The people of the 38th Toronto International Film Festival have spoken. Out of the 366 films, 146 of which were world premieres, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave has won the coveted People’s Choice Award (not associated with these People’s Choice Awards.) Aside from Cannes, no film festival in the world creates more buzz–from the red carpet to the premieres and repeat screenings–its influence upon awards season has “grown  the most influential fall film festival to the most influential film festival, period.”
I’ve only recently begun following film festivals with any true fervor. I previously saw them as far too elitist, but my worldview has admittedly been shaped by thousands of hours of watching The Simpsons as a child, and we all know Football in the Groin deserved to win the Springfield Film Festival. But TIFF is different from European film festivals: Berlin, Venice, Cannes. Each have juries who award for categories common to the Academy Awards and Golden Globes–Best Film, Best Actress, Best Cinematography.
But TIFF is “non-competitive” in that there are few awards and the winners are chosen by the attendees, not a jury of critics and filmmakers. The top prize is the People’s Choice Award, given to the film with the highest ratings as voted by the populace of TIFF. In 2007, when a few people still read TIME magazine, it summed up the Toronto International Film Festival perfectly:
Don’t take this the wrong way, Toronto, but Hollywood loves you because you’re easy. Perfectly timed, impeccably organized and unfailingly kind to all varieties of movies, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has become the industry’s hottest festival ticket by acting as a kind of supportive, low-maintenance girlfriend. Unlike its major festival sisters – that sexy cougar Cannes, 60, and parka-clad hipster Sundance, 29 – Toronto, 32, is inclusive, friendly and even prettier once you get to know her.
I like to think of TIFF as not only the festival for “films,” but for “movies” as well. Excellent movies in fact can feature big-name, mainstream actors, directors, production companies, and even be entertaining and big-budget, yet feel like that limited release indie movie that wasn’t even screened outside of New York and LA. Its voters do not treat the films they view as one would a popcorn movie, but the films given the highest ratings still manage to be far more watchable than those of other festivals.
Clearly, the accessibility of TIFF has not hampered its standing as a tastemaker for the movie buff, the critic, and the casual moviegoer. Most notably in the past five years, People’s Choice Award winners have been films that went on to become critical and financial successes and they often gained their initial buzz in Toronto: American Beauty (1999), Hotel Rwanda (2004), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Precious (2009), and The King’s Speech (2010.)
Most recently, Silver Linings Playbook both premiered at TIFF, won the People’s Choice Award, and went on to bring home an Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA to Kentucky’s own, Jennifer Lawrence.
Here are the 2013 PCA Winners:
PCA Winner: 12 Years a Slave
PCA First Runner-Up: Philomena
PCA Second Runner-Up: Prisoners
12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen, the director of this year’s PCA Winner, was best known for writing and directing shorts, with the exception of two full-length feature films–Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011). Both films featured Michael Fassbender in the lead role, first as an Irish Republican Army prisoner leading a hunger strike with his fellow inmates, then as a sex addict whose private life is disrupted by a prolonged visit from his sister.
With the addition of 12 Years a Slave to his resume, it’s quite clear that McQueen does not take on light subject matter in his films, but chooses to tackle controversial topics in an aggressive manner.
McQueen also is clearly on Team NF when it comes to social graces, choosing not to hide his disdain for stupid questions in his TIFF interview.
Why didn’t the film play at Cannes or Venice?
How would you relate this Film to Django Unchained?
12 Years a Slave is based on an 1853 autobiographical novel by Solomon Northup; McQueen stated he was immediately taken with the book and knew that he wanted to turn it into a movie. The story follows Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York, when he is abducted and sold into slavery. Played by Golden Globe nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, Northup experiences countless cruelties, most notably at the hand of a slave owner played by Michael Fassbender, but also humanizing moments of kindness.
McQueen’s film did not have its “coming-out party” in Toronto, like Silver Linings Playbook, but rather, at the up-and-coming Telluride Film Festival where it premiered August 30th; nevertheless, success at TIFF has brought 12 Years a Slave to the front of the Twitter-sphere and given it front-runner status in the Oscar race.
When first coming across the cast list for 12 Years a Slave several months ago, I was floored by the number of household, award-winning actors featured in this film directed by a relative unknown filmmaker: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and my personal favorite, QuvenzhanÃ© Wallis, best known for Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Many viewers of this film have pointed to McQueen’s portrayal of Northup’s years as a slave, not as tear-jerking along the lines of Schindler’s List, but as a film of “gut-wrenching horrors in long static takes than can feel like an eternity.” Despite this, the film won over a diverse population of attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, as well as the Telluride Film Festival.
The film opens for limited release October 18th, and I have little doubt it will be a box office success upon its wide release.
As far as its Oscar chances, let’s just say they’re good.
The last three Oscar best picture winners–Argo, The Artist, and The King’s Speech—played at both Toronto and Telluride.
I will be back shortly with some more films from TIFF that look worth seeing this fall, plus those you can hope to see in theaters this September.
There’s even a Kristen Stewart-free vampire love story. I can hardly contain my excitement.