TIFF Personality: The Oscar Junkie

12 Years a Slave is both TIFF-bound and Oscar-bound.
The Toronto International Film Festival is just days away. That means award season is just around the corner. Buzz on the Oscar race has already began (somewhat comically) in the past week as one Tweet after another heralded a GUARANTEED OSCAR WINNER AND A NEW KIND OF CINEMA. Enthusiasm has been through the roof for several films at Venice and especially Telluride, but the Oscar buzz seems almost fleeting, if not disposable. It’s exciting to hear such praise for films and it’s equally disappointing to see how quickly the next great cinematic masterpiece seems to be replaced by some shiny new thing. It could also mean that the first shot of the festival circuit hints at a very good season for movies. Let’s be optimistic and go with that.

Will the festival-circuit hysteria for Gravity make it the People's Choice
There will be more of a chance to grasp the merit of films like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave come September 5th when they play for larger, and arguably more diverse, audiences. TIFF has one of the better track record with the Oscar race as far as festivals go, although one should really note that the awards traction of Toronto and Telluride essentially goes hand in hand. The enviable People’s Choice Award and other prizes give TIFF some quantifiable bonuses, and the fact that the audiences—which can number over 2800 ballots if a film screens at Roy Thomson Hall—are part of the endorsement indicates the range of appeal that’s needed to take a film all the way to the podium in March.
Daniel Brühl in Rush: is Rush this year's Argo?
Last year’s TIFF saw an impressive number of Oscar nominees (and winners) in its programme. Three Best Picture nominees played the fest: Amour, Silver Linings Playbook (the People’s Choice Award winner), and Argo (the People’s Choice runner-up), which was the Oscar winner while the former two films scooped awards in major categories. Other notable TIFF-Oscar crossovers are Anna Karenina, which won one of four nominations, and The Impossible, which got Best Actress buzz rolling for Naomi Watts after the film had its world premiere at the festival. 

Festivalgoers in Toronto can thus enjoy films of all awards-baiting variety as they browse the programme in searching of Gala screenings and/or Contemporary World Cinema. To make things handy, here’s a quick list of some films to keep on the radar if your festival personality is the Oscar Junkie:

August: Osage County

Probably the biggest Oscar heavyweight at Toronto yet to be seen, August: Osage County seems like a no brainer for awards contention with its combination of a Toronto premiere, a Christmas release date, distribution by The Weinstein Company, and the presence of a stacked cast that includes Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Margot Martindale, Chris Cooper, and Benedict Cumberbatch. The main question most Oscar-minded TIFF-goers will help solve is the big riddle surrounding the size of Meryl Streep’s performance. Streep was largely assumed a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination (Deanna Dunagan won a Best Actress Tony for the meaty role) until it was announced that she would be campaigned in the Supporting category and Julia Roberts would go lead. It seems silly, since Streep gets top-billing in the film’s trailer. (Interestingly, Amy Morton was nominated in the lead category and lost to Dunagan.) Confusion either ensued or decreased (it’s hard to say which) when it was stated 18 days later that Streep might actually be pushed in lead. This most recent announcement seems to jive with word that sprung from test screenings earlier this year. Those screenings also provided good word on co-star Margo Martindale, who would likely be a casualty of category fraud if Streep were put in supporting. With so many buzz-worthy performances, it will be a big surprise if August doesn’t yield some more Oscar chatter come Monday. It’s just a matter of sussing out which actress goes where.

The Fifth Estate

TIFF’s opening night films don’t always make it to the Oscars. One would have to go back to the 2005 opener Water to find one that did. Last year’s Looper almost changed that, since it came awfully close to a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The Fifth Estate, a timely WikiLeaks drama, looks like it could things a step further and bring director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) back into the Oscar race. The film could pop into several categories if it delivers, but early looks at the film suggest that its biggest assets are its two male stars: Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl. Both actors appear in several high profile films at the festival (Cumberbatch in August: Osage County and 12 Years a Slave, and Brühl in Rush.) One would hardly recognize the actors if one watched the trailers for these films in a row. Their dramatic range is impressive (as is their physical transformation into these characters), so it seems logical that their performances in any or all of these films could be the talk of the festival.


Ron Howard at a film festival? Rush must be pretty good, then. It scored a major slot in the Gala programme, as it will premiere in the Sunday night slot of the opening weekend, which has hosted high-profile Oscar hopefuls like Precious, Albert Nobbs, and The Company You Keep. The latter film didn’t go anywhere, but the other two did. Rush looks like the kind of film that, like last year’s Oscar winner Argo, could find the right kind of crossover appeal between mainstream and art-house audiences alike. Earlyreviews are strong, so film buffs will surely approach the film with interest given the recent popularity of the racing doc Senna and the allure of another performance in Daniel Brühl’s diverse filmography. Might Rush be the “Drama” of the Oscar race?

12 Years a Slave

If Rush is “the Drama”, then 12 Years a Slave is surely the Drama-plus. Steve McQueen’s film earned sensational buzz out of the sneak peek at Telluride with many critics/bloggers raving about the director’s hard-hitting and realistic depiction of slavery. 12 Years a Slave is a serious contender if Toronto audiences agree. Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor could find himself a front-runner in the Best Actor race, while supporting players Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyongo are earning strong praise as well. Most importantly, though, 12 Years a Slave promises to stand tallest in what has already been a strong year for black cinema. Might it join Fruitvale Station and The Butler in the end of the year gauntlet? All signs point to yes. (See AwardsDaily and Indiewire for especially strong reactions.)


Continuing the “question of taste” introduced last Oscar season (explained here), Gravity is doubtlessly the “big movie” of 2013. The praise is deafening and can be heard all the way from Venice to Telluride, and will surely continue in Toronto. Alfonso Cuarón’s technical feat has been unanimously praised, with some calling Gravity a “masterpiece” and “a new kind of cinema”. Top marks are also going to lead Sandra Bullock, who reportedly gives a career-best performance in what is mostly a one-woman show. With four screenings at the festival selling out like hot-cakes and the promise of a riveting adventure that sounds like both a ground-breaking feat of cinema and a breathless emotional odyssey, my money is on Gravity to take the People’s Choice Award and follow an Oscar-bound trajectory of winners that have come before it.


It would be very exciting to see Denis Villeneuve back in the race after 2010’s Incendies. Making his Hollywood directorial debut with Prisoners, Villeneuve provided one of the sleeper word-of-mouth hits at Telluride. First Showing is especially enthusiastic, noting, “A new crime thriller in the pantheon of acclaimed favorites like Zodiac, Se7en and even Silence of the Lambs has arrived.” The Hollywood Reporter agrees, and raves that Villeneuve’s handling of difficult subject matter makes for an intense film experience: “Viewers who see the movie will find it absolutely riveting, and this is a tribute to the filmmaker’s skill and to the excellent cast that brings the story to life.” Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are both earning top praise and could easily add some in-film competition to the already crowded Best Actor race. Variety is especially enthusiastic about the performances (and Villeneuve’s direction), calling Jackman’s turn “career best.” Alternatively, might Gyllenhaal go supporting so both actors can eye the prize?


Stephen Frears has been off his game lately, but Venice reviews for Philomena suggest he’s back on track. Frears last found himself in the Oscar race in 2006 when Helen Mirren’s landmark performance in The Queen let the film ride a rave of accolades and acclaim throughout the season. It premiered at Venice, too, and Gold Derby’s review round up from Venice teases that star Judi Dench might finally win a Lead Actress Oscar for her funny and moving performance in Philomena. (That clitoris line at least merits Golden Globe attention.) Praise for the film itself isn’t especially enthusiastic—it’s certainly positive—but everyone seems to agree that Dench is a highlight. The strength of Dench’s performance might have something to do with all the funny business with August: Osage County: as another film on the Weinsteins’ stuffed list of Oscar hopefuls, Dench will have to compete against both Roberts and Streep (or only Roberts), plus Nicole Kidman in the yet-to-be-seen Grace of Monaco. If Dench is in, she’ll be in good company with her first nom since 2006’s Notes on a Scandal and face off against Scandal co-star Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine).

The Foreign Language Films

TIFF is just as big an influence for world cinema as it is for the main competition, as all five of last year’s nominees for Best Foreign Language Film screened at the festival: Amour, Kon-Tiki, No, Rebelle, and A Royal Affair. Two festival selections, Romania’s Child’s Pose and Singapore’s Ilo Ilo, have already been named as submissions in the category. Child’s Pose won the Golden Bear at Berlin and Ilo Ilo scooped the Camera d’or for debut feature at Cannes, so they are both worth watching. More submissions will trickle in soon, so be on the lookout for films to add to your Oscar-filled festival line-up.

Gabrielle and Tom at the Farm

No stranger to the race for Best Foreign Language Film, Canada has several strong contenders at Toronto. The two biggies look to be Gabrielle and Tom at the Farm, which premiered to good reviews at Locarno and Venice, respectively. Gabrielle won the audience award at Locarno, which could put it on a trajectory akin to Canada’s Oscar nominee Monsieur Lazhar. Tom at the Farm, meanwhile, has some critics calling it Xavier Dolan’s best work, with Variety also noting that it’s his “most commercially viable” film. Dolan is always a polarizing filmmaker, though, and Tom is no exception. The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a harsh review and noted that Dolan seems narcissistic and a bit too fond of putting his face before the camera. Dolan, however, hit back. What else is Twitter good for but to tweetslap your critics?

Enough Said

We always talk about filmmakers who are overdue for recognition and this year I submit Nicole Holofcener for consideration. Her script for Please Give was one of the best in 2010 and it continued her streak of funny and insightful ensemble-driven indies. I’m very surprised, then, that Enough Said didn’t play Telluride. Fox Searchlight usually has a strong presence there, which they more than enjoyed with 12 Years a Slave, but Enough Said seems like the kind of independent comedy that usually plays well in Colorado. Perhaps the distributor is just sharing the wealth. If Enough Said goes over well in Toronto, Holofcener could be in the hunt for her first screenplay nomination. The film could also bring a first Oscar nomination for the late James Gandolfini, who offers one of his final performances in Enough Said could help the film become a sentimental favourite at the festival.

Labor Day

If one film needs Toronto to improve on buzz from Telluride, Labor Day might be it. Jason Reitman’s adaptation of the Joyce Maynard novel has its share of fans and its share of detractors. Both seem to love or dislike the film for the same reason, namely that it marks a change of course for Reitman. Indiewire, for example, likes the mature take in Reitman’s direction. Ditto Awards Daily, which notes an attention to detail in Labor Day not seen in Reitman’s other films. Less enthusiastic is a snarky, if well argued, review from The Playlist. Word on Kate Winslet’s performance is especially strong regardless of one’s preference for the film, and Josh Brolin’s supporting turn could be one of the few legitimate contenders in the category so far.

Dallas Buyers Club

Everyone seems to want Matthew McConaughey to score an Oscar nomination. He probably came close (somehow) for last year’s Magic Mike, which was an award-season favourite boosted by his strong work in Bernie and Killer Joe. Pushing Oscar but not pulling through can often work in one’s favour the following year, though, and McConaughey’s turn as a man battling AIDS in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club could be the film to do it. He already has Mud to give him a boost this year, or the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street to fall back on, depending on how Dallas scores. Also worth watching is Jared Leto’s turn as a transgendered person, which is bound to go over well with all his fans in T.O. (Recall that his film Artifact nabbed the People’s Choice award for favourite documentary last year after pleasing all the raving 30 Seconds to Mars fans.)

In addition to the films above, there are plenty of wild cards at TIFF that could change the game. The Railway Man starring Oscar winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman? Check, if it finds distribution. Third Person from Crash director Paul Haggis (whose 2 Oscars are on display at the Lightbox)? Check, if people get over Crash (it deserved the win!). Docs, like Finding Vivian Maier, The Armstrong Lie, or The Unknown Known? Check, if  they make the shortlist. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the next Invictus? Check, unless it's the next Winnie. The Oscar-checklist just goes on and on... it's a busy festival for Oscar junkies!

What say you, TIFF-goers? Are there any other films to keep an eye on for Oscar?