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By Michael Calleri

When a film festival showcases 268 feature-length motion pictures over 10 days, it's difficult for any one movie to become the talk of the town. So many films also means a movie critic is often faced with two or three preferred choices being screened at the exact same time. Regarding the latter, you make your selections and hope you've made good ones.

Regarding making a splash, there wasn't a lot of buzz at the recently ended 36th Annual Toronto International Film Festival.

Much of the buzz revolved around an unlikely entry, an honest-to-goodness silent movie. What's wonderful about the silent work shown at Toronto is the fact that "The Artist" is a brand new film, made and projected in the classic Silver Screen aspect ratio of 1.33:1, exactly the dimensions of silent films shown to moviegoers during the 1920s.

Thanks in part to gorgeous cinematography from Guillaume Schiffman, the black-and-white feature is an astonishing step back in time. It had moviegoers at its premiere at the Elgin Theatre, including me, laughing uproariously at the sight gags, following the romance and melodrama with rapt attention, and cheering at the end.

Motion picture history reveals various interpretations of production and release dates for the last genuine silent movie. Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" (made in 1928) and F.W. Murnau's "Tabu" were both released in 1931. Chaplin's "Modern Times" was sent to theaters in 1936, but it's a silent feature with numerous sound effects. Most Hollywood studios stopped making silents in 1929, such as Greta Garbo's "The Kiss."

The last honest-to-goodness silent picture to be produced in Hollywood was "Legong: Dance Of The Virgins" from 1935. Set in the South Pacific, it was never shown in the United States due to its extensive nudity. Yes, Mel Brooks made a non-talkie in 1976, but it's in color and is a spoof of silent films.

"The Artist" is a very effective picture. I was engaged for its entire 100-minute length. It's a French production, shot in Los Angeles, about the end of Hollywood's silent movie era and the onset of the talkies.

France's Jean Dujardin is extraordinary as George Valentin, the most popular male silent star of the times, trapped in a loveless marriage, who refuses to accept the rise of talking motion pictures. He meets a female extra (a very good Berenice Bejo) who rises to the top because as movies begin to talk, she's a hit. George is a proud man, but his life is miserable. The movie delivers the perfect mix of comedy and pathos.

The musical score from Ludovic Bource, with a nod to Bernard Herrmann's "Vertigo," is perfect. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius is clearly in love with movies, especially silent pictures, and he completely understands the magic that can be created when a film casts a spell over an audience.

Dujardin deservedly won the best actor prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and you can expect "The Artist" to be under serious consideration come Academy Award time next year, especially for best picture, cinematography and lead actor.

The movie was purchased for U.S. distribution by State University of New York at Buffalo graduate and modern movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. It is scheduled to open Nov. 23. Prepare to be surprised and delighted.

I attended four days of the festival and saw 12 features in theaters (plus six more on DVD screeners). I went to the highly anticipated press conference for "The Ides Of March," a very savvy and engrossing political drama about presidential politics directed by George Clooney, who also co-wrote the screenplay, co-produced the film, and stars in it. Press members who were able to get into the jam-packed room at the Bell Lightbox saw one of the largest contingents of stars for a movie ever at the festival. At the table answering questions were Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella, Evan Rachel Wood, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei and Paul Giamatti, as well as Clooney's business partner, and the film's co-writer and co-producer, Grant Heslov. "The Ides Of March" opens Oct. 7.

One of my favorite festival movies was Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In" ("La piel quito habito"), which reunited him with Antonio Banderas, one of his earliest acting discoveries. The film is a haunting mix of Henri-Georges Clouzot and Luis Bunuel, with a little bit of Hitchcockian obsession thrown in for good measure.

Banderas plays a doctor whose wife is a burn victim. He spends years trying to create the perfect synthetic skin, using an unsuspecting person as a guinea pig for a strange and forbidding transformation. Almodovar's tale is fantastical, emotional and always gripping. You eagerly enjoy every new twist in the story.

I also liked the fact-based "Moneyball," in which Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, a far-sighted fellow who uses statistics and technology rather than money to build a winning team.

It sounds dull, but it's a very entertaining baseball movie with a difference.

Film festivals are always about discoveries. I knew little about three movies that fit nicely into my screening schedule. I was fortunate because all were worthwhile and are recommended should they get distribution in the United States.

"J'aime Regarder les Filles," from director Frederic Louf, is a smart French film about youthful romance. Primo, a young man from the middle-class, falls in love with a wealthy young Parisian woman whose friends look down on him.

The well-made movie plays out against the backdrop of the 1981 presidential campaign, which saw the election of Francois Mitterrand, the first Socialist president of France.

"Terraferma" is a charming and beautiful Italian work from director Emanuele Crialese about a pristine island off the coast of Sicily that is quite serene, but some of the locals, most of them fishermen, believe that to survive, the islanders need to entice tourists to visit.

And "Always Brando" is about the pleasures of cinema as star-studded entertainment.

Tunisian director Reda Behi finds an actor who looks like a young Marlon Brando, and hopes to make a film with the acting legend, who dies before shooting could begin.

Part semi-documentary, part movie-within-a-movie, "Always Brando" is about the ephemeral nature of art.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 27, 2011