-day movie marathon.
More than 300 films from 54 countries will be screened, from star-laden studio movies to off-beat, low budget experimental projects.
This year's festival also boasts a sizeable British presence with some 30 UK productions being unveiled.
British stars will also be out in force with Sir Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins, Helena Bonham Carter, Kristin Scott Thomas and Mick Jagger all scheduled to be in town to promote their movies.
On the international festival circuit Toronto is now ranked second only to Cannes in importance.
It has grown to become the biggest event of its kind in North America.
For the Hollywood studios, and other production companies, Toronto is seen as a very desirable venue for unveiling more serious end of the year releases - films that often become Oscar contenders.
Among the studio movies being screened is Training Day, a police corruption drama starring Denzel Washington.
From Hell is the Jack The Ripper story, with Johnny Depp as a Scotland Yard Inspector.
Another high profile film is Hearts in Atlantis, based on a collection of Stephen King short stories, it presents Sir Anthony Hopkins as a humane older man with fantastic powers.
One British feature, Last Orders, based on Graham Swift's award-winning novel, is already creating some advance buzz because of its stellar cast that includes Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and Ray Winstone.
Last Orders, which is directed by the Australian filmmaker Fred Schepisi, portrays the relationships between a group of lifelong friends when one among them dies.
British director Mike Figgis has a technique in cinematic storytelling on display in Toronto called Hotel which goes well beyond the four image screen he used in Time Code, his last release.
Hotel is another mindboggling experiment in which the director not only projects four pictures onto the screen simultaneously.
In addition, he offers the audience one large image, night-vision shooting and smaller images all within the same frame.
Much of the action takes place at a hotel in Venice with Salma Hayek, Lucy Liu and Burt Reynolds making up the cast of this latest Figgis work.
One British film called Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise is also getting attention because of its intriguing title.
This reportedly energetic tale of an angry vacuum cleaner salesman during the Thatcher era comes from director Danny Boyle.
With well over 100 European pictures being screened, Toronto is now more than ever a vital gateway for filmmakers trying to introduce their movies to the North American market.
Festival director Piers Handling says: "For the Europeans, the Asians and Latin Americans; they really feel it's the entrée into North American marketplace."
More than half the features screened in Toronto are now non-English language pictures which should mollify critics who have lambasted the festival for being "too Hollywood" in the recent past.
This year the French presence is particularly strong with an astonishing 80 titles on offer.
Toronto is also the prime venue for home-grown directors.
In keeping with tradition a Canadian feature, director Bruce Sweeney's dark meditation on modern romance, Last Wedding, opened the festival.
With hordes of journalists and industry types in town Sweeney hoped to benefit from the high profile gala screening.
He said: "I'm blown away, it is so exciting to be ranked with a long tradition of a lot of important film-makers that have opened their films in Toronto.
"I want to develop an audience for my films and I think tonight is a good way to help develop that."
Despite the optimism there is some nervousness that the economic downturn may soften film sales.
The intense bidding wars that characterised film festivals in recent years have been replaced by caution, but industry experts maintain there still is quite a thirst in Toronto for small specific titles.
Although hordes of media representatives and industry professionals have poured into town the festival remains a very public event.
Handling said: "I think it is very user friendly in the sense that it is a public festival, it is non-competitive.
"It is really an audience festival and I think the audiences at the end of the day are the true arbiters in terms of whether the film is good or bad."
With a total of 27,091 minutes of film on offer during the festival, the average film fan, however robust, can easily find themselves overwhelmed by the dazzling array of choices.
But for most participants this festival is an extremely welcome event.
After a summer of rather unimpressive and lacklustre Hollywood blockbusters, Toronto is offering the promise of some truly exciting and worthwhile pictures.
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