Awards fever doesn't change TIFF's primary purpose

These days, the Toronto Film Festival slate is anticipated eagerly not only by industry bizzers and cinema junkies, but also by awards watchers who have come to view the fest as the de facto opening to the kudos season.

While the festival no doubt represents a key strategic point in the awards marathon, the swell of attention risks overstating the importance of Toronto to the Oscars.

Of the nine films nominated for Oscar picture honors six months ago, only three screened at TIFF, and only “Moneyball” was a premiere. Oscar winner “The Artist” bowed at Cannes — which also had future best picture nominees in “Midnight in Paris” and “The Tree of Life” — while Toronto offering “The Descendants” debuted at Telluride.

Toronto’s reputation as an Oscar gateway was burnished when its People’s Choice award winners in 2008 and 2010, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech,” went on to Academy Award glory. And the fest did offer such other 2011-12 kudos favorites as foreign-language Oscar winner and TIFF audience award runner-up “A Separation”; Oscar documentary champ “Undefeated”; adapted screenplay nominee “The Ides of March” and “Albert Nobbs,” featuring Oscar lead actress nominee Glenn Close.

But the connection between Toronto and Oscar night is too haphazard for the fest to be considered a transcendent launching point. In 2011, the intersection between awards films and Toronto pics was actually quite slim.

The list of features — including several favorites from winter critics’ group awards — that screened at Toronto before largely withering during awards season is lengthy, and includes “A Dangerous Method,” “Drive,” “Like Crazy,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Melancholia,” “Rampart,” “Shame,” “The Skin I Live In” and “Take Shelter.” The TIFF prize winner for Canadian feature, “Monsieur Lazhar,” was the rare fest honoree last year to earn a subsequent Oscar nomination (in the foreign-language category).

One half-feather in the TIFF cap was the world premiere of Jonathan Levine’s “50/50,” which went on to nab Golden Globe noms for comedy/musical picture and for actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt before running dry at the Academy Awards.

Meanwhile, as big as the group of 2011-12 award winners out of Toronto last year is the group of films that didn’t even gain U.S. release until after the Oscars, such as “Damsels in Distress,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Take This Waltz” and “Your Sister’s Sister” — a reminder that the fest’s primary purpose remains to provide a wide sampling of films rather than a definitive preview of statuette winners.

That’s not to say that the kudos brigade should shut down its radar when this year’s TIFF launches Sept. 6 with fest opener “Looper” from Rian Johnson, just that expectations should be kept in check. Without a doubt, there are films premiering at Toronto that will be scrutinized for awards possibilities, such as Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” Roger Mitchell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson” and Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina.”

The ideal for awards watchers — the possibility of discovering, unexpectedly, a film that sends you out of the theater with soaring thoughts of Oscar — remains in play.

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