At Toronto film fest, Oscars buzz gets underway

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 20, 2013 - 3:31 PM

The giant Canadian film festival often is good at predicting the Academy Awards. But not always.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from "12 Years A Slave."

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.

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