By Jeff Labrecque
September 26, 2014 at 01:00 PM EDT

The film-festival circuit this time of year is not unlike presidential-primary season. Venice or Telluride are sort of like the Iowa caucus, an important first step for a film to generate some name recognition and Oscar buzz—but not exactly the setting for a coronation. Toronto is the traditional Oscar-campaign battleground, a sort of New Hampshire primary that often separates the contenders from the pretenders. Last year, Toronto unofficially nominated 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and Dallas Buyers Club, and those films went on to collect major awards.

But this year, the races still remain wide open after the first new rounds, and the industry’s eyes now shift to the New York Film Festival—suddenly cast as sort of the awards season’s Super Tuesday—for more clarity on who the frontrunners will be. Foxcatcher, which debuted at Cannes and played at Telluride and Toronto, will screen, as will Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle’s Sundance fave with Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. A few others, like Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria will try to recapture some early momentum for their actors, while other much-anticipated heavy-hitters enter the race for the first time.

Of course, the New York Film Festival isn’t all about the Oscar race. It’s a celebration of film, old and new, with a unique international flavor. There’s something for everyone between today and Oct. 12, but here are 10 films worth watching.

Alison Rosa

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

In theaters Oct. 17

Keaton stars as an aging Hollywood actor best known for playing a major comic-book superhero, now trying to resurrect his career and integrity by directing and starring in a Broadway play. Critics who saw Birdman in Venice and Telluride called it the performance of a lifetime for the actor who famously walked away from playing Batman after two extremely successful blockbusters. The trailer is a surreal trip, and Iñárritu and Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki craft a real-time narrative where the camera can seemingly go anywhere.

Watch the trailer here.

CITIZENFOUR — World premiere

Directed by Laura Poitras

In theaters Oct. 24

Poitras was in the process of making an investigative documentary about the U.S. government’s violation of citizens’ constitutional rights when she began to receive emails from a potential whistleblower, nicknamed CitizenFour. In the summer of 2013, she and reporter Glenn Greenwald went to Hong Kong to meet her source—his name was Edward Snowden. Her camera was filming when Snowden took that dangerous step to expose America’s dirty little secrets, and the documentary is a powerful portrait of the man who is now a pariah and the national-security and surveillance apparatus that is increasingly part of our connected lives.

Gone Girl — World premiere

Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike

Directed by David Fincher

In theaters Oct. 3

Gillian Flynn’s page-turner comes to the big screen, and early raves have propelled Fincher’s latest right into the Oscar conversation. Affleck plays Nick Dunne, who becomes the primary suspect when his beautiful wife, Amy (Pike), goes missing from a grisly crime scene that points to her murder. No need to discuss the twists and turns of the story here, but Fincher, who didn’t connect for the home run he hoped for with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo his last time at bat, seems to have another Oscar-friendly blockbuster on his hands. Might this be the movie you’ll be talking about for the next five months?

Watch the trailer here.

Inherent Vice — World premiere

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

In theaters Dec. 12

Anderson’s reunion with Phoenix is a true Oscar wild-card, because the director has been extremely careful to keep it under wraps. Based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Vice tells the story of an addled 1970’s P.I. who gets entangled with some shady Los Angeles characters after an ex-girlfriend reappears with a dangerous assignment. Phoenix was marvelously unsettling in The Master, and the brief glimpses of him as Doc Sportello in Vice inspire hope that he’s gone marrow-deep again. Throw in Brolin as the menacing cop who’s on Doc’s tail, and an all-star cast on par with that of Magnolia, and you have a film bursting with potential.

Last Days — World premiere

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Bigelow’s festival contribution isn’t a feature or a traditional short—it’s a three-minute public-service announcement. The Oscar-winner trained her lens on the illegal poaching of African elephants, whose population has dwindled despite outlawing the ivory trade in 1989. The story unfolds in reverse, beginning with the end-result of the gruesome chain of events driven by demand for elephant ivory. “Working with the writer, Scott Z Burns, we set out to connect the dots between ivory trinkets purchased at markets in China and elsewhere and the terrorist nightmares we see on the nightly news,” Bigelow said in a statement.

Maps to the Stars — U.S. premiere

Starring Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack

Directed by David Cronenberg

In theaters TBA

It’s still unclear whether Cronenberg’s dark and bitter take on modern Hollywood will receive a 2014 or 2015 release, but Moore’s portrayal of an aging actress, haunted by her dead mother’s own big-screen celebrity, was honored at Cannes and could end up competing against her other buzzed-about performance in Still Alice. Maps holds a warped fun-house mirror up to Hollywood’s grotesque culture of fame and insecurity, as stage-parents pressure child-actors, a limo driver (Pattinson) believes his big break into the business is just around the corner, and Carrie Fisher gets to play herself.

Watch the trailer here.

Once Upon a Time in America

Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly

Directed by Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone’s epic 1984 crime saga about Jewish Prohibition-era gangsters was famously butchered by its U.S. distributor. A three-hour and 49-minute version premiered at Cannes, but when it arrived in American theaters, it was slashed to two hours and 19 minutes. Pauline Kael famously wrote, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a worse case of mutilation.” The director disowned the film and never directed another, dying in 1989. A restored version, with 25 minutes of additional scenes, premiered at Cannes in 2012, and this new restored Extended Director’s Cut runs even longer, at four hours and 15 minutes. A blu-ray arrives Sept. 30, but for fans of Leone, seeing his opus on the big screen is a must.

Watch an old trailer here.

Sunshine Superman — U.S. premiere

Directed by Marah Strauch

In theaters 2015

Meet Carl Boenish, the daredevil pioneer who invented BASE (building, antenna, span, and earth) jumping. He and his wife, Jean, were thrill-seekers who filmed their most dangerous stunts as they fell to Earth, perfecting the art of “freefall cinematography.” Boenish’s infectious enthusiasm and carpe diem attitude helped make Strauch’s documentary a hit in Toronto, and Magnolia will roll it out in theaters—where it deserves to be seen—early next year. It’s a wonderful love story, between two people, and between a man and the art of film.

Two Days, One Night

Starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

In theaters Dec. 24

The elegant Oscar winner plays a blue-collar factor worker who’s fired when her co-workers vote to keep their financial bonus rather than save her job. But that twisted knife in the back also presents an opportunity: she has the weekend to track down each co-worker and persuade them to change their vote. Critics have lauded the Dardenne brothers’ simply-told film at every festival, beginning with Cannes, and Belgium recently nominated it as their entry in the Best Foreign Language Oscar category. With another warm embrace in New York, Cotillard might also break into the Best Actress conversation.

Watch a clip here.

Surprise Mystery Movie!

In recent years, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo have been surprise-screenings at the New York Film Festival, and excited speculation accompanied the announcement that another such event was scheduled for Sept. 28. “Join us for a surprise screening of a highly anticipated 2015 release from a New York Film Festival favorite!” teased NYFF. What might it be? J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year seems like logical choice, but it’s scheduled for 2014. Plus, rumor has it will NOT be a world premiere, so that would seemingly eliminate Susanne Bier’s Jennifer Lawrence-Bradley Cooper period romance, Serena, which won’t premiere until October at the London Film Festival. Ditto for the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending, which has also yet to debut. Chris Rock’s Toronto hit, Top Five, would be a perfect fit for New York—but it’s also getting a 2014 release. Online chatter has decided it’s Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, with Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. It seems to fit the criteria: NOT a world premiere since it played at Toronto, a 2015 release, and “a New York Film Festival favorite.”