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TIFF rolling out films that Cannes missed

Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas in The Debt, on the playbill for TIFF 2010.

After the dearth of American entries at the Cannes Film Festival this year and a long downturn in indie cinema worldwide, the 35th Toronto International Film Festival may signal a bounce-back for quality cinema with a star-studded presence, as the fest presents a slate of promising films that were unavailable for the Riviera showcase earlier this year.

Following a summer that has shown few flickers of life, this year's TIFF, led by a Canadian entry, Barney's Version, based on the late Mordecai Richler's acclaimed novel, staring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, should be a test of the audience appetite for quality film and, more than in the most years, a rehearsal for the Oscar race.

At a jammed news conference Tuesday near the almost-complete Bell Lightbox (TIFF's new headquarters, set to open Sept. 12), TIFF co-director Piers Handling vowed the festival would continue its quest to find the "little gems" that often premiere in Toronto with no profile only to later find international acclaim.

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"We take great pride in our international role," Handling said Tuesday. "Last year, for example, the Argentinian film, The Secret in Their Eyes, came to our festival with no North American distribution. It was bought here, and subsequently won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, and is still running in Toronto cinemas after a three-month run. This role of discovery is central to our mission, and, no doubt, there will be similar stories this year."

This role of discovery is central to our mission. Piers Handling

Fifty-one films were announced at the opening press conference Tuesday. The festival should see visits by such stars as Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Helen Mirren, Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, Marion Cotillard, Clive Owen, Colin Firth, Christopher Plummer, Ben Affleck, Hilary Swank, Christopher Plummer, and Natalie Portman. Major directors attached to the films on offer include Robert Redford, Michael Winterbottom, Woody Allen, François Ozon, Mike Leigh, Julian Schnabel, Stephen Frears and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

Redford's The Conspirator, about a young woman (Robin Wright) charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln, is among the most high-profile films to have its world premiere at TIFF. It also stars James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, and Evan Rachel Wood.

Mirren and Sam Worthington appear in John Madden's The Debt, a thriller about three Israeli Mossad agents on a mission to capture a Nazi war criminal. Oscar-winner Cotillard headlines Guillaume Canet's film, Little White Lies, about a group of friends forced to own up to the untruths they've been spinning about each other.

In Rabbit Hole, Kidman teams up with Aaron Eckhart to portray a couple devastated by the loss of their son. And in Beginners, with Ewan McGregor and Plummer, a son and father struggle to reaffirm their relationship after the elderly dad comes out of the closet.

With so many films in the festival (the remaining titles will dribble out through August), TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey said Tuesday that it is "always hard to pick and choose themes.

"However, I think what we're seeing is what we often do: filmmakers addressing the current issues in the world. Migration is a theme we've found in many films, and there are a lot of stories exploring tough family issues, particularly from American filmmakers. David Schwimmer's film, Trust, is one that you're going to want to see. It's a very challenging film about what can happen inside a family." It co-stars Owen and Catherine Keener.

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Also in the lineup are Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller Black Swan, Affleck's The Town (Jon Hamm, Blake Lively and Rebecca Hall), Andy De Emmony's West Is West (the sequel to the acclaimed East Is East), Inarritu's Biutiful (which won a best-actor prize for Bardem at Cannes), Rowan Joffe's Brighton Rock (based on Graham Greene's 1938 novel), Tony Goldwyn's Conviction (with Swank and Sam Rockwell), Philip Seymour Hoffman's Jack Goes Boating (Amy Ryan and John Ortiz), Schnabel's Miral (about the establishment of an orphanage in Jerusalem in 1948), John Curran's Stone (De Niro and Edward Norton), Frears's Tamara Drewe (Jemma Arterton), Winterbottom's The Trip (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) and Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (with an ensemble that includes Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins and Naomi Watts).

Last year, many of the films that came to TIFF with no North American distribution also left without any, only to get picked up in the months immediately following the festival. This year, Bailey predicted "it might be a little quicker," but added "[the slower buy time]may just be the new reality. It's hard to say."

Whereas in past years the festival has boasted a lineup of 300-plus films, the number has been pared down slightly this year to between 280 and 290, a move Bailey explained as designed to "make the festival a little more manageable for those attending."

To commemorate the 35th anniversary of the festival, TIFF also announced it will be offering free public screenings of seminal films in the festival's history ( Road Kill, Water, Crash) at the 550-seat Cinema One in Bell Lightbox. The organizers also tacked an extra day (Sept. 19) onto the festival for rescreenings of popular films. TIFF kicks off Sept. 9.

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Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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