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Film lovers' treat

TORONTO -- I missed the first Toronto Film Festival. So did a lot of other people. I've attended every one since. The second was like a gathering of conspirators who raced from theater to theater on the rumors of screenings. But the festival has grown so steadily that its 25th anniversary event, which begins today, can safely be called the most important film festival in North America, and one of the top handful in the world.

The searchlights at Toronto scan the skies outside the big evening galas, which Hollywood studios often use to premiere their big fall releases (Oscar winners "American Beauty" and "Boys Don't Cry" had their debuts last September). But the galas are the icing on a very considerable cake. Toronto has depth as well as glitter, and there will be surveys of independent and foreign films, documentaries, revivals, cult films and experimental videos to go along with the big features.

The statistics are startling. By the festival's count, 329 films will play, and 178 will have either their world or North American premieres. The press contingent is expected to top 900 this year. The stars and directors attending will include Robert Altman, Kenneth Branagh, Al Pacino, Robin Wright Penn, Faye Dunaway, Stephen Frears, Cuba Gooding Jr., Robert Duvall, Ang Lee, David Mamet, Joel Schumacher, Sarah Jessica Parker, Liv Ullmann, Claude Chabrol, Gwyneth Paltrow and John Malkovich, who will be being himself.

Toronto is unique in that it is not only important, but also audience-friendly; not every festival (starting with Cannes) can make that statement. Screenings are open to the general public, and many film lovers plan a vacation around the screenings; I've talked with moviegoers actually planning to squeeze in 50 or 60 films.

I've seen some of the entries already, at Cannes, and will look forward to seeing how they play for Toronto's more movie-minded, less commercially oriented audiences. The festival doesn't have an official jury, but it does hand out a lot of prizes, including the People's Choice Award, which is voted on by the moviegoers themselves. My guess is that Paul Cox's wonderful, heartbreaking "Innocence," which was my favorite film at Cannes, has a good chance at that prize; it just won the People's Choice mention at Montreal, plus the top prize of that festival, Toronto's fierce competitor. "Innocence" is a love story about older people that younger people seem to love.

Among the high-profile films this weekend are two Hollywood premieres, Rod Lurie's "The Contender," with Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges, and Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," with Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Jason Lee and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Playing on Friday night is David Mamet's "State And Main," a comedy about a film being made in a New England town; it stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman (again) and Rebecca Pidgeon in what is said to be vintage Mamet crossed with screwball comedy.

Arriving Sunday is Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," starring Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh and representing the gifted director's first venture into the martial arts genre after such credits as "The Ice Storm" and "Ride with the Devil."

Also playing Sunday is a movie buff's special treat, "Shadow Of The Vampire," a macabre thriller about the making of F.W. Murnau's famous silent classic "Nosferatu," which more or less invented the vampire genre. Willem Dafoe and Malkovich star.

Toronto is 25, and so is the career of British director Stephen Frears, who will be honored with a special tribute and a retrospective of such titles as "My Beautiful Laundrette," "The Grifters" and this year's wonderful "High Fidelity." Another British director, Kenneth Branagh, will close the festival with his "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," starring Lynn Redgrave in a story about an L.A. playwright. In between comes the great Robert Altman with "Dr. T & The Women," starring Richard Gere in a scathing comedy about a womanizing Dallas gynecologist.

But all of these are just the titles I've heard about now, before the festival has opened. The best moments in Toronto are when you walk into a film you haven't heard much or anything about, and it gives you a great experience. I felt that way in recent years about "Elizabeth," "Boys Don't Cry," "Down in the Delta," "Mansfield Park" and "Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire."

That last title, by the way, was touted by The Dude, somewhat legendary film rep Jeff Dowd, who has an uncanny eye for sleepers; this year he faxes me that he is putting his "considerable weight" behind "Tully," with Anson Mount and Julianne Nicholson, described as "one summer that forever changes a distant father and his two sons." I told him I would come to see it if he promised not to use the line "after that summer, nothing would ever be the same" even once in my hearing.

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