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Need more proof that 12 Years A Slave is a movie you'll be hearing about constantly for the next few months? You don't have to believe the critics-- just ask the audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. On Sunday the drama from director Steve McQueen was revealed as the winner of the festival's Audience Award, a prize that gives a clear indication not only of which film captured the attention of festivalgoers, but often what will be sweeping up awards a few months down the road.
Don't believe me? Just check out this laundry list of previous Toronto Audience Award winners: The King's Speech. Slumdog Millionaire. American Beauty. Silver Linings Playbook. Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. That's three Best Picture winners and three more nominees right there, and that's only from the last 15 years. Not every film that wins the Toronto Audience Award goes directly to Oscar glory, of course, but when combined with the kind of rave reviews 12 Years A Slave has been getting? It's practically a guarantee.
Sean caught the film in the midst of all the buzz in Toronto, while I saw it here in New York and was still completely blown away by it. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave is a breathtaking, horrifying true story about a free black man named Solomon Northup who had been living in upstate New York with his family until he was tricked and kidnapped by two men who sold him into slavery in the South. The fact that Northup wrote a book about his experiences, and that the title itself suggests a limited timeline, makes 12 Years A Slave slightly easier to watch, but only slightly-- what he experiences as he is literally sold down the river and goes to work at two different plantations is harrowing but consistently fascinating. It's a difficult film to watch at many moments, but never sadistic or exhausting-- Steve McQueen is unflinching in showing the horrors of slavery, but he is also telling a story that eventually, in its own bleak way, is uplifting.
Audience awards often go to the most sunshine-y and purely enjoyable films, which makes the 12 Years A Slave all the more remarkable-- it puts you through the wringer, but it's such a damn good movie that you're glad for the experience anyway. The rave reviews for 12 Years A Slave have already made it a a formidable awards contender. This audience award only solidifies that, but also suggests that this 2-hour-plus epic about slavery could connect with audiences as well. When it comes to the Oscar race, it's one thing to be a critical success, but to connect with audiences as well? That makes you extremely hard to beat.
We'll have more on 12 Years A Slave and its awards prospects in this week's Oscar Eye column; you can also catch up on all the Toronto Film Festival award winners here.