TORONTO -- After 10 days of packed with movies, stars and cinematic exploration, the Toronto International Film Festival, second only to Cannes in terms of high-profile films, visiting stars and distribution deal making, comes to a close. Today the festival winds down with today a final day of screenings and its opinion-shaping awards ceremony.
The TIFF 2013 awards were announced at a brunch reception at the Intercontinental Toronto Centre. TIFF, which operates by audience voting rather than by the verdict of an industry jury, awards patriotic honors for Best Canadian Film, First Feature and Short, but not the the best actor or best director given at other galas. Some 432,000 visitors saw this year's slate of films, paying $23.50 for individual tickets and lining up around the block for ballyhooed films and cult obscurities alike.
The festival saw the North American or world premieres of many highly anticipated titles, including the Meryl Streep drama "August: Osage County," the astronaut survival thriller "Gravity" starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and "Prisoners," a Hugh Jackman kidnapping saga by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve.
The Wikileaks drama "The Fifth Estate," with Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, opened the program. It concluded with "Life of Crime," an Elmore Leonard crime yarn starring John Hawkes and Jennifer Aniston.
Two hundred and eighty-eight features were presented, including new films from Ron Howard, Paul haggis, David Gordon Green, James Franco, John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Errol Morris and Alex Gibney.
As was widely expected, English filmmaker's Steve McQueen's intense historical drama "12 Years a Slave," won the major prize, the coveted People's Choice Award. 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. The star-studded 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.
The film also introduces actress Lupita Nyong'o in a supporting role as a slave who suffers harrowing abuse at her plantation owner's hands. Opinion leaders have predicted Oscar nominations for the film, McQueen, Ejiofor and Nyong'o. "This award is a fantastic honor. I'm so happy with the response of the audience," McQueen said in a statement read by TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey. "At a festival that has shown so many brilliant films, I cannot be more thrilled to receive this award."
A win here is undoubtedly a boost but no guarantee of broad popular acceptance and industry honors. The last decade's TIFF People's Choice Award winners included the hits "Silver Linings Playbook," "The King's Speech," "Precious" " and "Slumdog Millionaire," and lesser lights such as "Where Do We Go Now?", "Hotel Rwanda," "Bella," "Eastern Promises," "Tsotsi" and "Zatoichi."
Whether McQueen's harrowing film can retain its lead over the next three and a half months of Oscar campaigning and build a following with general audiences remains to be seen. McQueen's film is not the first adaptation of Northup's memoir. In 1984 PBS presented "Solomon Northup's Odyssey," directed by Gordon Parks ("The Learning Tree,' "Shaft.")
The People's Choice prize for best documentary went to an Egyptian entry, Jehane Noujaim's "The Square" which documents the unrest and revolution in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
"This is a film about people who relentlessly are fighting for their rights even when there seems to be absolutely no hope and no light at the end of the tunnel. The people we followed challenged me every day and gave me a new definition of what it means to fight for what you believe in," Noujaim said, dedicating the award to imprisoned Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and his colleague, physician Tarek Loubani.The pair have been behind bars in Cairo for nearly a month without any formal charge.
The next edition of the Toronto International Film Festival will run September 4-14, 2014.