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Wednesday, September 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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From Toronto: Let the film festival begin!

Seattle Times movie critic

For 10 days every September, the movie world turns its attention to the tidy Canadian city of Toronto, where careers and Oscar campaigns are launched with the rat-a-tat speed of exploding popcorn kernels. Starting Thursday and continuing through Sept. 16, the Toronto International Film Festival will bring together dozens of movies, hundreds of directors and actors, and seemingly millions of publicists, all hawking their latest Absolutely Fabulous product. I'll be there, too, getting a sneak preview of the fall movie season — and perhaps finding, as years past have proved, the next big thing.

Last year, "Brokeback Mountain" screened to rapt audiences. "Capote" and "Walk the Line" began Oscar dreams for Philip Seymour Hoffman and Reese Witherspoon. "Tsotsi," the then-obscure winner of the festival's coveted People's Choice Award, went on to win an Oscar for best foreign-language film. Deals were closed for movies like "Thank You for Smoking," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," and the made-in-Seattle documentary "The Heart of the Game." And Orlando Bloom nodded at me from across a room — but that's another story (alas, a very short one).

What will this year bring? At first glance, the Toronto lineup seemed to be missing a few of the fall's higher-profile offerings: Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" won't be there; nor will Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" or Sofia Coppola's much-buzzed "Marie Antoinette." But there's plenty of potential gold among the film lineup.

Todd Field, whose last film was the terrific 2001 drama "In the Bedroom," returns with "Little Children," an adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel about bored suburban parents. Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly and Patrick Wilson (so good recently in "Hard Candy") will star. Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, who last teamed up for "Gladiator," reconnect for the Englishman-in-Provence drama "A Good Year," based on the Peter Mayle book. "Infamous," directed by Douglas McGrath, takes another look at the life of Truman Capote, this time played by British actor Toby Jones.

Marc Forster, that unclassifiable filmmaker whose works include the sweet "Finding Neverland," the gritty "Monster's Ball" and the more-or-less incomprehensible "Stay," turns up with a black comedy starring Will Ferrell: "Stranger Than Fiction." (Indeed.) Anthony Minghella follows "Cold Mountain" with "Breaking and Entering," an ensemble drama with Jude Law, Juliette Binoche and Robin Wright Penn. And my vote for the most irresistible-sounding film of the festival, sight unseen, goes to Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration," in which the comedy troupe from "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind" tackles the promising topic of the movie-awards season.

Stargazing, always a popular Toronto sport, should be in good form: Among the actors on hand will be Witherspoon, attending this year with the fantasy "Penelope." Jessica Lange, Joan Allen and Kathy Bates take a road trip in "Bonneville"; Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt will attend with "Babel," a three-tiered drama from Alejandro González Iñárritu ("21 Grams," "Amores Perros").

Ed Harris stars in "Copying Beethoven," Agnieszka Holland's fictional look at the composer's last months. Heath Ledger, a revelation in "Brokeback Mountain," plays a heroin-addicted poet in the Australian film "Candy." Morgan Freeman will attend with the comedy "10 Items or Less," Sean Penn will be on hand for "All the King's Men," and Peter O'Toole will accompany the May/December romance "Venus," directed by Roger Michell ("Notting Hill," "Changing Lanes").

And some of the leading filmmakers in world cinema will be present with new work. Patrice Leconte, the French master responsible for "Intimate Strangers" and "The Man on the Train," comes to Toronto with the buddy film "My Best Friend." Hirozaku Kore-eda, director of the haunting "Nobody Knows" (one of my top films of 2005), returns with his first samurai film, "Hana." Pedro Almodóvar follows "Bad Education" (at the 2004 festival) with the mother/daughter comedy "Volver," starring Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura. And veteran British filmmaker Ken Loach will attend with "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," the grand-prize winner at this year's Cannes International Film Festival.

Guy Maddin's "Brand Upon the Brain!" has special interest for Seattleites: The Canadian director (known for "The Saddest Music in the World" and "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary") made the film here last year, under the auspices of Seattle's independent production company The Film Company. The film, described by the festival as a "supercharged fever-dream silent film," will screen in Toronto with live accompaniment by members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

It's all too much for any sane person, but thousands of Torontonians and out-of-town film-lovers will be crowding the sidewalks for the run of the festival. I'll take in as much as possible (that applies to popcorn and free hors d'oeuvres, as well as movies) and will be sending reports from Toronto during the coming week. Stay tuned; the party's just beginning ...

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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