For a film director craving highbrow acclaim or status, the Toronto International Film Festival isn’t necessarily the most important date on the culture calendar. But in recent years, it’s become a valuable staging area for the winter Oscar season. At Toronto, the biggest film festival in the world, big-budget studio pictures and the year’s most-hyped indies jockey for press attention and for the chintzy-sounding People’s Choice Award—an incredibly reliable bellwether for award-winners. It’s not hard for a surprise crowd-pleaser to get anointed as a Best Picture favorite and then later actually win the golden statuette.
The biggest debuts this year included Ridley Scott’s space thriller The Martian and Tom Hooper’s transgender-history drama The Danish Girl, but unlike previous festivals, no single film has managed to run away with the buzz. In 2008, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire won the People’s Choice and then the Oscar, as did Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech in 2010, as did Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in 2013. But this year, as Katey Rich put it in Vanity Fair, critics are bemoaning “the lack of a five-star, shout-it-from-the-rooftops masterpiece.”
The most scrutinized premiere was The Martian, a hard sci-fi adaptation of a bestselling novel in which Matt Damon plays a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars waiting to be rescued by his fellow scientists on earth (played by a huge ensemble of stars). Scott, the director, is responsible for two of the most beloved sci-fi films of all time—Alien and Blade Runner—but Toronto critics expressed relief that The Martian didn’t turn out like his underwhelming Prometheus. Variety’s Peter Debruge praised the film’s “rigorous realism,” while The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy lauded its surprising cheeriness, a rarity for the normally downbeat director, whose filmography includes Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down.