The 2013 Oscar campaign has now officially kicked into high gear: Steve McQueen's stirring U.S. historical drama, 12 Years a Slave, just won the BlackBerry People's Choice Awards at the 38th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Almost every year since 1999 when American Beauty premiered at TIFF, Toronto has launched most of the best picture contenders for the Academy Awards and often singles out the future winner in the People's Choice Awards, which are the most democratic and influential awards at any filmfest in the world. Last year, Silver Linings Playbook was the audience favourite and went on to eight Oscar noms, with a win for Jennifer Lawrence as best actress.
Runners-up in this year's audience awards are British filmmaker Stephen Frears' drama Philomena and Quebec master Denis Villeneuve's thriller Prisoners (his English-language Hollywood debut).
The British-born McQueen, who now lives in The Netherlands, was not at TIFF's Sunday awards brunch. Logistics usually mean that international winners are absent on the Sunday. But McQueen sent a message from Amsterdam through the festival's artistic director, Cameron Bailey: "This award is a fantastic honour. I am so happy with the response of the audience. At a festival that has shown so many brilliant films, I cannot be more thrilled to receive this award."
Besides the overall winner, the BlackBerry People's Choice Awards also honour two specialized categories. The winner in the Midnight Madness program is Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono's Why Don't You Play in Hell. Runners-up are American Mike Flanagan's Oculus and Spaniard Alex de la Iglesia's Witching & Bitching. The winner in the Documentary category is Egyptian Jehane Noujaim's The Square. Runners-up are Canadian First Nations legend Alainis Obomsawin's inspirational Hi-Ho Mistahey! and New Zealand filmmaker Leanne Pooley's Beyond the Edge.
Before "The People" had spoken, a bunch of Crazy Canadians took over the awards brunch and inspired both laughter and enthusiastic applause. No more so than when the intrepid co-directors and cartoonists Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver won the Best First Feature Film prize -- which includes a cheque for $15,000 -- for Asphalt Watches. It is their cross-Canada, animated road movie. "Holy crap!" Scriver said. "Thanks for inviting us to TIFF. I feel that I have a new family now. It's been amazing." Ehman added with typical Canadian humility: "I'm most grateful for just being a part of it ... (but) Jeff Barnaby probably should have gotten this for Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which was top-notch!"
Then filmmaker Alan Zweig, who took the $30,000 City of Toronto + Canada Goose Award for the Best Canadian Feature Film for his doc, When Jews Were Funny, told an amusing story about how past winners have often stolen the spotlight by dedicating the cash prize to various eccentric purposes. Most famously Bruce McDonald for promising to spend it on a big hunk of hash. Zweig, however, openly promised his wife something more practical: "Honey, I think we'll get a new kitchen."
The co-winners for the YouTube Award for Best Canadian Short Film also charmed the brunch audience, mostly by being all 'aw-shucks' in victory. Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg share the award, and $10,000, for their short film Noah, which has already been seen 584,000 times since it premiered at TIFF and was made instantly accessible on YouTube.
Several other awards were also presented:
"FIPRESCI (International Critics) Prize for Special Presentations: Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida
"FIPRESCI (International Critics) Prize for Discovery: Claudia Sainte-Luce for The Amazing Catfish
"NETPAC Award (for Asian cinema): Anup Singh's Qissa
"Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award: Gia Milani's All the Wrong Reasons
"RBC Emerging Filmmakers Competition: Christoph Rainer's Requiem for a Robot