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Toronto fest signals the opening of Good Movie Season

After Cannes, the Toronto Film Festival is the most important in the world. Last year's festival was ripped in two on Sept. 11. I walked out of a screening, heard the news, and the world had changed. Now comes the 27th annual festival, opening today. Are movies important in the new world we occupy? Yes, I think they are, because they are the most powerful artistic device for creating empathy--for helping us understand the lives of others.

We turn to Toronto every September in a spirit of hope. After a year during which slavish attention has been showered on the latest installments of the big studio franchises, when movies have opened to $60 million weekends and been forgotten by the end of the month, Toronto declares the opening of Good Movie Season, which runs from the festival's opening night until the deadline for Oscar nominations.

Yet even though the next Oscar winner will quite possibly premiere during the week, Toronto is not about Oscar handicapping, but about the little film you find in a half-empty screening on Tuesday morning, or in one of the 20-seat "VIP" screening rooms, which seem devoted to Not Very Important Pictures. I have here a list of all of the films in this year's festival, and it is probable that the best one is hiding somewhere in the fine print.

There are 343 films this year, too many for anyone to see, but at Toronto we can be reasonably sure they are well-chosen because the festival employs expert programmers in each area. One of the pleasures of a screening is to hear it introduced by the programmer who found it and has become its advocate.

Critics are asked how we decide which films to see. Some are obvious picks: premieres of big films that will soon be opening ("Phone Booth" by Joel Schumacher and "Spirited Away" by Hayao Miyazaki). Also obvious are the new films by famous directors (Atom Egoyan) or by filmmakers we have a special affection for (Paul Schrader). But the discoveries come simply through buzz. You stand in line, you talk to the people next to you before the movie starts, and you begin to realize you have heard the same title mentioned three or four times.

I run my finger down the names of the directors in this year's festival. For the experienced moviegoer the names are trademarks, suggesting a certain kind of quality or experience. Among the Galas, we find Denzel Washington making his directorial debut with "Antwone Fisher," and the veteran Brian De Palma back with "Femme Fatale." Veteran filmgoers know, even if the world does not, that directors like Patrice Leconte ("Man on the Train") and Julie Taymor ("Frida") can probably be counted on.

We will not conceivably miss the new films by David Cronenberg ("Spider"), Atom Egoyan ("Ararat"), Neil Jordan ("The Good Thief"), Todd Haynes ("Far from Heaven") and Jim Sheridan ("The Guys"), and because we know that there is a renaissance in the South Korean cinema right now, we will go to "Chihwaseon" by Im Kwon-taek, because logic suggests that in a year when new Korean films are the subject of the National Harvest section, a film that spun out from that section into the Galas must be special. And we will go to Shakhar Kapur's "The Four Feathers" because we're intrigued by the notion that a story of British colonialism has now been retold by an Indian director. We await the revisionist "Gunga Din."

Every year at Toronto I meet members of the Trail Mix Brigade. These are festivalgoers who take vacations from their jobs, cross-index the program with a fury, and squeeze in five or six screenings a day by devising ingenious itineraries and living on bottled water and Trail Mix.

They carry knapsacks filled with the necessities of serial moviegoing, from aspirin to ponchos to house slippers. They explain their strategies to me.

One instant friend last year said she had given up on trying to predict which films to see, and had decided to simply attend as many screenings in the Master's Section as possible, on the logical grounds that a great director might make a great movie.

If you were to adopt that course this year, look at some of the directors you would encounter: Abbas Kiarostami, the fierce minimalist from Iran; Mike Leigh, the British outsider who ironically has become one of the U.K.'s few bankable filmmakers; Frederick Wiseman, the great documentarian; Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish master of human tragicomedy; Marco Bellocchio, Italy's enfant terrible grown wise; Catherine Breillat, the French specialist in erotic brinksmanship; Ken Loach, the British poet of the laboring classes; Chen Kaige, the Chinese master, and a selection of gifted Indian directors.

Other directors spring out from other sections. Takeshi Kitano, the hard-boiled poker-face from Japan. Gus Van Sant, whose "Gerry" was the most perplexing, discussed, hated and defended film at Sundance. Michael Almereyda, who made the risky Ethan Hawke "Hamlet." Larry Clark, of "Kids" and "Bully," teamed with the maverick cinematographer Ed Lachman for "Ken Park." Rebecca Miller, whose "Personal Velocity" was a Sundance treasure.

Claire Denis, the French poet of personal experience. Curtis Hanson of "L.A. Confidential." Robert Duvall, with that tango film he's been talking about making for years. Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," the Cannes success about America's gun culture. Matt Dillon's first directorial effort. Steve James' first feature doc since "Hoop Dreams." Bruce Beresford, Patricia Rozema, Tom Twyker, Paul Thomas Anderson, Philip Noyce (twice), Alan Rudolph, Pedro Almodovar, Deepa Mehta, Amos Gitai, Agnieszka Holland, Nancy Savoca, Rod Lurie ... and, good God, Kenneth Anger. ...

And of course the shadow of 9/11 will fall over all of this work, most particularly during the premiere of "11'09''01," a collection of 11-minute films by 11 directors about 9/11. Already there is controversy over what has been called "anti-American content" in some of the films, although it is hard to quarrel with Mira Nair's segment, about a Pakistani-American who, the Internet Movie Database reports, died while helping firefighters and then was described as a possible terrorist.

I put down the list of this year's films and I am eager to begin.

Against the juggernaut of $30 million publicity campaigns, festivals like Toronto make their passionate stand. It is a little like throwing stones at a tank, but at least for 10 days we're not in the tank.

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