As the festival season winds down, the Academy Awards picture is (finally) becoming clear. Who'll be breaking out their formalwear?

By Dave Karger
September 21, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Were any of you in the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Silver Linings Playbook, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence? Well, the movie’s writer-director, David O. Russell, would like you to see the film again — you were laughing too loudly. ”I was like, ‘Shh! Shh! You’re missing all these lines!”’ Russell (The Fighter) remembers thinking during the raucous Sept. 8 screening. ”Bob De Niro had some big lines that weren’t heard. In another moment they cheered and they missed the next five lines. But I said, ‘I can’t complain.”’

Such are the perils of being a festival darling. The film-fest triumvirate of Venice (Aug. 29 to Sept. 8), Telluride (Aug. 31 to Sept. 3), and Toronto (Sept. 6 to 16) usually produces a handful of strong Oscar candidates. And upon its Toronto debut, Silver Linings — an uproariously funny and surprisingly moving family study — instantly became a top contender for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor (for De Niro), and Adapted Screenplay (for Russell himself).

The other buzziest film to emerge couldn’t be more different: Ben Affleck‘s Argo (which played at Telluride and Toronto) is a sprawling — and true — tale of international espionage that had audiences and critics raving. It also had Oscar pundits opining that after just missing the cut two years ago with The Town, Affleck should finally break into the Best Director and Best Picture races. ”I don’t really view the experience of putting a movie out through the prism of handicapping what’s going to happen down the road,” he told EW. ”I really just hope people see it, and I’m going to do whatever I can do to make that happen.” It was no surprise when, at the Toronto awards ceremony, Silver Linings scored the audience prize (previously won by eventual Best Pictures Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech) while Argo was named the runner-up.

Several other festival entries also produced serious potential nominees: The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the Venice Best Actor prize for their mesmerizing performances, while French actresses Marion Cotillard and Emmanuelle Riva gathered more Best Actress momentum for their respective films Rust and Bone and Amour, both of which premiered earlier this year at Cannes. Meanwhile, the shocking tsunami drama The Impossible started Best Actress hype for Naomi Watts and Supporting Actor talk for her onscreen husband, Ewan McGregor. ”It’s a very harrowing event that we had to re -create,” McGregor says. ”Something about that leaves its mark on you. It’s a dark place to go to.” After debuting their sexually frank drama at Sundance, The Sessions stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt also headed to Toronto to meet the press once again. ”The soul of the movie seems to be affecting the conversation,” says Hunt, who’s sure to snag a Supporting Actress nod. ”So people aren’t asking lame questions.” (More Oscar contenders should emerge after the New York Film Festival — running from Sept. 28 to Oct. 14 — which includes Ang Lee‘s Life of Pi and the Denzel Washington vehicle Flight.)

Toronto also had its share of polarizing pictures: Atonement director Joe Wright reteamed with Keira Knightley for a risky version of the 19th- century classic Russian novel Anna Karenina that takes place largely in a theater. ”Normally you know what you’re coming into a festival with,” Knightley told EW before its Toronto premiere. ”With this one, who knows? This really can go either way. There are always going to be people who go, ‘No. This isn’t my cup of tea.”’ Indeed there were, while others deemed it a masterpiece. And the time-spanning sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas left some viewers in tears and others scratching their heads. The overall verdict: While it may be too strange for Best Picture, it should score at least six technical nominations.

Perhaps the most unlikely contender of the three festivals? Two-time Best Actor winner Dustin Hoffman, who earned strong reviews for directing the delightful British film Quartet, about opera singers living together in a retirement home. ”I’ve never gotten a script from a studio saying, ‘Would you like to direct this?”’ says Hoffman, who had to fight for the job. ”I’m curious to see, if this film works, is anyone going to send me a script?” At age 75, he just might have a new career on his hands.

When You can Weigh In

Here are the theatrical release dates for our festival favorites

The Master Out now

Argo Oct. 12

The Sessions Oct. 19

Cloud Atlas Oct. 26

Flight Nov. 2

Anna Karenina Nov. 16

Life of Pi Nov. 21

Silver Linings Playbook Nov. 21

Rust and Bone Nov. 23

Amour Dec. 19

The Impossible Dec. 21

Quartet Dec. 28

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