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Johanna Schneller

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

So, how was your Festival? With hundreds of films and scores of stars flitting around town, it's impossible for any two people to have the same experience. Here are the highly unscientific results of my quest to find some kind of consensus on the Toronto International Film Festival 2005.

The surefire Oscar nominees are Capote's Philip Seymour Hoffman, who's a lock to contend for best actor; and for best actress, Walk the Line's Reese Witherspoon and North Country's Charlize Theron. The hot tickets were Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (Heath Ledger could get a best-actor nod, too) and Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto.

The Festival dogs are Revolver, Tideland and The Matador. Mention their names, and cries of "unwatchable!" and "appalling!" ring throughout the land.

People hate parties in stores. "You can't relax standing next to a rack of clothes," someone said. Unfortunately, they're not going anywhere: As the future of the film business is co-productions, so the future of the party business is corporate sponsorship. Birks, Chanel, Club Monaco and their ilk are too generous to resist, even if you can't bust a move for fear of busting a display case.

In fact, no one over 35 likes parties much, period. Friday night at the Mongrel Media fete at the Ultra Supper Club, the U.S. distributors spent the whole evening lamenting the good, bad old days, when a party was a keg of beer, an empty room and a lot of misbehaving. Now stars are marched in (by more handlers every day), photographed, and marched out immediately, leaving lots of publicists and — who? Executives' relatives? — to drink without them. "Very little actual fun happens," someone summed up.

The media machine continues to whir at frightening speed. With the Oscars now in February, more and more films go straight from TIFF to a September opening, including Corpse Bride and Oliver Twist. So increasingly, the Festival feels like an especially frantic Hollywood junket. Print reporters found that interviews scheduled for 20 to 30 minutes were suddenly stopped after 10. The first press to be cut, as always, are the Canadians. "You'd think we'd have the hometown advantage," one said. "It's the opposite." And premium spots on the red carpet at Roy Thomson Hall were so coveted, TV crews were dispatching interns at noon to hold spots for the 6 p.m. show. "They won't let you on the red carpet until 4:30, so the interns line up in the street," a TV type told me.

On the business side, no one was pleased with the (absurd) NC-17 rating for Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies. It's being released without a rating in the U.S. The folks behind Thank You For Smoking were ecstatic when their film sold for $6.5-million, a TIFF record. The folks behind Trust the Man were even happier when their film broke that record the next day, selling for $7-million.

And though actors seemed more pampered than ever before (example: Origins spa offered free temple massages at InStyle magazine's fete to those "stressed" by partying), people had fewer freak-outs. The number of handlers screaming into their mobiles on the third floor of the InterCcontinental dropped precipitously this year. "Maybe it's New Orleans, but no one's being too self-indulgent," one interviewer speculated.

The saddest people are the journalists who know (and therefore love) Gabrielle Free, who for years has run the TIFF press office with breathtaking finesse, because this is her last year. She's starting a new job at the Ontario Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship, and we journos are in mourning.

And the happiest people by far were those who skipped the parties and interviews and just saw films. Those lucky few who caught them raved about the Romanian drama The Death of Mister Lazarescu, the Australian love story Look Both Ways and the Irish film Pavee Lackeen. There was fierce debate about the angry drama Harsh Times (it's harsh indeed), and about actor/director John Turturro's surreal quasi-musical Romance & Cigarettes. (That film and Thank You For Smoking have made smoking hot again. Not that actors ever stopped.) In general this year, there was more sex than death. Life post-9/11 was a big subject, as was spirituality. And the literary film is having a renaissance, with everyone digging Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist; Pride and Prejudice, which stars Keira Knightley; and Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, featuring a huge cast led by Steve Coogan.

The best pre-movie speech was Bono's eloquent introduction to Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. And the most emotional end credits belong to Shooting Dogs, Michael Caton-Jones's true story about 2,500 Tutsis who took refuge in a Kigali school during the horrors in April, 1994. It's a distaff Hotel Rwanda — no happy ending here; the 2,500 were slaughtered. But Caton-Jones, who shot entirely on location, filled his crew with locals who are genocide survivors, and during the closing credits, we see their photos along with their lists of lost family members. The thing that makes you weep most is, though their losses are staggering, in the photos all are smiling. If that isn't a perfect evocation of how we go on living, I don't know what is.

And isn't that, in the end, what film festivals are about? Movies that show us the many ways there are to live?

Everything is Illuminated is a film that embodies a lot of trends this year. It's got a first-time writer/director (who also happens to be an actor), Liev Schreiber. It's literary — it comes from Jonathan Safran Foer's acclaimed faux-memoir. And it's highly spiritual: It takes a stab at defining the meaning of life. It's also one of my favourites of the week.

The climax occurs in a lonely house hidden in the middle of a Ukrainian sunflower field. (Hence the sunflowers on the poster.) Schreiber knew that for his film to work, that field had to be right. It had to, as he told me, "feel infinite."

He and his crew mulled over possibilities. Plant some flowers, then add the rest through CGI? Too cold. Pay a local grower to raze a giant swathe of his crop so the production could build a house in the middle? No one agreed.

In the end, they planted empty fields with "thousands and thousands of seeds," to grow the flowers themselves, and used no CGI at all, Schreiber said. "There were remarkable logistics. I remember standing in this colossal field that seemed to span forever, with the production designer holding a compass and an almanac, because he was trying to figure out the position of the sun two months hence."

Sunflowers take six or seven weeks to reach their height, you see, and then only last a week and a half. Plus, their faces follow the trajectory of the sun in the sky. "So not only did we have to build our schedule around when they'd be grown," Schreiber said. "We also needed to figure out which way they'd be facing in two months. Because only then would we know where to place the house so that on the morning when we had the crane shot, not only would the sunflowers and house be facing the camera, but there wouldn't be any shadow from the crane."

Amazingly, it all came together. The flowers, the house, the crane, even the weather, worked out beautifully.

Not every film at TIFF does. But we keep going, because every now and then we see a miracle.

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