"Eastern Promises" tops at Toronto film festival

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TORONTO, Sep 15 (Reuters) ''Eastern Promises,'' a Russian mob thriller directed by Canadian cult legend David Cronenberg, won the Toronto International Film Festival's top prize today, positioning itself as an early Oscar favorite.

The festival's Cadillac People's Choice Award, voted on by moviegoers, often is an indicator of Academy Award nominations.

Past recipients include best picture winners ''American Beauty'' and ''Chariots of Fire.'' ''It's great that it's a Canadian film by one of our monsters, somebody that we're really closely associated with,'' Piers Handling, the film festival's director said in an interview after the awards presentation. ''It couldn't be a better finish for us.'' Cronenberg did not accept the award in person because he was in New York promoting the film, which opened in select cities this weekend.

It stars ''Lord of the Rings'' actor Viggo Mortensen as a ruthless Russian gangster in London who crosses paths with an innocent midwife, played by Naomi Watts, holding secrets about the mob family.

It is the second time in three years Cronenberg and Mortensen have teamed up. The two worked together in the 2005 Oscar-nominated ''A History of Violence,'' another movie about crime and how people respond to it.

The festival, which screened 349 films from 55 countries over 10 days, drew megastars such as Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Cate Blanchett promoting their latest big-budget films. But smaller projects also had a chance to shine.

ADOPTION, WAR, RICH-POOR DIVIDE ''Juno,'' a comedy about a pregnant teen-ager who decides to put her baby up for private adoption, was the People's Choice first runner-up. It was director Jason Reitman's follow-up effort to ''Thank You for Smoking,'' which was a hit at the 2005 festival.

Second runner-up was ''Body of War,'' a story of what happens to the wounded veterans who return home as told through the eyes of a paralyzed soldier injured in the Iraq war.

The documentary, independently financed and co-directed by former US talk show host Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro, made its world premiere on Sept. 11 to multiple standing ovations.

''La Zona'' took home the Fipresci prize, chosen by international critics and awarded to a feature film by an emerging filmmaker. Directed by Rodrigo Pla, it examines the rich-poor divide in Mexico.

The Diesel Discovery Award, voted on by the hundreds of journalists at the festival, went to ''Cochochi,'' by Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman in their directorial debuts. A cultural innovation award went to ''Encarnacion'' by Argentine director Anahi Berneri.

Canadian film prizes went to ''Continental, un film sans fusil,'' ''My Winnipeg'' and the short film ''Pool.'' For many, the main business of the festival was securing distribution rights. ''George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead,'' ''The Visitor,'' and ''Nothing is Private'' were among the films to seal deals.

''Emotional Arithmetic'' will be screened at the festival's closing night gala later today.

Starring Susan Sarandon and Christopher Plummer and directed by Paolo Barzman, it tells the story of three Holocaust survivors who reunite for a celebratory dinner 40 years after the end of World War Two.

Reuters SZ VP0224

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