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Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen.

Oscar momentum is building for Steve McQueen's heavy-hitting saga 12 Years a Slave, which claimed the coveted audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Steve McQueen's brutal look at slavery in 1840s America wowed viewers enough to claim the hotly contested title over first runner-up Philomena, directed by fellow Brit Stephen Frears, and second runner-up Prisoners, directed by Quebec's Denis Villeneuve.

Following the announcement at an end-of-festival brunch Sunday, festival boss Piers Handling suggested this was the beginning of many prestigious accolades for the sweeping drama.

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"As we sort of launch into the awards season – and Toronto really is the beginning of that, acts as a bellwether, too – I think we can probably expect to see not just 12 Years a Slave up there in terms of the best picture nominations but also a slew of other nominations for actor, etc, etc," Handling said, noting that the film emerged as a favourite early on.

"I saw some of the reviews and they were really over the top, over the moon in terms of what Steve McQueen had done in terms of making a very genuine, honest, harsh, tough depiction of what it was like to be a slave in 19th century America."

A look at previous audience favourites certainly suggests 12 Years a Slave – starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man who is kidnapped into slavery – has earned a major Oscar boost.

The King's Speech, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and Slumdog Millionaire all went on to multiple Academy Award nominations and wins after being crowned most popular in Toronto.

The festival's artistic director Cameron Bailey said he was able to reach McQueen on Sunday morning in Amsterdam and that McQueen sent his thanks.

"This award is a fantastic honour, I'm so happy with the response of the audience," Bailey quoted from the statement.

"At a festival that has shown so many brilliant films I cannot be more thrilled to receive this award. I'm deeply grateful to all the people who've worked on this film and that their amazing work has been recognized. Once again, I'd like to thank the Toronto audience, who have supported my work ever since I was fortunate enough to show my first film there."

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Documentary filmmaker Alan Zweig was the surprise winner of the best Canadian feature prize, for his comedian-stacked film, When Jews Were Funny.

It bested fictional offerings from a healthy contingent of Canadian heavyweights including Michael Dowse, Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar, Xavier Dolan and Villeneuve.

And no one seemed more surprised than Zweig himself.

"I've been on juries, I know how these compromise wins happen. You guys are going to have a lot of explaining to do," Zweig said to laughter from a gathering of filmmakers, publicists and journalists.

"Basically, for the last couple months I've been walking around thinking that I'm making my worst film ever. And when it got into TIFF I was like, 'Oh, this is horrible. My worst film ever at TIFF.' Like, I just made my best film, it was at HotDocs, how come you couldn't reverse things?"

The award comes with $30,000, which Zweig said he'd use to buy a new kitchen.

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He noted that the last time he was at TIFF was 24 years ago when he won best Canadian short for Stealing Images. That win earned him $1,000.

The $15,000 prize for best first Canadian feature went to Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver for the animated road movie Asphalt Watches. The loopy tale was inspired by their adventures hitchhiking along the Trans-Canada Highway.

In other categories, the Midnight Madness award went to Sion Sono's Why Don't You Play in Hell?, the people's choice documentary award went to Jehane Noujaim for The Square and the NETPAC award for world or international Asian film premiere went to Anup Singh's Qissa.

The FIPRESCI honours, or international critics prizes, went to Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida in the special presentations category and Claudia Sainte-Luce for The Amazing Catfish in the discovery section.

The annual brunch gala marked the end of an 11-day movie marathon that included new films from Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet and Daniel Radcliffe.

Handling noted that this was a strong year for Canadian filmmakers, especially Villeneuve, who earned raves for his first big-budget Hollywood film, Prisoners, starring Jackman and Gyllenhaal.

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"It's wonderful to see a Canadian filmmaker who's made an American film, is branching out, making a film that's proved to be so popular with our public but also critically as well," said Handling.

"And to see both him and Jean-Marc Vallee with Dallas Buyers Club, which is again another extraordinarily well-received film here in Toronto, to see those two filmmakers blossoming in the gaze of the public and international eye was really, really encouraging."

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