“12 Years A Slave”
Even at this stage of the early game, it’s difficult to write about Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” without discussing the hype surrounding it. The film turned out to be the smash hit of the Telluride Film Festival and then it turned up at TIFF and won the coveted audience award which, as we all know, tends to be a good augur for the Oscars. Awards punditry aside, here’s why “12 Years A Slave” winning this award is heartening: McQueen’s movie is a harrowing, brutal and uncompromising watch and frankly, it’s nice to see the usually populist TIFF audiences give a thumbs up to something so wrenching. Packed with stars and cameos—Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Scoot McNairy—the movie belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, an African American man kidnapped from New York and sold into slavery in pre-Civil War times. Michael Fassbender is a monster of slave owner who makes Walter White look like a kind man, Lupita Nyong'o is fantastic discovery as another slave and you’ve never seen Sarah Paulson this cruel as Fassbender’s wife. Hans Zimmer writes a gorgeous score that’s very restrained and all around, this is simple, but deeply affecting filmmaking. Those who believe McQueen is making movies for Oscars simply haven’t witnessed the unflinching nature of this film. It’s a powerful piece of work, possibly destined to become an American classic.
Criminally overlooked in Toronto, perhaps due to some of the cell-phone-gate issues (one of the minor dramas went down during its first press screening), Denis Villeneuve’s first collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal is the experimental and artier cousin to “Prisoners” (which was shot only a few months afterwards). A Kafka-esque mindbender about identity, self and the conflict of the male id and ego, Gyllenhaal—like Eisenberg in “The Double”—pulls double duty as the two leads. One is an anguished University lecturer on the verge of a breakup with his gorgeous girlfriend. He soon discovers he has a doppelganger (Gyllenhaal again), who is an up-and-coming actor with a wife and baby on the way. When the two men meet, their lives become dangerously intertwined and inexorably linked. Co-starring Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent and Isabella Rossellini, Villeneuve crafts the first of his arresting one-two punches for 2013 that cement his status as a bold new auteur to keep eyes on. A enigmatic and haunting look at the unconconscious, in our review from TIFF we said, “Imagine the Paul Thomas Anderson of 'There Will Be Blood' making a Brian De Palma movie, or Claire Denis directing Christopher Nolan’s 'Memento.' Hello, sold?? A24 has picked up the film presumably for a Spring 2014 release: the season of all smart indie movies of late.
Final thoughts: Of course, these five films were just the highlights of a festival that had more than a few treasures and films to remember. Ritesh Batra's romantically melancholy "The Lunchbox" is a lovely diversion with a nice turn from Irrfan Khan; Ron Howard's "Rush" is jolt of new energy from a director that's a pretty terrific piece of entertainment; Jude Law chews the scenery like you've never seen him before in "Dom Hemingway"—it's his Tom Hardy/"Bronson" moment; Mike Myers' directorial debut with the documentary "SuperMensch" is surprisingly affecting while "Dallas Buyer's Club" will rightfully earn attention thanks to two excellent turns by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. And on yeah, that whole 911/cellphone in the theater thing? In case you were wondering, while it blew up in the media, it quickly became the punchline at TIFF. It was an unfortunate, mini-distraction that shed a poor light on lots of writers, reporters and bloggers who work hard, put up with life's little annoyances and do quality work. Anyway... Up next is the New York Film Festival, and as for Toronto, we'll see you next year. — Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez and Nikola Grozdanovic
Awards: you can see them all here.