Toronto: Oscar Race Blossoms With New Entries

The 38th Toronto Film Festival wraps Sunday, boasting screenings of plentiful awards contenders, including the addition of at least three pics to the mix: “August: Osage County,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Rush.”

All earned best-pic Oscar predictions from many pundits when they debuted here. Those three films joined a quartet of Toronto pics that had scored similar buzz at the Venice and Telluride festivals: “12 Years a Slave,” which picked up Toronto’s top audience award, the first and second runners-up “Philomena” and “Prisoners,” and “Gravity.”

So the Canadian fest vindicated its rep as an awards launchpad. But that is only one of a festival’s goals. Arguably, its most important mandate is to showcase complex and thoughtful movies that require careful handling.

Toronto debuted several of these as well, including “The Fifth Estate” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” And the festival screened pics that had earned enthusiastic reaction at earlier festivals, including “The Invisible Woman,” “Kill Your Darlings,” “Labor Day” and “The Past.”

In terms of kudos, it was good news/bad news for those six films, plus others like them. The good news is that all are worthy of awards consideration in several categories. The bad news is that the media has begun to use Oscar’s top prize as the only yardstick for a film’s merit. The attitude seemed to be “If it’s not a best-picture contender, get it outta here,” which is a disservice to the films. So one hopes that audiences and awards voters see and appreciate them.

Toronto also offered some interesting case studies. The JFK-assassination-themed “Parkland” earned thumbs-down in Venice, yet many people in Toronto were very positive. Is this due to cultural differences, lowered expectations, or that great divider, personal taste? It will be interesting to see if films like “Devil’s Knot,” with Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, can similarly reverse its fortunes, after inspiring little enthusiasm in Toronto, despite a great cast and hot-button topic.

The David Frankel-directed “One Chance” is worth keeping an eye on. It’s a fact-based pic that is basically “Rocky” but with arias and is a rare film that deals with the modern phenom of unscripted TV. Weinstein Co. will open the film in December for one week in advance of its 2014 release. It’s definitely a crowd-pleaser and could encourage awards buzz. It’s a “little” movie but, notably, it’s one of the fourth quarter’s few feel-good movies.

The Canadian fest also showcased films that are awards fodder in other genres like documentaries (“The Armstrong Lie,” “Finding Vivian Maier,” “The Dog,” “Tim’s Vermeer,” “The Unknown Known,” all with rabid supporters), animation (the Hiyao Miyazaki film “The Wind Rises,” which the Japanese animator says will be his final film) and foreign-language. Aside from “The Past,” that group includes India’s “Lunchbox,” which generated lots of enthusiasm here.

As a bonus, Toronto offered a sneak peek into some possible 2014 kudos films. A U.S. producer who saw more than three dozen films here hailed “Can a Song Save Your Life” as “the most commercial film I saw here.” It was acquired by the Weinstein Co., which also nabbed “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her and Him,” the Colin Firth-Nicole Kidman film “The Railway Man” (whose strong perfs will be a key selling point) and “Tracks,” from director John Curran (“The Painted Veil”). Some were speculating that TWC might open one or more this year, but the company already has a crowded list of contenders in a crowded year, so patience would seem the logical strategy.

Also acclaimed and set to open in 2014 are the Jason Bateman-directed black comedy “Bad Words” (bought by Focus Features), Fox Searchlight’s “Belle” (a look at British slavery that’s very different from Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave”), the Daniel Radcliffe-starrer “The F Word” (bought by CBS Films), plus the Elmore Leonard adaptation “Life of Crime” (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions). At this point, all seem like possible 2014 contenders in various categories.

Before the Sept. 5 start of the Toronto Film Festival, some pundits claimed Venice and Telluride had stolen its pre-awards thunder. It turns out, Toronto held its own. Apparently the year in film is so strong, there was plenty of thunder to go around.

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