Tinseltown Toronto: Film Festival Heralds Oscar Season

Romantics will say, "Timing is everything," while real estate salespeople maintain, "Location is everything."

Whomever you believe, it's a little of both that's making the Toronto International Film Festival kick-off time for Oscar hopefuls.

A diamond-studded A-list of Hollywood stars are due in town for the festivities, including Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lopez, Russell Crowe, Reese Witherspoon and Tom Hanks, as well as Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, political agitator Michael Moore, and guaranteed-to-offend subversive comic Sacha Baron Cohen.

Toronto's film festival, now in its 31st year, doesn't have the Cannes French Mediterranean glamour, and it can't match Sundance for paparazzi shots of celebrities on the ski slopes, but it's no doubt come into its own as an event every Hollywood bigwig circles on his or her calendar.

Oscar's Launching Pad

"Brokeback Mountain," "Crash" and "Capote" -- three of the five films that vied last year for best picture -- were ballyhooed as Oscar hopefuls after showings here.

"Crash" -- a 2005 summer release -- had its first public showing at Cannes in 2004.

Here is where buzz started building for the performances of Jamie Foxx in "Ray," and Joaquin Phoenix and Witherspoon in "Walk the Line."

"Toronto's timing is just right," said Brandon Gray of BoxOfficeMojo.com. "This is just when the summer season ends and the film industry starts thinking of the prestige pictures it wants to send off with a boost, when the holiday season begins."

That might explain what Toronto has over Sundance, which is held in January, and Cannes, which is held in May.

Toronto, however, is also jumping ahead of the Venice Film Festival and the Telluride Festival -- both end-of-summer fetes -- in industry prominence.

The reason for that -- as a real estate mogul might point out -- is "location, location, location."

Geographically speaking, Toronto offers the best of both worlds.

It's close to the United States, making it a fair measure of the North American market, but also an international city, allowing filmmakers to test how their work might play worldwide.

"The biggest thing that we want to accomplish with this festival is to provide a voice for our filmmakers who come, to have a form for debate for things that are going on in the world," said festival spokeswoman Andrea Grau.

"And we really want to show the best in international cinema as well as profile our Canadian stuff, which is really important," she said.

Canada is also increasingly important to Hollywood simply because a lot of studios shoot films there.

In recent years, Toronto has provided the exterior shots that served as Depression-era New York in "Cinderella Man" as well as the Jazz era in "Chicago."

While "Brokeback Mountain" was a tale about cowboys in Montana, it was Alberta, Canada, that provided the cinematic backdrop for the film.

"Canada has largely become Hollywood's backyard," Grau said. "Of course, a lot of it has to do with the economics of filmmaking. Toronto has doubled for New York in countless films."

Neutral Ground for Controversy

With international politics increasingly polarized, many of the films at this year's festival, which began Thursday and runs through next weekend, are likely to spark debate, and some might be more likely to succeed overseas.

Excerpts from Moore's follow-up to "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- "Sicko," a documentary on the health-care system -- will be unveiled, along with another film-in-progress, "The Great '04 Slacker Uprising," about his rabble-rousing travels during the 2004 presidential election.

A British film that depicts the fictionalized assassination of President Bush -- "D.O.A.P." or "Death of a President" -- makes its North American debut.

Festival goers will also see the Dixie Chicks documentary, "Shut Up and Sing," about the furor after singer Natalie Maines told a British concert audience in 2003, "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."

Here's a rundown of some of the most talked-about films, of the 352 that will be shown:

"All the King's Men" -- Sean Penn stars as a corrupt Louisiana politician in a new adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's novel. This is a remake of the 1949 film that won best picture.

"A Good Year" -- Crowe can do a sword-and-sandals epic, but can he do romantic comedy, as a financier looking for love? He'll be tutored by co-star Albert Finney, who plays his womanizing uncle.

"Volver" -- Acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar reunites with leading lady Penelope Cruz in a tale about an abused woman.

"Babel" -- One of the top films at Cannes, a political thriller starring Pitt.

"Stranger Than Fiction" -- The big question here: Can Will Ferrell act? He's tried his hand in a Woody Allen film, but he'll test his thespian skills as an IRS agent alongside Emma Thompson, who plays a neurotic writer.

"Infamous" -- Featuring Daniel Craig, the next James Bond, this time playing killer Perry Smith, in a film about Truman Capote's research into the true-crime novel that became "In Cold Blood." Toby Jones will play the controversial writer (and not Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar for "Capote"), with Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee.

"El Cantante" -- A biopic about 1960s Puerto Rican salsa king Hector Lavoe and his struggles with addiction and loss, starring Marc Anthony and Lopez.

"Penelope" -- Witherspoon stars and serves as producer in this tale of a woman (Christina Ricci), who tries to shake off a family curse.

"For Your Consideration" -- Christopher Guest, the director of such comic classics as "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind," has rounded up much of the same ensemble -- including Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean -- for another romp. This one turns to actors caught up in the frenzy after their independent movie catches awards buzz.