Toronto films try to build awards buzz

Kudos hopefuls attempt to gain momentum

Awards speculation is usually based on a murky combination of pedigree and conjecture. But the accuracy of some whispers will be put to the test at the Toronto fest, where dozens of the year’s kudos hopefuls make their North American debuts.

Ever since “American Beauty” parlayed its Toronto preem into best picture love, the fest has served as kudo season’s kickoff, launching such pics as “Brokeback Mountain,” “Walk the Line,” “Babel” and “Volver.”

This year’s kudo seekers include:

Galas

“Eastern Promises”
(Focus)
Pic echoes “History of Violence,” set in the dark corners of the London underworld run by the Russian mob. Helmer David Cronenberg reteams with Viggo Mortensen. Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassell co-star.
Buzz: Strong performances across the board bode well. Mainstream appeal could finally bring the Academy around to acknowledging Cronenberg.

“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”
(Universal)
The long-awaited sequel to 1998’s “Elizabeth.” Same director (Shekhar Kapur), writer (Michael Hirst, with William Nicholson) and star (Cate Blanchett). Clive Owen and Samantha Morton join the cast as Sir Walter Raleigh and Mary, Queen of Scots.
Buzz: The Acad clearly loves Blanchett (who was nommed for the first film), plus it crowned another Queen Elizabeth last year.

“Rendition”
(New Line)
“Crash”-like ensembler tackles post-Patriot Act prejudice when an Egyptian-born American citizen is yanked off a plane and tortured in connection with a bombing. Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”) directs Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Peter Sarsgaard, Alan Arkin and Meryl Streep.
Buzz: Hard to ignore a pic with this kind of talent attached.

“Reservation Road”
(Focus)
A hit-and-run destroys not only the victim’s family but also the life of the college professor behind the wheel. Terry George directs Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly.
Buzz: One of several downer dramas opening this year to evoke “In the Bedroom,” indicating a promising showcase for the cast.

Special Presentations

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”
(Warner)
The title pretty much says it. Not so much a Western as a just-shy-of-three-hour meditation on the times. Brad Pitt is James, Casey Affleck is Ford. “Chopper’s” Andrew Dominick directs.
Buzz: Artful pic is drawing Terrence Malick comparisons — that’s good for critics, but will it play to the Academy?

“Atonement”
(Focus)
“Pride & Prejudice” helmer Joe Wright tackles an altogether different adaptation: Ian McEwan’s WWII-era romantic epic, drawing comparisons to “The English Patient” (Anthony Minghella even makes a cameo). Cast includes Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Vanessa Redgrave and newcomer Saoirse Ronan.
Buzz: Critical reaction is positive for the pic, which could go on to represent in all the top awards categories.

“The Brave One”
(Warner)
Jodie Foster does “Death Wish,” turning vigilante after a brutal crime. Word has it that this pic goes deeper into the psychology. Terrence Howard investigates the case. Neil Jordan directs.
Buzz: If the movie proves more Acad friendly than “Kill Bill,” Foster and company could see recognition.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”
(Miramax)
Julian Schnabel directs Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, written after a stroke left the Elle magazine editor with locked-in syndrome. Mathieu Amalric plays Bauby, though d.p. Janusz Kaminski conveys much of the movie through the character’s eyes/imagination.
Buzz: Not just another “The Sea Inside.” Schnabel earned the director kudos at Cannes. Max von Sydow is getting raves as Bauby’s father. French-language pic won’t be the Gallic foreign submission this year.

“Into the Wild”
(Paramount Vantage)
Sean Penn brings his usual dramatic rigor to the story of a college grad who gives up everything and sets off for Alaska — on foot. Emile Hirsch stars. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden play his parents. Others pop up as personalities along the way.
Buzz: Hal Holbrook is said to be a standout. Penn could get adapted screenplay love.

“In the Valley of Elah”
(Warner Independent)
Paul Haggis’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Crash” brings the war home. A soldier goes missing, leaving his ex-MP father to investigate — can you handle the truth? Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon and Josh Brolin topline.
Buzz: Jones gives a strong perf in a pic that is subtler — but also riskier — than “Crash.”

“Lust, Caution”
(Focus)
Ang Lee delivers another Chinese period piece, forgoing martial arts for a steamy espionage thriller set in WWII-era Shanghai. Newcomer Tang Wei and “Hero” heartthrob Tony Leung star. Screenplay by longtime Lee collaborators James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling.
Buzz: Mandarin-language, NC-17 pic doesn’t have “Brokeback Mountain’s” obvious publicity peg.

“No Country for Old Men”
(Miramax)
Coen brothers return to serious mode with this unforgiving crime story about a drug deal gone bad, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Javier Bardem is the blood-curdling villain. Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin round out the cast.
Buzz: Made a strong impression at Cannes, but didn’t win a prize. Should do better at home.

The fest also will launch kudos hopefuls from respected helmers Woody Allen (“Cassandra’s Dream”), Gillian Armstrong (“Death Defying Acts”), Noah Baumbach (“Margot at the Wedding”), Brian De Palma (“Redacted”), Todd Haynes (“I’m Not There”), Sidney Lumet (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”), Paul Schrader (“The Walker”) and Julie Taymor (“Across the Universe”).

And Oscar winners — George Clooney in thriller “Michael Clayton” and Michael Caine in the updated “Sleuth” — could elevate these titles to kudodom.

Plus, hot from Cannes, Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Fortnight opener “Control” and animated “Persepolis” get their first North American exposure, while Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman build buzz for Sundance debut “The Savages.”

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