The 10 day movie extravaganza known as the TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL gets under way today, unspooling 312 films from around the world and spanning everything from experimental short flicks to blockbuster Hollywood productions.

Celebrities will often set aside time after screenings to take questions from the audience. But there are plenty of other ways to cross paths with the famous.

ROSEMARY DALE, a native Torontonian, has seen SEAN PENN at least three times – in various hotel lobbies and on the street.

For her, however, star power is not the main draw.

“It isn’t the reason I take in the festival,” she said, noting that the diverse slate of motion pictures draws her back every year. “I like the ones that have a strong message – that cause me to think or make me very angry.”

This year a variety of movies are bound to touch the nerves of viewers, including the controversial biopic FIFTY DEAD MEN WALKING, about a security agent that infiltrated the IRA. The man whose book inspired the film has questioned its authenticity and has threatened to protest the premiere.

SEAN PENN narrates WITCH HUNT, a documentary about a small town that became the target of law enforcement officials cracking down on child molesters – imprisoning many locals who were apparently innocent.

The festival kicks off with PASSCHENDAELE, the epic First World War drama directed by Canadian actor PAUL GROSS. He hopes the $20 million film receives a strong response from festival audiences. That could help it secure international distribution deals.

“It’s a little hard to say to somebody, ‘You’re going to make a ton of money at this,”’ PAUL GROSS remarked in explanation of how he managed to persuade investors to participate in the production.

“We were extremely honest. We said, ‘Well, we might make money and we might not. It’s not the oil patch.’ But if the movie strikes, then it will be very beneficial for everybody concerned.”

Some high profile celebrities seem to have the riskiest pictures at the fest.

PRIDE & GLORY, a crime drama starring COLIN FARRELL and EDWARD NORTON, was originally scheduled to hit theatres last spring before it was bumped into 2009 and then yanked back to the fall. Such abrupt changes are often the sign of a troubled project.

JOEL and ETHAN COEN will be back at the festival with BURN AFTER READING. The picture has the tough job of inflated expectations as the follow up to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

After wowing audiences in JUNO last year, young MICHAEL CERA returns to Toronto with NICK & NORA’S INFINITE PLAYLIST.

Other stars could reap the benefits of festival exposure, including MICKEY ROURKE. He has struggled to regain serious attention from his heyday in the mid 80s when the steamy 9 1/2 WEEKS topped the box office. His performance in THE WRESTLER has sparked talk of potential awards nominations.

Stars expected to grace their premieres include JOHN MALKOVICH, TILDA SWINTON, CHRISTOPHER WALKEN, JACK WHITE and GREG KINNEAR.

Aside from all the celeb gossip, the festival offers up plenty of cinematic surprises – mostly because the films that screen with major hype aren’t always the ones that generate the most talk come awards season.

Last year, a rush of movies themed around the Iraq war managed to capture the attention of festival goers and critics but flopped once they were theatrically released.

This year, the buzz surrounds SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, an unlikely love story about a street kid in India who winds up appearing on a local version of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. It debuted to strong reviews at the TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL last week in Colorado and is being touted as this year’s answer to JUNO.

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is the dark tale of a dysfunctional family that could score ANNE HATHAWAY awards recognition for her turn as a troubled young woman who comes home for her sister’s wedding.

But some of the year’s biggest Oscar hopefuls – including OLIVER STONE’S much anticipated George W. Bush biopic W – will be absent, die to the fallout of the Hollywood writers’ strike. The film was scheduled to make its debut at the festival but is reportedly still in post production because the strike delayed shooting.

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