A murky Oscar picture at Toronto

[15 September 2011]

By Steven Zeitchik and Nicole Sperling

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

TORONTO — By the end of the first weekend of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, a trio of movies — “The King’s Speech,” “127 Hours” and “Black Swan” — had emerged as clear front-runners for the coming Oscar season.

This year? Not so much.

As the weekend drew to a close, no prototypical awards title had risen above the fray. Instead, it’s lighter fare such as Jennifer Westfeldt’s marital comedy “Friends With Kids” and Lasse Hallstrom’s quirky satire “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” that were generating the most attention, with the latter selling to CBS Films for approximately $4 million on Sunday afternoon.

Even Brad Pitt’s baseball-underdog picture “Moneyball” had generated as much talk for its commercial possibilities as for its golden-statuette potential.

That divide means that some of the biggest Oscar contenders could emerge much later in the season, when directors Steven Spielberg (“War Horse”), Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”) and Clint Eastwood (“J. Edgar”) all bring out new films under the auspices of the Hollywood studios; none of those movies is playing in Toronto.

It also means that, after several years in which smaller independent films dominated the Academy Awards, this year could see something of a return to Oscar glory for the studios.

(Two other Toronto titles with high expectations, Marc Forster’s violent drama “Machine Gun Preacher” and Steve McQueen’s kinky sex film “Shame,” were set to premiere Sunday night at the festival; the latter landed a distribution deal during Toronto as well as an acting prize at the Venice Film Festival. And Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” and Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” both potential Oscar contenders, have played in Venice but have not yet premiered stateside.)

The weekend was not overly kind to serious films from highly credentialed directors. Projects from Sarah Polley, Oren Moverman and David Cronenberg — whose psychoanalysis drama “A Dangerous Method” features Keira Knightley as a traumatized woman involved with Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud — have drawn more ambivalent responses from audiences and critics.

Some of the principals in those films acknowledge the divided reaction. “It’s an extreme thing,” Knightley told the Los Angeles Times of the movie. “It’s not for everybody.”

While it’s been a strong start to the season for Pitt, the festival’s other mega-star, George Clooney, has had a more mixed weekend. His two films, the political drama “The Ides of March” (which he also directed) and Alexander Payne’s family dramedy “The Descendants,” in which he plays a grieving father, elicited positive but not overwhelming reactions when they premiered over the weekend.

Although Clooney’s films have earned respectable reviews, the noise around him has been as much about his charming persona and his personal life (including his new ex-wrestler girlfriend) as it has been about his work.

That’s often the case with a star of his caliber, but in the past, he has attracted more attention for his performances, as he did with his portrayal of hatchet man Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air” in 2009.

Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball,” which Sony will release Sept. 23, came into the festival with high hopes, sporting an All-Star filmmaking pedigree and landing a coveted Friday night slot at Roy Thomson Hall.

The movie lived up to the hype, earning enthusiastic ovations after its debut and packing a 1,200-seat theater during a second screening, yielding goodwill for Pitt, who plays Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, as well as supporting players such as Jonah Hill.

“The reviews out of the (premiere) screening, coupled with the audience reaction,” said Marc Weinstock, president of marketing for Sony Pictures, the studio behind the film, “couldn’t have gone better.”

Although the movie’s commercial prospects are bright, it remains to be seen how much of a force it will be on the awards circuit.

Other movies that played strongly to the festival crowd include “The Artist,” the newly made silent picture featuring a mix of French and American actors, and “Friends With Kids,” a film seeking theatrical distribution that, in addition to writer-director-star Westfeldt, also features many of the players that made “Bridesmaids” a success, including Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd.

Despite warm vibes from the audience, Westfeldt said she didn’t believe the path to success was clear even for her film. Noting a sad turn at the end and a final scene with some colorful language, she said, “I think this movie is a risk in every single way.”

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