By Anthony Breznican
September 13, 2013 at 05:50 PM EDT

The conversation begins …

The Toronto International Film Festival unofficially kicks off the Oscar race each year as the best-of-the-best line up for their shot at awards glory – and the movie-fan attention (and ticket sales) that inevitably accompanies it.

Right now, we’re six months away from the March 2 Academy Awards, any film can still pull ahead or fall back. But as the Toronto festival draws to a close this weekend, it’s clear which films will rank among the fiercest competitors.

Blue Jasmine, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station opened this summer to their share of buzz, and some major players such as Saving Mr. Banks, American Hustle, and The Wolf of Wall Street haven’t played anywhere yet, so there are still a lot of variables.

Click through for a quick rundown of the Oscar strengths and weaknesses of Toronto’s top titles:

• 12 Years a Slave

• August: Osage County

• Dallas Buyers Club

• Enough Said

• The Fifth Estate

• Gravity

• Labor Day

• Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

• Prisoners

• Rush

12 Years a Slave (Oct. 18)

Unstoppable. That’s how the Oscar momentum felt immediately after the screening of this emotionally crushing drama about a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is kidnapped from the North in 1841 and sold into slavery in the deep South, where his new identity is beaten into him, with no recourse for reaching his friends or family.

Along with a Best Picture nomination, Ejiofor’s gripping, hopeful performance is a sure-thing for a Best Actor slot. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) should also expect a long red-carpet season, along with supporting actors Michael Fassbender as a merciless cotton plantation owner and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, the object of Fassbender’s twisted affection.

But before anyone starts thinking 12 Years a Slave is already lock to win, consider this cautionary evidence: Academy members have been disturbed by the reviews, which despite being universally positive also tend to describe the movie in off-putting terms. “The two words I keep hearing are ‘brutal’ and ‘relentless,’” said one veteran Academy member who had not seen the film. She predicted many older Oscar voters would be alienated by the violence. Several other veteran Academy members expressed similar reservations.

But don’t forget this is the body that nominated Django Unchained for Best Picture, and gave the supporting actor prize to Christoph Waltz and best original screenplay to Quentin Tarantino. That movie was even more gruesome – although it was a spoof — while 12 Years strives for authenticity. Admirers have compared it to Schindler’s List – another agonizing portrayal of human suffering, which definitely earned the love of the Academy.

If the Academy does turn away from 12 Years, the group would risk not just hypocrisy but irrelevance.

NEXT PAGE: August: Osage County

August: Osage County (Dec. 25)
Film Images

This movie’s pedigree screams Oscar. And, boy, does it ever scream

Meryl Streep? Julia Roberts? Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play? Distribution by awards powerhouse The Weinstein Co.? This adaptation directed by John Wells (The Company Men) came with built-in consideration at Toronto.

People expected Academy Awards potential from this drama about a bitter, chaotic Oklahoma family. But the first screenings at the festival delivered mostly uncertain responses. Moviegoers were confused. You could hear the dismay among critics, voters, and general festival attendees venting their frustrations, as if they wanted to shake this movie and say: Be more Oscar-y!

This was one of those “Emperor’s New Clothes” moments. Last year, The Master got similar reactions – masses of people would gather post-screening and offer hesitant reaction … until one person would admit, “I didn’t like it.” An avalanche of relieved exasperation from the others would follow. That’s how it was after the press & industry screening I attended. At the premiere, the crowd gave a standing ovation, but most attendees I spoke to said it felt obligatory.

Where did the movie go astray? Some theories are that August: Osage County’s searing confrontations play better on stage, where the faces screeching acid at each other aren’t 30 feet tall in close-up.

Still, the Academy deeply favors Meryl Streep, and she could get Best Actress points for her pill-popping, nicotine-stained, cancer-stricken, sinister old matriarch simply because it’s such a transformative appearance. She may have been better served by a director who restrained her performance a little, but … then again Oscar voters are often more wowed by scenery-chewing than subtlety.

Other possible contenders include Roberts, who also amps up the volume as her fed-up eldest daughter, Margot Martindale (Justified, The Americans) as Streep’s blustery, belligerent sister, and Chris Cooper as Martindale’s battle-weary husband.

But the true stars of this film are Benedict Cumberbatch as awkward cousin Little Charles, and Julianne Nicholson as Streep’s kinder, more loyal daughter. When the family conflagrations begin, Nicholson and Cumberbatch are often the only ones keeping it real while their co-stars turn this into PERFORMANCES!: The Motion Picture.

The Weinstein Co. doesn’t give up, so I wouldn’t count out some kind of comeback. Lowered expectations might actually be a plus when the film starts screening for voters at large. Like its characters, August: Osage County could benefit from everyone sitting down and taking a breath.

NEXT PAGE: Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club (Nov. 1)

Matthew McConaughey lives up to the hype.

The heartthrob actor transformed himself into a walking skeleton for this film about homophobic Texas good ol’ boy Ron Woodroof, who discovers in the mid-‘80s that his days of whoring and substance abuse have left him with full-blown AIDS.

Despite a ghastly appearance, McConaughey’s charisma and energy are undaunted, and there is a fearful ambition in the pursed lips beneath his cowboy mustache as Woodroof seeks to smuggle experimental AIDS drugs into the country to save his own life. When the risky new procedures start to work, he builds a business around delivering these drugs to other AIDS sufferers seeking desperate new measures.

To help him reach people in the gay community who could benefit from his smuggled drugs, Woodroof reluctantly befriends an ailing transsexual named Rayon, and their unlikely partnership – and even more unlikely friendship – give the grim subject matter a lively, even heartwarming touch.

Jared Leto hasn’t acted in four years, and his last truly acclaimed role was in 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, but his sweet, damaged performance as Rayon – which also came with a frightening weight-drop – should put him back on Hollywood’s map. McConaughey has Best Actor potential, and Leto has an equally good shot for Best Supporting Actor.

If there’s a weak spot in Jean-Marc Vallee’s film, it’s that Dallas Buyers Club would have benefited from a tighter, more ruthless edit that might have given the narrative the same relentless energy as the performances.

NEXT PAGE: Enough Said (Sept. 18)

Enough Said

The face is the same, but it’s impossible to look at James Gandolfini’s tender, vulnerable middle-aged schlub in this smart romantic comedy and see any semblance of Tony Soprano. This last major role from the actor, who died in June, is a bittersweet reminder of his incredible range.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in Enough Said as a massage therapist who starts a hesitant romance with Gandolfini, but fears he’s an even bigger loser than she is. Both are divorced, both are lonely, but neither is sure about the other. Then Louis-Dreyfus discovers that one of her massage clients (Catherine Keener) is his ex-wife, and she engages in an ill-planned effort to get inside information about the habits of her new boyfriend.

This is one of writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s (Friends With Money) warmest, funniest comedies, and her two stars should each get awards consideration this year. Their best shot, of course, is at ceremonies that have special categories for musical/comedy, like the Golden Globes.

But here’s a depressing report: one member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which gives out the Globes, told me that the group liked the movie, particularly Gandolfini’s performance.

“Does he have a shot at comedy/musical actor? Or maybe supporting actor?” I asked.

The HFPA member shrugged. “Well … he can’t come to the show.”

Just a little reminder that rewarding great performances often comes second to studding the Globes’ TV broadcast with stars.

NEXT PAGE: The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate (Oct. 18)
Frank Connor

Benedict Cumberbatch is the saving grace of The Fifth Estate.

The best chance this movie has is a Best Actor nomination for the Sherlock star, who dominates the screen as the enigmatic and underhanded hacker-journalist Julian Assange.

Best Actor will be a hard-fought category, but the movie didn’t come away with enough admirers to come on strong in most other fields. Reaction to this true-life drama about the creation of Wikileaks was mixed at best. Some journalists, like EW’s Owen Gleiberman and yours truly, admired The Fifth Estate’s take on the murky line between idealism and anarchy, but the detractors tended to be more outspoken and passionate than the supporters.

But most agreed Cumberbatch was mesmerizing. Daniel Brühl was also well-regarded as Assange’s right-hand hacker, although he is the steady, more reserved figure who helps ground the story. (His own Oscar chances rest on the more colorful performance he delivers in Rush.)

The ongoing national debate over the Edward Snowden leaks that revealed widespread domestic spying by the NSA should have galvanized director Bill Condon’s film with relevance. Instead, the real life news reports may have upstaged it.

NEXT PAGE: Gravity

Gravity (Oct. 4)

Along with 12 Years a Slave, you can count this breathtaking space drama among the surefire Best Picture contenders.

Will it win? It’s still too soon to make a call like that. But the one repeated response I kept hearing at Toronto was: How did they do that? If you can get Academy members, who actually do know how to make movies, ask that – you’ve really accomplished something. Alfonso Cuaron, who co-wrote the script with his son Jonas, can expect to rank among the five Best Director nominees.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as present-day astronauts who go on a spacewalk for a routine mission to repair a satellite. After an accident destroys their shuttle, they end up stranded in orbit with only a few longshot options for survival.

Count Bullock among the Best Actress contenders. Given that these are some of the most groundbreaking visual effects I’ve seen in years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this movie walk away easily with that Oscar. Emmanuel Lubezki’s graceful cinematography will also be in the race, benefiting from Cuaron’s tendency to create long, sweeping, unbroken shots.

The father and son’s script …? The story is brilliant, but it’s not dialogue heavy and the Academy tends to reward films with memorable lines, lively, complex conversations, and unexpected plot twists and turns. This is one field were Gravity may have an uphill climb.

It will also be interesting to see how Gravity fares in the Sound Editing category. Since it’s set in space, where there is no atmosphere to conduct sound waves, the destruction of the Shuttle happens in eerie silence. The only sounds the movie presents, apart from the score, is what the astronauts would hear within their suits. Is the Academy willing to reward the absence of sound?

I’d argue voters should remember the category is called sound editing – not sound creation. Sometimes, it’s about what you leave out.

NEXT PAGE: Labor Day

Labor Day (Dec. 25)

This will be a battle between the romantics and the cynics.

Reactions to Labor Day were curiously divided: Women tended to not just like it, but adore it, while men generally seemed squeamish about the romantic elements of writer-director Jason Reitman’s drama.

Kate Winslet stars as a single mom who is forced by Josh Brolin’s escaped convict to shelter him in her home over the long end-of-summer weekend. He’s wounded and needs a place to hide from the police while he recovers, and she’s a near shut-in, battling what we can only surmise is extreme anxiety and depression.

Brolin’s steady (albeit intimidating) escapee ends up getting closer than expected to her and her young son (Gattlin Griffith), although theirs is a story that can’t end in any good way. Part of the tragedy of this film is the way the characters delude themselves into believing in fairy-tale endings.

Check out the rapturous reviews of the film from writers Sasha Stone and Anne Thompson, versus the underwhelmed reaction from EW’s Owen Gleiberman for an example of the gender divide on this one. It has male admirers too (like Variety editor Tim Gray), but the split is striking – and undeniable.

Reitman, who dedicated the movie to his mother at the Toronto premiere, has acknowledged changing gears from the irony and cynicism of his previous films such as Up in the Air and Young Adult. The Academy likes an unabashedly emotional story, and Labor Day’s screenings tend to end with audible sniffles and tears from the audience. But the voting group is also mostly male, which will pose a challenge to those top directing, adapted screenplay, and picture prizes if the gender divide continues.

Winslet has strong Best Actress potential as a woman who’s not on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but hopelessly trapped in its aftermath. And Eric Steelberg’s cinematography also deserves attention for capturing not just the burnt out end of a late ‘80s summer but also numerous flashbacks, some gauzily idealized and others frighteningly stark.

NEXT PAGE: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Nov. 29)

Nelson Mandela’s biography is a story that may simply be too big for one film.

The movie’s Toronto debut came just days after an ailing, 95-year-old Nelson Mandela returned home from the hospital, which gave the screening a special poignancy. The iconic South African leader may be at the end of his life, but it’s a life worth celebrating –- and commemorating.

That’s why Mandela the film so confounding. It contains an Oscar-worthy lead performance by Idris Elba, who uncannily captures Mandela’s voice and mannerisms over the course of half-a-century. It chronicles the young lawyer’s rise to anti-Apartheid revolutionary, his 27 years at Robben Island as a political prisoner, and eventual release and ascension to the presidency. But director Justin Chadwick’s movie is like a gourmet meal where each course is too-quickly pulled away to make room for the next one.

The movie is good, but voters weren’t willing to go much further with their praise. (Some were less kind, calling it dull.) It might have made a much more stirring three-movie miniseries, like the terrorism saga Carlos. Or conversely, like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, it could have benefited from focusing on just one segment of its historic figure’s life, by way of illustrating the subject through a single story.

Naomie Harris also impresses as Mandela’s even more reactionary wife Winnie, and Lol Crowley’s cinematography immerses viewers in the beauty of the African nation while contrasting it with the gritty, often gruesome tragedies of Apartheid.

NEXT PAGE: Prisoners

Prisoners (Sept. 20)

Dark, dark, and darker …

In this thriller, two little girls go missing and their fathers (Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard) become so unhinged by grief that they kidnap and torture the prime suspect (a creepy-as-ever Paul Dano.)

The movie takes the audience into an abyss, but the script by Aaron Guzikowksi also delivers some impressive corkscrewing revelations. That all-to-rare element of surprise, coupled with intense, lively dialogue, will make this a top contender in the Original Screenplay race.

Prisoners has one of the most impressive casts of the season, with Maria Bello and Viola Davis as the mothers of the missing girls, Melissa Leo as the pathetic, crotchety aunt of the lead suspect, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the above-board detective trying to resolve the case without committing any further crimes in the process. The cast is so tightly wound together it’s hard to pick one actor as a breakout. The Screen Actors Guild Awards is the only ceremony with an “ensemble” category suitable for this film.

Director Denis Villeneuve does subtle work bringing the story to life, but it’s the power of Guzikowski’s script – which lingered a long time in Hollywood development purgatory – that seems like the best contender for a trophy.

NEXT PAGE: Rush (Sept. 27)

Jaap Buitendijk

The relentless rivalry of two athletes forces them to exceed their individual abilities.

We’ve certainly heard this before – Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova. Those are among some of the most celebrated competitors in sports history, and with this story of Formula 1 racing we can add two more to the list.

James Hunt vs. Niki Lauda.

Chris Hemsworth stars as the handsome, charismatic Hunt, while Daniel Brühl plays the calculating, abrasive Lauda, and their mutual hatred added a little extra fuel to their races in the 1970s. Although non-sports fans may feel underwhelmed by the stakes, many Academy and Golden Globe voters came out of this Toronto premiere revving their own engines over director Ron Howard’s true-life drama.

Brühl plays the squirrellier half of the duo, but steals almost every scene as the more combative, colorful character. Best Picture and Best Director honors will depend on voters maintaining their high enthusiasm for the movie, but Brühl’s exceptionally memorable turn should assure him one of the Supporting Actor slots. Screenwriter Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) is known for this type of docudrama, and could also find himself in the race.

As for Toronto, this is just the first lap. There will be plenty of twists and turns for all the competitors before Oscar voting closes.