Nearly 300 films from 46 countries — among them David Cronenberg’s “M. Butterfly”– will unspool starting Friday at the nine-day Toronto Festival of Festivals.

Included are several Cannes prize winners, directorial debuts from actors Robert De Niro and Morgan Freeman, and a wide array of films from Asia and Latin America.

Toronto’s user-friendly atmosphere and North American preems attract dozens of U.S. critics, making the fest a prime place to test films before stateside release. Critics can be counted on to deliver frank appraisals.

Russian director Sergei Bodrov will be spotlighted, and Italian helmer Nanni Moretti will be honored with a retrospective. Renowned European directors Roman Polanski and Stephen Frears will unveil their latest efforts, and David Anspaugh’s “Rudy” is slated to close the 18th annual fest.

While the event doesn’t officially have a market, it regularly attracts a host of buyers, including execs from Sony Pictures Classics, Miramax and Paramount Pictures. Sales office director Christine Yankou is expecting about 150 buyers this year.

Fest deputy program director Piers Handling says, “A lot of business is done out of Toronto. It’s an informal market. All the key players come here, and they like the informal atmosphere.”

While fest organizers call it the “most important festival in North America,” some industry members no doubt consider that an overstatement.

But there’s no disputing the event’s solid reputation for screening a wide range of quality films — and a substantial media and industry following to prove it.

“This is a movie-hungry town. It has one of the highest filmgoing per capita averages in North America,” noted executive director Helga Stephenson. “So we appeal to the widest possible sector locally and we’re told by guests that they’ve never seen(elsewhere) the degree of community involvement we get.”

Highlighting the 47 titles in the Contemporary World Cinema program are Ken Loach’s “Raining Stones,” which shared this year’s Cannes jury prize; Mike Leigh’s “Naked,” which won the actor award for David Thewlis at Cannes; Jean-Luc Godard’s “Helas Pour Moi”; Bertrand Blier’s “Un Deux Trois Soleil”; and Ang Lee’s Taiwan/U.S. co-production, “The Wedding Banquet,” which has opened to rave reviews and solid business in New York and Los Angeles.

The Toronto fest does not have an official competition, only the Fipresci prize for extraordinary achievement in the direction of a first feature.

Cannes Camera d’Or winner “The Scent of the Green Papaya,” from Vietnamese helmer Tran Anh Hung, is one of 28 pics featured in the First Cinema sidebar. Other films from novices eligible for the Fipresci prize include “Boxing Helena” by Jennifer Lynch, “Conversations With a Cupboard Man” from Poland’s Mariusz Grzegorzek, and the long-lost ’70s pic “A Day at the Beach,” a Polanski script directed by Simon Hesera.

Toronto’s CITY-TV provides a $ C25,000 ($ 20,000) prize for best Canadian feature, and the National Film Board doles out $ C5,000 ($ 4,000) for best Canadian short film.

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