The Academy Awards are still five months away, but festival faves like ''The Descendents,'' ''The Artist,'' and ''Shame'' may already have nominations in the bag


If George Clooney‘s Up in the Air character knew about all the frequent-flier miles the actor has accrued in the past few weeks, he’d be seething with jealousy. After debuting his political exposé The Ides of March at the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 31, Clooney trekked to Telluride for a Labor Day weekend preview of his comedic drama The Descendants. Later, it was off to the Toronto International Film Festival for press conferences and gala premieres of both films. ”These are the kinds of movies that need film festivals,” Clooney tells EW. ”So you just put your head down and go.”

All the schlepping has paid off. Of the hundreds of movies that played at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto — together considered the kickoff to the Oscar season — the one that amassed the greatest awards buzz was The Descendants, about a Hawaii dad who learns that his newly comatose wife had been unfaithful. The alternately caustic and poignant film became an instant contender for Best Picture, Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Actor (Clooney), and Best Supporting Actress (Shailene Woodley). What does breakout Woodley make of the praise? ”The four months I spent in Hawaii was the icing on the cake, so I don’t know what this is,” the 19-year-old admits. ”This is the maraschino cherry!”

One of Payne’s competitors in the director race might be his own leading man. Ides received mostly positive buzz, though a few critics were unimpressed (the first word of Variety‘s write-up: ”Ho-hum”). But Clooney, an Oscar-campaign veteran, knows the perils of peaking too soon. ”I’ve been in movies that were front-runners in September — Up in the Air was one,” he says of the 2009 film, which ended up empty-handed on Oscar night. ”So we were sort of relieved in a way that every single [review] wasn’t off the charts.”

Indeed, while some Best Picture hopefuls (notably the Cannes crowd-pleaser The Artist, featuring Best Actor contender Jean Dujardin) saw their momentum continue, other high-profile debuts were more mixed. At Venice, the Gary Oldman thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy confused as many viewers as it captivated. And for many critics, David Cronenberg‘s Sigmund Freud/Carl Jung drama A Dangerous Method, starring Viggo Mortensen, was riveting; for detractors, though, it was like watching paint dry.

In Toronto, local-boy-made-good Ryan Gosling juggled interviews and appearances for his starring roles in Ides and Drive while still fielding questions about his tummy-tastic turn in Crazy, Stupid, Love. ”They’re all like one movie now,” he says. ”Crazy Stupid Abs of March That Drive You Crazy.” And Albert Nobbs star Glenn Close wondered if her assured sixth career nomination might actually lead to her first-ever win. ”It would be particularly nice for this movie, it really would,” she says. ”Something I’m so invested in? Yes.” Two of her potential competitors, Martha Marcy May Marlene‘s Elizabeth Olsen and We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Tilda Swinton, also made the rounds in Toronto.

But easily the most talked-about performance was Michael Fassbender‘s emotionally and physically revealing turn as a sex addict in Shame. After returning home from Venice, the X-Men: First Class star got a late-night call summoning him back to receive the best-actor prize. ”That was one of those moments where you sort of pinch yourself,” he tells EW. Now that Fox Searchlight has bought the film and is planning an Oscar-qualifying release before the end of the year, Fassbender will soon learn if the Academy’s old guard will go for Shame‘s explicit content. ”Whether you’re young or old, you’d have to be pretty dishonest not to see that sex is everywhere you walk,” he says. ”I find it tricky to articulate. Maybe I’ll get better at it over the next few months.”

(Additional reporting by Sara Vilkomerson)