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Oscars contenders break loose at the Toronto Film Festival

September 9, 2008 | 10:36 am

Lots of top Oscars contenders skipped the Toronto Film Festival this year (read my gripe about omissions HERE), but yet some brave ponies hit the derby track running while others, oops, stumbled ("Burn After Reading," "The Burning Plain").

Four fillies had good runs in the lead actress race: Sally Hawkins ("Happy-Go-Lucky"), Anne Hathaway ("Rachel Getting Married"), Kristin Scott Thomas ("I've Loved You So Long") and Keira Knightley ("The Duchess"). Many film critics dreaded seeing "Duchess" because they anticipated another pat costume drama but were surprisingly pleased with the pic. One of the naysayers was reporter Nancy Kriparos, who found fault in Knightley's turn because of "little chemistry" with her lover (Dominic Cooper).

I had to exit the fest early today (Tuesday morning), so I'm missing the final buzz on others like Kate Beckinsale in "Nothing but the Truth," but there was much encouraging early word, like the view of Jeff Wells of, who declares it "perfectly acted ... easily among the best three or four films I've seen at TIFF." However, can its small studio compete against big movie-companies in the derby?


Some pundits were high on Dakota Fanning in "The Secret Life of Bees," but Lou Lumenick of the New York Post is among those who doubt she'll nab a nom (READ MORE).

"Blindness" got retooled after disappointing audiences at the Cannes Film Festival in May, but reax in Toronto is split. gives the new version four stars while hailing Julianne Moore as "brilliant," but the Hollywood Reporter claims the pic "continued the tepid audience response that began" in France. Edward Douglas of calls it "one of the worst movies I've seen this year."

Unfortunately, I can't offer my own view because I missed seeing "Blindness" due to so much mob chaos outside the Elgin Theatre on Saturday night. After enduring several days of festival mania at that point, catching up on sleep at the hotel seemed like a much better idea than battling the security goons to find a Miramax publicist to help me battle a path to the front doors.

None of this means that Hawkins, Hathaway, Knightley, Thomas and maybe Moore are in the top five for the ladies' derby lineup, of course, considering how crowded that race is already. Also in the running: Angelina Jolie ("Changeling"), Nicole Kidman ("Australia"), Melissa Leo ("Frozen River"), Meryl Streep ("Doubt"), and Kate Winslet ("Revolutionary Road" and maybe "The Reader" too). Of those gals, Thomas, Streep and Winslet seem especially strong at this early point on the track.

Lots of journos and industry types buzzed loudly in Toronto about Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau in "Lovely, Still," but as of this writing it doesn't have a distributor.

In the lead actor race, Viggo Mortensen rode two horses into Toronto, but both fell back: "Appaloosa" and, a lesser distance, "Good." Happily, now he still has "The Road" ahead. See Anne Thompson's Viggo festival prospectus HERE.

Benicio del Toro rallied a bit in Toronto after "Che" caused yawns at Cannes, but new huzzahs were scattered.

In the actors' derby, the mega-buzz was over Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler," which spouted a testosterone gusher among the mostly male film critics and industry gang that threatened to drown the lot, especially when word broke out that it had just won best picture at the Venice Film Festival and got picked up for distribution by Oscar-savvy Fox Searchlight.

Scores of irate late-comers had to be turned away from the "Wrestler" press screening at the 600-seat Varsity 8 theater Monday afternoon, and there was almost a real smackdown in my aisle when, 10 minutes after the pic started, the chap next to me had to dash out to answer his humming cellphone and somebody nabbed his seat in the dark. When my original neighbor returned to claim his spot and saw it occupied, he tried to wrestle it back but got hustled out by a fest usher.

Based upon audience reax afterward, Rourke seems like a sure bet for a lead actor nod, but it's still unclear if "The Wrestler" can strong-arm a bid for best picture or director (Darren Aronofsky). It certainly won over the film critic crowd, which is likely to heap kudos upon it in December.

Cinematical was among the media hailing "The Wrestler" as "flat-out one of the best American movies of 2008." More HERE. But those pampered Beverly Hills snobs in the motion picture academy are sometimes less fawning over celebrations of trailer park dudes. One strong plus in its favor: Oscar voters are overwhelmingly male — and macho and love a good comeback story.

But in terms of best picture contenders, I think one clearly emerged in Toronto based upon its wild audience response plus the typical pedigree of Oscar faves: "Slumdog Millionaire."

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 recent best picture nominees "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine," which were distributed by Fox Searchlight too, or, back in 1997, "The Full Monty," which, curiously, was also written by Simon Beaufoy, who reaped a screenplay nom.

I don't think it matters that India-set "Slumdog" feels so truly foreign. That just adds to its authenticity, and Westerners can still feel propriety about it because of its British creative team — Beaufoy plus Danny Boyle, who has prestige art-house credentials ("Trainspotting").

More than anything else, what "Slumdog" has going for it is the Rooting Factor, which is essential considering how Oscar balloting works. While 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. See my video chat with Jeff Wells about it HERE.

To some degree, it's starting to look like "The Wrestler" has that Rooting Factor too, but only among film critics? Dunno. Remember, sometimes the movies that critics go wild about, like "Mulholland Drive" or "United 93" win best picture from the New York Film Critics Circle, say, but don't make it into the same Oscar high five that "The Full Monty" did in a different year. In the case of "United 93," voters considered it just too painful to watch. "The Wrestler" may generate similar queasiness.

(Fox Searchlight)