Toronto Film Festival: Assessing the Awards Contenders

Gold Derby’s Tom O’Neil writes from the Toronto Film Festival that although several Oscar contenders are absent from the Great White North this year, some in town are positioned as awards-season favorites while others have stumbled out of the gate.

Click here for photos from the festival

O’Neil comments that a handful of actresses garnered strong buzz including Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-LuckyAnne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married (she also started Oscar prognosticators’ tongues wagging a week ago at the Venice Film Festival), and Keira Knightley in another period turn in The Duchess. Knightley was also hot coming off of last year’s Venice opener Atonement, although she ultimately did not snag an Oscar nom.

Encouraging early word also hovered around Kate Beckinsale’s role in Nothing but the Truth, while some were excited about Dakota Fanning in The Secret Life of Bees.

Among other actresses folks are paying attention to this awards season are Angelina Jolie in Clint Eastwood’s ChangelingNicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann’s AustraliaMelissa Leo in Sundance hit Frozen RiverMeryl Streep in John Patrick Shanley’s DoubtKristin Scott Thomas in the French film I’ve Loved You So Long and Kate Winslet with both her husband Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (which reteams her with Titanic costar Leonardo DiCaprio) and maybe The Reader from Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry. Of those gals, Thomas, Streep and Winslet seem especially strong at this early point on the track, says O’Neil.

In the lead-actor race, Viggo Mortensen didn’t fare too well in Toronto with either the Ed Harris-directed Appaloosa or Vicente Amorim’s Good. But he still has The Road, adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, ahead.

Cannes best-actor winner Benicio del Toro also generated some excitement in Toronto with Steven Soderbergh’s Che, but the big news was the return of Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. The film just won the top prize at the Venice festival and was acquired for North American distribution by Fox Searchlight for a reported $4 million after a bidding war.

Based upon audience reaction to The Wrestler’s screening, Rourke seems like a sure bet for a lead-actor nod, says O’Neil. But it’s still unclear if the film can strong-arm a bid for best picture or director.

Finally, says O’Neil, one best-picture contender stood out amongst the offerings thus far in Toronto (the festival ends on September 13). That honor belongs to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

As O’Neil writes, “Thrillingly, it pursues the two greatest quests of man–love and riches–with plot twists that surprise and satisfy.”

More and more Oscar gurus believe it’s a crowd-pleaser like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, which were also distributed by Fox Searchlight.

More than anything else, what Slumdog has going for it, says O’Neil, is the Rooting Factor, which is essential considering how Oscar balloting works. Although voters rank their five choices on nomination ballots for the first ballot round, only No. 1-ranked votes really count, and Slumdog is the kind of pic that will generate lots of those, O’Neil opines.