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Toronto: The 10 Most Promising Oscar Hopefuls Heading to the Fest (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst scours the just-announced first batch of selections and highlights several dramas, biopics -- even a musical and a sci-fi pic.

Fifth Estate Still - H 2013
"The Fifth Estate"

With the first half of the year now firmly in the rearview mirror and the end of summer fast approaching, Hollywood is starting to gear up for the three fall fests that will kick off the 2013 awards season: the 70th Venice Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 7), the 40th Telluride Film Festival (Aug. 29-Sept. 2) and the 38th Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 5-15).

Venice has announced only its opening night film but will reveal the rest of its lineup on Thursday. Telluride doesn't disclose any of its lineup until the fest actually begins, although it generally screens several films that then go on to screen at Toronto. But Toronto, for its part, released on Tuesday the first of several waves of announcements about its lineup, and there's a lot to be excited about -- particularly for awards watchers.

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Of the just-announced batch of Toronto selections, here, in alphabetical order, are the 10 that strike me as the biggest potential awards players, listed along with their distributors and release dates. Keep in mind that I am not considering selections that previously screened at Sundance (i.e. Don Jon and Kill Your Darlings) and/or Cannes (i.e. Blue Is the Warmest Color, Omar, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Past, Young and Beautiful), nor am I considering films that have been slated for a 2014 release (i.e. Belle and The Invisible Woman).

August: Osage County (The Weinstein Co., 12/25)

August: Osage County, the second feature directed by TV vet John Wells (ER), features a star-studded cast -- including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis and Abigail Breslin, etc. -- in an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play about a family that reunites and bickers after the death of its patriarch. Anytime that three-time Oscar winner Streep is in a film she's a contender, and I hear that Roberts, though she hasn't done Oscar-caliber work since taking home the prize 13 years ago, holds her own opposite Streep.

Can a Song Save Your Life? (still seeking domestic distribution)

John Carney, the Irish director of the indie musical/romantic dramedy Once (2006), which won a best original song Oscar, directed this film, which might be classified similarly. But, unlike his earlier film, this one built around established stars. Keira Knightley plays an ambitious but struggling musician whose future prospects enter uncertain waters after she is dumped by her boyfriend (Adam Levine), a famous musician, but is helped back onto her feet, personally and professionally, by others in the business (Mark Ruffalo and Cee Lo Green). Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener and Mos Def also star. Based on the charm and poetic beauty of Once, and the caliber of the aforementioned actors, I'm optimistic.

Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Features, 12/6)

Jean-Marc Vallee's drama recounts the true story of a man in 1980s America suffering from AIDS (Matthew McConaughey, who lost nearly 50 pounds for the part) who, like most people afflicted with that disease at that time, was told he had only a short while left to live, but refused to accept that prognosis or the U.S. pharmaceutical drugs that had theretofore proven ineffective, and instead began smuggling into the country alternative drugs and sharing them with other patients. McConaughey's credibility as a serious actor has grown markedly in recent years, thanks to impressive performances in everything from Magic Mike (2012) to Mud (earlier this year). Based on the onscreen and behind-the-scenes narratives, this performance could be the one that finally wins over the remaining doubters. Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn and Jared Leto (who lost a ton of weight for his part, as well) also star.

The Fifth Estate (DreamWorks, 10/18)

As the Edward Snowden saga continues to unfold, what could be more timely than this film about the most famous man associated with leaking secrets, WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, which will open the fest? Fast-rising British star Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) portrays hacker extraordinaire Assange and Daniel Bruhl plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg, his ex-partner, in this thriller directed by Oscar winner Bill Condon, which was inspired by the latter's book about the website's rapid rise to prominence and the interpersonal bickering that followed. As was also the case with the not-altogether-dissimilar-sounding The Social Network (2010), and more recently Argo and Zero Dark Thirty (both 2012), most news followers know how the story ends. But, with two top young actors surrounded by a terrific supporting cast that includes Oscar nominees Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, it should be fun watching it play out on screen.

Gravity (Warner Bros., 10/4)

Based on its impressive trailer, the raves about its long single-take clip that was shown at Comic-Con last week and the star-power associated with it, I think that the hottest ticket at the fest might well be Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity -- a 3D sci-fi drama from Warner Bros. that stars Oscar winners George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts lost in space -- which will come to Toronto after opening Venice a week earlier. Movies of this genre are not usually the Academy's cup of tea, but when they're done well, as was most recently the case with District 9 (2009), voters make exceptions. Beautiful cinematography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, a perennial Oscar nominee, certainly won't hurt.

Labor Day (Paramount, 12/25)

Jason Reitman's Labor Day, which he adapted from Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel of the same title, revolves around a single mother (Kate Winslet) and her 13-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith) who, while shopping, encounter a man (Josh Brolin) who is bleeding and seeking a ride. They agree to give him a lift, and slowly learn that he is, in fact, a wanted man. Paramount has had a hit-and-miss partnership with Reitman: After his Oscar success with Juno (2007) for Fox Searchlight, he went to the older studio to make Up in the Air (2009) and Young Adult (2011). The former generated a lot of attention and several noms (but ultimately went home empty-handed); the former proved very divisive and got completely shut out. Perhaps a return to the Telluride-Toronto trajectory, which worked with Juno and Up in the Air but was abandoned for Young Adult, will help to put the Canadian filmmaker back in the game. Besides, how do you go wrong with Winslet?

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (The Weinstein Co., 11/29)

Long Walk to Freedom is the authorized adaptation of ailing South African leader Nelson Mandela's autobiography. Directed by British helmer Justin Chadwick, who is best known for his TV work and his feature The First Grader (2011), it stars Idris Elba as the title character and Skyfall's Naomie Harris as his ex-wife, Winnie. The film's recently released trailer, narrated by Elba doing an uncanny Mandela voice, has many people very excited. Though there have been other "Mandela films" -- most recently Invictus, for which Morgan Freeman received a best actor Oscar nom -- Elba has said this one is "hands down the best," as it captures Mandela's entire lifetime. Based on his outstanding work in everything from The Wire to Luther, I wouldn't bet against him.

Philomena (The Weinstein Co., release date TBD)

Directed by Stephen Frears, this dramedy stars Judi Dench -- whose awards season collaborations with Weinstein have long been mutually beneficial, resulting in noms for Mrs. Brown (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Chocolat (2000), Iris (2001), and Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) -- as an older woman in search of the son who was taken from her years earlier when she lived in a convent. Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope, also stars in the film as a younger man who helps and is helped by Dench's character. The representation of the separation and the ultimate revelation about what unfolded during the mother and son's time apart is sure to tug at the heartstrings.

Rush (Universal, 9/27)

Oscar winner Ron Howard directed this drama -- working from a script by Oscar winner Peter Morgan that was inspired by real events -- about the 1970s rivalry between two Formula One race car drivers, Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), the former of whom is involved in a horrific crash but fights to get back behind the wheel. While Howard's and Morgan's credentials are beyond question, and Bruhl has been churning out strong work in films foreign and domestic for a decade, it remains to be seen if Hemsworth has the chops to anchor this kind of a film. Either way, it could be an awards player or it could end up being more commercial than awards centric -- like Howard's last sports-related film, Cinderella Man (2004). Olivia Wilde also stars.

12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight, 10/18)

Searchlight has had considerable success at Toronto over the last few years, with big post-Telluride launches for Juno (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), 127 Hours and Black Swan (both 2010). This year, it comes to the fest with Steve McQueen's highly anticipated follow-up to Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), 12 Years a Slave, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man who is deceived and sold into slavery in the mid-19th century. The film reunites, in supporting roles, Inglourious Basterds collaborators Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, the latter of whom also starred in McQueen's aforementioned other two features. McQueen's edgy and unconventional films have heretofore resonated much more with critics than with the public or the Academy, but this one has reportedly tested through the roof.

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Honorable mentions: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (still seeking domestic distribution), Ned Benson's two-part film that examines the relationship of a young couple from the perspective of the man (James McAvoy) and then the woman (Jessica Chastain, who also served as a producer); Le Weekend (Music Box Films, release date TBD), Roger Michell's look at the attempt of a long-married couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) to jump-start their marriage in Paris; Parkland   (Exclusive Media, release date TBD), Peter Landesman's drama about the chaos at Dallas' Parkland Hospital on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was shot, with a cast that includes Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti and James Badge Dale; Prisoners (Warner Bros., 9/20), a thriller with a terrific cast -- including Oscar nominees Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Terrence Howard -- that is the first English-language film directed by Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian filmmaker who directed Oscar nominee Incendies (2010); The Railway Man (still seeking domestic distribution), Jonathan Teplitzky's story of war and psychological drama inspired by the real life of a British soldier (Colin Firth) who was tortured in a Japanese POW camp during WWII, and who years later, with the support of his wife (Nicole Kidman), decides to try to track down his torturer; Third Person (still seeking domestic distribution), a drama written and directed by Canadian Oscar winner Paul Haggis about three separate relationships unfolding around the globe that eventually intersect (the cast includes Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Kim Basinger, Oscar nominees James Franco and Liam Neeson, plus Maria Bello, Mila Kunis and Olivia Wilde), which structurally sounds a lot like another Haggis film that went from TIFF to the Oscars, Crash (2005); You Are Here (still seeking domestic distribution), a comedy written and directed by first-time filmmaker Matt Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, that stars Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Jenna Fischer and Amy Poehler.