North America's largest cinema showcase opens Thursday

Sundance is about new talent and small, personal films. Cannes is about highbrow cinema and celebrity-watching.

The Toronto International Film Festival is about movies, from splashy studio releases and potential Oscar contenders to obscure foreign flicks and the latest avant-garde experiments.

North America's largest cinema showcase, the Toronto festival opens Thursday with a lineup that includes the Coen brothers' dark spy comedy "Burn After Reading" with George Clooney and Brad Pitt; Keira Knightley's historical saga "The Duchess"; Edward Norton and Colin Farrell's cop drama "Pride and Glory"; and the supernatural romantic comedy "Ghost Town," with Ricky Gervais, Tea Leoni and Greg Kinnear.

While the Cannes and Sundance festivals cater more to industry crowds and entertainment reporters, Toronto plays out in theaters throughout the city, with everyday movie-lovers making up a large part of the audience.

"This is very much a festival designed for the public," said Piers Handling, festival director. "It's a very broad, inclusive audience and very wide-ranging in terms of the films, from the small, tiny experimental films through to edgier films through comedies and through to major studio films."

Spike Lee said he got a stirring reception at Toronto two years ago with his Hurricane Katrina documentary, "When the Levees Broke." He hopes for the same this time with the World War II drama "Miracle at St. Anna," which plays Toronto in advance of its Sept. 26 theatrical release.

"The people in Toronto really appreciate films," Lee said. "Toronto's a great vehicle, a great launchpad for the film to come out in the fall."

Among other Toronto titles: The Iraq War homecoming drama "The Lucky Ones," with Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams and Michael Pena; the journalism tale "Nothing but the Truth," starring Kate Beckinsale; "Rachel Getting Married," with Anne Hathaway as an addict on leave from rehab for her sister's wedding; the adultery drama "The Other Man," with Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Antonio Banderas; and the Paris Hilton documentary "Paris, Not France," the directing debut of Adria Petty, Tom Petty's daughter.

With hundreds of critics and reporters on hand, the festival is a prime spot for filmmakers to get the word out about movies that lack a big studio marketing campaign, said Ed Harris, whose directing debut, "Pollock," played at Toronto in 2000. The film went on to win the supporting-actress Oscar for Marcia Gay Harden.

Harris returns this time with the Western "Appaloosa, " which he co-wrote and directed. Featuring Harris, Viggo Mortensen and Renee Zellweger, "Appaloosa" opens in theaters Oct. 3 after premiering in Toronto.

"There's tons of press there," Harris said. "I'll pretty much do whatever I can to help build awareness that this film is out there."

Begun in the 1970s to promote Canadian film, the festival continues to showcase homegrown works, including Thursday's opening-night premiere, the World War I saga "Passchendaele," directed by Paul Gross, who also stars.

Inspired by stories the filmmaker's grandfather shared about his experiences in the war, "Passchendaele" has an unusually large scope for a Canadian-financed film, whose budgets tend to top out at about $8 million, said Gross, who starred as a Canadian Mountie in the 1990s TV show "Due South" and as a theater director in the acclaimed series "Slings and Arrows."

Gross managed to raise $20 million for his production, which centers on a wounded sergeant who falls in love with a nurse, then becomes protector of her younger brother when the youth is shipped to the trenches.

"I think the film is large enough to hold the hall," Gross said of Toronto's cavernous Roy Thomson Hall, where the festival holds its main premieres. "I am looking forward to seeing it on a screen that big. I don't think I'll ever see it on a screen that huge again."

Films good and bad tend to draw cheers from Toronto audiences, who seem genuinely thrilled to catch movies before they land in theaters.

"I love Sundance and I always will, and Sundance gave me a career. But you still have cineastes at Sundance who will turn their nose up," said Kevin Smith, whose debut, "Clerks," was a Sundance sensation and who heads to Toronto with his comedy "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," starring Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks.

"In Toronto, nobody turns their nose up at almost anything. I'm going to say this, and then we're going to tank, but if you tank in Toronto, then something's seriously wrong with that movie," Smith said.

"The thing they always say about Toronto is you have to take off about 20 percent of the audience reaction, because it's so effusive. But I'd rather go see it with an overly effusive audience. As a filmmaker, that's an awesome thing, where it's like, everybody loves it."

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