Which Toronto International Film Festival movies are Oscar material?

Which Toronto International Film Festival movies are Oscar material?
With a cast including Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech and Benedict Cumberbatch, "The Imitation Game" could be a best-picture Oscar contender. (Jack English, The Weinstein Co.)

The Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday and runs through Sept. 14, is a key indicator not only of the upcoming fall movies but of the awards season. Eight of the last nine best picture Oscar winners built awards-season momentum at the festival.

There are any number of hopefuls in this year's TIFF lineup, but some films have better chances than others of breaking through. A positive response — enthusiastic crowds, strong early reviews — can boost a film's awards trajectory. A negative response can mean a failure to launch.

What movies might be this year's beneficiaries? Here's a look at the promise of some of the high-profile titles playing at the festival.

'The Theory of Everything'

Premise: Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) gets the biopic treatment, focusing on his relationship with his first wife (Felicity Jones), his ALS diagnosis and subsequent struggles and triumphs.

Pedigree: Director James Marsh directed the Oscar-winning documentary "Man on Wire," demonstrating the ability to deftly convey a complex, true story.

Best case: Redmayne shoots to the top of the lead actor field with costar Jones finally earning mainstream acclaim.

Worst case: Critics spend more effort debunking the film's veracity (the couple's marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce) than they do praising its quality.

'The Imitation Game'

Premise: Brilliant, asocial mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) leads British effort to crack Nazi Germany's Enigma code and shorten World War II.

Pedigree: Period, Anglo-centric movie from the Weinstein Co., the studio that took "The King's Speech" to the best picture winner's circle.

Best case: Crowd-pleaser cheered by audiences; critics respond to film's measured handling of Turing's personal story of being a closeted gay man.

Worst case: More "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" than "The King's Speech" with star Cumberbatch generating buzz but the movie failing to catch on.

'St. Vincent'

Premise: Cranky old-timer (Bill Murray) learns that his life has meaning through the help of a 12-year-old neighbor boy.

Pedigree: Murray has just one Oscar nomination ("Lost in Translation") to show for a career filled with iconic performances. Can you say "overdue"?

Best case: Movie's third-act emotional roundhouse connects, leaving audiences awash in tears and Murray accepting accolades.

Worst case: Reviews aren't much better than the last time Murray took a movie to Toronto ("Hyde Park on Hudson").

'Wild'

Premise: Troubled woman (Reese Witherspoon) takes tortuous, transformative hike on the Pacific Crest Trail following her mother's death.

Pedigree: Director Jean-Marc Vallee's last movie, "Dallas Buyer's Club," won acting Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Best case: All right, all right, all right! Witherspoon becomes a regular on the awards-season dinner circuit, as does Laura Dern, who plays the mother in flashbacks.

Worst case: Witherspoon is seen as too old and not entirely convincing in flashback scenes highlighting character's drug-addicted past.

'Men, Women & Children'

Premise: Men, women and, yes, children deal with Internet angst in this dramedy about the high-tech ways people relate (or fail to) these days.

Pedigree: Co-writer and director Jason Reitman has four Oscar nominations. Last time he teamed with Jennifer Garner ("Juno"), good things happened.

Best case: Movie hailed as Reitman's return to form after last year's Toronto misfire "Labor Day." There's even awards buzz around star Adam Sandler.

Worst case: Online reaction toxic. Worst. Movie. Ever.

'Black and White'

Premise: A custody battle between an attorney (Kevin Costner) and the paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer) of a biracial child provides the framework for an examination of race.

Pedigree: Costner and Spencer both have Oscars; director Mike Binder has done decent work on thorny subjects such as marital rancor ("The Upside of Anger") and grief ("Reign Over Me").

Best case: Strong reviews propel Lionsgate to finalize distribution deal and get behind an awards-season push for the film and its actors.

Worst case: Movie's handling of race will bear extra scrutiny in wake of Ferguson, Mo., events. Can it handle that weight?

'The Judge'

Premise: Jaded L.A. lawyer (Robert Downey Jr.) returns to his rural roots to defend — and make amends with — his estranged father (Robert Duvall).

Pedigree: Downey and Duvall have eight Oscar nominations between them, with Duvall winning 20 years ago for "Tender Mercies."

Best case: Critics welcome Downey as a prodigal son returning from the Comic-Con stratosphere to high-end drama. He and Duvall join the Oscar conversation.

Worst case: Too Grisham-y to be taken seriously. When's that next "Avengers" movie, again?