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Toronto's vast film buffet serves fare for all tastes

TORONTO -- The program for the Toronto Film Festival falls with the thud of the Yellow Pages. This year, more than 300 films from 53 countries will be shown at the largest and most important film festival in North America, which opened Thursday, and as usual, the crowds will be lining up for everything - literally everything. If your movie can't fill a theater at this festival, you might as well cut it up and use it to floss with.

Toronto's reach is wide. It embraces the two nightly galas, which are often much-hyped premieres of major fall openings. It includes "special presentations," which are to galas as the "Un Certain Regard" category is to the official competition at Cannes. It includes, this year, special screenings of new films from Africa (16 titles) and Japan (19). Then there are 84 other foreign films in the contemporary world cinema section.

And nine new documentaries. And 30 films in the discovery section - mostly new directors. And seven classic revivals, including films by Losey, Korda, Powell, Welles, Bunuel and Satyajit Ray. And 14 titles in the category called simply "The Masters" and devoted to new work by such great directors as Eric Rohmer, Shohei Imamura, Arturo Ripstein, John Boorman, Carlos Saura and the Taviani brothers. And 63 new Canadian films. And a movie every night in "The Midnight Madness" series - titles that either are, will be, or should be cult movies. And on and on.

Toronto is one of the few "destination" festivals - an event attended by people from out of town. Such prestigious festivals as New York and Chicago are essentially hometown events, but movie lovers, both civilians and professionals, fly to Toronto from all over; in that respect, it's like Cannes, Berlin, Sundance and Telluride. The newspapers assign platoons of reporters and critics to cover it, and the big studios use the festival's two weekends to premiere the fall releases they have the highest hopes for.

Among the high-profile premieres this year are "Antz," the new Dreamworks animated film; James Ivory's "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," with Kris Kristofferson playing a character inspired by novelist James Jones; "Dancing at Lughnasa," starring Meryl Streep in the film of Brian Friel's celebrated play; John Waters' "Pecker," with Edward Furlong as a fast-food worker whose photos are embraced by the New York art world; Helena Bonham Carter and Kenneth Branagh in "The Theory of Flight," about a work-release prisoner assigned to a woman with Lou Gehrig's disease; Ben Stiller as a drug-addicted TV writer in "Permanent Midnight"; Christina Ricci in "Desert Blue," about slim prospects for a teenager in a town of 89 people; "The Imposters," the new film by Stanley ("Big Night") Tucci, starring Tucci and Oliver Platt as cruise-ship stowaways; "Rushmore," with Jason Schwartzmann as a prep schooler who is a lousy student but hyperactive in campus activities; Cameron Diaz in "Very Bad Things," about a bachelor party that ends in murder; Cate Blanchett as "Elizabeth," the story of England's 16th century monarch, and "The Judas Kiss," with FBI agent Emma Thompson on the trail of the kidnapper of a computer genius.

Some of the best-received films at earlier festivals will get their North American launches here, including "Life is Beautiful," Roberto Begnini's Cannes winner about an Italian clown who fights the Nazis with laughter; Rohmer's heartwarming love story "Autumn Tale," which charmed Telluride audiences; Ken Loach's "My Name Is Joe," with Cannes best actor winner Peter Mullen as a recovering alcoholic facing tough times; Theo Angelopoulos' "Eternity and a Day," this year's Cannes winner; "The General" (1999) which won Boorman the best director prize at Cannes, and the Cannes and Telluride favorite "Claire Dolan," by Lodge Kerrigan, with Emily Watson ("Breaking the Waves") as a prostitute who thinks she can detach from her work.

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