‘12 Years a Slave’ builds mojo at Toronto Film Festival

TORONTO — Standing ovations for movies playing at the Toronto International Film Festival are as ubiquitous as Benedict Cumberbatch and the food trucks lining the downtown entertainment district. Every film receiving a gala premiere brings the audience to its feet (at least, once the houselights go up and the spotlight shines on the stars sitting in the mezzanine), even so-so films that no one particularly adores such as this year’s festival opener, “The Fifth Estate.”

When a movie prompts festival-goers to clap in unison before the stars hit the stage, as did “12 Years a Slave,” that’s different. (Of course, it helps when you have the great spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll” as a prompt.) And when the cheering began after “12 Years” director Steve McQueen, writer John Ridley and the movie’s exemplary cast — Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt and, yes, Cumberbatch — took their bows, you could see why some Oscar pundits had been making a mad dash, arms flailing, to cry “first” and anoint “12 Years a Slave” the certain best picture winner after it premiered in late August at the Telluride Film Festival.

Because the last three Oscar best picture winners — “Argo,” “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech” — played both Toronto and Telluride, it’s easy to understand the impulse to call the race even before the leaves have started to turn and several other high-pedigree contenders (Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street,” David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” and the biographical drama “Saving Mr. Banks” among them) have screened.

PHOTOS: Toronto Film Festival 2013

“I imagine we’ll be seeing that kind of response a lot,” filmmaker Spike Jonze, in Toronto showing scenes from his relationship comedy “Her,” said of the reaction afforded “12 Years,” which also took the Toronto festival’s audience prize awarded Sunday, the event’s final day. “It’s the one movie everyone I know is talking about here.”


That the talk began in Telluride — as it did for Toronto’s other hot-ticket gala, Alfonso Cuarón’s harrowing outer-space survival tale, “Gravity” — diminished the festival’s awards-season mojo, at least for this year. There were no coming-out parties for (somewhat) under-the-radar entries such as “Silver Linings Playbook,” the fizzy relationship comedy that took Toronto by storm last year on its way to receiving eight Academy Award nominations.

High-profile gala premieres either landed with a thud (“The Fifth Estate,” a “Social Network"-like snapshot of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange), sank under the groaning weight of responsibility (the Nelson Mandela biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) or, through sustained shouting and unrestrained acting, made critics’ heads hurt and/or spin (the star-packed adaptation of the Tony Award-winning “August: Osage County”).

Among the debuting features, only the “Dallas Buyers Club,” a $4-million movie shot in 25 days (after taking 20 years to get off the ground), managed to win something near unanimous acclaim, particularly for actors Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who play unlikely friends and business partners in a medication-smuggling ring after McConaughey’s character is diagnosed with AIDS. For McConaughey, it continues an extreme career makeover that started in 2012 with movies like “Magic Mike,” “Bernie” and “Killer Joe.” For Leto, who had not acted in five years, it marked a reintroduction.

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“I have to say, Matthew McConaughey is doing something spectacular with his life, with his career,” Leto said at a post-midnight Q&A session after the movie ended. “And I wanted to be a part of that. He’s doing the most incredibly inspiring work.”

“Dallas Buyers Club” producer Robbie Brenner added later: “It was one of those ‘Brady Bunch’ moments where people are talking and you can’t hear a word they’re saying.”

Words were also sometimes hard to come by during the gala screening of “Philomena,” another fact-based story, this time about a woman searching for the son that Catholic nuns forced her to relinquish shortly after his birth. But the reasons were altogether different. The odd-couple interplay between Judi Dench, as the mother 50 years on, and Steve Coogan, playing a reporter helping her, gave the movie’s tough subject matter a surprising amount of comedy, so much so that the audience’s laughter often drowned out the ensuing dialogue.

“Listen, it’s a high-class problem,” said the film’s director, Stephen Frears.

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Dench joins Cate Blanchett in the best actress conversation. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, who play a bickering mother and daughter waging a steel cage match of bitter accusations in “August: Osage County,” may also be contenders, though they’ll have to hope that academy members don’t read reviews. (They often don’t.) As has been the case with past Tony winners (“Proof,” “God of Carnage,” “The History Boys,” “Doubt” ... it’s a long list), the material’s journey from stage to screen proved perilous, at least for a great many critics who caught the movie in Toronto.

How much critics can chip away at the performance of 17-time Oscar nominee Streep is debatable. Revered legends such as Streep seem to engender reflexive voting among academy members, particularly when they have roles that allow them to grandstand.

“Everyone has a misstep, sooner or later,” Frears said, speaking in general terms. Frears has been to Toronto several times, first with “My Beautiful Laundrette” in 1985. He won the audience award with 1993’s “Snapper” and remembers one festival reviewer likening “Dangerous Liaisons” to “eating chocolate in bed.”

“But I’ve also had bad times,” Frears said. “It’s just what happens, and you can’t explain it. But when a good time happens, you’re very, very grateful. And I certainly wouldn’t mind feeling that way for the next few months.”

Whipp writes the Gold Standard column for The Envelope.