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Toronto #1: 2nd city for film festivals

"Starting Out in the Evening," with Lauren Ambrose and Frank Langella.

TORONTO, Ont. -- And now the ecstasy and madness begins. The 32nd Toronto Film Festival opens Thursday with no fewer than 15 films, and that’s before it gets up to speed. The Trail Mix Brigade is armed with their knapsacks, bottled water, instant snacks, text messengers and a determination to see, who knows, six, seven, eight films a day.

This may be the only city where thousands plan their vacations around movies.

Toronto is now second only to Cannes in size and prestige, and you could get into an interesting argument on the subject of importance. No matter. As we plunge into 10 days of movies (271 features, 89 shorts, 85 percent world premieres, 91 percent North American premieres), all we will be thinking about is how quickly we can get to the next screening, and how little sleep we really need.

The opening night gala, “Fugitive Pieces” is a three-way salute to native sons. Showing in the enormous Roy Thomson Hall and the merely huge Visa Screening Room, it’s by director Jeremy Podeswa, a Torontonian who works mostly in TV but made the wonderful film “The Five Senses” in 2000; it’s based on a award-winning novel by Canadian writer Anne Michaels, produced by Canadian Robert Lantos (“The Sweet Hereafter,” “Being Julia”), and follows the saga of a Jewish child who escapes death in Poland and travels to Canada via Greece.

I haven’t seen it yet, but one I have seen may gain an Oscar nomination for Frank Langella. It’s “Starting Out in the Evening,” by Andrew Wagner, starring Langella, Lauren Ambrose and Lili Taylor.

He’s an aging professor, once an acclaimed novelist; Ambrose is a gung-ho graduate student who wants to re-start his career, and Taylor, without whom Toronto would be unthinkable, is the professor's daughter, who becomes wary of his relationship with Ambrose. I won’t say anything else except, well, I loved it.

Persepolis,” by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, is a b&w animated film based on her experiences growing up in Iran as it changed from a secular to an Islamic society. Not the kind of film you’d see everywhere, but the buzz is loud.

Neil Jordan’s thoughtful “The Brave One,” Jodie Foster’s new thriller about a quiet woman who becomes a vigilante, also premieres Thursday night; my review will appear when it opens Sept. 14, but what’s interesting is how Foster’s fierce intelligence reawakens the revenge genre. She becomes worried about the changes that are taking place within her. She gets to like shooting people.

“Fados,” by the great Spanish director Carlos Saura, plays Thursday night, and is described as a drama growing out of Portugal’s Fado music tradition. The director of many other music-inspired films, such as “Tango,” his opening-night slot is promising.

Toronto’s “Reel to Reel” documentary section kicks off tonight with “Hollywood Chinese,” Arthur Dong’s doc about changing images of Chinese characters in Hollywood movies. It has countless clips, and interviews with such as Joan Chen, Nancy Kwan, Ang Lee, Amy Tan, Christopher Lee, Justin Lin, James Hong, B.D. Wong, and Wayne Wang.

Christopher Lee? Is he Chinese? No, but he played Fu Manchu, which is the point.

Did I mention madness? That would be “Midnight Madness,” the 11:59 p.m. series featuring cult and transgressive films, and inaugurated tonight by no less than the Italian horror master, Dario Argento, with his “The Mother of Tears.” It stars his daughter, Asia, who by accident releases a malevolent witch into the world, according to IMDb, which knows more about it than I do.

The 11:59 p.m. start time, by the way, is a Toronto stroke of genius, short-stopping all conversations about “does that mean 12 p.m. Thursday noon or 12 p.m. early Friday?”

Coming up over the weekend, a torrent of films, of which the most anticipated may be George Clooney as a legal clean-up artist in Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton,” Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal in Gavin Hood’s CIA thriller “Rendition,” and then, sure to cause crowd- control emergencies even among the polite Canadians, native son David Cronenberg's ”Eastern Promises,” with Viggo Mortensen as a Russian gangster in London. My full review will appear when it opens Sept. 14.

That one may also, finally, have an Oscar nomination tucked inside for Mortensen. Why not? In Hollywood, Toronto is casually referred to as the unofficial opening of Oscar season.

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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