Toronto: Best Actor contenders McConaughey and Elba debut back-to-back

TORONTO – As is often the case during the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, two potential awards season contenders debuted within hours of each other Saturday night. In fact, “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” premiered in theaters literally across the street from one another. And, happily, both have something to add to our long road to Oscar.

First up was Justin Chadwick’s “Mandela” (the “Long Walk to Freedom” was suspiciously missing from the credits), which The Weinstein Company is releasing in the U.S. The officially sanctioned story of Nelson Mandela took over 25 years to reach the silver screen and the drama is carried by the impressive performances of Idris Elba as the iconic South African leader and Naomie Harris as his controversial wife, Winnie. Disturbingly, the first half of the film feels like a series of historical flashcards as quickly cut scenes follow Mandela from his years as a Johannesburg lawyer through his first failed marriage to his early days with the African National Congress. Chadwick doesn’t allow (or wasn’t allowed to let) the film to breathe at all until Mandela and four of his ANC brothers are sentenced to life in prison. From that point on the movie is actually somewhat captivating as Elba and Harris’ efforts become more like real performances and less like trailer sound bites.

At the beginning of the picture Elba hardly looks anything like Mandela (Morgan Freeman was frankly a better double in “Invictus”), but his performance is captivating enough that when he finally gets the aid of some old age makeup in the final act, his casting makes perfect sense. Elba, who hasn’t had the opportunity for awards-worthy roles outside of television, is fantastic in conveying Mandela’s arc from disinterested bystander to anarchy-fueling activist to, finally, a man asking his people to forgive. The 41-year-old actor is particularly strong in his later scenes with Harris when Mandela is coming to grips with the fact that Winnie is no longer the woman he knew before his decades-long imprisonment.

In terms of awards, you can easily write Elba in as a Golden Globe nominee, but like every actor contender in the Oscar race this year he faces some very stiff competition. His work here is certainly SAG and Academy Award nomination worthy and better than what you’ve seen in the movie’s trailer. Whether he makes the final cut may depend more on the film’s box office performance than anything else. This writer would actually suggest The Weinstein Company push “Mandela” to spring 2014 in order to allow it some breathing room against similarly themed films that will likely garner better overall reviews. A current Nov. 29 release date makes that highly unlikely, however, and box office prospects look slight. That means, for the moment, Elba could be on the outside looking in when it comes to Oscar.

The second premiere of the night was Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Dallas Buyers Club.” The Focus Features release is centered on the true story of Ron Woodroof, an HIV positive man who began a buyers club to distribute drugs the FDA wouldn’t approve in the mid-to-late ’80s. Woodroof is played by Matthew McConaughey who, as most of you may know, lost close to 50 pounds for the role. This performance has been on our radar for quite some time as it came up when we interviewed McConaughey last November when he was campaigning for “Magic Mike.” Transformational performances have always been a favorite of the Academy, but McConaughey’s work here defies any Oscar bait tag as it’s hands down the best thing he’s ever done. Woodroof managed to live for seven years with AIDS-related symptoms and McConaughey has channeled the rage within him to fight constant government interference to stay alive. The experience also turned Woodroof from a blatant homophobe (and God knows what else) into a man of incredible compassion and selflessness. It’s an incredible arc for any actor and McConaughey nails it. The Texas native has been on a breathtaking creative streak lately with fantastic turns in “Bernie,” “Magic Mike,” “The Paperboy” and “Mud,” where he’s a supporting player. His work in “Dallas Buyers Club” is simply in a different class. Chiwetel Ejiofor is admittedly amazing in “12 Years A Slave,” but I’d be hard pressed to put my money on anyone other than McConaughey to take home the Best Actor Oscar this March.

The other great turn in “Dallas” is by actor-turned-full-time-rock-star Jared Leto. Many well-known actors have played drag queens at one time or another, but this is much, much more than a recognizable leading man queening out to show his “range.” As Woodroof’s eventual business partner Rayon, Leto is absolutely heartbreaking. Credit actually has to go to Vallée for not letting Leto’s charismatic turn divert the focus from Woodroof’s story. It’s that good.

Looking into the awards season crystal ball, Leto could easily win Best Supporting Actor honors from a number of the key critics groups (NBR, LAFCA, NYFCC), and while it’s still only September, it would be shocking not to hear his name called on Jan. 16 when Oscar nominations are revealed. Also, don’t rule out a Best Picture nomination for “Dallas Buyers Club” itself. There will be a passionate base for this drama and that may be all Focus needs to secure a nod.

Taking a quick look at the Best Actor race, Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips), Robert Redford (“All is Lost”), Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”) and Forest Whitaker (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) currently stand alongside Ejiofor and McConaughey as the top contenders to land a nomination. Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”) and Christian Bale (“American Hustle”) are two players that could also crash the party.

This pundit will have more on the intriguing reactions to some of this year’s big awards season players at Toronto in the next edition of the Contender Countdown running Wednesday.

“Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom” arrives in theaters on Oct. 29.  “Dallas Buyers Club” opens on Nov. 1.