Toronto Film Festival ignites the race to the Oscars

Sandra Bullock stars in Gravity

In the last few years, The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has increasingly become more of a barometer for Oscar contenders than a platform to discover small movies that often rely on festivals to gain some attention. Films are not measured by creative quality or commercial viability anymore but by their Oscar potential – a fact that was not missed, and even encouraged, by Hollywood Studios, who dispatch every executive and publicist in their armouries to form formidable attack lines with the hope that will eventually win them a trophy on the Oscars night next year. They are ubiquitous, feeding the information-hungry press with tidbits about their movies, leading talent from one interview to another, throwing glitzy parties in Toronto’s glamorous venues, where they urge the tipsy guests to believe that their movie is so good, it merits an Oscar.

Unlike the previous years, when one picture rose above the dizzying foray of over 250 movies and ended up winning the industry’s most coveted trophy,  the 38th edition of TIFF had several potential contenders this year, hence academic conversations often led to a passionate argument among fans of different movies. The awards war has indeed begun and it’s going to be ferocious this year.

One of the movies that produced a lot of buzz and ignited heated debate was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which tells the harrowing story of an African-American who has to endure the hardship of slavery for 12 years before he is freed by his white friends. Some audiences were dismayed by the sadistic violence portrayed in the movie, yet others hailed it as a bold depiction of the true hideous nature of the 18th century slavery in the US.

This was not the first time the British director has commanded such attention. A couple of years ago, his film Shame fired up Venice Film Festival, gaining a best actor award for its lead Michael Fassbender, but that fire dimmed quickly and the film eventually lost steam in its Oscar race. Will 12 Years a Slave do better?

A lighter and less controversial film was Ron Howard’s car-racing thriller Rush, which follows two Formula One legends British James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda as they battle each other to win the world championship. The film was universally embraced and admired for its verisimilitude and the performances of its leads, Chris Hemsworth who plays James Hunt and Daniel Bruhl, who looked and sounded like the real Niki Lauda, who flew himself to Toronto in his own airplane from Austria, arriving two hours before the premiere, and attend the screening and the after party. Amazingly, when I left the party at 2 am, the 70 year-old racer was still entertaining the guests. Yet, when I sat to interview him at 8am, he was bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. After the interview, he flew himself back to Austria.

Daniel Bruhl didn’t excel only in portraying the legendary Niki Lauda, he also delivered a riveting performance in the wikileaks drama, The Fifth Estate, in which

Daniel Bruhl stars in Rush and The Fifth Estate

he plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who co founded the whistleblower website with Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The film, which opened the festival didn’t live up to the preceding hype and quickly ceded to other competing high profile movies.

The performance of the year, however, was delivered by Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, in which he plays a real-life Texas electrician Ron Woodroof, who defies conventional medicine and stays alive for 7 years after being diagnosed with HIV in the early eighties, by relying on a banned alternative treatment. McConaughey, who shed 40 pounds for the role, is virtually unrecognisable as he leads us into the fascinating emotional journey of a man who refuses to die.

Away from the hardship of earth, Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi Gravity takes us to the silent loneliness of the heavens, where Sandra Bullock gets stranded in meteor-infested space after her partner George Clooney. Fresh from its dominance at The Venice Film Festival, Gravity continued to awe audiences and critics alike with its stunning visuals.

More high profile movies vying for Oscar attention were star-studded August: Osage County about a dysfunctional family, kidnapping thriller Prisoners, and Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs for 11 days, but in reality most stars and industry professionals depart the city after 5 days, because all the big movies are screened in the festival’s early days.  So on my last day,  I went to check out the Palestinian movie, Omar, which had won Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was a breath of fresh air, because the story, not the stars,  was the centre of attention. Following the screening, I attended the modest after-party, which lacked the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood bashes, but it was filled with movie lovers instead of star spotters.

It was not all doom and gloom for independent movies. In fact, it has been very bright this year with distributors competing over titles and paying handsome fees for their finds. Film mogul, Harvey Weinstein coughed up $7 million for Can a Song Save Your Life? 12 hours after its well-received world premiere. A similar sum was paid by Focus Features for Jason Bateman’s black comedy Bad Words. These deals are double last year’s top Toronto transaction of $3.5 million for The Place Beyond the Pines.

As The Toronto International Film Festival draws its curtains, Hollywood gets ready to march into a new battlefield that will eventually lead the victors to the that golden prize, the Oscar.