For movie lovers, there is no better place to be over the next 10 days than the Toronto International Film Festival.
North America's biggest cinema showcase, Toronto opens as usual Thursday with a Canadian tale, director Jeremy Podeswa's "Fugitive Pieces," starring Stephen Dillane as a writer haunted by his parents' murders and sister's abduction by the Nazis in Poland during World War II.
The 349 films playing at the festival include a mix of big studio movies with A-list stars, potential Academy Award contenders, low-budgeted tales and a wide range of foreign flicks and documentaries.
"There's a huge amount of movies there," said Jodie Foster, who stars in "The Brave One" as a woman who turns vigilante after her fiance is killed and she is left for dead by her assailants. The film plays Toronto before its Sept. 14 debut in theaters.
"There are smaller movies, but honestly, it's about the big guns. The nice thing is, it's about both. Bigger movies and smaller movies all intersecting in the same place. The bigger movies get more coverage, but the smaller movies benefit from it."
Other big guns at Toronto include "Michael Clayton," with George Clooney as a lawyer doing damage control for a corporate client in a huge class-action lawsuit; "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," with Brad Pitt as the Old West outlaw; "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," with Cate Blanchett reprising her role as Britain's Queen Elizabeth I; director Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe," with Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess as young lovers in a musical set to Beatles tunes; "Sleuth," with Michael Caine and Jude Law in a new take on the 1970s tale of a writer and his wife's lover that starred Caine and Laurence Olivier; and "Atonement," with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in the story of a teen who falsely accuses her sister's lover of a crime.
While Clooney and Pitt are used to huge studio marketing pushes behind their major releases such as the "Ocean's" romps, both "Michael Clayton" and "Jesse James" are labors of love seeking critical acclaim to build an audience.
Both are challenging films that distributor Warner Bros. is testing out on the festival circuit.
"These festivals are huge," Clooney said. "If you get a good bunch of reviews out there, it's an automatic international wake-up call for your film. It forces the studio or whoever makes them to have to spend more money on marketing or theaters, because if they don't, they're dead."
"It's difficult to get films like these even made and out there," Pitt said. "Starting slowly from a festival helps, because there's more time and acceptance of quality, and therefore, you can create a word of mouth. That's the way films like that survive."
Movie stars are not the only celebrities at Toronto. Jimmy Carter will be on hand for "Man From Plains," Jonathan Demme's documentary following the former president's book tour for his "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," whose title and themes brought a storm of criticism from Jewish groups.
Other Toronto films include Ang Lee's World War II spy thriller "Lust, Caution"; David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," with Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in a crime tale set among London's Russian mob; "Reservation Road," with Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino in a drama about family tragedy; "Rendition," with Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhaal in a story of an Egyptian man wrongly held on suspicion of terrorism; and Woody Allen's crime tale "Cassandra's Dream," starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell.
The festival features directing debuts by two former TV sitcom stars. David Schwimmer of "Friends" directs the comedy "Run, Fat Boy, Run," with Simon Pegg as a man trying to win back his old fiancé by proving his worth in a marathon. Helen Hunt of "Mad About You" directs and stars in "Then She Found Me," about a teacher whose life turns upside down when her husband leaves her, her adoptive mother dies and her biological mom (Bette Midler) turns up.
Hunt said her past experiences at Toronto were less stressful than this trip, when she will be looking to land a distributor to put her film in theaters.
"Before, I've been a movie star getting out of a car at big, gala premieres," Hunt said. "I have no idea what to expect this time. Hopefully, somebody will say it's a movie we like and we can sell because it's good."
Director Paul Haggis, whose ensemble drama "Crash" was picked up by distributor Lionsgate at the Toronto festival and went on to win best-picture at the Oscars, returns with "In the Valley of Elah," a murder mystery set among U.S. soldiers newly returned from Iraq. The film stars Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon.
This time around, Haggis already has a distributor for his film, which opens in theaters Sept. 14.
"I guess this time, we're hoping for good word-of-mouth while we're there and a good launch," Haggis said. "It'll go out on a few screens, then we'll hope that it slowly builds. So, yeah, good word-of-mouth at the start will help."
"In the Valley of Elah" star Jones also sold his directing debut, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," at the Toronto festival.
"I think it became a good marketing venue. Otherwise, I know almost nothing about festivals," said Jones, who also stars in the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," which is playing at Toronto. "I know what it looks like on the receiving end of the flashbulbs, but that's the extent of my expertise."