TORONTO - Only Hollywood could dream up an Academy Awards schedule that starts in earnest now, half a year before the trophies are handed out and months before most people will see many of the Oscar-contending movies.
Yet the Toronto International Film Festival, which opened Thursday - and two others that just preceded it, the Venice and Telluride festivals - serve as coming-out parties for a lot of films with awards aspirations.
Even when the Oscars were held in late March, the festivals were early calling cards for awards films, such as 1999's best-picture winner "American Beauty," which premiered at Toronto.
Since the Oscars were moved into late February a few years ago, the early start on awards buzz has become more critical.
"Distributors' release patterns have changed a little bit, and people realized they have to get slightly earlier to the table," said Piers Handling, the Toronto festival's chief executive officer. "Toronto fits perfectly into that time table for a certain kind of film that wants awards attention."
Strange as it is for awards watchers to begin handicapping films now when so many potential competitors remain unseen, movies and performances premiering at the festivals can grab early momentum that never wanes.
After "Ray" debuted at Toronto two years ago, some people came out of the premiere already saying Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles was a shoo-in to win best actor. He did.
Likewise, Philip Seymour Hoffman drew rave reviews as Truman Capote in "Capote" when it made the festival rounds last year, establishing him as the early front-runner for the best-actor Oscar, which he won.
A second Capote film, "Infamous," plays at Toronto this year and has caught Oscar buzz for Toby Jones, who like Hoffman gives a tremendous performance as the author during his dark journey researching the true-crime book "In Cold Blood."
"Capote" co-star Catherine Keener earned a supporting-actress nomination as author Harper Lee, a role played by Sandra Bullock in "Infamous." Daniel Craig, about to debut as the new James Bond in "Casino Royale," gives a chilling performance as death-row inmate Perry Smith in "Infamous."
"I have hopes for Toby and Sandy and Daniel," said "Infamous" director Douglas McGrath. "I hope the people who make those votes don't hold it against them that someone else has done good work before them. I actually hope it establishes a precedent for people in Truman Capote movies to get awards."
Other Toronto films being positioned for awards attention include "All the King's Men," with Sean Penn as a Southern political demagogue; Ridley Scott's "A Good Year," starring Russell Crowe as a take-no-prisoners investment trader who reclaims his humanity; Emilio Estevez's "Bobby," following a huge ensemble of people who were present the night Robert Kennedy was assassinated; "The Last King of Scotland," with Forest Whitaker as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin; "Bonneville," a road-trip saga starring Jessica Lange, Joan Allen and Kathy Bates; and "Stranger Than Fiction," a comic fantasy with Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson.
Also: "Babel," with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett leading an international cast in a drama about families linked by tragic events; "Venus," with Peter O'Toole as an aging actor coping with his newly arrived grandniece; "Catch a Fire," featuring Tim Robbins and Derek Luke in the tale of a soccer player who rebels against South Africa's apartheid government; and "Little Children," a suburban drama with Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly.
"Little Children" director Todd Field ("In the Bedroom") said the film is out of his hands and that he avoids thinking about Oscar prospects, which also are out of his control.
"I'm kind of like an innocent bystander watching my teenager go off to college after I spent 18 years housing and feeding him. It's only been two years on the film, but it feels like 18," Field said. "You just hope it's healthy and looks both ways before crossing the street."
Many other awards contenders remain under wraps, with key Oscar competitors sometimes emerging only in the final weeks of the year, such as 1998 champ "Shakespeare in Love."
Still to come are Martin Scorsese's crime saga "The Departed," with Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson; Clint Eastwood's World War II epic "Flags of Our Fathers"; Nicole Kidman's "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus"; "The History Boys," adapted from the Tony-winning play; Damon and Angelina Jolie's CIA tale "The Good Shepherd," directed by Robert De Niro; Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German," a post-World War II story with Blanchett and George Clooney; and "Dreamgirls," with Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy in an adaptation of the stage musical.
"You got to look at Eddie Murphy in this film, man. The dude does some things, man. He already should have gotten every award there is for everything he's given us. Unfortunately, comedy's not always looked upon as Oscar-worthy," Foxx said. "But to see him really nail the dramatic parts of it is amazing."