It was wrap yesterday for the Toronto International Film Festival, as it staged its awards ceremony at a hotel brunch. This is always a low-key affair. Unlike the othe major festivals—Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Sundance—Toronto prides itself on being a non-competitive event. Which is why a lot of filmmakers feel comfortable unveiling their work here. There are no losers. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t winners. Although there’s no formal competition, awards are given out, and this year there were more than ever. Juries honoured three categories of Canadian films with cash prizes—Ruba Nadda’s lush and delicate romance, Cairo Time, won $30,000 for best Canadian feature, Alexandre Franchi’s The Wild Hunt, about role-playing games, won $15,000 for best Canadian first feature, and Pedro Pires’s Dance Macabre, a dark ballet conceived by Robert Lepage, won $10,000 for best Canadian short. But the prize that has taken on more and more significance over the years is the People’s Choice Award, which is voted by audiences—and has come to serve as a bell-weather for Oscar success. Past winners have included Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, Crash and Slumdog Millionaire. To no one’s surprise, at least not mine, the 2009 winner was Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. By turns harrowing and inspirational, this tale of an abused, obese, illiterate Harlem teen is this year’s Slumdog.Unlike Slumdog, it wasn’t discovered at TIFF but at Sundance, and that’s when fairy godmother Oprah Winfrey jumped on board as executive producer. But Toronto was where Oprah launched the Oscar campaign for Precious.
Generating massive fanfare, she has turned a small, underdog movie into a self-help cause, a cinematic group therapy session for anyone who has ever been abused—or longed to empathize with someone who has. Given the precious subtitle (Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire), joining the cause feels like joining Oprah’s Book Club. The message: we all have a bit of Precious inside us. I have an allergy to this sort of thing. But there’s no denying Precious is a powerful movie, with knock-out performances by ugly duckling ingenue Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe, and especially by Mo’nique, who is devastating in the role of her mother.
The first runner up for the audience award was Bruce Beresford Mao’s Last Dancer; the second runner-up is Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot), a past winner for Amelie). This year, the People’s Choice Award was expanded to include documentary and Midnight Madness categories. Leanne Pooley’s The Topp Twins, a feel good movie about a Zealand lesbian country-and-western duo, took the documentary prize and Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story was runner-up. The most popular film in Midnight Madness was Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones, a twisted prom movie described as “a wild mash-up of Pretty in Pink and Misery. Didn’t see it, but I did see the runner-up, which was a hoot—Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig’s Daybreakers, a Matrix-like twist on the vampire genre in which vampires rule the world and humans are an endangered species.