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Toronto 2011 Critic's Preview: Why the Festival Matters

Courtesy of TIFF

It's only been a few years since festivals started picking future Oscar winners -- now, they're where the action all begins, writes Todd McCarthy.

The first movie to have its world premiere at a film festival and go on to win the best picture Academy Award was Woody Allen's Annie Hall, which debuted at Los Angeles' Filmex in spring 1977. Four years later, Chariots of Fire launched in competition at Cannes and came from behind to snare the Oscar. The Last Emperor began its long march to awards glory at the 1987 Tokyo Film Festival, and in 2000, American Beauty, unveiled at Toronto in 1999, pulled off the trick.

From 1928 to 2004, these four were the only films launched at festivals that then bagged the top Oscar. All that has changed. During the past six years, five best picture winners have bowed at festivals; for the most part, they were relatively low-budget productions initially perceived as niche pictures. In the end, all but one became big hits.

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The first was Paul Haggis' Crash, which was unknown when it premiered at Toronto in 2005. The Departed triumphed the next year commercially and at the Oscars despite eschewing festivals, but it was followed by No Country for Old Men (Cannes), Slumdog Millionaire (Telluride), The Hurt Locker (Venice) and The King's Speech (Telluride), all underdog winners.

No wonder, then, that Hollywood's radar screens are trained on Toronto. Although some of the most eagerly awaited films have already been viewed at Venice or Telluride -- Alexander Payne's The Descendants, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, Roman Polanski's Carnage -- it was The King's Speech's screening at last year's festival that caught the eye of press and industry figures, not its Telluride premiere.

The Social Network had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival a couple weeks later, and the two films duked it out for the next five months until Speech prevailed at the Kodak Theatre.

So what unknown quantities are critics eyeing in Toronto this year? Among the galas, Bennett Miller's baseball drama Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, has clear appeal -- but there's no advance word on it, and a choppy production history provokes qualms. Also eagerly anticipated are Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz; Bruce Beresford's Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, starring Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener; Darrell Roodt's Winnie, with Jennifer Hudson as Nelson Mandela's (Terrence Howard)  controversial wife; another Africa-set drama, Marc Forster's Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan; and Luc Besson's Burma-set drama The Lady, featuring Michelle Yeoh.

In the Special Presentations section are Jonathan Levine's already-hyped dramedy 50/50; Oren Moverman's Rampart; Michael Winterbottom's Trishna, with Freida Pinto starring in an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles set in India; and, for buffs, Guy Maddin's Keyhole, starring Isabella Rossellini.

The New York Film Festival, which opens Sept. 30, will again have one world premiere that's garnering much speculation: My Week With Marilyn, in which Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh appear as Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. All other releases for the rest of the year will open directly in theaters without major festival exposure.

What caused the sudden shift from more obviously mainstream fare winning all the Oscars to specialized films taking their place? All sorts of explanations can be proposed, but the answer lies in a combination of several of them: studios are no longer in the prestige pictures business, a gradual shift in the makeup and sensibilities of Academy members, the increasing sophistication of marketing and publicity campaigns, DVDs of smaller films getting into the hands of voters, and the shrewd use of festivals as a launching pad.

Since 1977, when Annie Hall beat Star Wars in a battle rather comparable to that of two years ago when Hurt Locker prevailed over Avatar, how many Oscar winners have there been that might, in this day and age, be considered festival-type films? Even now, it's perplexing that The English Patient was not shown at any festivals -- it seems a natural. And, given Clint Eastwood's longtime presence at major festivals, it would have been easy to imagine Million Dollar Baby working the circuit, but it barely made a December 2004 release in time. Like it, Eastwood's J. Edgar is skipping festivals and heading straight for cinemas toward the end of the year.

Courtesy of TIFF
Laurence Cendrowicz/The Weinstein Co.