TORONTO -- Music, politics, sex and existential gumshoes. What more could you ask from a film festival?
North America's biggest movie showcase, the Toronto International Film Festival, begins its 10-day run Thursday with "Being Julia," starring Annette Bening as a 1930s London stage star who exacts wickedly comic revenge after she's jilted by her young lover.
Toronto is a place for studios to hawk big fall releases and Academy Awards contenders. It's a discovery zone for new talent. It's a spot for film fans to catch everything from free-form experimental cinema and provocative documentaries to splashy Hollywood premieres and creepy midnight flicks.
"It's the best film festival in North America," said writer-director John Sayles, a Toronto regular who is screening his political murder romp "Silver City" here, giving it a last-minute publicity push before its Sept. 17 theatrical debut. "It's a way for us to see a lot of American press as well as Canadian press without going to all of them. It's a great way to collect people to write about your film."
"Silver City" centers on a George W. Bush-esque gubernatorial candidate (Chris Cooper) with a bumbling speaking style, whose handlers must quietly resolve a potential embarrassment after he hooks a dead body during a fishing photo opportunity.
Other Toronto films with political overtones include the documentary "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," examining how his Vietnam experiences and subsequent stand against the war shaped the presidential candidate's outlook; and "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," starring Sean Penn as a 1970s business failure who sets out to kill President Nixon as a statement against corruption.
Sex will be big at Toronto with John Waters' "A Dirty Shame," starring Tracey Ullman as a prude turned into a nymphomaniac by a knock on the head; a racy turn for Neve Campbell as a woman coldly plotting revenge against the manipulative men in her life in "When Will I Be Loved"; and "Kinsey," starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney in Bill Condon's film biography of the pioneering sex researcher.
Linney - who plays the free-spirited wife of Alfred Kinsey (Neeson), whose reports on male and female sexuality titillated and shocked people in the 1940s and '50s - said "Kinsey" is the first film she has done that she feels is truly important.
"The relationship between human beings and their sexuality is an important one, and one people are afraid of for unnecessary reasons," said Linney, who has another sexy turn at the Toronto festival with "P.S." as a college-admissions officer who begins a fling with a young painter (Topher Grace) bearing an eerie resemblance to her long-dead boyfriend. "The fear of good, healthy sexuality has caused a lot of trouble in the world."
The festival is packed with music-themed movies, including two high-profile film biographies: "Ray," starring Jamie Foxx as singer-pianist Ray Charles, and "Beyond the Sea," directed by and starring Kevin Spacey as pop singer Bobby Darin.
Among other musical titles: "Lightning in a Bottle," a blues concert film featuring performances by B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, India.Arie and Ruth Brown; "Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt," a documentary portrait of the late Texas singer-songwriter; and "Isn't This a Time! A Tribute Concert for Harold Leventhal," capturing a 2003 reunion performance by Pete Seeger and the Weavers in honor of an old friend and mentor.
The screening of "Isn't This a Time" will be followed by a live performance by the Weavers.
Other highlights among the 253 feature films include David O. Russell's ensemble comedy "I Heart Huckabees," featuring Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as "existential detectives" trying to sort out dilemmas for an offbeat batch of people; Alexander Payne's "Sideways," a road-trip comedy about a sad-sack (Paul Giamatti) whose life is in a tailspin; "Shark Tale," an animated fish story featuring the voices of Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese and Jack Black; "House of Flying Daggers," another martial-arts epic set in ancient China from director Zhang Yimou ("Hero"); "Head in the Clouds," with Charlize Theron as a woman whose hedonistic ways collide with harsh reality during World War II; and "Hotel Rwanda," starring Don Cheadle and Nick Nolte in the story of a man who uses his hotel as a shelter for refugees from the genocide in Rwanda.
All due in theaters before year's end, those films gain prime commercial and Oscar exposure from the press attention at Toronto. With no high-stakes awards competition, Toronto also is more laid-back than festivals such as Cannes, Berlin or Venice, allowing established filmmakers to show their works without prize pressures.
"People are getting a little bit sick of competitions. They can take a bit of the energy away from the film at hand," said Noah Cowan, a former film distributor in his first year as co-director of the Toronto festival. "In some ways, I think not having a competition around the films allows them to be judged on their own terms. If you've already made a few movies, the last thing you want to do is think about how you stack up against other people's movies."
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