Toronto: Can '12 Years a Slave' Ride Gravitas to the Oscars?

'12 Years a Slave'

Set in the pre-Civil War United States, the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man from upstate New York who's abducted and sold into slavery.


The awards season always brings movies with something serious to say about the world. But this year’s Toronto fest -- which helps kick off the race to the Oscars -- seems to offer more movies of this sort than in recent memory. No film tackles a heavier topic than 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s stark look at slavery in America.

12 Years easily is the most acclaimed film of the fest so far, just as it was at Telluride last week. Thanks to performances by stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, many are declaring it a sure bet for Oscar noms for best picture, director, actor, supporting actor and supporting actress. McQueen’s deft handling of weighty subject matter could give him an edge in a race defined by socially conscious films.

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Bill Condon’s opening-night drama The Fifth Estate, in which Benedict Cumberbatch portrays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, emerged with limited awards prospects, as did Parkland, Peter Landesman’s feature directorial debut set amid the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Railway Man, another contender based on a true story, stars Colin Firth as a World War II POW who confronts his torturer a half-century later. And Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the latest film about former South African president Nelson Mandela -- yet the first ever authorized by the ailing leader himself -- could make star Idris Elba a contender.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club -- inspired by the true story of a man who was diagnosed with AIDS during the early days of the epidemic and fought to circumvent the government’s restrictions on medication -- should compete, especially Matthew McConaughey, who shed 38 pounds for the role. These films will be joined in this year’s race by many others about important subjects -- among them World War II (Monuments Men and The Book Thief), the war on terror (Lone Survivor), tragically killed monarchs (Diana and Grace of Monaco), Wall Street shenanigans (The Wolf of Wall Street and Blue Jasmine), piracy (Captain Phillips) and race relations (Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler).

TELLURIDE REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave

Of course, weighty films don’t automatically win Oscars -- Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan for best picture in 1999. But films that come with big social importance can appeal to the Academy, and this year 12 Years a Slave might be the heaviest of them all. McQueen, for his part, doesn’t want the film defined by one issue. “I hope it goes beyond race,” McQueen said Saturday in response to a reporter’s question. “You’re trying to narrow it down to race. Yes, race is involved, but it’s not entirely about that.”