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TIFF 2011: What Will the People Choose?

September 12, 2011

By John C.

Unlike Sundance or Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival does not have a juried award.  But for 33 of the last 36 years that the Festival of Festivals has taken over the city with movies and parties, the best of fest has been chosen by the people who attend the screenings.

Starting this past Thursday and running until next Sunday, we are currently in the height of TIFF.  Having just completed the predictably star-studded opening weekend, our city is currently hosting numerous Hollywood celebrity guests.  But every red carpet that will be walked upon by these actors, is leading into the North American or world premiere of countless films that you are sure to be hearing a lot more about in the coming months.

For the past five years, Cadillac has been the sponsor of the award.  The director of the winning film is congratulated with 15,000 dollars, as well as a hand crafted glass and crystal award.  That’s a nice little bonus, even if the prize does go to a big director.  At this point, the frontrunner for TIFF 2011 looks to be Michel Hazanavicius’s wonderful silent film, The Artist.  Adored by both casual festival audiences as well as more serious-minded fans of film, this was the appeal that The King’s Speech had last year, and it kept going strong until a winning streak at the Oscars.

The Cadillac People’s Choice Award is the biggest prize that the festival has to offer, and four times over the years the film that triumphed at the end of the festival went on to take home Best Picture gold come Oscar night.  This first happened in 1981 with the sports drama Chariots of Fire, again in 1999 with the masterful American Beauty, proceeded by the triumphant Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 and The King’s Speech in 2010.  But even films that don’t win the People’s Choice can still end up major players on Oscar night.  TIFF may represent different things to many people, but it is undeniably one of the first stepping-stones for launching the fall and winter awards season.

If The Artist doesn’t take this year’s award, then I would probably put my money on either 50/50 or The Descendants.  These are both movies that miraculously keep a light tone but are almost guaranteed to make you cry with their deeply resonant themes.  But this isn’t to say that the award always goes to a crowd pleaser.  Sometimes it simply isn’t this easy to predict.  In 2007, David Cronenberg’s gritty and graphically violent A History of Violence beat out on of my personal favourites, the wonderful Juno.  It was sheer emotional power that allowed Precious to reign triumphant in 2009.

But for all of these times that a major Oscar player triumphs at the end of the festival, there are also examples of when the award goes to a complete dark horse.  I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Bella would win People’s Choice in 2006.  To this day, I still don’t know what audiences saw in the nauseatingly melodramatic film that had an almost entirely indiscernible message about unexpected pregnancy.  It certainly wouldn’t have been my choice to give it the top prize, but several large audiences must have related to the film in a big way.  In many ways, that is both the beauty and downfall of an award chosen by the attendees of a festival.  For better or for worse, it will always represent how passionately audiences felt about a certain film as well as the time or place when they saw it.

So if you see a movie at TIFF, make sure to fill out the ballot handed to you by a volunteer on the way out of the screening.  The boxes are so easy to spot, that you really can’t miss them.  Not only could you win a Cadillac, but you’ll also get a say in which film takes home the coveted People’s Choice Award.  Better yet, if you haven’t seen whatever film is announced come Sunday morning, the winning title is also screened for free at the Ryerson Theatre on the last night of the festival.

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