The Oscar Race Is On

Texas films and other Oscar hopefuls crowd Toronto International Film Festival roster

Texas films and more Oscar hopefuls crowd Toronto Film Festival roster

Toronto International Film Festival September 2013 Prisoners with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman (right) may have a better shot at this year's Best Actor race with his intensely dramatic turn in Prisoners with Jake Gyllenhaal (left). Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
August Osage County with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts
The all-star cast in August: Osage County includes Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival September 2013 with Matthew McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey may take home an Academy Award for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival Gravity September 2013 Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone
Just three years after she brought home the gold for The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock is shaping up as a possible repeat winner for her performance in Gravity, a 3D space thriller. Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival 12 Years a Slave
A scene from director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, a harrowing drama about a freedman forced into slavery in the 19th century Deep South. Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival September 2013 Prisoners with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman
August Osage County with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts
Toronto International Film Festival September 2013 with Matthew McConaughey
Toronto International Film Festival Gravity September 2013 Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone
Toronto International Film Festival 12 Years a Slave

Each year, organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival dazzle tens of thousands of filmmakers, journalists and ticket-buying movie buffs by programming the most important event of its kind in North America. How do they do it? The old-fashioned way: volume, volume, volume.

September 5-15, TIFF ’13 will unspool a staggering total of 366 films (288 features, 78 shorts) from 70 countries on 28 screens strategically located throughout the city. But wait, there’s more: According to festival officials, 93 percent of the features qualify as world, international or North American premieres.

All of which prompts the Toronto festivalgoer's chronic lament: so many movies, so little time.

I am here, and I plan to see a lot of movies. But I know deep down in my heart that I won’t – that I can’t possibly — see enough.

This year’s edition of TIFF kicked off Thursday in the Canadian metropolis with the world premiere of The Fifth Estate, director Bill Condon’s hotly anticipated drama about Wikileaker Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and concludes next weekend with Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime — a caper comedy based on Elmore Leonard’s novel The Switch, starring Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes, Tim Robbins and Yasiin Bey (the actor-musician also known as Mos Def) — officially designated as the closing-night attraction.

Speaking of designations, official or otherwise: The Toronto fest is widely viewed as the annual inauguration celebration for the fall movie season, primarily because of its primacy as a showcase for Academy Award hopefuls. Among the TIFF ’13 titles already being touted by Oscar handicappers:

12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen — the hot director of Shame, not the late star of Bullitt — generated a full-throated roar of near-universal acclaim a few days ago at the Telluride Film Festival with a sneak-preview screening of his harrowing drama about a freedman forced into slavery in the 19th century Deep South. If, as seems likely, the acclaim continues at TIFF, look for both McQueen and lead player Chiwetel Ejiofor to rise even higher on the Oscar prognosticators’ tip sheets. Co-stars Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o might also gain some traction in the support categories.

August: Osage County
Playwright Tracy Letts already has a Pulitzer Prize to his credit for his acclaimed seriocomic play about family life and strife in rural Oklahoma. This film adaptation, directed by John Wells (The Company Men), could earn him another award or two, with a little help from an all-star cast that includes Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch — what, him again? — and Sam Shepard.

Gravity
Just three years after she brought home the gold for The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock is shaping up as a possible repeat winner for her performance in this 3D space thriller from Alfonso Cuarón (Children of MenY Tu Mamá También) about the terrifying aftermath of a space station disaster. As an astronaut left floating in the unforgiving blackness far above the earth’s surface, Bullock reportedly upstages some jaw-dropping special effects and a scene-stealing co-star (George Clooney).  

Prisoners
Even though he sang and acted his heart out in Les Miserables, Hugh Jackman fell short in last year’s Best Actor race. This year, however, he may have a better shot at the glittering prize with his intensely dramatic (and non-singing) turn in Denis Villeneuve’s thriller about  a desperate father who takes a hands-on approach to aiding in the hunt for his kidnapped daughter. Early reviews have been mostly flat-out raves, with Scott Foundas of Variety noting the Australian-born Jackman “projects a solid, rugged Americanness, the acme of a man whose home is his castle and who sees himself as his family’s protector. It is a performance void of vanity or the desire to be loved by the audience, and moment to moment it is exhilarating to watch.”

Dallas Buyers Club
On the other hand, there are some observers — including, yes, yours truly — who started wondering as soon as the first trailer appeared whether Matthew McConaughey already has the Oscar nailed down solid for his bodacious performance in this fact-based drama as Ron Woodroof, a boisterous Texas good ol’ boy turned improbable AIDS activist. After being diagnosed HIV-positive and more or less handed a death sentence in 1986 Dallas, Woodroof rebelled by smuggling into the United States various treatments not yet approved by this country’s medical establishment. He was supposed to die within 30 days after his doctors gave him the bad news. McConaughey may take home an Academy Award for making audiences understand and appreciate why this brazen hellraiser and rule-breaker was able to cheat the grim reaper for as long as he did.

Parkland  
Dallas also is the setting for another TIFF attraction: Parkland, first-time feature director Peter Landesman’s multifaceted film based on the first-hand accounts of medical staffers, Secret Service personnel and other individuals who became eyewitnesses to history — and, in some cases, supporting players in a real-life drama — during and immediately after the November 22, 1963, assassination of John F. Kennedy. The cast includes Zac Efron as a young doctor who tends to the dying president, Paul Giamatti as amateur cinematographer Abraham Zaprduer, and Billy Bob Thornton as a Secret Service agent who really, really doesn’t want to know about how the FBI may have bungled its surveillance of a guy named Lee Harvey Oswald.

Tim’s Vermeer
Meanwhile, in another part of Texas, Tim Jenison, a successful inventor of computer graphics equipment, turns his attention to the mysterious methods of Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer in the aptly titled documentary Tim’s Vermeer.  Produced by comic magicians and professional debunkers Penn & Teller, the film — Teller’s debut effort as a director — depicts Jenison’s obsessive attempts to deduce how Vermeer managed to create his “photo-realistic” masterworks more than 150 years before the invention of the camera. Jenison winds up with a theory that he opts to prove — slowly, methodically — by painting with his own hands a replica of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, using precisely the sort of technology he believes the Dutch master used. The big difference is, instead of working in a traditional artist’s studio, Jenison works in his San Antonio garage.

Among the multitude of other TIFF ’13 highlights: New works by such notables as Jim Jarmsuch (Only Lovers Left Alive), Jason Reitman (Labor Day), Atom Egoyan (Devil’s Knot), Stephen Frears (Philomena) and actor-filmmaker John Turturro (Fading Gigolo, in which Woody Allen — yes, that Woody Allen — plays the pimp to Turturro’s eponymous womanizer); biopics of Nelson Mandela (Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba) and Lech Walesa (Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope); and the latest multiple-narrative ensemble drama from Crash writer-director Paul Haggis, Third Person, starring Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, Kim Basinger and the ubiquitous James Franco. (But not, it should be noted, Benedict Cumberbatch.)  

Oscar-winner Ron Howard has two films in this year’s TIFF mix: Rush, a revved-up real-life drama about the mid-’70s competition between Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl); and Made in America, a high-decibel concert documentary showcasing rapper-impresario Jay Z and featuring performances by Pearl Jam, Odd Future, Dirty Projectors, Skrillex, Santigold, Janelle Monáe and Run-DMC.

On the other hand, the indefatigably prolific Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) has only one film on view — The Armstrong Lie, a documentary portrait of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong — but that may be all he needs to stand out even in the crowded TIFF ’13 lineup.