Toronto -- It's a hornet's nest. It's a chainsaw. That deafening buzz that movielovers are experiencing now is the film industry working itself up into an lather of enthusiasm at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since 2007, every best picture Oscar-winner has debuted here, and now a successful debut at Toronto is seen as an essential first step in the Academy Awards race.
The stakes are considerable. This is where a warm embrace or a cold shoulder from audiences and critics can catapult a film ahead of the pack (as in "American Beauty," "No Country For Old Men," "Slumdog Millionaore," "The Hurt Locker" and "Argo") or leave it in the ditch. A film that leaves the festival with a top audience prize or an aura of critical prestige has a good chance of earning a place in film history, and more importantly, returning its financiers' investment. As Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich told me about their self-produced IMAX 3D concert film extravaganza "Through the Never," which debuted here, "If it succeeds, we get to keep our houses."
The film that has gained the most momentum is Steve McQueen's riveting "12 Years a Slave," which has come up for praise wherever film writers gather. It seems a given that the film will draw awards nominations like a whirlpool, with special attention to the performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped from New York in 1841 and sold like livestock to a series of plantation owners, and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as a fieldworker and concubine.
The film's spellbinding scenes of white-on-black brutality mark this as the the most unflinchingly horrific prestige picture since "Saving Private Ryan," and it has been enthusiastically embraced here by the press and festivalgoers. How its gut-clenching images of violence will translate to acceptance with general audiences is the largest question hovering over the festival's frontrunner.
Among the festival's many international entries, no list of standouts is complete without "The Lunchbox," a delightful romance about a lonely Mumbai offieworker and a neglected housewife drawn together by fate, and "The Past," an engrossing family drama starring "The Artist's" Berenice Bejo and directed by Iran's Oscar-winning Asghar Farhadi.
Other films generating support from the opinion leaders are the powerful Hugh Jackman kidnap drama "Prisoners," Sandra Bullock's science-fiction extravaganza "Gravity," and Matthew McConaughey's reality-based story of a Texas homophobe turned AIDS-research pioneer "Dallas Buyers Club," which surprised viewers with an unexpected energy and anarchic humour that makes it anything but a routine redemption tale.
Many of the films here have scored respectable to mixed reviews. The Wikileaks drama "The Fifth Estate," "Ron Howard's Formula 1 racing rivalry tale "Rush," and Jude Law's cockney crime comedy "Dom Hemingway" are mid-range successes. The Metallica bandmates will probably hold onto their real estate, as their fans are interested in classic, balls-out rock 'n' roll, not visionary cinema.
No festival would be complete without a few unmitigated disasters and I-can't-believe-I-just-saw-that oddities. Korean director Kim Ki-duk's aggressively weird "Moebius" is a dialog-free sadomasochist sex farce about a father and son whose male organs are severed. If there is a prize for generating the most flabbergasted gasps and mid-screening walkouts, Kim will surely be in the winner's circle.
Word on the street has been less than kind to Jason Reitman's escaped convict romance "Labor Day," starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslett. England's Guardian newspaper called it "a heck of a potboiler to swallow whole."
The festival's highest-profile flameout probably is "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner's "You Are Here," starring Zach Galifianakis and Owen Wilson. The website Indiewire called Weiner's directorial debut a "clumsy," "laugh-free" comedy that is "the worst 'Mad Men'-related disaster since Sally Draper walked in on her father and Linda Cardellini going at it last season." Sometimes the kudos conversation can be quite cutting.