Toronto Teaches Cannes And Sundance A Thing Or Two About Film Fests

"Capote," "Corpse Bride," "Walk the Line," other small-ish movies make splash up north.

TORONTO — The 30th Toronto International Film Festival has come to a close, and as we rub our eyes after wading through a schedule of more than 335 films there’s little doubt that Toronto has surpassed both Cannes in relevance and Sundance in immediacy. At the Canadian fest, it’s still all about the movies, and it continues to be well worth the trip north if for no other reason than to see tomorrow’s indie sleepers and studio blockbusters playing indiscriminately side-by-side and back-to-back.

This year’s awards went to international favorites that, despite their newfound recognition, are likely to face limited release opportunities in the United States. The coveted People’s Choice Award, for instance, went to “Tsotsi,” a non-Hollywood production about a South African man living in poverty and drawing inspiration from the raw energy of Kwaito, a rap-like music from the streets. The Discovery Award, bestowed by members of the international media, went to the Australian drama “Look Both Ways” from veteran indie filmmaker Sarah Watt. The film, which tells the story of four friends dealing with the cancer that threatens to take one of them away, was also accompanied in the winner’s circle by the FIPRESCI Prize-winning drama, “Sa-Kwa” and Canadian award winners “Familia,” “C.R.A.Z.Y.” and “The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico.”

For moviegoers less interested in such art-house fare, plenty of big-name flicks and Oscar-buzz-generating efforts abounded, as well. While such films might not have won any awards, many of them won the hearts and minds of critics and movie fans, alike. Listed below, in no particular order, are some of the pictures that made particularly strong impressions.

“Capote”: As with Billy Bob and “Sling Blade” nine years ago, Philip Seymour Hoffman in this film inhabits a character whose voice and mannerisms are more than a bit distracting — for about 10 seconds. Once the story of legendary writer Truman Capote and his relationship with the murderers whose lives he chronicled in “In Cold Blood” suck you in, viewers will likely feel as Capote’s friends in real life did: amazed to watch him work, and saddened and shocked to see the sordid lengths he went to in order to complete his “New Journalism” masterpiece. Hoffman, a hugely versatile actor with convincing roles in movies as varied as “Along Came Polly,” “25th Hour” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” spent much of the festival avoiding reporters’ questions about what he’d do if the role garnered him an Oscar.

“Thank You For Smoking”: Director Jason Reitman (son of “Ghostbusters” director Ivan) set off one of the most intense bidding wars in festival history with his darkly comic story of a Big Tobacco spokesman, “Erin Brockovich” star Aaron Eckhart, and his attempts to live with himself. (Katie Holmes, Robert Duvall and Maria Bello also star.)

“Where the Truth Lies”: If the rigorously semi-scientific, time-honored technique of polling theater ushers to gauge a film’s popularity is to be trusted, then this dark, sexy thriller was the most successful movie of the festival. Despite multiple screenings, patrons were regularly turned away from the controversial tale of a Lewis & Martin-type comedy duo who seem to disagree on everything except, well, getting it on with lots of women. Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth are the entertainers, while Alison Lohman (“Matchstick Men”) is the reporter attempting to uncover the truth about a woman who mysteriously died in the duo’s hotel suite decades ago. After the MPAA slapped an NC-17 rating on the film, director Atom Egoyan announced he’d release the film unrated.

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“Corpse Bride” and “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”: One of the most interesting side stories of Toronto was poor Helena Bonham Carter’s running from floor to floor of her hotel while simultaneously publicizing these two equally fun, eye-popping stop-motion animated films. When not plugging one or the other of the movies, Bonham Carter rubbed her temples and tried to figure out how she could root for Tim Burton, the father of her child, Billy Ray, on Oscar night without offending her friend and “Wallace & Gromit” creator, Nick Park.

“Walk the Line”: Out of all the premieres, this Johnny Cash biopic appeared to be the absolute must-cover event. Joaquin Phoenix walked the carpet dressed, naturally, all in black while discussing his craft. Reese Witherspoon, however, whose performance as Johnny’s wife June has critics loudly buzzing, utilized a smile and a few well-chosen Cash lyrics to launch what might well be the start of a busy awards season for the actress.

“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”: Fans might still be wondering where Dave is, but we know: He’s on the big screen, introducing some well-known friends. When Chappelle decided to blow some of his considerable funds on a celebratory live event, acts like Mos Def, Erykah Badu, the Roots and the Fugees showed up. Director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) got it all on tape. Sure enough, Chappelle-hungry movie executives lined up to bid on the rights to the film.

“In Her Shoes”: First he got the world to take Eminem seriously as an actor, and now director Curtis Hanson seems to have done the same for Cameron Diaz in this sibling comedy-drama (also starring Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine). With a sometimes lighthearted, sometimes heavy, always emotional performance, could Diaz’s down-and-dirty role turn her into this year’s Charlize Theron?

“One Last Thing”: One of the most buzzed-about parties in Toronto wasn’t for a big-budget blockbuster, but for this tiny, heartfelt film starring “Lords of Dogtown” actor Michael Angarano. The film is about a kid with a terminal illness learning to appreciate the life he has left, but there were no such depressing topics allowed when Wyclef Jean rocked the film’s afterparty. Ethan Hawke, Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Mark Cuban and other notables made the scene alongside the publicists and their plus-ones. Wyclef, who appears in the film and wrote the end-credits tune, played some Bob Marley covers, voiced his wish that the Fugees would reunite and rapped in more languages than most attendees considered humanly possible.

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