Toronto critics fuel the heat of ‘Incendies’

Oscar buzz mounts for Denis Villeneuve

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After a long hiatus, BDJ Unscreened is finally back on stream. My absence from this site wasn’t on account of some fabulous tropical vacation, or the flu. As president of the Toronto Film Critics Association, I’ve spent much of the last few weeks organizing last night’s TFCA awards dinner—an event that’s kept me so preoccupied  I’m may be the last film critic in town to get around to reporting it. Much of my time was devoted to editing a six-minute montage of our 24 winning and nominated films, scored with music from their soundtracks. Presenting this thing each year is my little vanity project, a critic’s perverse attempt to play filmmaker then force professional filmmakers to watch the results.

I’m in no position to judge, but by all accounts, a fabulous time was had by all at the awards dinner. Some 160 guests packed Toronto’s  Nota Bene restaurant  for a gala soiree featuring fine dining, Moët & Chandon champagne, and a great volleys of wit. It’s an unusual event. You’ve got the TFCA’s lowly scribes hosting a shindig for the cream of Toronto’s film community, a party that’s supported by a phalanx of sponsors (led by my employer, Rogers Communications, with RBC Royal Bank coming aboard this year), along with film industry honchos, who buy tables. Call it an annual truce between film critics and filmmakers. Very different from what went down at the recent New York Film Critics dinner, where notorious crank Armand White reduced Annette Bening to tears. By contrast, we’re very cozy and Canadian.

Last night’s VIP list included filmmakers Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Sturla Gunnarsson, Ron Mann, Leonard Farlinger, Dany Chiasson, multi-hyphenate Don McKellar, actress Lisa Ray and CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi. Our host was TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey. Our guest of honour was actor Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League, Sorcerer’s Apprentice), who took the train in from Montreal with his girlfriend, actress Alison Pill (Milk, In Treatment). Baruchel presented the TFCA’s Roger’s Best Canadian Film Award, which carries a cheque for $15,000 ($5,000 more than last year). Edging out Vincenzo Natali’s Splice and Bruce McDonald’s Trigger, the winner was Incendies, whose director, Denis Villeneuve, was on hand to accept, having just flown in from New York, where he’d been honoured at the National Board of Review Awards.

Incendies is Canada’s official Oscar candidate for the foreign language film category, and it looks like the film has a real shot. It’s been sold to some 30 countries and in the U.S. it has a strong distributor, Sony Classic, campaigning for it. Villeneuve is emerging as the natural successor to another Denis, Denis Arcand—as a writer-director with a singular style and a serious vision who is garnering international acclaim on his own terms. He also has a personal charm and grace not unlike Arcand’s. At the podium, he was his usual congenial, self-deprecating self. He expressed reverential praise for his fellow nominees, and resumed his joke from last year’s win, when he told Rogers Vice-Chair Phil Lind that he would finally be able to pay his Rogers bill.  Last night he said he had since bought so many gadgets from Rogers that he probably helped them hike the prize money from $10,000 to $15,000.

Jay Baruchel, who presented the award, spent much of evening in conversation with Atom Egoyan, who said he never realized what an intense patriot Baruchel was. The actor is on quite a roll. In 2010 he played lead roles in three studio pictures: She’s Out of My League, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the lead voice in How To Train Your Dragon, which won the TFCA award for Best Animated Feature. Those pictures have racked up total worldwide gross of $758 million. Which makes Baruchel Canada’s hottest box office star in 2010 by a long shot. But here’s the thing. He also found the time and inclination to star in two independent Canadian films, The Trotsky, which was released last year, and Good Neighbours, which premiered last year at TIFF. A Canadian Hollywood star with a passionate devotion to Canadian cinema is a rare thing indeed.

McKellar, meanwhile, presented the TFCA’s $5,000 Jay Scott Prize for an emerging artist, which went to Toronto filmmaker Daniel Cockburn, who made the leap from video art scene to feature filmmaking with You Are Here, an inspired experiment film that plays like Charlie Kaufman on acid, and stars McKellar’s wife, the late Tracy Wright.

After drawing lots of laughs by roasting me, Ghomeshi presented the TFCA’s special citation, recognizing Bruce McDonald for a year of astonishing creativity. In 2010 Bruce directed four movies: This Movie is Broken, Trigger, Hard Core Logo 2, and Music From the Big House. McDonald was shooting in Winnipeg and unable to attend, but his vivacious wife and colleague, producer Dany Chiasson, accepted it for him, relaying a heartfelt message of gratitude.

My unusually productive and fortunate year has been the direct result of working and living in a wonderfully fertile community- deeply rich in talent, chops, beauty and ambition,” said McDonald.  “To be honoured by the writers is something that I’m especially proud of. You know that it’s always been about the writer for me.  They are the spirit, the foundation, the grace, the meat and the razzle dazzle behind any film project.  The amazing Don McKellar, the Mighty Daniel MacIvor, David Griffith from far off Glasgow and crazy beautiful Tony Burgess from nearby Stayner Ontario.  .  . As filmmakers in this country we must be faster, smarter, cooler, wilder, sexier and unfortunately cheaper than our cousins in the States but that’s what makes the great cinema we are celebrating here tonight and in theatres around the world.”

We had the pleasure of presenting Chiasson with a rare and valuable bottle of scotch in a wooden box. This high pedgree booze was donated by our sponsor Moët & Chandon. Apparently it’s the last of its kind—i a vintage so rare it’s now “extinct.” Or it will be after McDonald drinks this final bottle. Chiasson spent the rest of the evening petrified that she would drop it.

And Patricia Rozema presented our inaugural Deluxe Student Film Award to David Cadiz of Humber College for his short Adventures of Owen, an eloquent weave of animation and live action that captures the sci-fi imaginatings of schoolboy. Rozema told a priceless story about how she once presented a student film award at a high school. As she was reading from a scripted speech, when she said, “The winner is . . . ” she spoke the ellipsis,  “dot, dot, dot.” Apparently there was a student film called Dot Dot Dot, and before she could get another word out, the director of Dot Dot Dot immediately jumped up to accept, only to be told that he was not the winner.

Click here for the full slate of TFCA’s other award winners.