Toronto: '12 Years a Slave' -- and its rave reviews -- inspire heated Oscar debate

Chiwetel-Ojiofor.jpg

Image Credit: Alexandra Wyman/Invision for Entertainment Weekly/

For a movie journalist, the Toronto Film Festival isn’t just a cornucopia of cinematic delights. Sometimes, we have to come into the light after a double-feature of Oscar hopefuls, roll up our sleeves, and go to a festival party packed with the same people we just watched on-screen. Our “work” is never done, people.

The first weekend of the festival hosts many of the biggest and best parties, and EW’s Toronto Must List Event at the Windsor Arms Hotel on Saturday afternoon brought together some of our favorite actors and filmmakers. Jason Bateman, who had just sold his directorial debut, Bad Words, to Focus Features, came to celebrate, and shared a moment with his Juno director Jason Reitman, who himself was getting ready to introduce Labor Day to a packed Toronto audience later in the evening. For the record, the biggest star in attendance was NBA all-star Carmelo Anthony, who attended with his wife, La La. (He stands about 6′ 8″.)

But the buzz in every corner of the hall was still 12 Years a Slave. Director Steve McQueen’s epic true-life tale of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor, pictured above) kidnapped and sold into Southern slavery in 1841, premiered to enthusiastic reviews last week at Telluride, but Friday’s Toronto screening — in front of much of the industry’s media — launched a torrent of rave reviews and commentary that practically declared the Oscar race for Best Picture over before the festival had barely begun. Adam Vary of Buzzfeed expressed what surely some others were thinking immediately after seeing the movie, writing, “Is it over-the-top to say I suspect that director Steve McQueen, star Chiwetel Ejiofor, screenwriter John Ridley, and the movie itself are destined for Oscars, and with due respect to the many fabulous movies that have and will come out this year, no other film can compete? No. It is not. It is that good, and that great.”

So while McQueen and his dynamite cast sipped drinks and accepted warm congratulations, the debate that had subsequently exploded on Twitter continued — not over the sheer greatness of the movie, but over the impact of the unprecedented critical hosannas on the film’s long-term Oscar prospects. After all, anyone who follows the Oscars, even casually, knows that the best film doesn’t always take home the trophy (Insert your favorite most egregious Oscar snub here) and there’s really no advantage to being the September frontrunner in a race that is a subjective vote and susceptible to political campaigns that can twist the prism of the contest from one week to another. There’s simply too much time for backlash and then a backlash to the backlash and then a controversy and then a backlash to the controversy. Also, there are still a few movies with Oscar ambitions — David O. Russell’s American Hustle, for example — that haven’t even teed off the first hole yet. You just never know what’s going to happen.

One journalist at the Must List party half-joked that the best thing Fox Searchlight could do to enhance the Oscar chances for 12 Years was push back its release date from Oct. 18 to Dec. 25, essentially bottling the buzz until the perfect moment later in the game. Laugh, but don’t think for a second that that possibility hasn’t been contemplated, if only for a moment. After all, this is the Oscars.


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