Toronto: Oscar Contenders, Start Your Engines!

THR's awards analyst previews 2014's two-week fest, which has showcased Oscar's best picture winner for the past seven years
Robert Downey Jr. in "The Judge"

The 2014 Toronto Film Festival kicks off Thursday night with the world premiere of Warner Bros.' The Judge, a legal thriller directed by David Dobkin and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.

Toronto, sandwiched as it is between the fests in Telluride (see our recap) and New York (see our preview), and with many members of the international media on hand, is one of the most important stops on the circuit for many awards hopefuls each year. It has been ever since American Beauty began its run to the best picture Oscar here 15 years ago and, indeed, the last seven best picture Oscar winners — No Country for Old Men (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Hurt Locker (2009), The King's Speech (2010), The Artist (2011), Argo (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) — have also played at the fest.

This year, the most highly anticipated Toronto world premieres of possible awards players, in addition to The Judge, include James Marsh's The Theory of Everything (Focus Features), in which Eddie Redmayne portrays Stephen Hawking; Men, Women & Children (Paramount), the latest effort from native son Jason Reitman; St. Vincent (The Weinstein Co.), a potential Golden Globes play for Bill Murray; The Good Lie (Warners), one of two Reese Witherspoon vehicles at the fest; The Equalizer (Sony), which reunites Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington; and Nightcrawler (Open Road), with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Acquisition titles debuting at the fest that could find a spot in the 2014 race include Mike Binder’s Black and White, a strong vehicle for Kevin Costner; Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind, in which Richard Gere plays a homeless man; The Last Five Years, a Broadway musical adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan; Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, one of the films starring Al Pacino at the fest; Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, which reunites the writer-director with Greenberg’s Ben Stiller; Still Alice, with Julianne Moore as a woman afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer’s; and Alan Rickman’s fest-closer A Little Chaos, which stars Kate Winslet.

Meanwhile, carryovers from Sundance, Cannes, Venice and Telluride that aim to factor into the race include Coming Home, Dear White People, Escobar: Paradise Lost, Foxcatcher, The Homesman, The Imitation Game, Leviathan, The Look of Silence, Maps to the Stars, Merchants of Doubt, Mommy, Mr. Turner, Red Army, The Search, Seymour: An Introduction, Whiplash, Wild, Wild Tales and Winter Sleep.

The bottom line: In spite of or because of this year's widely covered Telluride v. Toronto controversy — you decide it looks like Toronto will have, just as Telluride had, a very exciting lineup.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg