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'Beauty' contest

TORONTO -- "American Beauty," which opens in theaters on Friday, strengthened its position as an Oscar candidate by winning the Air Canada "People's Choice" award here Sunday, on the closing day of the Toronto Film Festival.

The festival has no official jury, but presents several independently administered awards. The Air Canada prize, the most coveted, is voted on by filmgoers as they leave theaters; a statistical formula balances the scores of films in large and small houses.

"American Beauty" stars Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening as discontented suburbanites whose daughter hates them. It's a dark comedy by first-time director Sam Mendes, with strong supporting performances by Thora Birch as the daughter, and Wes Bentley as the battered boy next door. When Spacey breaks loose from his malaise, it is by admitting his lust for a member of his daughter's cheerleading team.

That the movie won a popular ballot at this festival with 250,000 admissions helps quiet the fears of its distributor, DreamWorks, that it may be too dark to appeal to Academy voters.

The Benson & Hedges Film Discovery Award, voted on by some 775 journalists covering the festival, went to Kevin Jordan's "Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire," the story of two brothers in Los Angeles, their struggles with romance, and their unclassifiable friendships. It was also a first film, shot in 12 days on a $40,000 budget, and with some of the same buzz as previous sleepers like "Brother's Keeper." The award was a closing-day triumph for The Dude (film rep Jeff Dowd), whose adventures in promoting it were chronicled in some of my Toronto reports.

An award is given at this and many other festivals by FIPRESCI, a jury selected by an international federation of film critics. It went to "Shower," by Zhang Yang of China, a comedy that contrasts old and new through characters who gather in an old-fashioned bathhouse.

The CityTV Award, given to the best first Canadian feature, went to Catherine Annau for "Just Watch Me: Trudeau and the 70s Generation," about the charismatic prime minister who held the country together during tumultuous times. The Toronto City Award for best Canadian film went to Jeremy Podeswa for "The Five Senses," about a group of characters, each of whom loses one of his senses.

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