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Toronto festival fit for film fans

The 1999 Toronto Film Festival, 11 days and 319 films long, opens today with a quarter of a million moviegoers looking for next year's top Oscar winners - or maybe trying to avoid them. The films come from 52 countries, and 171 of them will be world or North American premieres. People plan their vacations around this festival; at a screening last year of a Vietnamese musical, I sat next to Barbara Strange, who planned to see 45 movies and "exist on bottled water, dried apricots and mixed nuts."

This is the world's largest public film festival (Cannes is more of a trade fair). It comes when autumn is just beginning to bring a chill to the Ontario nights, and to add a tang to the coffee and bran muffin you bolt down on your way to the morning press screenings. After a summer of action films made for (and possibly by) teenage boys, this is the start of the good fall movie season. Last year the North American premiere of "Shakespeare in Love" was here. And "Life is Beautiful." And "Happiness." And "Waking Ned Devine."

The program lands with a thud. It is as big as an auto parts catalog. It divides films into several categories. The nightly galas are devoted to films of broad audience appeal. The Masters Series spotlights new works by great directors (Greenaway, Kaige, Kitano, Saura). "Special Presentations" fall somewhere in between. Attention also is paid to new European cinema, Asian discoveries, gay films and midnight cult movies.

Will next year's Oscar-winning best picture be shown in the next 11 days? Some early viewers are saying Sam Mendes' "American Beauty," with Kevin Spacey weathering a mid-life crisis, is the best film of the year. The buzz is also strong for Wayne Wang's "Anywhere But Here," with Susan Sarandon as a mother who drags her daughter (Natalie Portman) to Beverly Hills. Lawrence Kasdan's "Mumford" stars Loren Dean as a psychologist (he says) who has a way of solving everyone's problems.

The big indie distributors like Miramax, Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight and "Blair Witch" beneficiary Artisan Entertainment all make Toronto their roll-out platform. This year Miramax has a big push behind "Princess Mononoke," the wondrous Japanese animated feature, which I saw a few days ago at the Telluride Film Festival. The Sony titles include "Black and White," James Toback's already controversial movie about white kids who dig black culture. Artisan picked up Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai" at Cannes and will showcase it here; it stars Forest Whitaker as a self-styled samurai who goes to work for the mob.

There will be heated discussions after "Dogma," Kevin Smith's comedy about Catholicism; some church groups oppose it, others find worthiness beneath the satire. Reportedly trimmed (for pacing, not content) after its Cannes showing in May, it's one of Toronto's scarce tickets. Another big draw is the hot Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, whose films combine action with zen. He's coming with "Kikujiro," said to be a comic change of pace.

Errol Morris is the brilliant, offbeat documentarian who examines the strange corners of the human mind. Last winter at Sundance, he screened a work in progress, "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." It told the story of a man who had success designing killing machines for Death Rows, before unwisely getting involved with neo-Nazis who wanted him to help them deny the Holocaust. The movie was riveting and yet curiously vague in its intent; Morris said it needed more work and disappeared into his editing room to come up with a revised print for Toronto.

Paul Schrader, who had a triumph with "Affliction," is back with "Forever Mine," starring Joseph Fiennes, Ray Liotta and Gretchen Mol in a story of romantic obsession. And Bill Forsyth, the Scottish director who created so much delight in the 1980s, is back after furlough with "Gregory's Two Girls."

The major theaters involved in the Toronto fest are all near the subway lines, and you can shuttle from one to another in minutes. I meet people who see five or six movies a day. Then there are the parties every night. The press conferences. The lunches, the dinners, the seminars. And standing in line with zealous, note-comparing festivalgoers has a joy of its own. Toronto never tires of reminding you it has "the highest per capita movie attendance in North America." The average goes up a notch during festival week.

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