It’s September and summer is officially over, which means it’s time for festival season. Telluride has come and gone and Venice is underway, and now TIFF kicks off on the fourth, heralding the unofficial start of Oscar season (it’s pretty much year-round at this point, but TIFF is still when sh*t starts getting real).  And despite losing out on some major premieres  to other festivals like Telluride (which snagged The Imitation Game, Rosewater, and Wild’s world premieres), the New York Film Festival (their fest opener is Gone Girl’s world premiere) and Venice (Birdman world premiere), Toronto still has plenty on offer to get excited about.

The American Dream is on fire

The dissolution of the American Dream has been popular cinematic fodder for the last six years, and this year it’s no different. Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes is one such film, starring Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern in a confusingly Oedipal relationship. (I was not the only one thrown by that first clip - within 24 hours of releasing it, the distributor released a second, much-less-confounding clip that doesn’t feature Dern.) 99 Homes is already getting strong reviews out of Venice, which bodes well for Bahrani as he continues to move into mainstream filmmaking.

American Heist starring Adrien Brody and Hayden Christensen is about two brothers caught up in one last bank heist, and is giving me strong The Town vibes. This is Christensen’s first role in four years, and as long as he doesn’t talk about sand, he should be fine. Black and White is a timely look at the racial divide in 21st century America through the lens of a custody battle over an orphaned bi-racial child. It sound soul-crushing, but it comes with a helluva cast featuring Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jennifer Ehle and Anthony Mackie. And David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars take a look at Hollywood dreams, with Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson, and Mia Wasikowska. Moore was thought to be an early contender for Best Actress, but Maps just closed a distribution deal that won’t see it released till 2015.

British people playing geniuses

If there’s a theme to this year’s Oscar hopefuls from England, it’s “we do genius real good”. Alan Rickman’s film, A Little Chaos, features Kate Winslet playing a landscape architect vying for a job designing part of the gardens at Versailles for Louis XIV, and Timothy Spall is already a frontrunner for a Best Actor nod for playing famed English painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.

And then there’s the pair of brilliant English actors playing brilliant English mathematicians: Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. I have a horrible suspicion that the old-fart contingent in the Academy is going to get these two movies confused and they’ll end up cancelling each other out.

Celebrity first-timers

Chris Evans’s directorial debut, Before We Go, sounds like a straight rip-off of Before Sunrise (strangers meet in a train station and spend all night talking and connecting and maybe falling in love), but the TIFF selection committee is being really nice about it. Maybe it really is good (after all, Ben Affleck turned out to be a good director), or maybe Evans just has a good relationship with the TIFF brass and they’re willing to cut him a little slack in exchange for some of that superhero celebrity. You decide.

Also making his directorial debut is Jon Stewart with Rosewater, a political drama starring Gael Garcia Bernal as an imprisoned Iranian journalist. It got a standing ovation at Telluride, but critics have been more modest—in fact, The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy actually called the film “modest”.  That didn’t stop THR from putting Stewart on their cover,  though. Celebrity directors always get a leg up, there’s no denying it.

Comedy, maybe…?

Just because a film can make you laugh doesn’t make it a comedy. Nothing Noah Baumbach makes should ever get a “comedy” tag—I’m looking at you While We’re Young. Shawn Levy’s This is Where I Leave You actually does look funny, and with a cast this loaded,  it ought to have some stand-out moments. A big question mark goes up over The Last Five Years, a musical adaption that’s about a relationship over the course of five years, so it probably ends in divorce and depression. But hey, it stars Anna Kendrick!

Pinging strong on the Oscar radar are Manglehorn, starring Al Pacino, and St. Vincent, starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy. Manglehorn comes from David Gordon Green and Pacino stars as a man who is still writing love letters, forty years after his sweetheart broke his heart. It’s not the kind of role we’re used to seeing Pacino in (read: not yell-y), so he’ll probably garner a lot of attention for playing against type. And while St. Vincent falls right into Murray’s post-Lost In Translation wheelhouse of misanthropes and lonely old men, it looks F*CKING FANTASTIC.

Give me an Oscar, dammit!

Jennifer Aniston plays ugly in Cake, Reese Witherspoon plays a white savior and ugly in The Good Lie and Wild, respectively (and that sh*t might work because Wild got good reviews at Telluride), John Cusack plays a beloved entertainment figure (the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson) in Love and Mercy, and Jake Gyllenhaal lost a bunch of weight for Nightcrawler. Reward them, Academy, for they have Acted! (It really is that simple.)

The question for RDJ in The Judge is can he overcome the Tony Starkification of his public persona and remind people that underneath the superhero hype is one of the greatest actors of a generation? The movie looks like a Lifetime Movie of the Week, but RDJ is VERY popular (and he’s made a lot of prominent Academy members a lot of money in recent years). When the Senior Class President of Hollywood lets you know he also wants to be Prom King, do you give it to him?

But the real stand out is Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. The movie played strong at Cannes, and it feels like Miller has been building momentum ever since Capote. Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum also garnered a lot of notice, putting them in early contention as well. Two questions: 1) Will Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day Norbit Carell’s Oscar chances, and 2) would Mr. Potato Head becoming an Oscar nominee cause reality to collapse?

Here for drama

A strong contender for Best Foreign Picture is the Chinese film Coming Home, starring Gong Li as an amnesiac woman waiting for her husband to return home even after he’s freed from prison. Farewell My Concubine is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I’ll see anything Gong is in. Ditto for Still Alice—I always want to see what Kristen Stewart is up to. Still Alice stars Julianne Moore as a woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and Stewart plays one of her daughters, and it’s really nice to have Stewart working in character-driven dramas again—it’s her milieu.

Two big splashy drama titles are Miss Julie and Whiplash. Miss Julie stars Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell as a pair of class-crossed lovers in Ireland and it looks ridiculously sexy.  I feel like that’s everything 50 Shades of Grey hopes to be. And Whiplash is a Sundance stand-out starring Miles Teller as a drumming prodigy and JK Simmons as his abusive bandleader. It’s from writer/director Damien Chazelle who has demonstrated a knack for not only understanding musicians but for making music cinematic (see also: Grand Piano). The Academy always likes a token young’un—could be Miles Teller’s year.