Diary of a film fiend

Or: How I Saw 60-Plus Movies in 8 Days and Nearly Lost My Mind

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I am a film junkie. There, I've admitted it.Movies are not only my business and my pleasure, but something I need a steady supply of in order to function with some degree of normalcy. Put me out in nature for too long, away from a movie screen or a DVD player, and I start to get squirrelly.

For movie junkies like me, the Toronto International Film Festival is Mecca. Toronto is arguably the most important film festival in the world, second only to Cannes in terms of prestige and scope, but far friendlier and more manageable. Many of the year's biggest movies premiere here, as well as hundreds of smaller, more unusual gems that will never again be seen anywhere near North America. The film industry flocks to Toronto every year, tapping into the legendary enthusiasm of the city's movie-mad audiences, and movie theaters are everywhere, most of them full.

This year's festival features some 345 movies from 50 countries, so about a week before I leave I begin scouring the festival Web site, picking the most promising, prioritizing and creating grids in an attempt to fit as many movies as possible into the eight days I'll be there. It takes the better part of an afternoon just to read through all the film synopses, whittling my list down to 60 films.

Saturday, Sept. 7I arrive in Toronto early in the afternoon, with just enough time to grab a cab and check in with the festival's press office.

The festival's nerve center, situated in two adjacent hotels, is a condensed, elaborately interconnected network of press liaison offices and suites housing publicists for the various films and studios. The whole area is a bubbling vortex of journalists, publicists, producers, agents, movie stars, filmmakers, buyers, sellers and freeloaders all hanging out, sizing up the films, jockeying for position and having fun.

4 p.m. La Vie Nouvelle turns out to be a terrible choice for a first taste of Toronto. The movie sucks, frankly, although I suppose you could be charitable and say that it sucks in an interesting sort of way. The film is set in one of those decimated modern urban landscapes that could be anywhere, where characters without names stare silently out windows and periodically engage in degrading sex acts. It's all hopelessly pretentious, and I soon begin counting the walkouts just to keep myself awake.

6 p.m. This is where the festival really starts for me, with Todd Haynes' remarkable Far from Heaven. It's one of the festival's hottest tickets, so I line up early, which turns out to be a smart move. As it happens, there are not enough seats to accommodate everyone in line, and several hundred people are eventually turned away — including celebrity critic Roger Ebert, who is later lambasted in the Canadian papers for throwing a "hissy fit" over not getting in. Ebert shoots back in his own column, claiming that the festival's press screening system is in dire need of reorganization, that the Canadian journalists are America-bashers with inferiority complexes, and that he has never hissed.

The movie is great, by the way.

Sunday, Sept. 8Up at the crack of dawn to make the rounds with publicists, making sure I get in to the films I want to see today. As Roger Ebert can attest, a basic press pass does not guarantee entry even into press-only screenings, which are strictly first come, first served. As for public screenings, you need a "hard ticket" to assure admittance.

I stop by the Miramax suite, where I find myself the lucky recipient of a coveted hard ticket to the sold-out morning screening of Frida. (Actually, I later learn, virtually every public screening at this festival is sold out, right down to the most obscure Sardinian documentary on goat herding).

9:30 a.m. I waltz into the theater, attracting glares from the Frida faithful who've been standing in line all morning. When it's all over, I almost feel guilty for not liking the movie more.

11:30 a.m. Just enough time to catch the tail end of a press conference for The Wild Thornberrys Movie, a kiddie cartoon that has inexplicably shown up in Toronto. The press conference is less than half full, and the organizers of the event are so grateful to have another warm body in the room, they present me with a limited edition, hand-painted Russian nesting doll featuring various Thornberrys characters. They've given out only a handful of these and I make a mental note to check when I get home to see how many wind up on eBay.

Maybe I'm just disoriented from circling the publicity maze too quickly, but when I get off the elevator and literally bump into Salma Hayek, it takes a second to realize that this is in fact the very same face I've been staring at all morning in Frida. In the flesh, she's barely 5 feet tall.

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