Toronto's road to Oscar begins

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The 31st annual Toronto film festival opened on Thursday amid warnings from critics that happy movies are going to be few and far between, as themes from many of the 350-plus entrants reflect the grim state of the world.

Movies about death, dying, illness, terrorism, war, rape, politics and violence make up more than 250 of the 352 films to be shown nearly round-the-clock over 10 days at North America's most important film festival -- one that boasts that it is the first stop on the road to Oscars.

The festival formally opens with a red-carpet gala for an Inuit-made film, "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen," about Canada's frozen north and cultural destruction wrought on native people by European Christians. Not a cheerful subject.Nor is one of the festival most anticipated films, "Babel," a happy one. Made by acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and starring Brad Pitt, it is a 143-minute mediation on the failure of cultures to communicate. Toronto Globe and Mail writer Johanna Schneller said, "sitting though it was one of the more gut wrenching experiences of my movie-going life."

Happily, the grimness of subject matter has done nothing to keep the stars at home tending their gardens. The red carpets are out for the likes of Pitt, Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Russell Crowe, Will Ferrell, Penelope Cruz, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Lopez, Sharon Stone and Demi Moore -- all of whom are expected in town to promote their latest works.

The hottest ticket at the moment is for the premiere of a film that has no star -- just a provocative title and idea. Called "Death of a President," it is a British-made film done in documentary style about what would happen if President George W. Bush was assassinated, especially to the war in Iraq and to civil liberties.

"This is easily the most dangerous and breathtakingly original film I have encountered this year," said Festival co-director Noah Cowan of the movie.

Sensing that the film would stir controversy, it was only referred to as "D.O.A.P." in the festival's guidebook.It is, however, not the only political film that is expected to raise hackles.

The festival will also premiere the documentary "Dixie Chicks: Shut up and Sing," about the fallout of singer Natalie Maines' criticism of Bush at a concert in London.

Controversial filmmaker Michael Moore will discuss the reaction he's had to his anti-Bush documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," and show parts of his new film, "Sicko," which takes aim at the U.S. health-care system.

The Pakistani film "Shame," which receives its world premiere at Toronto, tells the true story of Mukhtaran Mai, who was ordered gang-raped by her village's elders for a crime her brother was accused of committing. Instead of killing herself as was expected, she fought back and became an international human rights symbol. But she still has many enemies at home.

Also dealing with the subject of rape is the Indian film "A Cry in the Dark," a documentary about mass protests against the death of a girl in police custody after she was raped.

"Kabul Express," from Indian director Kabir Khan, takes a wry look at the aftermath of the Afghan war from the perspective of three reporters who forge an unlikely friendship with a Taliban fighter. Filmed in late 2005, it was the first international movie to be made entirely in Afghanistan since the Taliban were forced out of power.

Among the films being touted as potential Oscar candidates are Steven Zaillian's "All the King's Men," starring Sean Penn as a political demagogue, and Kevin MacDonald's "The Last King of Scotland," starring Forest Whitaker as dictator Idi Amin.

Toronto last year helped set Philip Seymour Hoffman on the road to an Oscar for his performance as writer Truman Capote and may do the same for Whitaker.

The festival is not entirely without laughs. Former "Gladiator" star and off-screen hellraiser Russell Crowe teams up again with director Sir Ridley Scott -- this time for a comedy.

Crowe plays a banker needing to change his life and find romance in the south of France in a "A Good Year." It was the sort of role Cary Grant used to play, and some may find Crowe a hoot to watch in a clearly change of pace role, designed to make him a heartthrob.

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