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Foreign gems found at Montreal event

'Best Day,' 'Innowhereland' nab top prizes

MONTREAL — With its quirky array of prizes from the competition jury crowning a rich selection of world cinema, the 26th edition of the Montreal World Film Festival ended Sept. 2 in a style it’s made all its own.

The jury, headed by Iranian helmer Majid Majidi, gave a pair of dark-horse pics the top two prizes, with Cristina Comencini’s Italian family yarn “The Best Day of My Life” nabbing the Grand Prix of the Americas and Tayfun Pirselimoglu’s existential Turkish drama “Innowhereland” garnering the Special Grand Prix. Neither had gathered much critical moss during the festival.

French actress Sophie Marceau’s best director award for “Speak to Me of Love” was popular with Francophones, but Montreal’s media complained vociferously about Quebecoise director Manon Briand’s much-liked “Chaos and Desire” only getting the Best Canadian Feature Audience Award. Even more surprising was the non-prizing of striking Belgian crime drama “Step by Step,” by Philippe Blasband, and German family dramedy “I’m the Father,” by Dani Levy, which were among the best-liked movies in the sprawling, 26-title competition.

Despite being North America’s only A-category competitive event, the Montreal fest has developed into a massive annual showcase of world cinema that almost sometimes seems to keep its gems well-hidden. The relaxed, friendly gathering typifies the loose, rangy feel of the city itself, with its intensely cinephile population and rich cultural life.

And judging by the long lines starting at 9 a.m. outside the three main venues, it’s an audience that colorful founder-topper Serge Losique and longtime chief programmer Daniele Cauchard have learned to play with the skill of master violinists.

Montreal isn’t a fest for lazy critics or uninquisitive auds: Its jewels are often buried deep in its sidebars. Like spending a week in the Cannes market, you can stumble across an unheralded discovery from Croatia or a tiny gem from Japan in between yawning through a prominent auteur’s latest oeuvre or getting a picture of a far-flung country’s average production. More than any other major festival, Montreal’s non-judgmental selection, taken as a whole, sums up the true range of currents — rather than those focused on by most festival selectors — in contemporary world cinema.

This year’s discoveries included Finnish comedy “Lovers & Leavers,” Slovenian relationship drama “Rustling Landcapes,” offbeat Japanese serial-killer pic “Copycat Killer,” Senegalese femme drama “Madame Brouette,” German inner-city drama “Ghettokids,” Danish gay-themed comedy “Shake It All About,” plus Iranian entry “The Deserted Station,” whose lead thesp Leila Hatami co-won the best actress award.

In its early days, Montreal used to attract a handful of A-list Hollywood titles annually and pull in some major U.S. stars. But today Hollywood almost completely bypasses Losique’s event in favor of anglophone Toronto. The only studio pic of any note this year was WB’s “City by the Sea,” and lead Robert De Niro the only high-profile American movie star to jet in.

But the absence of U.S. studio pics or stars hardly matters at a festival of world cinema where only one thing is important — the movies themselves. Bucking the trend in today’s sponsor-driven fest scene, Montreal still attracts major names from outside the U.S., a contingent that this year included longtime Quebec friend Gerard Depardieu, Paris-born Dutch director George Sluizer, Spanish maestro Carlos Saura, and Gallic thesp-turned-helmer Vincent Perez, as well as a huge array of lesser known helmers from around the globe.

The fest remains a key launchpad for French-language cinema, with the Quebecois “Chaos and Desire” sure to benefit from its fest berth when it opens commercially this month, and Michel Blanc’s Gallic starrer “See How They Run” proving an audience pleaser. The still-ferocious competition between the two fests has obscured the fact that Toronto isn’t the sole gateway to North America for foreign fare. Jury head Majidi has won the Grand Prix in Montreal an unprecedented three times and has publicly credited the fest with launching his international career. His 1997 “The Children of Heaven” went on to land an Oscar nod for best foreign-language film. The result was a healthy arthouse career for the Iranian movie, a success story helped along big-time by Montreal.

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