On Movies: Keep an eye on Toronto for Oscar contenders

Benedict Cumberbatch (left) as Julian Assange, with Carice van Houten, Daniel Bruhl, and Moritz Bleibtreu in "The Fifth Estate."
Benedict Cumberbatch (left) as Julian Assange, with Carice van Houten, Daniel Bruhl, and Moritz Bleibtreu in "The Fifth Estate." (FRANK CONNOR)
Posted: September 09, 2013

If history is any measure, the Oscars start in Toronto. Since 2007, every best-picture winner has played the Toronto International Film Festival first - and many premiered there: No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech, The Artist, Argo.

And so, the odds of an Academy Award's going to one of the 366 features booked for the 11-day movie marathon that began Thursday - with the world premiere of The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange - aren't bad. Could it be 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen's 1840s saga about a free black man ( Chiwetel Ejiofor) kidnapped and forced into slavery?

How about Gravity, the stranded-in-space suspenser starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney? Or Clooney's directing job, The Monuments Men, about a mission to reclaim art treasures stolen by the Nazis? Or Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin in Labor Day, about a single mother who harbors an escaped convict?

Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, has already won the Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize, why not an Oscar? Matthew McConaughey reportedly lost 50 pounds to play the crazed dude diagnosed with HIV in Dallas Buyers Club. Putting your health at risk for your art - Academy members love that stuff!

But TIFF, now in its 38th year, is not just a launching pad for awards-season contenders and wannabes. It happens to be the biggest, and year in and year out the most rewarding, film festival in North America. With so many entries from so many countries (70), even the most obsessed festgoer can manage only a fraction of the program's schedule.

So if you're a maniac for midnight movies, or for films from France or China or Brazil, or family abduction thrillers ( Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners) or documentaries (this year there are 22 nonfiction entries, including new ones from masters Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman) . . . whatever the predilection, you have your festival cut out for you.

Inevitably, there are surprises, the unexpectedly good, and here and there the shockingly bad. Fading Gigolo, directed by actor John Turturro (who did the beautiful self-guided music doc Passione a few years back), sounds like a risky venture, but a potentially intriguing one: He plays a guy who becomes a professional Don Juan to help his cash-strapped friend ( Woody Allen). Sex bomb SofĂ­a Vergara somehow fits into the picture.

And speaking of Don Juan and actors who direct, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's assured directorial debut, Don Jon, gets its launch in Toronto before opening in theaters Sept. 27. He plays a guy addicted to porn, and then Scarlett Johansson sashays into the room.

A couple of big concert movies debut north of the border: Ron Howard's Made in America, capturing Jay Z's inaugural foray into Philly for last year's massive Labor Day weekend blowout, is one; the other is 12.12.12: The Concert for Sandy Relief, documenting the all-star concert event ( Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones) that raised more than $30 million for victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Mad Men mastermind Matthew Weiner throws it up on the big screen with You Are Here, the story of longtime buddies played by Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis. And Nicole Holofcener'sEnough Said will have a bittersweet vibe about it: The ensemble romantic comedy ( Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Toni Collette, Catherine Keener) marks one of the final screen performances of James Gandolfini, who died in June.

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629, srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.

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