Oscar Goes to Canada

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Focus Features

George Clooney and Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading

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So getting noticed at TIFF is a major part of the game. That's why the big stars of small films tread the red carpet at Toronto. ("Mr. Movie Star was in Toronto to promote his latest project, A Film You May Never See but Now at Least You've Heard Of.") More free publicity. And for TIFF, catnip. This is a festival that wants to serve the ticket-buying public, not just filmmakers, and proximity to a star is a sweet bonus for Toronto's movie masses.

Still, the films themselves are the real allure — the first chance to see that Coen brothers picture, for example. It's about a longtime CIA analyst (Malkovich) who loses his job and, to fill the empty hours or for revenge, starts composing his memoirs. A disc of a rough draft falls into the hands of two employees at a gym: a lovelorn assistant manager (McDormand) and her goofy assistant (Pitt). Clooney is the added spice in this rich, acrid mix of people who aren't half as smart as they think they are. Spiraling into desperation and lunacy, the film lacks the constant coiled threat of No Country for Old Men, and a Best Picture Oscar seems unlikely, just as it must have been far from the Coens' impish minds. They wanted to play tricks on their characters and the audience. If there were a statuette for Best Feature-Length Prank, Burn After Reading would be the favorite.

The top of the TIFF list is crawling with directors who have won Oscars for themselves or for actors in their films. Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) has Rachel Getting Married, in the disturbed-woman-comes-home-to-ruin-a-wedding genre that has become a TIFF staple. Anne Hathaway is the sister on loan from an asylum, Rosemarie DeWitt the bride-to-be — who has to put up with almost as much neurotic mischief as the audience does. Actor-director Ed Harris (Pollock) has Appaloosa, a laconic, fairly traditional western. In a tough town, he and Viggo Mortensen play the law enforcers, Jeremy Irons the requisite evil potentate and Renee Zellweger the love interest.

For a star vehicle with overarching ambition, achievement and weirdness, head for Synecdoche, New York. Just from its title — a pun on the figure of speech that substitutes the part for the whole (using hands for sailors in all hands on deck) and New York State's city of Schenectady — you know that the movie isn't going for the Adam Sandler demographic. That's par for Charlie Kaufman, the brilliant, balky screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. For his first film as writer-director, Kaufman has tried something grander and more daring than ever: a Schenectady director (Philip Seymour Hoffman), seized equally by depression and impossible dreams, moves to New York City to put on a giant theater piece that will consume city blocks and last, maybe, forever. One critic called it a cinematic suicide note, but Kaufman has crammed so much wit and disaster into this all-American 8 1⁄2 and populated it with such a beguiling cast (including Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest and Emily Watson) that, for the viewer who gets on its wavelength, the movie is buoyant, soaring and a lot of fun.

Mind you, for a good portion of the moviegoers, TIFF is treasured not because it shows prestige pictures before they play in commercial theaters, but because it gives exposure to films that may never be seen elsewhere in North America. So they search out movies from India, like Singh Is Kinng or actress Nandita Das' directorial effort, Firaaq. They'll check out the two dramas from Italy, Gomorrah and Il Divo, that earned prizes at Cannes, to see if their takes on corruption are as corrosive as the early reviews indicated. New films by festival regulars like Takeshi Kitano (Achilles and the Tortoise), Agnes Varda (Les Plages d'Agnes), Barbet Schroeder (Inju, la Bete dans l'Ombre) and Werner Schroeter (Nuit de Chien) automatically go on their must-see list. And though a documentary on Liverpool might not sound ravishing, they'd be nuts not to see and savor Terence Davies' Of Time and the City, a very personal history-memoir that's about as beguiling as Guy Maddin's "docu-fantasia" My Winnipeg was last year.

Toronto, which used to call itself the festival of festivals, still is — a jumble of a dozen or so different programs that offer everything from high art to, in the invaluable Midnight Madness section, delirious low trash. Moviegoers thus create their own festival out of the films they want to see and can get into. (And you almost always can: stand in the returns line; be patient; it'll happen.) It's Lourdes for serious moviegoers, Rodeo Drive for the Hollywood set. But you needn't see the big films to feel as important as an Academy voter. At TIFF, the audience is the real star. Standing in line for a movie from Africa or South America, you're Brad Pitt.

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