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Toronto fest teems with small treasures

The regulars at the Toronto Film Festival are a humbling lot. They take a week off work, arm themselves with backpacks, schedules and bottles of mineral water, and hit as many as six screenings a day. Toronto is said to have the highest per-capita film attendance in the world; maybe that's just all these same people, attending every single movie in town.

The festival's publicity machine is centered on the galas, twice- nightly premieres of major new releases. This past weekend, the programs featured Liam Neeson in "Michael Collins," Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman in "Extreme Measures," an all-star cast in "2 Days in the Valley," and Tom Hanks' directing debut, "That Thing You Do."

Those were all, to one degree or another, good films. But they'll be opening commercially in the weeks to come. What festivalgoers and critics hope to find are sleepers, unsung films that give them the thrill of discovery. During the first half of the festival, I felt those tingles during films such as "Bound," "Fetishes," "Caught" and "Love and Revenge."

During the closing days, the unsung film I enjoyed the most was "Ed's Next Move," written and directed by John Walsh and starring Matt Ross and the wonderfully named Calliope Thorne in a love story. The materials are so basic and the characters are so normal and low-key that at first, the film almost seems ordinary; then it begins to grow on you, with its quiet wit and its bright dialogue and the way the characters are so honestly developed.

The movie is a truth-telling comedy about a young man from Wisconsin who moves to New York, where he finds a roommate and a job (he studies the genetics of rice). Without intending to, he finds himself in a conversation with the vocalist in a Liz Phair-ish band. They aren't a good match at first (he tends to get tonguetied), but one of the movie's joys is the way it so slowly allows them to understand each other.

Another discovery during the closing days was "Waiting for Guffman," by Christopher Guest ("This Is Spinal Tap") who chronicles the sesquicentennial celebrations of a small town in Missouri. With a cast of veteran satirists, many from Second City, Guest orchestrates improvisations within a loose framework and stars as the flamboyant New Yorker who has arrived in town to put on a show. It's very funny, right up to and including the end credits (where he explains a line of action figures from "My Dinner With Andre").

Toronto is officially not a competitive festival; it has no jury, which is why a lot of big Hollywood films premiere here - they can't lose. But on the festival's last day, there is a brunch to announce a lot of quasi-official awards.

The big favorite was "Shine," an Australian film by Scott Hicks, based on the true story of classical pianist David Helfgott, who achieved greatness and then suffered artistic paralysis, brought on by the possessiveness of his father. The film has engaging, sometimes funny performances by three actors playing Helfgott at various times in his life, and painfully effective work by Armin MuellerStahl as his father. "Shine" won both the Air Canada People's Choice Award and the Metromedia Award voted by the city's press corps.

The People's Choice Award is always a little suspect, because no one knows who votes, or how often. Certainly there is a bias in favor of the movies that play before large audiences in the evening galas, rather than before smaller audiences in the morning showcases. If Toronto wanted to make the voting fairer, it would ask audience members to rate each film on a scale of 1 to 10 and then give the award to the film with the highest score.

But "Shine" was a popular winner - a well-acted, feel-good film with the added element that it's based on a true story and Helfgott is on the mend and performing again. Look for "Shine" to be a year-end sleeper for critics' prizes and perhaps Oscar nominations.

Second place in the people's choice balloting went to "Beautiful Thing," a nice but minor British film I reviewed from Telluride, about two teenage boys in a London housing project who decide they are homosexual. Since I did not hear one single person in Toronto mention this film during the nine days I was there, I can conclude only that its audience voted early and often.

Third place was a tie between "Fire," an Indian film by Deepak Mehta about emotional entanglements in a modern Indian family, and "Fly Away Home," the Hollywood film about an Ontario 12-year-old who flies an ultralight aircraft to help a flock of Canada geese find their way south. (It opened Friday in the States.)

There were other prizes. Cannes winner "Breaking the Waves" and Venice winner "Michael Collins" placed second and third behind "Shine" for the Metromedia Award. And the International Film Critics' Association gave its award to "Life," an Australian film set in a prison block with HIV-positive prisoners.

No prizes were given to "Kolya," Jan Sverak's Czech film about a failing classical musician who finds himself saddled with his young and absent bride's 5-year-old son. Yet my impression was that "Kolya" had better word-ofmouth at Toronto than any other film. What this means is not much, I suppose: Films are apples and oranges and cannot be compared, and if a good one wins an award that is fine, and if it doesn't win, nobody knows.

What I came away with was an impression of a city in love with film. Toronto shows about 250 films and sells about 250,000 tickets, which works out to an average of 1,000 moviegoers per screening. Standing in line and chatting with moviegoers before and after screenings, I began to gain a little faith that good movies might still be able to find audiences.

A powerful Hollywood executive was quoted the other day as saying that successful new movies would need to be $70 million events, constructed like rides in an amusement park. "Twister" and "Independence Day" point the way.

Well, maybe they do. But after you see one of those, I would like to take you to "Ed's Next Move" or "Shine" and ask you, honestly, which made you feel better, more hopeful, and smarter.

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