Pete Hammond

EXCLUSIVE: Ever since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival over the Labor Day weekend, Fox Searchlight‘s 12 Years A Slave has been annointed, at least by some eager-to-call-the-race-early media members, as the movie that could take it all at the Oscars. Though it is far too early to say that with any conviction (it doesn’t open in theaters until next week and hasn’t even played its official Academy screening yet), it continues to register strongly on the Fest circuit. It hit the New York Film Festival Tuesday night where the cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, director Steve McQueen and other key creative players received a standing ovation, just as they did in Telluride and Toronto. Next week the film hits the BFI London Film Festival on October 18th, home turf for its British star and director,  but telling a very American story. Searchlight clearly would be more comfortable not to be shackled with the front-runner label before the movie is able to catch its boxoffice wind. It’s always a perilous position as there is nowhere to go but down (just ask Social Network about that), but the film has drawn critical raves wherever it’s played and early audiences are clearly moved. The subject matter however is not easy, often gut-wrenching to watch, and needs to be carefully nurtured by Fox Searchlight which plans a slow rollout beginning next Friday. At the very least 12 Years A Slave is another strong cog in the wheel of what is becoming an exceptionally competitive awards season. On Tuesday alone when the film was playing NYFF, two other major contenders,  All Is Lost starring Robert Redford in a tour de force performance and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska with Bruce Dern in a starring role and another sure-fire Best Actor contender, were also getting huge ovations for their work and will be heading to London as well. I expect Redford and Dern , both 77 years old, to be among the final five in the Best Actor Oscar race competing against Ejiofor who plays the title Slave with great human dignity and strength. Here’s an exclusive look at his performance as he continues traveling the Fall fest circuit carrying the flag for one of the year’s most harrowing cinematic experiences.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.