Pete Hammond

Dallas Buyers Club, one of the most anticipated films of the year and certainly this Toronto International Film Festival, made its debut Saturday night to a standing ovation. Star Matthew McConaughey lost tons of weight in order to convincingly play Ron Woodroof, an early victim of AIDS who extended his life by illegally pioneering into the world of drugs designed to stem the disease. With much advance Oscar buzz for the Focus Features release, Dallas Buyers Club recently moved into early November from its original December release date. There was heavy anticipation not only for Saturday night’s 10 PM screening but also earlier when I caught it at a morning press showing. Bottom line: It does not disappoint and contains the expected Oscar-caliber performance certain to finally gain a Best Actor nod for McConaughey – and also a surprising turn from Jared Leto, just superb as a transsexual AIDS patient who befriends Ron. It would seem an absolute no-brainer that both will be sitting front and center come March 2nd at the Dolby Theatre when Oscar winners are announced. If there are two better performances by anyone this year I have not seen them.

At the Ciba restaurant late night party following the screening, Focus Features President James Schamus was beaming. Not just from the reaction to Dallas, but also because he pulled off a coup at dawn (he told me) sealing the deal for the hilarious and well-received Jason Bateman directorial debut Bad Words. It went for $7 million – a steal considering the potential of this R-rated comedy I predicted would sell in a minute. Universal‘s Ron Meyer, Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley were also celebrating that coup and the success of their specialty division’s Dallas triumph. But this night belonged to the cast and crew, especially McConaughey whom Schamus told me at May’s Cannes Festival was delivering ”the performance of a lifetime”. This was a project, according to producers Rachel Winter and Robbie Brenner, that took nearly 20 years to bring to the screen. A good chunk of that was made of the blood, sweat, tears and never-say-die tenacity of Brenner who said she just kept pushing that Dallas rock up the hill no matter what the odds.

Related: Focus Acquires Jason Bateman-Directed ‘Bad Words’

McConaughey, who lost so much weight for the role I was too afraid to ask why when I interviewed him last season for Magic Mike, says the movie got made and he got the part from sheer tenacity. He willed it into being where other actors attached to it at various points simply let it go. “I just started losing the weight and kept losing it even though the money wasn’t quite there yet. But I knew if I did this they would have to make it happen and finally they did,” he said, adding that it was just in the nick of time. The projects that look like they’ll never get made take the will of someone like McConaughey, who turned down other stuff and maintained a never-say-die attitude through it all. He is particularly enjoying indie filmmaking now. It has definitely provided him with bountiful acting opportunities in the last couple of years.

If there is one actor everyone is suddenly talking about, it’s Leto. He told me he hasn’t acted in five years, instead concentrating on his music career. His last significant role was playing Mark David Chapman in 2007′s Chapter 27. Now he also has the role of a lifetime with at least two killer scenes that scream OSCAR to me. He lost 40 pounds for the part and turns in a flawless performance that has been the talk of the festival all day.

Another standout in the cast is Jennifer Garner as a sympathetic doctor helping Ron out with his cause even though it puts her job in jeopardy. Garner is very fine in what starts out as a straight-laced role but becomes touching and integral to the film as it drives to a conclusion.  She gives much credit to director Jean-Marc Vallee for being brutally honest and letting anything flow on the set. She said it didn’t matter if it was in the script, if he saw something he liked he would immediately tell the actors to go for it. Garner was around a lot during last year’s awards season and Saturday night we re-lived some of those moments that all started at Telluride and Toronto just one year ago for her husband Ben Affleck’s Best Picture winner Argo. “I can’t believe it has come around again so fast,” she said. But that’s the nature of awards season. It’s all starting again and I firmly expect to be seeing the cast of Dallas Buyers Club around for all of it – at least based on the initial reaction here in Toronto to this lively, and ultimately, very moving true story.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.