Oscar Goes to Canada

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Focus Features

George Clooney and Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading

The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences choose the Oscar candidates by going to the Academy theaters for pre-release screenings throughout the year. They may even pay to see a few with real people at real movie houses. Then they catch up with the ones they've missed by going to other private showings or seeing some on DVD screeners the studios send them. It's practically a full-time job, if you take it seriously. Why, the valet-parking costs alone could mount into the low four figures.

Anybody else could see most of the Oscar nominees by spending 10 days in Toronto.

The Toronto International Film Festival, which opened its 33rd edition on Thursday, is many things to the 100,000 or so cinephiles who each year make it the premier movie bash in North America. TIFF, as it's known, is a gourmand's glut of international product, a one-stop shop for documentaries, a gallery for experimental films. To sustain the pride of the locals, there's also a barrage of Canadian movies.

Movies, movies and more movies. Whereas Telluride's festival, the Rocky Mountain redoubt that runs before Toronto, and New York's, which starts in late September, put only a few dozen films on display, TIFF has hundreds. Even if a Toronto cinemaniac were to get no more than a few hours' sleep a night and renounce all food except popcorn, he or she would be able to see eight or 10 pictures a day — less than a third of the festival offerings.

This year's lineup comprises 312 films (249 features; the rest, short subjects). That number is down by 40 from last year's haul, thus allowing the bosses of the festival, Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey (replacing Noah Cowan), to congratulate themselves for streamlining the event. It's a little like a morbidly obese person bragging that he got through lunch eating only three bags of potato chips.

For slim, tanned Hollywoodians, and the press who stream into Ontario from three continents, TIFF is seen as the launching pad for films that have eyes on the Academy Awards. So do the movies' largest luminaries. Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton will be there in aid of Burn After Reading, a quirky spy caper from Joel and Ethan Coen, who nabbed the top Oscar with No Country for Old Men. George Clooney, another of the film's stars, may not be in Toronto, but he was all over the place last year with Michael Clayton. Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Colin Farrell, Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, Renee Zellweger, Natalie Portman and dozens, hundreds more are expected to drop by for the birthing of their Academy hopefuls. As all these stars know, the process that ends next Feb. 22 on Oscar night begins Sept. 4.

Consider that of the 19 films nominated for Oscars this past year in the major categories (picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor and actress), 12 had played at TIFF in 2007, as had the winners in four of those six slots. Such multiple nominees as No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, Atonement, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Savages, Away from Her and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly had received their first big North American push on Lake Ontario. The preponderance of TIFF veterans among Academy favorites is nothing new. In 2006 the top contenders for Best Picture were Brokeback Mountain, from TIFF 2005, and the eventual winner, Crash, which had played without much fanfare the year before. That film had been tagged for direct-to-video release until its eventual distributors saw its potential at Toronto and took it from there.

You'll note that while beautiful, riveting and poignant might be applied to many TIFF graduates that went on to Oscar renown, the word blockbuster would not. As action films, guy-to-guy comedies and digitally animated features increasingly pull in the giant grosses, the high-to-middle-brow drama — TIFF's specialty — has become if not an endangered species, then certainly a niche item in Hollywood. None of the aforementioned pictures earned as much as $100 million at the North American box office. A megahit like The Dark Knight can grab that in a weekend. Only Brokeback Mountain took in more than $80 million.

Beyond the goal of edifying upmarket audiences, these little films exist, essentially, to get nominated for Academy Awards. That brings the best kind of publicity — the free kind — and lures crowds of people who watch the Oscar show. For these movies, early critical and festival attention is crucial. Buzz is free too.

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