North America’s brightest, busiest, most ballyhooed film festival rolled up its red carpets last Sunday. They were due for a cleaning anyway. With 288 features on view, the Toronto International Film Festival is the world’s biggest, drawing a record 432,000 visitors, constellations of visiting stars, countless dealmakers and untold numbers of autograph hounds.
Only Cannes has more glitter per square inch.
More than a celebrity circus, TIFF is a launchpad for the Golden Globes and critics’ and film guild prizes. Half the films shown were world premieres. Every best picture Oscar winner since 2007 has debuted here, and a successful debut at Toronto is seen as an essential first step in the Academy Awards race.
The festival’s film roster included emotionally charged new work from some of the industry’s top talent.
• Bill Condon followed his “Twilight” hits with “The Fifth Estate,” a thoughtful thriller about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
• Ron Howard presented his high-octane, surprisingly sexy Formula 1 racing drama “Rush.”
• John Wells pitted Meryl Streep’s nasty matriarch against a family including Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch in “August: Osage County.”
• Hugh Jackman played a kidnap victim’s raging, grieving father in “Prisoners.”
• Nicolas Cage delivered a career-reviving performance as a backwoods antihero in David Gordon Green’s “Joe.”
• Matthew McConaughey continued his recent rise as a homophobe turned AIDS treatment pioneer in “Dallas Buyers Club.”
TIFF doesn’t use a jury of film professionals to determine the best film. That’s left to viewers, who bestow the festival’s major prize, the coveted People’s Choice Award, by popular vote. As was widely expected, English filmmaker Steve McQueen’s intense historical drama “12 Years a Slave” took the top honor.
Unflinching look at slavery
The film dramatizes the true experiences of Solomon Northup, a freeborn 19th-century African-American man kidnapped and sold into slavery before miraculously regaining his liberty. Unlike any major film in memory, it portrays the horrors of plantation bondage in grim, unflinching detail. The cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt, who produced the film along with Minneapolis film financier Bill Pohlad.
There were other Minnesota-connected films in this year’s lineup — Jessica Lange has a juicy role as a mad Frenchwoman in the 19th-century melodrama “Therese,” and John Hawkes stars as a lovable Elmore Leonard lowlife in “Life of Crime” — but none had the headline-grabbing, bandwagon-launching impact of McQueen’s film.
The film stirred controversy from its first screening in Toronto’s 2,000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre. Extended, graphic depictions of physical brutality, including images of slaves being flogged, beaten with a wooden bat and strung up on tiptoe in a noose, drove some opening-night viewers to the exits. The vast majority remained, giving the film a rapturous 10-minute standing ovation.
The movie’s emotional impact inspired some opinion leaders to pre-emptively proclaim this year’s Oscar race over. “Suspend the betting, close the books, and notify the engraver,” wrote New York Magazine film critic Kyle Buchanan. On the basis of its Toronto screening he predicted a “ ‘12 Years’ triumph in the Best Picture category,” a best director award for McQueen and best actor honors for Chiwetel Ejiofor. Entertainment Weekly’s Anthony Breznican called the film “unstoppable.”
Nancy Utley, president of Fox Searchlight Pictures, the film’s distributor, said in an interview that the Toronto award offered reason to believe “12 Years” “can reach a wider audience and break out of the art-house box.”
Handicapping the challenging film’s success with general audiences is sheer conjecture. The real test will come when the film begins screening outside a festival environment in October and November. “12 Years” is unquestionably moving, but McQueen’s austere style is closer to the somber artistry of Austria’s Michael Haneke than Steven Spielberg’s heart-tugging populist emotionalism.
The last decade’s TIFF People’s Choice Awards went to the best picture winners “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech,” the midrange hits “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Precious” and minor entries “Where Do We Go Now?” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Bella,” “Eastern Promises,” “Tsotsi” and “Zatoichi.”
Oscars are five months off
Whether McQueen’s harrowing film can retain its lead over the next 3½ months of Oscar campaigning remains to be seen. There are 14 opening weekends before year’s end. And history shows that’s plenty of time for today’s front-runner to become an Oscar-night also-ran.
In recent years Academy voters have favored lighter fare such as “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Argo” over weightier pictures such as “Lincoln,” “The Social Network” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
What’s more, potent challengers are waiting in the wings. Alfonso Cuaron’s 3-D astronaut survival thriller “Gravity” also was met rapturously by Toronto audiences, who cheered its next-generation special effects and relentless, nerve-shredding jeopardy. The Somali piracy drama “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks, opens the New York Film Festival on Sept. 27. Director Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) is in relentlessly pulse-pounding form here, leaving no doubt that his film will be a major contender.
Also in the race is “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen brothers’ sendup of beardy 1960s folk-music types, which won the grand prize at Cannes. Multiple Oscar winner George Clooney wrote, directs and heads the cast of the World War II epic “Monuments Men,” about stealing art back from the Nazis. And don’t count out Martin Scorsese’s darkly comic “The Wolf of Wall Street” with Leonardo DiCaprio as a bad-boy tycoon, or David O. Russell’s con-man caper “American Hustle,” with Christian Slater, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
The Oscar race is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s five months until the last envelope will be ripped open on the stage of the Dolby Theater. What will be remembered then is the last person standing on Hollywood’s red carpet, not who made the best impression on Toronto in September.