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.
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”).
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?
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?