September 14, 2010 / 9:49 PM / 7 years ago

Oscar hopefuls emerge as Toronto hits midpoint

TORONTO (Reuters) - The Toronto Film Festival may have yet to yield this year’s “Slumdog Millionaire” hidden gem, but as it hits its midpoint, Colin Firth’s stuttering king, Natalie Portman’s dark ballerina and Danny Boyle’s graphic survival film are stirring Oscar buzz.

<p>Actress Natalie Portman listens during a news conference for the film "Black Swan" at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival September 14, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Cassese</p>

In a year that has produced a dearth of critical successes, industry watchers are eyeing the fall film slate -- unveiled at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto festivals in the past two weeks -- to provide a kick-start to the industry.

Film distributors love the Toronto festival because it tests out films in front of large public audiences, perhaps offering momentum to a film that may have slid under critics’ radar at other festivals.

“I think Toronto is a great place to launch. I’ve launched a lot of films here over the years and some of them have gone on to be rewarded,” actor Kevin Spacey, in town to promote the premiere of “Casino Jack”, told Reuters.

While perhaps not under that radar, Darren Aronofsky’s ballet-themed “Black Swan” has gained momentum since its initial screening in Venice, with critics in both cities predicting Oscar attention for star Natalie Portman.

Among Toronto premieres, Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech”, starring Colin Firth as Britain’s King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist, has received perhaps the most buzz.

“This movie has best picture and best actor nominations written all over it,” Hollywood Reporter’s Risky Business blog wrote. “And maybe best screenplay, best director and best supporting actor too.”

Awards chatter also surrounds “127 Hours”, which stars James Franco as U.S. hiker Aron Ralston, who had to take extreme measure to free himself from a boulder that pinned him while hiking in 2003.

The film, which includes a graphic amputation scene that reportedly led some audience members to faint, has prompted Oscar talk for Franco. It is also directed by Danny Boyle, whose sleeper 2008 hit “Slumdog Millionaire” rode audience momentum in Toronto to a best picture Oscar.

Clint Eastwood has received both praise and scorn for “Hereafter”, which was screened without the normal media junket that accompanies high-profile films -- no news conference, no audience questions at the premiere, no photo-ops.

<p>James Franco as mountain climber Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle's "172 Hours". REUTERS/TIFF</p>

Early reviews have been mixed, with the supernatural movie alternatively described as compelling and unsatisfying.

But given Eastwood’s recent track record at awards season for movies like “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby”, and “Letters from Iwo Jima”, he can hardly be ignored.

RISING PROFILE

The strong batch of films comes as the festival, now in its 35th year, builds its reputation as an industry event on par with the Cannes and Sundance festivals.

Toronto organizers are calling this a watershed year, as the festival moves into its first permanent home, the $200 million Bell Lightbox complex.

But for many, the festival is a hotspot for dealmaking for films looking for North American distribution.

The pace of deals appears to be slightly ahead of last year, when the acquisitions markets was still in the depths of a funding crisis.

Rights to the Abe Sylvia-directed road trip film “Dirty Girl” were picked up by Weinstein & Co over the weekend, while Sony Pictures Classics has picked up U.S. rights to Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” for an undisclosed sum, and IFC Films has picked up U.S. rights to James Gunn’s “Super”.

Several high-profile titles, including the Robert Redford-directed “The Conspirator” and Emilio Estevez’s “The Way” are still without distribution.

The festival, which typically screens its highest-profile films over its first five days, wraps up on September 19.

Editing by Jill Serjeant

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