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Film fest ends with no clear Oscar shoo-ins

Canadian Press

Toronto — The founder of the Toronto International Film Festival is tired of the griping growing louder every year that the star-studded event has become too big, too Hollywood, too glitzy.

And William Marshall points to the winner of this year's People's Choice Award at the festival, the relatively unheard-of Bella by first-time director Alejandro Monteverde, as proof its focus is first and foremost on quality movies regardless of their Hollywood pedigree.

"There are a lot of snotty people who have nothing better to do who say 'Oh, you've sold out to Hollywood,"' Marshall, an Order of Canada winner, said at Saturday's awards luncheon. "Well, of 352 films at this year's festival, seven of them were Hollywood films."

It's not that the festival has changed significantly since he founded it in 1976, Marshall says. The difference is the entertainment media's coverage of it, with the red carpet and many of Toronto's hotspots being staked out by paparazzi and info-tainment TV shows throughout the festival in the hopes of nabbing the major movie stars who descend upon the city.

"Now there's a whole new industry built in the last five years which is celebrity journalism; the ET Canada and Hello and those types of outlets," he said. "And I don't mind them being around, but don't tell me this is world-shaking journalism. This is just who smoked at a press conference or who wore a funny dress. It's not very important."

Marshall was joined in his defence of the festival by Monteverde, whose first film, Bella, tells the story of a friendship that develops one afternoon in New York City between a Mexican-American chef, played by Mexican actor Eduardo Verastegui, and a troubled waitress played by American stage actress Tammy Blanchard.

"This festival has been so, so amazing," Monteverde said as he accepted the People's Choice award. "They treat the little ones and the big ones the same. It's great to feel special from Day One until today ... thank you, Toronto film festival, for allowing film-makers like myself who come from nothing to come here."

But that hasn't stopped the nitpicking again this year, with everyone from film critics to industry insiders complaining not only about the size of the festival, but that there were no clear Oscar-worthy films to emerge, the way Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Walk The Line did last year.

"Toronto Film Fest Has Its Share of Hits, But Little Oscar Buzz," read one Boston Globe headline, typical of many as the festival wrapped up.

The whinging even extended this year to the city itself, with Roger Friedman complaining on his blog, Fox 411, about Toronto's "oddly laid-out streets" — a puzzling diss given the city's downtown core, where all the festival events take place, is almost a perfect grid.

Marshall rolls his eyes at such complaints.

"What is important is that the city of Toronto gets enormous world-wide attention because of the festival, and people get to go to the most civilized and the most enjoyable festival in the world," he says.

"People say 'Oh, is it as important as Cannes?' It's a hell of a lot more important than Cannes. Cannes is a trade show. You can't go to a movie in Cannes. The only reason you can't go to a movie here is if you didn't order your tickets fast enough. Our audience is three times the Super Bowl."

The festival is also a magnet for film distribution companies, with more than 3,000 sales delegates representing more than 500 companies from 67 countries showing up at the event this year to shop for movies.

Among those that got snapped up? Away from Her, the directorial debut from Canadian Sarah Polley that's generating Oscar buzz because of Julie Christie's performance, the controversial drama Death of a President, which won the international critics' prize at the festival, Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show and teen horror flick All The Boys Love Mandy Lane.

The biggest seller, at just under U.S. $6 million, was El Cantante, a film about late salsa superstar Hector Lavoe starring Jennifer Lopez and her husband, Marc Anthony.

Gabriel Range, director of Death of a President, also known as D.O.A.P., said the festival has been huge for his film given the scandal that's ensued because of its simulated assassination of George W. Bush. The movie, bought by Newmarket Films, was one of many in the lineup this year with a decidedly anti-Bush bent, although the left is rarely under-represented at any film festival.

"I'm thrilled that the film is going to be shown in theatres both here and in the U.S. in the near future," Range said Saturday. "That's proof that people can see beyond the premise and see that it's a film about this post-9-11 world that we live in."

Marshall points out that no film festival desperate for Hollywood glory and glitz would choose the Inuit film The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, as its opening night gala premiere and Amazing Grace, Michael Apted's film about abolishing slavery in Britain the 1800s, as the closer.

"Are those two films going to beat out Brad Pitt at the box office? I don't think so. But should we have screened them here? Absolutely, and that's what this festival is all about."

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