By Tom Brook
Toronto Film Festival
Cate Blanchett reprises her lead role in the sequel to Elizabeth
A wealth of big name stars are descending on Canada for the Toronto Film Festival, which kicks off on Thursday.
Cate Blanchett, Michael Caine, George Clooney, Jodie Foster, Jude Law, Clive Owen, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep all have films at Toronto.
Some 350 pictures from 55 countries will be screened over the next 10 days.
The festival, now in its 32nd year, has become one of the biggest cinema showcases in the world, rivalling Cannes and Venice.
Toronto has increasingly become the launching pad for prestige pictures with Oscar-winning potential.
The latest example was Crash, which was unveiled at Toronto in 2004, and then went on to win the Academy Award for best picture last year.
One top-tier gala film already receiving Oscar buzz is Elizabeth: The Golden Age which sees Cate Blanchett reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth I.
The film is a follow up to the 1998 picture Elizabeth which brought Blanchett worldwide acclaim. In the sequel Clive Owen stars opposite Blanchett, as Sir Walter Raleigh.
As in Venice, many of this year's Toronto films focus on unease over the US-led invasion of Iraq and its repercussions.
Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan is likely to make a splash in Toronto
The film Rendition, starring Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon, is a thriller based on the alleged practice of US agents kidnapping terrorist suspects and taking them to secret prisons in foreign counties.
It is the first major studio movie to address the controversial issue of rendition and it is bound to provoke debate.
A British film called Battle for Haditha, from director Nick Broomfield, sets it sights on Iraq.
Broomfield has provided a cinema verite-style, partly imagined, account of an incident in 2005 when US Marines killed 24 Iraqis "as an act of revenge", according to the film-maker.
Another British director with a controversial picture at Toronto is Sarah Gavron, making her feature film debut with Brick Lane.
'Most revered star'
It is based on adaptation of Monica Ali's prize-winning novel of the same name which tells the story of a Bangladeshi woman who comes to London as part of an arranged marriage.
Attempts to shoot the film in London's Brick Lane drew protests from residents who viewed the book as insulting.
Another British film that is being seen as a festival highlight is the world premiere of the epic love story Closing The Ring, the latest directorial offering from 84-year-old Lord Attenborough.
The film stars Shirley MacLaine, Pete Postlethwaite, Chistopher Plummer and Brenda Fricker, and is set both in Belfast and North Carolina.
Monica Ali's Brick Lane is one of the British films being shown
With so many films from around the world competing for attention, it can be tough for non-US films to make an impression at Toronto
One notable exception could be The Last Lear, a picture which stars Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan, described in the festival's official literature as "the most revered movie star on the planet".
That assertion could be true. It has been estimated that the Mumbai-based actor has more fans than any other movie icon - including Hollywood's top stars.
His presence is likely to create hysteria among his South Asian followers in Toronto, but it may well go unnoticed by the bulk of the international press who remain very Hollywood-centric.
Compared to other festivals, Toronto makes every effort to accommodate the public at screenings and can be described as "the people's film festival".
If the past is anything to go by, then some 350,000 film fans will flock to this lakeside Canadian city over the next 10 days.
But they will be jostling with 1,000 members of the international press rushing from screening to screening.
They will also encounter a strong Gallic presence, because France has more films being shown at the festival than any other country apart from the US and Canada.
The festival can be fatiguing to cover, but every journalist who attends leaves with an exhilarating taste of what contemporary world cinema has to offer - and a good idea of the early runners and riders in next year's Oscar race.