By Peter Knegt | Indiewire September 3, 2013 at 12:44PM
The past five days have probably given us first looks at more potential Oscar contenders than most full months of the year. With Venice and Telluride happening simultaneously (and the latter crammed into a tight 4-day schedule), a sizeable number of the most anticipated films of the year have just made their debuts. So before another sizeable amount takes hold of the conversation when Toronto kicks off on Thursday, let's quickly recap the 5 films that have the best shots at some major love from Oscar and beyond, at least based on their snap critical reactions.
1. "12 Years a Slave"
Technically still a world premiere in Toronto this weekend, Telluride offered a sneak preview of Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" a week in advance, and the reaction was an immediate explosion of remarkable reactions, including our own Eric Kohn: "More than a powerful elegy, '12 Years a Slave' is a mesmerizing triumph of art and polemics: McQueen turns a topic rendered distant by history into an experience that, short of living through the terrible era it depicts, makes you feel as if you've been there." These kinds of declarations helped give "12 Years" the potentially daunting status as Oscar season's first frontrunner, which can often end up working out just fine ("The King's Speech," "The Artist" and "Argo" all arguably were as well). And though, yes, there's four more months of films we haven't seen that could shake things up considerably, "12 Years" seems like a pretty sure thing when it at least comes to nominations for best picture, best director, best actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), best supporting actor (Michael Fassbender), best supporting actress (Lupita Nyong'o) and a slew of technical and artistic achievements. It has also made clear that the major story of this year's awards season will be the unprecedented number of black filmmakers telling stories that reflect various moments in African-American history ("The Butler," "Fruitvale Station" being the other two examples so far). If "12 Years a Slave" does end up winning best picture and/or best director, it would be the first time in both instances where it's for a film directed by a black filmmaker (FYI: While all three films indeed tell the stories of African-Americans, McQueen himself is actually a black British man of Grenadian descent).
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The first film on this list to screen when it opened the Venice Film Festival last Wednesday night, Alfonso Cuarón's space odyssey "Gravity" joins "12 Years a Slave" as collectively the first two locks for best picture nominations this year. Said The Playlist in their Venice review: "The long-awaited project opens the Venice Film Festival today seven years after the premiere of Cuaron’s last film, 'Children Of Men,' arrived on the Lido, and while the anticipation over the picture—several years in the making—has been breathless, the filmmaker’s return manages to live up to, or even exceed, those hopes at almost every level." Clearly the rare major technical achievement that's also seeing with intelligence and heart (see "Life of Pi" and "Hugo" in recent years -- both of which went over well with Oscar), "Gravity" is already all-but-assured major nods across the board, including for its lead actress Sandra Bullock, who got just as glowing reviews as the film's visual effects.
Though Stephen Frears' "Philomena" didn't come out of its Venice premiere with the kind of overwhelming buzz that met "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity," it did get more than its share of strong reviews. Starring Judi Dench as a woman trying to track down the son she was forced into giving up for adoption decades earlier, words like "crowd-pleasing," "heart-warming" were all over those reviews, at the very least confirming Dench will be joining Ms. Bullock in the best Oscar race (which is getting crowded quickly with Bullock, Dench and "Blue Jasmine" star Cate Blanchett all looking close to sure things). Other races it can factor into very much depend on how the rest of the year goes, but there's definitely good reason not count "Philomena" out of the best picture race just yet.
4. "Labor Day"
After two consecutive best picture nominations with "Juno" and "Up In The Air," Jason Reitman fell out of Oscar's good graces with his last film "Young Adult" (despite some strong reviews). That film was his first to skip the festival circuit, which makes his new film "Labor Day" a return to tradition for the filmmaker. Before making its way to Toronto this weekend, the film played in Telluride and reviews were generally quite good with a dominant focus on "Labor Day" marking a change of pace for Reitman. Wrote Indiewire's Eric Kohn: "Jason Reitman's initial four features each contained a distinctly cynical edge, mainly due to their bitter, cantankerous anti-heroes who had witticisms to spare. 'Labor Day,' his fifth and most fluid work, contains no such ironic refrains. A significant departure for the director, 'Labor Day' is a classical, melodramatic tearjerker that's also a sincere coming-of-age story." Kohn went on to question whether its "low key nature" might hinder its awards season potential, which is definitely no sure thing at this point. But Reitman and his cast -- Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and newcomer Gattlin Griffith -- should at the very least be part of the conversation.
Perhaps the most unexpected film to jump into awards contention this past weekend was Denis Villeneuve's psychological thriller "Prisoners." Its a genre not typically well-represented at the Oscars, but if the rave reviews it got at Telluride are any indication, it stands a very good chance at being an exception. Starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in what many have been calling career-best performances, if it gains traction at the box office later this month (its the first of these five open theatrically, on September 20th), it could be one to watch out for. Says The Playlist's Rodrigo Perez: "'Prisoners' is difficult, wrenching subject matter, and it will be interesting to see how audiences (and Oscar voters for that matter) respond. The picture is often graphic and pulls no punches in its disturbing violence, but its unflinching nature gives it a memorable sear that won't soon be forgotten. A first-rate thriller with a blackened bite, 'Prisoners' may not be the easiest or most escapist sit for the casual moviegoer, but it’s this kind of filmmaking and storytelling that brings folks like us flocking to the theaters year after year."
Check out Indiewire's latest chart of Oscar predictions here.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire's Senior Writer and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.