Oh Canada!

The changing faces of the world's premier film event.

Some people told me I was lucky. Everybody else said I was crazy, and I knew they were right.

There are lots of reasons to devote nine solid days of your life to chasing movies at the Toronto International Film Festival, but certain ground rules apply.

1. Don't expect to sleep.

2. Forget about regular meals, or any food or beverage that can't be snagged on the run.

3. Put any thought of sightseeing out of your mind. You may be in Toronto, one of the most seductive cities in North America, but you might as well be anywhere.

I knew that spending a week-and-change running around like the proverbial headless chicken at the world's biggest film festival was a dirty and possibly dangerous job. But someone had to do it.

At least that's how I pitched the idea to my editor, to whom I cast myself as some sort of brave and selfless Tampanian cosmonaut hurling myself into the great celluloid unknown in order to bring back news of cinema's future to the landlocked masses back home.

Toronto offers not just quantity (some 256 feature films this year, 180 of which were world premieres), but quality too. It's possible to see a bad movie at Toronto, of course, but you almost have to go out of your way to do so. The Toronto International Film Festival specializes in the crème de la crème of both commercial and non-mainstream cinema, which is just one of the reasons it is now widely considered to be the most important film festival in the world. For a critic, the festival's an all but indispensable destination, and making a haj here is every bit as essential as, say, a doctor's duty to brush up on advances in the field of medicine.

At least that's how I sold the story.

The reality turned out to be a bit different, and it began to sink in the moment I set foot in Toronto.

The first time I attended this festival, 10 years ago, I traveled with my wife, and the first thing I dragged her to, as she is forever reminding me, was a somewhat daunting four-hour deconstruction of Greek history and the human condition.

That movie, Theo Angelopoulis' Ulysses' Gaze, was actually pretty remarkable, and although its length has grown in memory (at a mere 177 minutes, it doesn't even clock in at three hours), the fact remains that the film is about as far from multiplex fare as you'll get. I'd hoped to continue the tradition by choosing a movie that was equally unconventional as my first taste of the 2005 Toronto festival: Les Sangantes, an obscure digital production from Cameroon billed as Africa's first sci-fi art-movie. I mean, how could I resist?

And were it not for my plane getting in late, that's exactly where I would have been, with the allegorical space vampires of Cameroon. But by the time I touched down in Toronto, the only film that was available for screening was a much less exotic option: a sneak peak at a Hollywood movie, Shopgirl.

Based on a Steve Martin novella, Shopgirl stars Claire Danes as a young woman wavering between a slacker dude her own age (Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman) and a wealthy, sophisticated and much older businessman, played by Martin. Not much happens here (the movie is very slight and, well, novella-y), but what does happen is dominated by an overripe orchestral score that seems to suggest that every action in the movie is enormously poignant.

Martin settles into Bill Murray's Broken Flowers mode here (which is to say, deadpan and not very funny), but when the veil eventually lifts on his character, he turns out to be so shallow that the film nearly falls apart. Shopgirl features some appealing moments, but the movie ultimately feels like a middle-aged male fantasy that wants to be thought of as painfully honest but is really just sort of creepy.

Even creepier, though, were the guys sprinkled throughout the theater staring at the audience with night vision goggles to make sure none of us were pirating their precious product. Leave it to those guardians of family fun and universal copyright law, the good folks at Disney (brains and bucks behind Shopgirl), to make a guy feel welcome. Yep, even here in rainbow-flag-wavin', peace-lovin' Toronto, the Age of Paranoia has come home to roost.

To be fair, those scary guys with the goggles were all over the place this year — another sign that the festival and Hollywood have become the strangest of bedfellows.

Over the past decade, as it's become increasingly clear that positive or negative buzz at this festival can make or break a movie, Toronto has become an ever more important arena for the big studios looking to get a leg up on awards season. How a film fares at Toronto has become an all-too reliable indicator of how it will do out in the world (American Beauty, Lost in Translation and Sideways were all hits here well before anyone had heard of them), and this year's festival was crammed with film buyers, publicists and journalists hovering around a slew of Oscar hopefuls in a field that was basically wide open.

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