Tips for TIFF 

By now, just about any gathering in front of a screen constitutes a film festival; everyone and their grandmother has been to one. Maybe you once went to a 24-hour marathon of random horror flicks that was dubbed a "festival." And Utah now has something called the ROADance Film Festival — a couple of guys who project movies out of the back of a moving trailer truck.

But once every September, just four hours away from Detroit, the Toronto International Film Festival comes around to remind you of what a film fest really is — 350 movies, from more than five dozen countries, shown over the course of 10 days from 8 in the morning to 3 a.m. the next day. A true festival has so many stars milling about the area that a looker like The Fast and the Furious' Paul Walker can stroll down the street unnoticed, as he did just a couple of years ago in uptown Toronto, the festival's central location.

Since its origin in 1976, the festival has always been well-respected, but in the past decade or so, it has become one of the three or four major players on the fest circuit. Hollywood uses it as a launching pad for Oscar-worthy fall films. Journalists pass up Cannes, knowing that the cream of the world-cinema crop will show up at the far more convenient and user-friendly Toronto fest. With more and more productions shooting north of the border anyway, celebrities are more likely to make an appearance there. And Canadian audiences — who are both ravenously appreciative and bullshit-free — are a great indicator of how a film will fare when it opens in America.

Premiering at the festival gave films like The Big Chill, American Beauty, Amélie, City of God and Brokeback Mountain traction stateside. Studios know that if they've got a nongenre film on their hands — that is, if the idea behind it can't be summed up in five words or less — they have to screen it here first. And every year, humble little indie films with no buzz whatsoever (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Thank You for Smoking) become bidding-war legends.

This year is no exception: Zach Braff works his patented twentysomething ennui yet again in The Last Kiss, a pre-midlife crisis drama. Requiem for a Dream's bad boy auteur Darren Aronofsky finally returns with his third feature, the expensive and long-delayed time-travel flick The Fountain (starring Hugh Jackman and the director's main squeeze Rachel Weisz). Brad Pitt will be in town to promote his much-buzzed-about turn in the drama Babel, an international take on the same sort of racial-cultural strife that made Crash such a sensation last year. And where else but Toronto could a superstar funnyman like Will Ferrell attempt a Truman Show-style dramatic makeover, in the Adaptation-like meta-movie Stranger than Fiction.

Fest veterans come prepared: They start planning a year in advance, take a week off work and load up on cases of Red Bull and Visine. But you don't have to be a freakish cinephile to make a successful weekend road-trip out of the fest. Here are a few tips for popping your festival cherry:

Don't worry if you don't have every screening planned out: A list of titles and times is available at www.e.bell.ca/filmfest/2006. Hardcore festgoers buy blocks of tickets online, then submit their wish list of picks as soon as the schedule goes live, so many of the most sought-after films might already be all booked up. Still, extra seats and screenings are announced before and during the fest, and you can buy individual tickets for a film online right up until 7 p.m. the day before it screens. If you're buying day-of, you can show up in person at the main Festival Box Office or the theater showing the movie. And even if something's listed as "sold out," you still have a chance if you're willing to camp out an hour in advance in the rush line: Ushers count the number of empty seats when the lights go down, and then allow the first in line to get the latecomers' seats. Speaking of which ...

Show up to your movie early: You're not guaranteed a seat if you're not in line 15 minutes before screening time.

Take a chance on something you've never heard of: Countless movies are picked up every year by executives looking for the next big thing; they attend screenings just like everyone else. The Gala and Special Presentation sections get all the coveted, big-name films, but you'll have better luck checking out something under the heading of Contemporary World Cinema (which includes great foreign and English-language films), Discovery (first-time filmmakers) or Real to Reel (documentaries). If something piques your interest, check it out: Either you'll see a movie that you won't ever get a chance to see again, or you'll get the chance to act all snooty when it comes out in the United States. ("I saw that months ago in Toronto.")

See something in the Midnight Madness section: Of all the sections of the fest, the midnight series may be the most fun, and the easiest for securing tickets. Shown at some of the largest theaters in the city, the 10 films chosen every year cut a wide swath across horror, sci-fi, comedy and international freak-out flick genres (or any combination thereof), and even if you don't like what you see, the audience interaction is second-to-none. This year promises at least one sure bet: Comedian Ali G's riotous satire Borat.

Let the stars come to you: Celebrity hounds pack the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, or set up shop on the red carpets every night. But you're just as likely to run into far more interesting actors like Maggie Gyllenhaal or William H. Macy in one of the many clothing stores or restaurants uptown. They'd also be more willing to give you the time of day than, say, Brangelina.

Sleep. Hydrate. Take a break: There's no need to see five movies a day, even if you're physically able. Toronto's a beautiful city. Check out Queen St. West, a hotbed of resale stores, galleries and cool diners. Go to the city's enormous, bustling Chinatown. The Kensington and St. Lawrence Markets are havens for foodies and flea-market addicts.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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