I’m going to approach this slowly, gingerly, for fear of cracking the crystalline structure like spun sugar, but AWARDS SEASON IS HERE. Try as the rest of the cinematic universe might to kick off the season earlier and earlier (don’t think we don’t all see what you’re trying to do, Telluride), the Toronto International Film Festival is still the big dog when it comes to beginning the irresistible madness. Just the sheer size of the event and the number of films with Oscar Buzz (a TOTALLY quantifiable measure, I’m just not allowed to tell anybody how) will keep Toronto as the ideal jumping-off point for the time being.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t know anything yet. Between Cannes, Telluride, Venice, and even Sundance, the festival circuit has managed to unveil almost a dozen of the presumed contenders. The “12 Years a Slave” opening in Telluride last week has some pundits already anointing it as the dreaded “frontrunner.” Similarly, “Gravity” looks like it’s exactly the critic-bait it seemed to be. Venice and Telluride alone sent along positive signs for everything from Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day” to Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” to Judi Dench in “Philomena”. Suddenly, everybody’s talking about Prisoners (though I do wonder if that might be something of “The Town” effect, where a solid popcorn movie stands out like even more of a crowd-pleaser among heavy festival fare). All the above films will also be at Toronto, robbed of “premiere” status but still looking to snowball that early momentum.
Here’s the best news for all of them: the last six years have featured a Best Picture Oscar winner that played TIFF but premiered earlier at either Cannes (“The Artist”; “No Country for Old Men”), Venice (“The Hurt Locker”), or Telluride (“Argo”; “The King’s Speech”; “Slumdog Millionaire”). Math don’t lie, folks. This is a six-year streak on the line. Good luck, “12 Years a Slave”. We’re all counting on you.
So what of the films that WILL premiere at Toronto? I’m looking at five major contenders, plus a misty conglomerate of potential dark horses, all of them hoping for the kind of out-of-nowhere buzz that benefitted, say, “Crash” (the last Best Picture winner to actually premiere at Toronto). Basically, here’s what to look for at Toronto among the premieres. By this time two weeks from now, think of how many of these films will be STONE-COLD LOCKS for all the Oscars that Ellen Degeneres can throw at them!
Five Major Contenders
“AUGUST: OSGAGE COUNTY"
What We’re Expecting: Frankly, I think most people are expecting a mess. Likely due to the combination of John Wells’s last film (the non-factor that was The Company Men), the last star-studded Broadway adaptation (the lightning-rod that was Les Mis), and the trailer that either blatantly lied about the nature of the story at the center of Tracy Letts’s acidic play or else heralded a completely neutered narrative. It all adds up to big-time skepticism. And yet, that massive cast of award-able names just keeps pulling people in. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Margo Martindale have gotten the most love when it comes to cold-call predictions, and their reputations (yes, even Martindale’s, as she’s become quite the critical darling when it comes to character actresses).
What Could Surprise: With a bench this deep, it’s hugely tempting to think that anyone could knock their performance out of the park and nab voters’ attention. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, and Ewan McGregor are certainly capable of it, and who wouldn’t love a chance at a Juliette Lewis nomination, 22 years after her first (and only) nod?
Most Pressing Question, Oscar-Wise: The rumor that Meryl Streep would downshift from a Lead to a Supporting campaign was met with the kind of hyperactive chatter that only meets semi-unfounded rumors about the Oscar race. It was particularly puzzling since, on Broadway, the role was a Tony-winning one for lead actress Deanna Dunagan. The new chatter is that it will be the TIFF reception that will determine which category to campaign Meryl for. Let’s hope all the journalists in Toronto remember their responsibility in this matter as they write their reviews, then.
"DALLAS BUYERS CLUB"
What We’re Expecting: The movie that finally pushes the Matthew McConaughey resurgence over the top and into a first-ever nomination. After the accumulated goodwill of Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Bernie, and Mud, will this be the movie that funnels all that attention into one Oscar-friendly performance? All cynicism aside, there is a lot of potential with McConaughey playing a brash Texas cowboy who fights back against his AIDS diagnosis in the 1980s by importing illegal drugs from Mexico.
What Could Surprise: Director Jean-Marc Valée stayed fairly under the radar with The Young Victoria, but that was more of an Oscar fave in the tech categories than you might have expected. This could end up being more than a one-man show. (Certainly, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto hope so.)
Most Pressing Question, Oscar-Wise: Is McConaughey’s performance more than just a smirk and some weight loss? Does he take the material seriously? Can he make grown men cry?
"THE FIFTH ESTATE"
What We’re Expecting: Bill Condon’s been a bit of an Oscar bridesmaid throughout his career, falling juuuust short of Best Picture nominations with God and Monsters and Dreamgirls and seeing Kinsey unable to muster anything beyond a Supporting Actress nod. (Okay, fine, I guess a Best Adapted Screenplay win for Gods and Monsters is better than most bridesmaids get.) After taking a break to make quite a lot of money on the final Twilight films, he’s back with this Julian Assange movie that could play like a quickie ripped-from-the-headlines potboiler or an urgent, of-the-times statement on journalism and state overreach and interesting new Laura Linney haircuts.
What Could Surprise: The script adaptation by Josh Singer, who served as executive story editor on the greatly underrated final season of The West Wing, making his feature-film debut.
Most Pressing Question, Oscar-Wise: Is it this film, and not the dozens of other films he’s got in the hopper this fall, the one that will springboard Benedict Cumberbatch from Tumblr’s goony-faced pinup to an officially-sanctioned Hollywood guy and Oscar nominee?
"MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM"
What We’re Expecting: An Idris Elba cinematic showcase the likes of which the Thor movies just haven’t been able to provide. He’s been everyone’s favorite cause celebre since forever (since The Wire; always The Wire), and this is his first lead role in a movie with honest-to-God Oscar aspirations. Playing one of the world’s foremost political crusaders doesn’t hurt his chances, but in the wake of raves for Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, every other Best Actor contender is going to have to wow festival audiences (and critics) on the same level to keep pace.
What Could Surprise: Maybe not everybody has been waiting since 28 Days Later to see Hollywood pick up what Naomie Harris is putting down, but a featured role in Skyfall probably helped jog some memories. As Winnie Mandela, she could be a dark horse Supporting Actress contender.
Most Pressing Question, Oscar-Wise: Can the screenwriter of Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Gladiator and the director of The Other Boleyn Girl produce something thoughtful enough to earn Oscar love? (HA HA, just kidding, the Academy threw nominations at Cate Blanchett for The Golden Age and a statue at Russell Crowe for Gladiator. Thoughtful is for the weak.)
What We’re Expecting: It’s tough to say. Sometimes, Rush looks like a popcorn action movie with a Hemsworth in the lead and a genial Ronnie Howard sheen. Other times, it looks like Howard’s most ambitious project in years and a solid Best Supporting Actor bid for Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds; The Fifth Estate).
What Could Surprise: Would it not be an actual scream if it turned out that it’s Chris Hemsworth who delivers the standout performance in Rush?
Most Pressing Questions, Oscar-Wise: Is Bruhl’s performance impressive enough to make him a contender irrespective of whether the film itself is? Will Howard get credit for the filmmaking challenges that come with so much time spent in speeding cars? Will top-shelf craftsmen like Anthony Dod Mantle and Hans Zimmer find themselves in the Cinematography and Score races, respectively?
Ten Dark-Horses That Could Make Some Noise
There must be something about the Elmore Leonard adaptation "Life of Crime" that it was named the festival’s closing-night film. With Jennifer Aniston as the lead in what sounds like a Jackie Brown-esque series of double-crosses and elaborate heists, maybe a Jen resurgence gets started.
A World War II-colored drama starring Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth always stands as a possibility, so jot down "The Railway Man" as a maybe, though unproven director Jonathan Teplitzky is a wild card.
Writer-director John Ridley (who could end up as an Oscar nominee anyway as the screenwriter for 12 Years a Slave) brings to the fest "All Is By My Side", a Jimi Hendrix biopic (seriously, how have we not had one of those yet?) starring Andre Benjamin (a.k.a. Andre 3000, a.k.a. one-half of OutKast) as the young Hendrix. There would be few better narratives than Andre 3000 storming TIFF and launching himself as a contender.
John Carney, director of the Oscar-winning "Once", revisits the music biz as he writes and directs "Can a Song Save Your Life?" With stars Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley -- plus a supporting cast that includes Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, and Adam Levine --he certainly has upped the star-power factor from his previous film.
There are few unknown quantities at TIFF more intriguing than "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby", a two-part film, with each part taking on the perspective of one half of a married couple. Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy will play the leads. He-said/She-said relationship comedy isn’t exactly a new concept, but writer/director Ned Benson could deliver something really audacious with the two-part structure. (At 190 minutes, though, he’s going to make audiences work for it.)
It might seem morbid to go plumbing through the new Nicole Holofcener film for one of the final screen performances of James Gandolfini, but it’s not like Holofcener doesn’t normally write rich characters for her talented casts. If Gandolfini does something special in "Enough Said", it would be really easy to get some word-of-mouth rallying behind him.
It’s a good-news/bad-news thing for the indie dramady "Le Week-End". The bad news is that director Roger Michell is coming off of Morning Glory (a wasted opportunity for Rachel McAdams and Harrison Ford) and Hyde Park on Hudson (a disastrous example of Oscar buzz gone bad). The good news is that, before those, he directed Venus (Oscar nomination for Peter O’Toole), plus the very good films Enduring Love, The Mother, and Notting Hill. So there’s reason to hope that Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan will have a steady hand guiding them in this Hope Springs-esque tale of an older couple working on their marriage (in Paris!).
Naturally, the feature film debut of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is going to draw some attention, so there’s always a possibility that "You Are Here" a road trip comedy featuring Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis, could break out. Of course, you could ask Weiner’s old Sopranos boss David Chase what the festival circuit is like after Not Fade Away did just that last year.
Experimental documentary filmmaker Godfrey Reggio is back with "Visitors", a contemplative look at technology and the way we live today. Strong TIFF reception could help Cinedigm’s efforts to push this into what is currently a very crowded Best Documentary Feature field.
Finally, while a fragmented love story full of strange connections and multiple locations across the globe, starirng Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, and Maria Bello, among others, doesn’t sound like it’ll do much, can you really discount the latest from Oscar winner Paul Haggis? Oh, you can? Sorry, "Third Person."