TORONTO -- Oscar momentum is building for Steve McQueen's heavyhitting 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.
"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 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 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."
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.
The award comes with $30,000, which Zweig said he'd use to buy a new kitchen.
-- The Canadian Press