Looking for the next breakout movie hit, along the lines of Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech? All those movies, each of which debuted in the last five years, were relatively low-budget, contained inspirational messages, and burst through film-festival obscurity to become popular hits.
With 268 feature films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it’s a long shot finding the next feel-good front-runners. Since festivals themselves don’t provide the equivalent of a stogie-chomping, fedora-bedecked racetrack tout, here’s the next best thing: our very own handicapped guide to five of this year’s offerings that have a good shot at becoming mainstream crowd-pleasers.
1. The Artist (odds: 4-1)
A last-minute addition at the Cannes Film Festival, The Artist ended up becoming a crowd favourite and has already popped up on a few lists as a potential Oscar contender. Some of the delight is the sheer improbability of a film that’s not only shot in black-and-white and almost entirely silent, but that’s filmed in the archaic silent-era screen-aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which should cause headaches for exhibitors.
French director Michel Hazanavicius, previously responsible for a couple of James Bond spoofs, took Charlie Chaplin as his model, mixing humour and melodrama in the story of George Valentin, a Douglas Fairbanks-like actor (the effortlessly charming Jean Dujardin) famous for his derring-do movies that co-star his clever Jack Russell terrier.
With the arrival of the talkies, George’s career goes into rapid decline, even as that of the young ingénue whom he discovered (Bérénice Bejo) reaches new heights. With an ingeniously executed concept – and the presence of American stars James Cromwell, John Goodman and Penelope Ann Miller – The Artist could be the biggest unconventional French hit on this side of the pond since Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie in 2001.
2. Jeff, Who Lives at Home (odds: 7 to 1)
Jason Segel ( Forgetting Sarah Marshall and TV’s How I Met Your Mother) is already an established star, but don’t expect the usual Judd Apatow-style comedy. The key here involves the film’s writer-directors, siblings Jay and Mark Duplass. The brains behind the low-budget, vaguely flaky hit The Puffy Chair and the creepy-funny Sundance comedy Cyrus are due for a mainstream breakthrough.
Plot details have been kept deliberately scanty, but we know that Jeff, who lives with his mom (Susan Sarandon), goes out to buy wood glue and believes he gets a message from the universe involving the name Kevin. Next, he helps his brother Pat ( The Hangover’s Ed Helms) to spy on Pat’s wife, Linda (Judy Greer), whom Pat suspects is having an affair. Tipping the odds in this film’s favour is the presence of Jason Reitman ( Juno, Up in the Air) in the producer’s chair.
3. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (odds: 8 to 1)
This British comedy, based on Paul Torday’s novel and directed by Lasse Hallstrom ( Chocolat), features an all-star British cast that includes Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor and Kristin Scott Thomas. Hallstrom hasn’t had a great past decade, but the screenplay here is by Simon Beaufoy ( The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) who has a solid track record for penning inspirational crowd-pleasers.
McGregor stars as a lowly scientist, Dr. Albert Jones, who works in a government fisheries department and is going through a divorce. When a Yemeni sheik proposes introducing salmon – and salmon sports fishing – into Yemen, Jones rejects the idea as unfeasible. But money and political forces intervene.
Scott Thomas delivers a rare comic turn as the British prime minister’s director of communications, who sees political opportunity in the absurd scheme.
4. Butter (odds: 10 to 1)
Juno, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech started their Oscar-bound trajectories as sneak screenings at the Telluride Film Festival. This year, the potential breakout from the Colorado event is a comedy called Butter.
Jennifer Garner stars as an obsessive Michele Bachmann-like Iowa native, Laura Pickler, who is poised to ascend to champion butter carver when her philandering husband ( Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) hangs up his spreader. But a 10-year-old black girl and foster child named Destiny (Yara Shahidi) suddenly emerges as a serious threat.
Director Jim Smith has acknowledge the political parallels (Billary vs. Barak) in a film that’s drawing comparisons to such early Alexander Payne satires as Citizen Ruth and Election as well as Christopher Guest’s Best in Show.
5. The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best (odds: 15 to 1)
Writer-director Ryan O’Nan’s debut feature is a comic tribute to his time in the nineties as a touring singer-songwriter. One unfortunate day in New York, Alex (played by O’Nan) loses his girlfriend and his job, and blows a gig as a singing moose at a kindergarten. In desperation, he joins up with a kazoo-playing performer, Jim (Michael Weston), who concocts a plan for the pair to tour the country on a meandering trip that lands them at a battle-of-the-bands competition in Los Angeles.
Shot for $600,000 (U.S.), including all original songs, and with the state of Maryland standing in for the rest of the country, the movie punches above its budgetary weight in casting, with Melissa Leo, Andrew McCarthy, Jason Ritter and Christopher McDonald. According to TIFF programmer Jane Schoettle, people in the festival office are divided about the film: “There are those who love it, and those who haven’t seen it yet.”