Sep 15, 2014

Best picture Oscar race remains muddled after Toronto film festival

o years ago, Toronto International Film Festival audiences fell in love with Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook" and loudly cheered all the Canadian references (natives don't pronounce the second T in Toronto) in Ben Affleck's crowd-pleasing "Argo." Then last year, "Gravity" dropped jaws and "12 Years a Slave" had its gala audience clapping in unison through the closing credits before the inevitable, explosive standing ovation.

This September, the explosion never happened. Toronto festival-goers rose from their seats after the lights came up for the requisite standing ovations (we don't need "Argo" to tell us that Canadians are polite that way), and, at the post-screening parties, people praised historical dramas/biopics such as "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory of Everything" with genuine, though muted, praise. Descriptions like "solidly crafted," "wonderfully acted" and "perfectly fine" were offered, heads nodded in unison, and that was that. Maybe it's because both were British. Stark-raving enthusiasm wouldn't have been appropriate.

And now, after the conclusion of Telluride and Toronto, the two festivals that have in the past premiered (or, at least, screened) most of the 21st century's best picture Oscar winners, we are looking at a wide-open landscape where movies that arrived earlier this year ("Boyhood," "The Grand Budapest Hotel") and titles still to come ("Gone Girl," "Inherent Vice," "Unbroken," "Selma," "Interstellar" ... it's a long list) have a legitimate hope of not only winning a nomination but of taking the Oscar.

That's not even mentioning "Foxcatcher," which premiered at Cannes before going to Telluride and Toronto, winning raves at each stop. Bennett Miller's movie tracks the madness of John E. du Pont, the eccentric millionaire who bankrolled the U.S. Olympic wrestling program before eventually shooting to death wrestler-coach Dave Schultz in 1996. Steve Carell is fantastic as the demented Du Pont, though the movie's restrained, detached tone might make it more of a festival favorite than a movie that audiences — and academy members — truly love.

Then there's "Birdman," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's stunning high-wire act about a former superhero-film star (Michael Keaton) attempting a desperate career comeback on Broadway. The movie played at Telluride and Venice, skipping Toronto in favor of a closing night slot before what should be a friendly home crowd at the New York Film Festival. "Birdman" earned rapturous reviews and will probably take a handful of critics awards at the end of the year. But many of the elements that critics loved — particularly the film's bold, "Rope"-style illusion that its action is unfolding in one, single take — left some in Telluride dizzy. And we don't think it had anything to do with the altitude. In the end, "Birdman" is probably too gonzo to win with the academy, people who like to let their freak flag fly — but only at half-staff.

If Oscar voters had any kind of history of thinking outside the narrow parameters of what is deemed an "awards-worthy" film, a lot more people here would probably be talking about Jake Gyllenhaal's twitchy turn in "Nightcrawler" as an L.A. outsider who spends his nights filming footage of heinous crime scenes and roadside carnage to sell to the local news. Its Toronto screening set social media ablaze, winning a loud ovation, though, because of the completely unhinged work on display, not everyone was standing. Perhaps they were stunned into submission.

"I never want to see that movie again," one Oscar-nominated producer told me after the screening, "but I'm going to tell everyone I know to watch it for Gyllenhaal and the way it captures the city at night."

Persuading academy members — many of whom never could bring themselves to watch "12 Years a Slave" last year — to give Gyllenhaal's psychotic creep a chance could be a tall order. And Jason Reitman's cautionary technology-centric ensemble drama "Men, Women & Children" will likely be a hard sell to that crowd too, not to mention to Internet-based critics who will likely take issue with the movie's gloom-and-doom critique of the miseries inherent in social media. ("It's terrifying," Reitman said more than once at a post-screening Q&A of the online world.)

But then, "terrifying" was a word tossed around liberally this year at Toronto, with "The Theory of Everything" star Eddie Redmayne uttering it about a dozen times in the few minutes he was on stage after the film's gala premiere. Redmayne used it to describe the prospect of portraying renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, as well as the idea of meeting Hawking in person and the fact that audiences would be seeing him play Hawking in the movie.

He needn't have worried. Aside from Bill Murray (who had his own official day at this year's festival, for goodness' sake), Redmayne might have generated the most goodwill here this year, giving a superb turn that possesses all the attributes (and then some) that make up a performance that academy voters can't resist. Along with "The Imitation Game's" Benedict Cumberbatch (like Redmayne, playing a real-life genius), Carell in "Foxcatcher" and Keaton's meta-turn in "Birdman" and you have the makings of an early lead actor pile-up without even factoring in all the other great work from the likes of Murray (so good in "St. Vincent") and Ralph Fiennes' refined concierge in "Grand Budapest Hotel."

Of course, Murray already had Bill Murray Day at the festival, so maybe he's set.

"I get to park anywhere I like," he told the "St. Vincent" audience of the honor's perks. Turns out, though, he didn't go anywhere before the movie.

"I stayed in my room for a long time, but people kept coming up saying things like, 'It's real humid out there.' I think maybe seven different people go, like, 'You know, it's real humid, and it's going to get even more humid.' That's what my day's been like. It's mostly been a weather report."

Let us guess. Cloudy with a chance of "Meatballs."

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