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'12 Years' leads strong performances at Toronto film fest

Actor Michael Fassbender (R) and director Steve McQueen attend a news conference for the film "12 Years A Slave" at the 38th Toronto Interna
Actor Michael Fassbender (R) and director Steve McQueen attend a news conference for the film "12 Years A Slave" at the 38th Toronto Interna

By Cameron French

TORONTO (Reuters) - Judging by some early reviews, Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" will sweep the Oscars, Golden Globes and perhaps even win an honorary Olympic medal, but the film is one of just many that has impressed critics at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

And while films that generate Oscar buzz in September often fade by the time the awards are given out in February, Toronto-screened movies like "12 Years," "Gravity," "Dallas Buyers Club" and "August: Osage County" look like solid bets for awards consideration.

Toronto, along with recently wrapped festivals in Venice and Telluride, Colorado, traditionally launches movie awards season and industry pros gather here to build buzz for their films.

Some of the big titles usually disappoint, such as the unwieldy "Cloud Atlas" last year.

But judging by the critical reception at the midpoint of this year's festival, the competition for both awards and box office success over the next few months could be tight.

"I would say it's been very good overall," said Pete Hammond, columnist for website Deadline Hollywood.

Critics have been nearly falling over each other to praise "12 Years a Slave," based on an 1853 memoir of a free black man sold into slavery.

Adam B. Vary of Buzzfeed called it "the most emotionally powerful film I have seen in a decade" and predicted multiple Acadmy Award wins, while Kyle Buchanan, reviewer at New York Magazine's vulture.com platform, suggested the academy "notify the engraver."

The Guardian's Paul MacInnes was more circumspect, resisting award predictions, but giving the film five stars out of five and calling it "not just a great film but a necessary one."

Hammond said the movie was one of many that stood out not just for the finished product, but for its performances, including lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in the role of a slave owner.

But he said the level of hype the film is receiving can end up hampering both its box office success and Oscar hopes.

"It's a small film that needs to find an audience and I think if you go in thinking it's 'Citizen Kane' or some great classic already, it may hurt it," he said.

If the film does lose momentum, however, there appear to be plenty of others to take its place.

ASTRONAUTS, SOUTHERN MATRIARCHS

Also seen as a good bet for one of 10 best picture Oscar nominations is Alfonso Cuaron's astronaut thriller "Gravity" which had its world premiere in Venice, but has continued to build momentum in Toronto.

The star-laden "August: Osage County" appears to be living up to the considerable hype that preceded its Toronto debut, with Meryl Streep bidding to extend her record 17 Oscar nominations for her role as an acid-tongued southern matriarch.

Less-hyped films that have surprised include "Dallas Buyers Club," which stars Matthew McConaughey as an AIDS-afflicted homophobic Texas rodeo cowboy.

McConaughey dropped 30 pounds (13 kg) for the role, the type of physical transformation Oscar voters tend to view favorably, while Jared Leto has been praised for his supporting role as a drag queen after a four-year absence from film roles.

"Prisoners," starring Hugh Jackman as the aggrieved father of a kidnapped daughter and Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop trying to solve her disappearance, has been welcomed as a breakout effort for French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve.

Two of the few big films to receive lukewarm reviews are WikiLeaks drama "The Fifth Estate," and "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," which the Guardian said "sags beneath the weight of responsibility" despite a "respectful" portrayal of the South African leader by Idris Elba.

Among documentaries, critics point to Jehane Noujaim's "The Square," which follows activists in Cairo's Tahrir Square in the wake of the 2011 overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The film, shot over a 30-month period, already won an award at the Sundance Film Festival for an unfinished cut of the film, and seems a strong bet for consideration for more awards.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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