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Toronto Film Festival: The Oscar race heats up

Hot tickets like James Franco’s ”127 Hours” and Natalie Portman’s ”Black Swan” could be among Oscar’s most promising contenders

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Danny Boyle knew he had to do something. When projector glitches at the Toronto International Film Festival caused the first press screening of his latest film, 127 Hours, to be delayed by more than an hour and 15 minutes, the Academy Award-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire took the unheard-of step of personally addressing the crabby crowd to explain the cause of the holdup. ”I was just worried that people weren’t being told what was going on,” Boyle tells EW. ”I’m sure there were loads of gags flying about: ‘Hanging around for 127 hours to see 127 Hours.’ I tried to preempt it.”

But by the end of the riveting film — starring James Franco as Aron Ralston, the hiker who was forced to cut off his own arm after being trapped by a boulder — no one in that theater was talking about the postponement. Instead they were marveling at how Boyle had followed up Slumdog with another nomination-worthy movie. Franco emerged from Toronto as a top contender for a Best Actor nomination, while the film seems like a possible Best Picture nominee as well. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Oscar buzz is born.

In all, Toronto, which served as the launchpad for reigning Best Picture champ The Hurt Locker, screened several strong Academy-friendly candidates, notably Darren Aronofsky‘s ballet thriller Black Swan (featuring a surefire Best Actress contender in Natalie Portman), Clint Eastwood‘s Babel-esque mortality drama Hereafter (costarring Matt Damon), and the highest-profile acquisition of the week, Rabbit Hole, which earned praise for Nicole Kidman‘s and Aaron Eckhart‘s performances as a couple struggling to cope with the recent death of their young son. Another Toronto centerpiece, Ben Affleck‘s crime thriller The Town, saw its awards chances rise thanks to strong reviews and a healthy $23.8 million opening weekend.

For some Oscar contenders, the festival was just another stop on the long road to the Kodak Theatre. After entering the awards race with their Cannes premieres, Biutiful‘s Javier Bardem and Another Year‘s Lesley Manville also made the Toronto rounds. Meanwhile, Best Actor candidate Ryan Gosling trekked to his third film festival (after Sundance and Cannes) on behalf of his wrenching domestic drama Blue Valentine. ”I just feel like the opportunity to work on films like this comes along very rarely,” says Gosling. ”And I like hearing what people think of it. It asks questions and doesn’t give any answers, so it’s kind of nice to hear everyone’s perspective on it.”

As the festival unspooled, Oscar hopefuls also cropped up from other parts of the globe: After receiving mixed reviews, Sofia Coppola‘s Los Angeles-set drama Somewhere surprised observers by winning the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival over lauded competitor Black Swan (cynics wondered whether it had anything to do with the fact that Coppola dated jury president Quentin Tarantino years ago). Elsewhere, Columbia Pictures stole some Toronto thunder by screening its Facebook exposé The Social Network for a select group of media in New York and L.A. during the festival, causing an explosion of Oscar hype in the blogosphere.

But the film that walked away with the loudest buzz was The King’s Speech, a crowd-pleasing British drama starring Colin Firth as King George VI, the monarch who battled a crippling stutter. The film won Toronto’s audience award (the festival’s major prize) and became a lead contender for Best Picture, Director (Tom Hooper), Actor (Firth), Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), and Supporting Actress (Helena Bonham Carter). ”I just want to plead the Fifth,” Firth tells EW of all the awards talk. ”I believe that this early in a film’s release, you have the right to remain silent. Everybody who’s seen the film likes it, but maybe everybody who’s going to see it will hate it.” Not a chance.