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Toronto: the winners and the losers

The Toronto International Film Festival wrapped up on Saturday. But unlike last year, when most of the 2005 Oscar heavyweights were unveiled at the festival, this year’s event was an exercise in futility for most aspirants, as cool critical reaction chilled the Oscar hopes of, among others, Steve Zaillian’s Deep South political drama All The King’s Men, Marc Forster’s Kaufman-alike Stranger Than Fiction and the Ridley Scott-Russell Crowe reunion A Good Year (the jury’s still out on Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, which split critics down the middle). But there were plenty of movies and players walking away from the 31st festival with more than just their pride intact. Here, then, is Total Film’s round-up of the winners and losers of Toronto 2006…

Winners

The Brits
From Julie Christie’s heart-rending, Oscar-friendly portrayal of an Alzheimer’s sufferer in Sarah Polley’s directorial debut, Away From Her, to Scotsman James McAvoy’s three-film cascade (Penelope, The Last King Of Scotland, Starter For Ten), it was a bonus being British at this year’s festival. Also raking in the plaudits: Brit director Gabriel Range’s controversy-seeking Death Of A President (aka DOAP), with its faked assassination of Prez Bush, which snagged the international critics’ prize, and Amazing Grace, Michael Apted’s old-fashioned epic about the abolishment of slavery in Britain, which brought the festival to a stirring close.

Jennifer Lopez & El Cantante
J-Lo’s still a diva extraordinaire: the festival party for her and hubby Marc Anthony’s film, El Cantante, was monitored with Stasi-like efficiency by Lopez’s entourage. But the multi-hyphenate star made a savvy decision producing and taking a supporting role in the music-and-drugs biopic of late salsa superstar Hector Lavoe (played by Anthony). Distributors went into a buying frenzy after the first screening of her low-budget labour of love, with Picturehouse – jointly owned by HBO and New Line – emerging as the victor over Miramax and the Weinstein Company. Chalk up one clever, career-resuscitating move for Jenny from the block.

All The Boys Love Mandy Lane
Despite losing the El Cantante bidding war, the Weinstein brothers are still back in business. They didn’t waste any time hoovering up the rights to this 80s teen-slasher throwback, about an idolised high-school student (Amber Heard – remember that name) who accompanies five lusty pals on a trip to a ranch for a weekend of debauchery, only to be stalked by a psychopath. Funky, smart and squeamishly harsh.

Alejandro Gomez Monteverde
The Mexican-born, first-time director’s movie, Bella, beat 350 other films to take home the festival’s People’s Choice award. Last year’s People’s Choice victor, Tsotsi, went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Movie, so who knows what glory awaits Monteverde and his charming tale of a Mexican-American chef and troubled waitress who meet one afternoon in New York City?

Borat
Sacha Baron Cohen emerged the talk of the festival, stealing the thunder of stars thrice his size by arriving at the Borat premiere in a horse and cart – with the cart being pulled by five Kazakhstani peasant woman and the horse in the cart beside him. But even though a busted projector forced the first screening to be rescheduled, the fervent festival reception for Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan means Cohen’s PC-bashing, third world bumpkin looks set to conquer beyond British shores in a scope that Ali G could never achieve.

Penélope Cruz
With a tireless Toronto charm campaign that saw her flashing her megawatt smile on more red carpets than Minnie Driver in her heyday, the Spanish actress picked up a brisk Oscar tailwind that should propel her straight to the podium next March. It’s an A for effort for Cruz, but then she does have the goods to back it up: her impressive, tear-spilling turn in Pedro Almodóvar’s luminous La Mancha drama Volver.


Losers

Ontario
It was storm in a teacup time when Sean Penn broke the province’s strict anti-smoking laws by sparking up at his press conference for All The King’s Men. The Toronto Public Health Authority barked that they plan to send Penn a strongly-worded reprimand. “We’d love to see him in the city again and to make sure he’s aware of what the bylaws are,” quoth an Ontario bureaucrat, adding haughtily, “We also hope he’s kicked the habit by then.” A few attention-seeking Canadian politicians demanded the ex-pugilist actor’s prosecution for his flagrant flouting of their laws, but in the end, only the offending hotel where Penn puffed paid the price: a $600 fine. Stop laughing.

All The King’s Men
The fest’s biggest casualty? Steve Zaillian’s aforementioned Penn starrer, which Variety’s critic called “bloated and fatally miscast”. Before the festival, hopes were high for Sony’s political thriller, but apart from Penn’s barnstorming central performance, it limped out of Toronto with its award dreams in tatters. A robust performance at the US box office could change all that, but, for now, mark All The King’s Men RIP.

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