A Variety “Breaking News” alert arrived via email trumpeting, “Venice Joins Oscar Race with ‘Philomena,’ ‘Gravity,’ ” and just like that the race is on to tantalize and tease critics and audiences with the first bite, that world premiere of the titles that will likely be on the lips of film’s tastemakers during the awards season. Every critic worth his weight in critical words vies for an opportunity to secure a place at the table of one of the major film festivals — Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York — for the prestigious debuts. The luckiest of the lucky position themselves so that they can attend several of the fests, which run almost back-to-back-to-back annually.
The more pedestrian critics, like yours truly, plan a more strategic approach, singling out one event for optimal immersion into the fullest menu sampling possible. The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) will showcase, for instance, both Philomena and Gravity (and have no fear, I plan on attending press screenings for each), as well as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Blue is the Warmest Color (the Cannes darling), Dallas Buyers Club (with Matthew McConaughey firmly in command), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (finally, that Idris Elba big screen breakout moment we’ve all been waiting for), August: Osage County (Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep) and Labor Day (Juno’s Jason Reitman attempt to hold the Oscar — and audiences — hostage).
On the heels of TIFF, the 51st New York Film Festival has an exclusive on the latest Paul Greengrass thriller Captain Phillips, which will kick off the Big Apple’s event, followed by premieres of the new Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis; Alexander Payne’s latest Nebraska; and the much-anticipated launch of J.C
The debut of each of these films in New York signals what will likely be the final toll for the prestigious releases for this year’s awards season, although there’s always a stray last-minute entry that seeks to steal a bit of thunder with an under-the-wire Christmas opening. Potential party crashers might include Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and/or David O. Russell’s American Hustle. It seems silly, after perusing that star-studded list, to refer to any of those names as awards season crashers but it is fascinating to note that for whatever reasons, they have taken themselves out of the festival game this year.
But for all the hype about these major titles — the films that have been pre-ordained from on high to be worthy of awards consideration — there is just as much joy in finding the hidden festival gems, the kinds of releases that dive below the heat sensors of the radar and end up unspooling in our region long after the big dances of the season. In recent years, films like those by Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell) or Stuart Blumberg, whose soon-to-be released ensemble dramedy Thanks for Sharing played at TIFF last year, have arrived in our market without all of the fanfare, yet have presented audiences with experiences of far greater and more intriguing intimacy.
For all strong word of mouth that 12 Years a Slave has garnered (and will continue to earn) during its festival run, I’m looking forward to Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor’s turn in Half of a Yellow Sun as much, if not more, because it is the more unheralded film, the one I’m going out of my way to discover. The same goes for All Is by My Side, the directorial offering from 12 Years a Slave’s screenwriter John Ridley, which explores the musical life of Jimi Hendrix prior to the release of Are You Experienced.
Despite the behind-the-scenes debate about whether TIFF is a cherry-picking Fest of the Fests or a trend-setting barometer for awards season projections, TIFF has been a vital link in the film coverage network for regional critics across the nation. Each year, on the eve of my departure, I feel like Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Rod Tidwell from Jerry Maguire, imploring TIFF and its hardworking programming team to “Show me the movies,” like they mean it, and without fail, that is exactly what they do.
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