With its capture of the Toronto International Film Festival People's Choice Award, "12 Years a Slave" has been crowned the early front-runner in this year's Oscar race, four months before nominations are even announced. The festival – the third of the three fall festivals (following Telluride and Venice) that have become the launching pad for the fall's season of Oscar bait – has an impeccable record for picking Oscar winners. The People's Choice Award, unlike the top honors at other festivals, is chosen by popular vote rather than a select jury.
But even before "12 Years a Slave" was officially named the festival's fan favorite, TIFF attendees were hailing it a shoo-in for best picture. "There's no question in my mind that this will be our ultimate awards season victor," declared New York Magazine's Kyle Buchanan, adding that anyone doubting it will win Best Picture must be "high on more than mountain air" at the film's Telluride sneak peak. The Telegraph's Tim Robey came to a similar conclusion, calling it "a must-brave experience whose justifiable collection of every film award going begins right here."
By the end of the festival, a "12 Years a Slave" Oscar sweep was more or less conventional wisdom, with the Guardian's Catherine Shoard reporting, "the crowds leaving the auditorium were primed to place bets on the film being an unbeatable contender for best picture," not to mention all the other categories for the cast and crew.
Of course, all this raving brought about a smart rebuttal from Grantland's Mark Harris, who questioned critics' ability to declare it a Oscar lock, and worried that doing so may have some ill effects on the awards season narrative.
However, its premiere at TIFF – in addition to the sneak peak given at Telluride – made it, for right now, the most anticipated fall film. So far, only Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" worked up that level of buzz when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival and continued on to Telluride.
"Gravity" showed again at TIFF, where GQ called it "pretty much perfect." However, seeing it against "12 Years a Slave" threw some cold water on its Best Picture chances and not all the critics in Toronto were impressed with it.
"Philomena" and "Prisoners" were runners-up for TIFF's The People's Choice award. "Philomena" won warm reviews, but not nearly the accolades of "12 Years a Slave." Still, it's hard to imagine its star, Judi Dench, not getting at least a best actress nomination for a movie so well received by critics.
Starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, "Prisoners" was more polarizing, with reviews both good and bad coming out of Toronto. Considering that it's a thriller and that its Sept. 20 release is a little early for awards season, few are including the O-word in their reviews.
The inclusion of "Dallas Buyers Club" – an independent film about the AIDS crisis – on the TIFF roster was seen as a sign that its execs think it's Oscar worthy. Stars Matthew McConaughy and Jared Leto received rave reviews from Toronto attendees. The Telegraph's Tim Robey called McConaughey's performance, for which he lost 50 pounds, "one that "Oscar voters will be powerless to keep off their shortlist."
With a cast that includes Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Ewan McGregor, "August: Osage County" looks to be primed for Academy voters. The film garnered some positive reviews in Toronto, but others called its reception "lackluster." Much of the scrutiny turned to the film's ending – altered from the play on which it was based – which critics argued could and should be changed for its theatrical release.
The Julian Assange pic "The Fifth Estate," which premiered in Toronto, was also met with reservations. Critics praised Benedict Cumberbatch's turn as Assange, but were mixed on the film itself. All the negative reviews cast a shadow on its chances for awards season glory.
Of course, the festival-driven Oscar speculation doesn't take into account the influence of film-goers. Many believe that it was the popular appeal of last year's Best Picture winner "Argo" that gave it the momentum to topple "Lincoln," the conventional choice. However, "Argo" too first started getting Oscar fawning at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival, so it's certainly not too soon to be paying attention.