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Starting off the season

Frances McDormand and George Clooney in "Burn After Reading."

TORONTO -- In the beginning, its organizers were happy to sell out a 500-seat theater. Now the Toronto Film Festival requires 35 theaters and assorted screening rooms, starting with the 2,800-seat Roy Thomson Hall. If you're a moviegoer in central Toronto and want to avoid the festival, you've got your work cut out for you.

The 33rd annual festival, which began Thursday night and runs until Sept. 13, will kick off, as it always does, Oscar season. But with the independent film world in disarray, it serves not only as a launching pad but as a lifeboat. Half a dozen important distributors of indie and foreign films have closed shop in the past year, the North American market is increasingly dominated by mainstream blockbusters, and it becomes ever more expensive to open a film.

Since the festival essentially acts as a convention for the continent's film critics and show-biz specialists (some 1,000 press reps in all), a great small film can open here and emerge as a winner. That happened years ago with "Diva" (1981), which helped put Toronto on the map and vice versa, and look at what happened in 2007 to "Juno" after it played here.

At any film festival, the directors get as much attention as the stars -- maybe more, except from the purveyors of celeb info-bites. Look at a few of the names on this year's list: the Coen brothers ("Burn After Reading"), Spike Lee ("Miracle at St. Anna"), Jonathan Demme ("Rachel Getting Married"), Mike Leigh ("Happy-Go-Lucky"), Atom Egoyan ("Adoration"), Kevin Smith ("Zack and Miri Make a Porno"), Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler") and Richard Linklater (whose "Me and Orson Welles" stars Zac Efron as a teenager who finds himself being directed by the great man).

I hate making predictions, but my money is on Sally Hawkins as a best actress nominee for Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky," where she plays a woman who is improbably and delightfully cheerful, until she needs to defend herself with unsuspected depths of no, not strength, but what might be called empathetic courage.

Since the Coens' masterful "No Country for Old Men" premiered here in 2007, their "Burn After Reading" has to be one of the most-anticipated films this year. It's a spy comedy starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and John Malkovich, and more than that I don't want to know because the International Herald Tribune saw it at Venice and reported that to reveal its plot "would be a crime against cinemagoing humanity."

The high point of my festival is when I wander into a completely unheralded film and emerge enthusiastic. That happened with "Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire" (1999), a winning low-budget comedy by Kevin Jordan. It was written by Derick Martini, who is here this year with his own directing debut, "Lymelife," a family drama starring Rory Culkin and Alec Baldwin.

And look at Ramin Bahrani, who has made two films among the best of recent years: "Man Push Cart" (2005) and "Chop Shop" (2007), which premiered at TIFF '07 and is circling to land in my Great Movies series. He's here this year with "Goodbye Solo," described as more of a comedy, which will be interesting. Does he sound like a foreign director? He was born of Iranian-American parents in North Carolina. Making a guess with my fingers crossed, I expect this to be one of the festival's best. He's so good I'm willing to crawl out on that limb, although no director always hits home runs.

Most of the entries remain to be viewed. One of the movies screening this week I have already seen is Ed Harris' "Appaloosa," a wonderful Western, which takes an age-old plot (new sheriff confronts outlaw rancher) and finds new drama and deadpan comedy. The quality of the direction will come as no surprise to anyone who remembers Harris' debut film, "Pollock" (2000). One of its treasures is the acting.

Harris plays the sheriff, Renee Zellweger plays the new woman in town, and the film also features two stars so deep in their roles I found them almost unrecognizable: Viggo Mortensen as the sheriff's deputy and Jeremy Irons as the evil rancher. All of these actors reinvent the types they play, none more so than Zellweger, who is neither the town's new schoolmarm nor its new prostitute (the standard female roles in Westerns) but a sprightly lady who gets off the train and hopes to support herself on a dollar. She starts out cute, and then the waters deepen. Irons is most satisfactorily vile, and Mortensen is inspired as a sidekick, who, for a change, is smarter and more insightful than his boss.

People are always asking me how they can get tickets for Cannes. The answer is, most of the time, you can't. Toronto now rivals Cannes in its selection, and you can get tickets, although some hit movies are already sold out. That's the point: Shop the Discovery series, the indies, the docs, the films you've never heard of. Toronto has a large cadre of expert programmers, and no film gets invited here unless a couple of them thought it was good. The festival even used to be sort of cheap because of the low value of the Canadian dollar. Now it isn't (hollow laugh). But at least it's a heck of a lot cheaper than Cannes. And New York, for that matter. And if you live in Chicago, you can stay right in town for our own festival, in October.

For schedules, tickets and info:

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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