Tom Long Detroit News Film Critic
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — Toronto— An old lady searching for the son she was forced to give up to adoption 50 years ago. A man with AIDS setting up his own supermarket of unapproved cures. An unsure songwriter recording an album literally on the streets of New York.
Oh, and get this one — a 40-year-old misanthrope genius who gets to compete in the national spelling bee for kids due to a technicality. And he plays as dirty as he talks.
“Philomena,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Can a Song Save Your Life?” and “Bad Words” are among the many films causing a stir at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Some look to be award contenders, others may simply be audience-pleasers; all have substantial buzz going.
Still, there’s the feeling that no clear frontrunner for this year’s best picture Oscar has emerged, although some likely contenders have certainly surfaced. The unsparing slavery drama “12 Years a Slave” and it’s star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, are drawing nothing but praise. “Dallas Buyers Club” will certainly be a contender, and star Matthew McConaughey and supporting actor Jared Leto, both playing men with AIDS, seem like acting nomination locks.
Same with Judi Dench playing that mother aching for a long-lost child in “Philomena,” especially since her character is in no way regal. And it seems extremely unlikely that Sandra Bullock’s near-solo lost-in-space performance in “Gravity” won’t earn a nomination.
But then again, it’s not only about the gold, it’s also about the money. Jason Bateman’s hilariously foul directorial debut, “Bad Words,” sort of the “Bad Santa” of spelling bees, arrived at the festival unsold and quickly went for $7 million to Focus Films; chances are it was a steal. Going even more quickly, and for about the same sum, was “Can a Song Save Your Life?,” director John (“Once”) Carney’s whimsical musical starring Kiera Knightley (who knew she could sing?; well, she can). Weinstein Co. picked up that film.
The festival isn’t all deals and awards posturing, of course. It’s also about parties. Sony Picture Classics held a cocktail reception and dinner party Saturday night at Crème Brasserie, a discrete spot behind the Four Seasons Hotel. But you can only be so discrete when Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe is at your party, so there was mob outside the place.
Radcliffe, who has three well-received films at the festival (“Kill Your Darlings,” “Horns” and “The F Word”) was mobbed inside the place as well, if more civilly. Michael C. Hall, his “Darlings” co-star, stood to the side. Ralph Fiennes, star and director of “The Invisible Woman,” arrived alongside his lovely co-star, Felicity Jones, and ordered a martini with a twist. Of course.
A few miles and hours away, Fox Searchlight held a bash at a place called Spice Route to celebrate its four films at the fest, “12 Years a Slave,” “Enough Said,” “Belle” and “Dom Hemingway.” Toni Collette (“Enough”) mingled for a while. Paul Giamatti (“12 Years”) arrived and immediately bummed a cigarette on the patio. Julia Louis Dreyfuss, looking all of 28, sat at the “Enough” table making funny faces. The music was loud, the sushi plentiful, the yam fries were crisp.
At the midway point, this year’s festival feels filled with delicious performances, and a number of films that have generated talk — “The Fifth Estate,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and “Prisoners,” along with those already noted. And there are still plenty more to come. If this isn’t a sure bellwether of Oscars to come, it’s still a film lover’s paradise.