The Toronto International Film Festival opened Thursday with admiring applause for "The Boy and the Heron," Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki's likely last movie -- a meditation on love, loss and the horrors of World War II.
Cinema buffs crowded into the 2,000-seat Princess of Wales theater to be the first outside Japan to catch Miyazaki's first feature film for the storied Studio Ghibli in a decade -- and, at age 82, perhaps his farewell to the industry.
The semi-autobiographical film follows young Mahito as he moves with his father to the countryside after his mother perishes in the haunting fire-bombing of Tokyo during World War II -- depicted in a whirl of flames, sirens and chaos.
After meeting a talking heron, he enters a surreal and perilous fantasy world in search of his mom, where he finds everything from giant bloodthirsty parakeets -- in rainbow colors -- to a warrior pirate to a swarm of frogs.
Festival CEO Cameron Bailey told the audience he believed the film was the "most mature, dazzling expression" of Miyazaki's vision.
The screening was the marquee event of day one of TIFF, the largest film festival in North America, which began under the shadow of twin strikes by actors and writers that has brought Hollywood to a near-standstill.
Organizers of the event, a launchpad for numerous Academy Award-winning films, were finalizing a stacked lineup of premieres, red carpet galas and prestige TV launches featuring work from dozens of countries when Tinseltown's actors staged a walkout.
But Bailey says the global reach of the programming, and the ability of filmmakers and actors to promote independent fare even amid the strikes, speaks to the "strength of cinema right now."
"It took some weeks to really figure out the specifics and the details of how you would navigate a strike-affected festival, but it turns out that we're going to have lots of red carpet talent," Bailey told AFP.
Also premiering on Thursday night was Patricia Arquette's "Gonzo Girl," her directorial debut loosely based on a novel by a former assistant of American journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Arquette is one of several Hollywood A-listers whose work behind the camera will be featured at the 10-day movie extravaganza in Canada's largest city; others include Anna Kendrick, Taika Waititi, Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Keaton and Ethan Hawke.
Hollywood actors and writers are striking in a battle with studios and streamers over pay and other work conditions -- meaning that union members generally cannot promote films produced by companies involved in the dispute.
Waivers have been offered in some cases, such as Arquette's, while in others, the films screening in Toronto are not subject to the strikes because they were independently or internationally produced.
Arquette attended her premiere wearing a giant button in support of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA).
"We very much support our union, it's a very important strike for us," she said on the red carpet.
- Oscars bellwether -
The Toronto film fest is a key part of the fall festival lineup, along with Venice and Telluride, at which movies hoping to build early Oscars momentum typically hold premieres.
TIFF's annual People's Choice Award has become an increasingly accurate Oscars bellwether, predicting eventual best picture winners such as "Nomadland" and "Green Book."
Premiering on Friday will be "Dumb Money," starring Seth Rogen and Paul Dano, about the amateur investors who turned GameStop into a Wall Street phenomenon in 2021.
French filmmaker Ladj Ly will debut "Les Indesirables," a follow-up look at marginalized communities in the suburbs of Paris four years after his Oscar-nominated debut feature "Les Miserables."
And pop star Lil Nas X will bring some flair to the red carpet on Saturday for the debut of his documentary "Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero" -- one of several music films on tap including a premiere of "In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon."
TIFF only returned to full strength in 2022, after two years of online or hybrid events staged amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The festival runs until September 17.