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‘Fifth Estate’ Joins Oscar Talk at Toronto Fest

After the awards buzz coming out of Venice and Telluride, DreamWorks’ “The Fifth Estate” added a surprising twist to the conversation as it opened the 38th Toronto Festival on Sept. 5.

The pic, written by Josh Singer and directed by Bill Condon, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The film is ultra-smart, glossy and so timely that it’s bound to stir up a lot of talk. So the question is how these virtues will work in the awards race.

The film’s advantages: It’s as topical as any film this year, intelligent, suspenseful and features great work by Condon, Singer, the actors (particularly Cumberbatch) and all tech contributors.

Kudos challenges: That same topicality. The rumor a few years ago was that some Academy voters didn’t fall in love with “Social Network” because they didn’t know what Facebook is, so were confused by much of the action.

Another challenge for “Estate”: It’s a strong year for film. There has been considerable heat generated by “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave,” in particular. Then there are a slew of others that seem headed for a lot of awards attention.

Toronto is offering many films that premiered elsewhere (Sundance, Cannes, Venice and Telluride) and that are hoping to build their global awards buzz. But “Fifth Estate” is one of many high-profile pics that had remained largely below the radar of the awards race.

The list of upcoming and mostly unseen films at Toronto includes a bunch of based-on-fact films. Aside from “The Fifth Estate,” there are, in alphabetical order: “Belle,” “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” “Devil’s Knot,” “Invisible Woman,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”; “One Chance”; “Railway Man” and “Rush.”

Then there are not-based-on-fact films, including “August: Osage County,” “Dom Hemingway,” “Don Jon” and Matthew Weiner’s “You Are Here.”

Works screening at Toronto after bowing at other fests include “12 Years,” “Gravity,” “Kill Your Darlings” (with Daniel Radcliffe); “Labor Day,” “The Past,” “Philomena,” and “Prisoners.”

The glut of awards contenders at fests make it hard to judge a film simply on its own merits, or to talk about other “minor” considerations like box office or audience reaction. No, suddenly pundits and media members (present company included) are seeing every fest offering in terms of awards.

At the Sept. 5 opening ceremonies, government and fest officials several times talked about Toronto as being a festival for audiences, and “Fifth Estate” seems to fill that bill nicely. Young audiences and baby boomers alike should be interested in the back-and-forth questions about changing morality in the digital age.

As Condon said to the opening night crowd at Thomson Hall, it’s about privacy, transparency and secrets — which ones are worth keeping and which ones should be shared.

For the hip awards voters (and yes, there are some), it’ll be a treat to have a film full of ideas, and one that mentions Twitter, Skype, servers and log-ons without being self-conscious about it.

“Fifth Estate” is being distributed in the U.S. by Touchstone, with Participant and Reliance.

The script is based on two books on the topic: one by Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl in the film), the other by David Leigh and Luke Harding.

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