Lights! Camera! Fall Films!

This season's most-anticipated movies include star-powered romances, animated bug flicks, and a superb drama from makers of 'Remains of the Day.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The fall movie season is just around the corner, and there's no better place to sense its mood and anticipate its pleasures than the World Film Festival in this bustling city, which is just far enough from Hollywood and just crammed enough with American movies to provide an ideal vantage point.

The trade newspaper "Variety" trumpeted the tone of this year's Montreal filmfest with a recent headline, "H'wood Travels North," and nobody is happier with this development than the crush of journalists who have swarmed here for an advance peek at pictures that everyone will be seeing in theaters over the next few weeks and months.

Not every potential hit is on view here, of course, but the pictures that aren't being screened are nevertheless being buzzed about.

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What's getting the most hype, word of mouth, and eager anticipation? Here are some of the front-runners slated for premires here, others still being speculated about, all due on US screens in the immediate future.

Simon Birch (Sept. 11). The title character is a very small boy who's convinced his "abnormal" physique is proof of God's particular interest in him, and feels he will fulfill some special purpose as soon as he can figure out what it's supposed to be.

The film features Oliver Platt and Ashley Judd along with Jan Hooks as a Sunday-school teacher and David Strathairn as a clergyman. Ian Michael Smith plays the diminutive hero, and Mark Steven Johnson directed from his own screenplay. Disney describes the protagonist as a small miracle, and that's what the studio hopes for at the box office. Maybe even a large one.

Rounders (Sept. 11). Rising star Matt Damon plays what might seem a contradiction in terms, an honest poker shark who refuses to cheat even when the stakes are high and his friends are egging him on. The talented Edward Norton and first-rate character actors Martin Landau and John Malkovich round out the cast. John Dahl, known for dark-toned thrillers like "Red Rock West" and "The Last Seduction," directed the Miramax release.

Without Limits (Sept. 11). The dramatic story of Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine was told in a tenth-rate Disney picture two years ago, but the new Warner Bros. version is sharp and fresh enough to make the material seem new.

Billy Crudup could become a top-rated star on the strength of his performance, and Donald Sutherland is equally impressive as the athlete's crusty old coach. Even moviegoers who resist sports-centered pictures could find themselves won over.

A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (Sept. 18). James Ivory and Ismail Merchant have earned worldwide praise for movies like "Howards End" and "The Remains of the Day," and they're at the peak of their powers in this sensitive drama about a girl growing up in an unconventional family based on the household of James Jones, the acclaimed novelist. It's set in sophisticated Paris and then a small New England town. Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey play the loving parents, and Leelee Sobieski is superb as their teenage daughter.

Already a favorite on the preview-screening circuit, this could prove a major player at Oscar time as well.

Monument Avenue (Sept. 25). In the Boston neighborhood called Charlestown, a gang of self-styled Robin Hoods comes into conflict with the local crime boss, leading to a complicated set of moral dilemmas in an unforgiving urban environment.

Ted Demme showed enormous skill at guiding performances in his comedy "Beautiful Girls," and in this melodrama he has promising material to work with, including Martin Sheen as a nosy detective and the busy Billy Crudup as an ex-con trying to get away from him.

The Imposters (Sept. 25). Movie stars Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott turned movie directors with "Big Night," perhaps the most enjoyable comedy ever made about an Italian restaurant. Their new picture is a Laurel and Hardy-style farce about a pair of unemployed actors who become stowaways on a 1930s ocean liner, surrounded by a gaggle of wildly mismatched passengers.

Tucci directed it on his own, but Scott joins him in the splendid cast including Lili Taylor as a stewardess, Isabella Rossellini as a queen, and Steve Buscemi as an entertainer so sad he gets his audience sobbing too.

Antz (Oct. 2). You wouldn't expect superstars like Woody Allen and Sharon Stone to play a pair of insects, but they do just that in this DreamWorks animation about a lowly worker named Z-4195 who gets a crush on the lovely Princess Bala, pleads for help from a friendly soldier ant, and ends up leading a battle against General Mandible and his plans for an evil empire.

Holy Man (Oct. 9). Eddie Murphy bids for a blockbuster hit with this energetically hyped comedy about a TV evangelist who markets his inspirational message through a home-shopping channel. Jeff Goldblum and Kelly Preston round out the cast with support from Robert Loggia and Jon Cryer. Comedy specialist Stephen Herek directed the Disney production.

The Celebration (Oct. 9). The patriarch of a large family is commemorating his 60th birthday, and his guests are primed for a rousing party until their long-simmering quarrels and squabbles veer out of control, leading to unplanned revelations and emotional squirming for just about everyone.

Thomas Vinterberg directed this pitch-dark comedy, which earned the special jury prize at last spring's Cannes filmfest and represents the spontaneous "Dogma 95" style of Danish moviemaking.

Beloved (Oct. 16). Ohio after the Civil War is the background of this drama centering on an African-American woman who can't evade slavery's literally haunting legacy. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, this eagerly awaited Disney release stars Oprah Winfrey along with Danny Glover and Thandie Newton, all under the guiding hand of Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme.

Happiness (Oct. 16). Todd Solondz emerged as a major filmmaker with "Welcome to the Dollhouse," and this new tragicomedy should land him in the headlines again with its discomforting story of a well-groomed suburb populated by lonely singles, peevish senior citizens, and an anguished adolescent who's discovering that his highly respected father is a secret pedophile.

The movie's intentions are as serious and thoughtful as its content is timely and disturbing. It's been sparking heated debate ever since winning the international critics prize at Cannes.

Life Is Beautiful (Oct. 23). Caught in the growing horrors of the Holocaust, a Jewish waiter determines to protect his little boy from physical and psychological harm - a daunting task at best, and even more so when they land in a Nazi concentration camp.

Directed by Roberto Benigni, known to Americans from some of Jim Jarmusch's movies, this Italian production stirs controversy wherever it goes, earning praise for its fast-talking humor and criticism for daring to find comedy in fascism, oppression, and genocide. Hollywood will soon know whether Miramax has an audience-pleasing winner or an embarrassing loser on its hands.

The Mighty (Oct. 30). In a welcome departure from her usual screen image, Sharon Stone plays the mother of a disabled boy who makes up for his physical problems with a quick intellect and vivid imagination plus the loyalty of a friend who's not so smart, but has size and strength to spare.

Peter Chelsom's amiable comedy-drama is clearly inspired by Hollywood's awakening concern for issues of family life and the challenges of growing up. With a cast including Gillian Anderson and Gena Rowlands, it should garner plenty of attention as the fall season gives way to the busy winter slate.

* David Sterritt's e-mail address is: sterrittd@csps.com

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