Toronto's arrived, and the British are coming

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Kaleem Aftab on an amazing 10 days at the world's buzziest film festival

It has taken 35 years, but Toronto has finally hit the big time. Once a minor distraction on the film festival circuit, it has become the event that all of Hollywood wants to be seen at. This year, Toronto has stunned its rivals with its host of big-name films. It has boasted world premieres directed by such luminaries as Clint Eastwood, Danny Boyle and John Carpenter and seems to have replaced Venice as the unofficial launchpad for films with Oscar potential. But that's not the only exciting news. This year, all the talk at Toronto was about the Brits.

The fact that the British contingent did so brilliantly was all the more impressive given that Toronto can now claim to be the biggest film festival on the planet after Cannes. It is even arguable that the festival has more to offer than its French counterpart, in terms of stars and popular movies.

The opening of a new festival building housing several state-of-the-art cinema screens was also a poke in the eye for Venice, which recently announced that their own new cinema complex would not be ready before 2012. The Toronto festival has several other advantages over Venice: a convenient city centre location, the capacity to show more than 300 films and, because of its proximity to Hollywood and New York, the big American stars are happy to turn up. The downside is that the festival takes place over too many buildings across the city, but it is hoped that next year, when the new building is fully operational, there will be less travelling between cinema screens.

There simply weren't enough hours in the day to see all the films on offer. On one day I was able to watch Boyle's 127 Hours; Eastwood's Hereafter; Mike Mills's Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent; Tell No One director Guillaume Canet's much-anticipated second feature Little White Lies, starring his off-screen partner and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard; and Let Me In, the English language remake of the Swedish film Let The Right One In, made by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves.

Throughout the festival, the Brits hogged the limelight. Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield attended the premiere of Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek's adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel. And that film was overshadowed in turn by the buzz title of the festival (and a sure bet for multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture): The King's Speech.

The film, directed by The Damned United helmsman Tom Hooper, is loosely based on the true story of King George VI's attempts to overcome a terrible stammer. He employs an unorthodox speech therapist in the shape of Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue. Colin Firth was getting all the plaudits for his depiction of the stammering king; playing monarchs always makes the American Academy sit up and vote. Expect Helena Bonham Carter to also be in contention for awards in the Supporting category, for her turn as the concerned Queen Elizabeth. Another person getting Oscar whispers for playing a real-life character was James Franco as mountain climber Aron Ralston in the exhilarating 127 Hours. The most talked-about actress was 28-year-old Newcastle-born Andrea Riseborough, who made her mark in three films at the festival: Never Let Me Go, Made in Dagenham and, most notably, Brighton Rock.

Other Brits winning praise included Richard Ayoade, who made the crowd-pleasing Submarine about a 15-year-old boy (Noah Taylor) who is on a mission to lose his virginity and save his parents' marriage. Peter Mullan's Neds, which is set in Glasgow in 1973 and according to the director is 10 per cent based on his own life, also received a lot of attention.

The picture was not all rosy for the Brits. West is West, the sequel to East is East had a less than successful debut and it is unlikely that this tale, set mostly in Pakistan, will do the business of its predecessor. Similarly, Never Let Me Go lacked the suspense and shock value of the novel upon which it is based. Yet the fact that the Brits, on the whole, did so well is likely to be mentioned a lot in the months before the UK Film Council shuts its doors next year. (Both the supernatural Clint Eastwood film Hereafter and Let Me In were being classed as British films.) After all, it is an amazing achievement in an industry widely being reported to be on its knees.

In these harsh economic times, you might have thought that the festival social scene would suffer. Not in Toronto, where every night seemed to offer several opportunities to party hop. Last Tuesday, for example, Toronto native Keanu Reeves and a heavily pregnant Vera Farmiga attended the celebrations for their new comedy Henry's Crime, while Sam Worthington was on fine form at the Soho House venue celebrating the premiere of yet another British film, The Debt, in which three Mossad agents are sent on a secret mission to capture a Nazi war criminal in the 1960s. Helen Mirren also stars, but it is American Jessica Chastain, playing the younger version of Mirren's character, who steals the show.

One of the big events of the festival saw Edward Norton, who is in the John Curran drama Stone, interview Bruce Springsteen on stage. The Boss was in town to promote a documentary about the making of his classic album Darkness on the Edge of Town. Another intriguing on-stage chat had polemic documentary-maker Michael Moore interviewing Ken Loach and his writer Paul Laverty.

A personal highlight was lunch with Ray Winstone, in town to promote the British and New Zealand co-production Tracker, in which he plays a South African bounty hunter sent to apprehend a Maori accused of killing a British soldier in 1904. And one of the stand-out films from new directors was the wacky French road-trip movie Our Day Will Come, directed by Romain Gavras (son of Costa). Full of energy and confidence, it stars Vincent Cassel and Olivier Barthelemy as redheads angry at hair-colour prejudice.

But the real stars of the show, by common consent, were British cinema generally, and Toronto itself.

The world's top film festivals: The best of the rest, from Cannes to Tribeca

Sundance

Started by Robert Redford in 1978, Sundance, in January, put Utah on the cinematic map. Specialising in independent US films, it made waves in the 1990s, but headline-making deals are rarer now.

Berlin

Since its move to Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin festival, held in February, has been rejuvenated. The last few years have been notable for its contribution to the growth of the market for film sales.

Tribeca

Started in the aftermath of 9/11, New York's spring festival benefits from the involvement of Robert De Niro. Good for star-gazing and parties, but the films can be weak. It now has a twin festival in Qatar.

Cannes

Held in May, Cannes, in the South of France, is the premier film festival in the world. The Palme d'Or, given for the best film, is the most prestigious award on the festival circuit. The parties are usually full of stars.

Venice

The oldest film festival, held in late summer, is in danger of fading away. It has poor facilities and has been living off its glamorous past for too long. A proposed cinema complex has been delayed until 2012.

Abu Dhabi

This 10-day October extravaganza, formerly known as the Middle East International Film Festival, is held in the seven-star Emirates Palace. Cash prizes are given out, but the event still lacks star names.

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