‘Gravity,’ ‘12 Years a Slave’ build buzz heading into Toronto

Chiwitel Ejiofor won strong buzz in Telluride for his work in the historical drama "12 Years a Slave."
(Jaap Buitendijk)

Telluride’s over, and the Venice Film Festival is past its midpoint. Judging from reports, we can safely declare a couple of things:

1. You’d better learn how to spell and pronounce the name Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British actor who plays the free black man sold into slavery in the historical epic “12 Years a Slave,” which premiered at Telluride. (Really. It’s not that hard. Just don’t ask this guy.)

2. The best actor Oscar race is over. (See No. 1.)

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Now, the latter assertion might be a bit premature given that many festival reviews and reactions tend to be written these days while people are hyperventilating into brown paper bags. Measured tweets following festival screenings are as rare as a San Diego mayor who doesn’t resign from office. Every movie is The Greatest Story Ever Told at the time of its screening. If it didn’t just blow your mind (this time), then you probably are either dead or you don’t have a Twitter account. (Not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive these days.)

That said, the key takeaway, at least from an awards-season perspective, from the Telluride screening of Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” can be found in a line in Variety critic Peter Debruge’s review.

“The first thing fans of McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame’ will notice here is the degree to which the helmer’s austere formal technique has evolved,” Debruge writes, “to the extent that one would almost swear he’d sneaked off and made three or four films in the interim.”

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McQueen’s “Hunger” and “Shame” were both fine films, but McQueen’s exacting technique limited their audience. (OK, the serious subject matters probably didn’t help, either.) Had he continued along those lines with “12 Years,” that would have been a problem, given the film’s already brutal and uncompromising depiction of slavery in America. (And when we say “problem,” we mean for many academy members, not film critics, who have already lauded McQueen’s work. The British film magazine Sight & Sound named “Hunger” the best movie of 2008, while “Shame” did well for actors Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.)

Academy members will have an abundance of choices for lead actor this year with four black actors alone in the running -- Ejiofor, Forest Whitaker (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”) and Idris Elba (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) -- along with this Robert Redford, who’s pretty good, and so is the lead in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Having a powerhouse film behind you may well be the key to landing a nomination. Or, to put it another way: There aren’t going to be any “Scent of a Woman"-style career-achievement honors coming anyone’s way in 2014.

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The other Telluride movie that made audiences’ heads spin was Alfonso Cuaron’s harrowing sci-fi survival story “Gravity.” (The film also opened the Venice Film Festival.) While we generally like to reserve our petition signing for California ballot measures that will eventually be struck down by the courts rather than protesting what actor will be wearing a rubber superhero suit, we can’t help but be a little geeked about this one. Comparing a movie to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” isn’t something critics do lightly. So when they pop up, say, here and here, you take notice.

But will the academy? Kubrick’s landmark 1968 film was nominated for four Oscars -- writing, direction, visual effects and art direction -- but not for best picture. (Damn you, “Oliver!”) In “Gravity’s” favor: a 91-minute running time, cutting-edge special effects and a lead performance from Sandra Bullock as one of the stranded astronauts (George Clooney is the other) that tests her in a way that no previous role has. (Don’t get us started on “The Blind Side.”)

Both “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” will screen this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. The last three best picture winners (“Argo,” “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech”) have danced the Telluride-Toronto two-step. Certainly, there’s a strong chance it might happen again.


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