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Toronto picks best of bunch

TORONTO -- Films set in imperial China, the American South and Iceland won the most important awards here Sunday, as the 25th Toronto Film Festival came to a close. The festival has no jury and is officially non-competitive, yet it managed to honor a dozen films at its closing brunch. There were lots of ties.

The most important prize is probably the Volkswagen Discovery Award, voted on by some 775 critics at the festival. It was shared this year by "George Washington," David Gordon Green's bittersweet tale of life and death in a rusting cityscape, and Baltasar Kormakur's "101 Reykjavik," a comedy in which a woman (Victoria Abril) marries a man while carrying on an affair with his mother. The title refers to the address of the only tree in the Icelandic capital.

Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" won the Benson & Hedges People's Choice Award, voted on by festival patrons and calculated according to a weighted system that does not penalize smaller films. "Crouching Tiger" is nevertheless a gloriously big epic, starring the Hong Kong action stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh in a visionary adventure where the characters seem set free from the force of gravity.

"The Dish," Rob Sitch's delightful comedy from Australia, placed second in the People's Choice balloting. It's set in the hamlet of Parkes, Australia, which is atwitter in 1969 when its giant radio telescope is recruited to relay the first TV signals from the moon. There was a tie for third place between Paul Cox's "Innocence," also from Australia, about two people in their late 60s who renew a teenage love affair, and Stephen Daldry's "Billy Elliot," about a working class boy from a British mining town who wants to be a ballet dancer.

The VW Discovery awards produced not only a tie for first place, but another tie for second, involving Marziyeh Meshkini's "The Day I Became a Woman," about an Iranian woman imprisoned by her own family, and "The Iron Ladies," by Yongyooth Thongkonthun, about a Thai volleyball team made up of transvestites and transsexuals.

The Fipresci Award is given every year by a jury selected by the international film critics' federation. Its award went to another Thai film, the crime drama "Bangkok Dangerous," by twin brothers Oxide and Danny Pang.

The City TV award for the best first Canadian feature went to Philippe Falardeau's "La Moitgie Gauche du Frigo" ("The Left-hand Side of the Fridge"), a film about two friends who decide to make a documentary as one of them searches for a job; the film takes over their lives. The City of Toronto Award for best Canadian feature went to Gary Burns' "waydowntown," about a group of friends who bet a month's salary on who can stay inside the longest; the film takes place inside the maze of Calgary office buildings, malls and pedestrian walkways. The National Film Board of Canada's John Spotton award for best short film went to Michele Cournoyer's "Le Chapeau."

Some of the winning films do not have distribution, and the festival recognition could be invaluable. "The Dish" and "George Washington" are in that category the first with broad popular appeal, the second destined for lots of best 10 lists. For Paul Cox's "Innocence," festivals have been a lifeblood. It played out of competition at Cannes ("too sentimental," a festival insider sniffed), but generated enthusiastic reviews and word of mouth, and then went on last month to win both the Peoples' Choice Award and the jury prize at Montreal. Toronto adds more momentum to the kind of film that people discover for themselves.

As for "George Washington," it has the same kinds of evocative qualities as Terrence Malick's great "Days of Heaven" (1976). It uses lush photography and a wondering, nostalgic narration to tell a sad story that is half-understood but deeply felt. At a time when most movies snuggle into safe genres and fear to challenge audiences, this one is a bold stylistic achievement.

Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" will get wide distribution, and is likely to open up the martial arts genre to new audiences; it has the physical exuberance common to all action pictures, but also a poetry and lyrical visual beauty that transcends its origins.

"The Dish" raises interesting questions. It's made by the same producer-director team who made "The Castle," a hilarious comedy that Miramax inexplicably shelved after a half-hearted release. Audiences loved it; now here is another quirky Australian comedy they love. Will it find its audience? I ran into director Rob Sitch and producer Michael Hirsch on the festival's last day. They were in talks with distributors, they said. "Miramax?" No comment.

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