George Clooney, Brad Pitt lead list of those boosted by TIFF 2011 – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell The 2011 Toronto International Film Festival draws to a close on Sunday, Sept. 18, concluding a full slate of breathtaking programming. As usual, TIFF served as a barometer for several films’ awards campaigns. Movies like Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” tested the waters with broader audiences to see how pictures and performances would hold up to the intense media scrutiny that comes with the annual Oscar marathon.

Last year, Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” won over TIFF audiences, then rode the momentum earned at the fest all the way to the Oscar podium. The general consensus from those of us at TIFF this year is that we didn’t see an equivalent of “Speech” – a clear-cut frontrunner that’s now the “film to beat” in the Oscar race – but there still were plenty of projects that helped their cause by generating crucial awards buzz.

So, which pictures benefitted from the TIFF 2011 bump? Let’s run through the films, actors and directors that either launched or solidified their awards campaigns, ensuring that we’ll continue to write about them as the season trucks on.

1. George Clooney
It’s beginning to look a lot like 2006 for Clooney, when he split his Oscar attentions between “Syriana” (which earned him a Best Supporting Actor trophy) and his own directorial effort, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Clooney accompanied two projects to TIFF, and both left with a fair amount of buzz. The actor seems like a lock for a Best Actor nod for his compassionate turn as a conflicted father in Payne’s “The Descendants.” But Clooney’s own “The Ides of March,” which stars Ryan Gosling as a political campaign strategist drawn into a scandal, also collected favorable reviews and could pick up a handful of nominations as the awards season rolls along.

2. “The Descendants”
Before we move off of Clooney, let’s acknowledge that his turn atop “The Descendants” isn’t the only element floating Payne’s boat. Critics praised the film’s screenplay, direction, and the supporting performance by relative newcomer Shailene Woodley as Clooney’s older daughter. When Payne delivers, the Academy usually responds, and “The Descendants” should see the same kind of Oscar support afforded to “Sideways” and “About Schmidt.”

3. Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
Clooney’s friend and occasional collaborator wowed crowds as aggressive Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in Bennett Miller’s impressive baseball drama. “Moneyball” could collect multiple Oscar nods before all is said and done (Screenplay’s likely, Picture and Director are possible), but the film’s strongest play right now is Pitt.

4. Glenn Close, “Albert Nobbs”
Close’s passion project about a cross-dressing Irish butler earned raves for the five-time Oscar nomine, who appears destined to add a sixth nomination to her resume. If “Nobbs” gains traction with a broader base, Close’s spectacular co-star, Janet McTeer, could make waves in the Supporting Actress category.

5. “The Artist”
Hands down, the most charming film I caught at TIFF 2011. Michel Hazanavicius’s homage to Hollywood’s silent-film era will play like gangbusters with Academy members. Multiple nominations appear to be in this winning film’s future.

6. “Shame”
Hands down, the most difficult film I caught at TIFF 2011. Steve McQueen’s intense study of a sex addict (Michael Fassbender) is mesmerizing. The economic direction packs one hell of a punch, and Fassbender devastates with his award-winning performance as a man consumed by his carnal hunger. But the NC-17 rating poses a challenge for Fox Searchlight, and I’ll be anxious to see how the studio approaches its campaign for this award-worthy film.

7. “A Dangerous Method”
At times, TIFF 2011 felt like a Fassbender love fest, with critics and audiences raving about the versatile actor’s performances in both McQueen’s “Shame” and David Cronenberg’s psychological drama, “A Dangerous Method.” Though a tad too clinical for some, “Method” has a chance at nominations for screenplay (Christopher Hampton’s an Oscar winner) and the measured performances of Fassbender, Keira Knightley and/or Viggo Mortensen if the film finds traction with audience members upon release.

8. Vanessa Redgrave, “Coriolanus”
Though Ralph Fiennes’ modernized adaptation of Shakespeare’s play earned praise, the bulk of the chatter swirled around Redgrave’s scene-stealing performance. Most awards analysts have Redgrave’s name in one of the five Best Supporting Actress slots, and it’s written in pen.

9. Michelle Yeoh, “The Lady”
Luc Besson’s historical drama, which stars Michelle Yeoh as Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, came to the fest hoping to secure a distribution partner and left with a deal from Cohen Media Group for a late-season, awards-qualifying run. For a film that wasn’t on many radars before TIFF, that’s a win.

10. “50/50”
Like “Machine Gun Preacher,” Jonathan Levine’s cancer comedy “50/50” received a standing ovation from its Gala premiere audience members. Unlike “Preacher,” though, “50/50” is inspiring awards talk for its leading man. In this case, it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is wonderfully sympathetic as a young man diagnosed with The Big C. Personally, I’m rooting for this one to work its way into a handful of Oscar categories, but we’ll know more as the film opens and expands in the coming weeks.

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