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Every year, the Toronto International Film Festival faces its usual array of identity crises: Is it an institution designed to celebrate homegrown film? A marketplace where deals are to be made? A one-stop shopping destination for junket press? Or can it be all those things and more – a not-for-profit champion, a hub for local film enthusiasts, a centre for cultural innovation, the last great hope for art-house cinema, etc. etc. etc.

There is no one real answer, and TIFF is (wisely) loath to define itself in any such restrictive way. But the one thing the rest of the world can agree on is that if TIFF has become anything over the past few decades, it's this: a launching pad for Oscar contenders. Of the past 10 winners for best picture, eight have played Toronto – and whether they played Venice or Telluride first, it's undeniable that TIFF's buzzy hot-house atmosphere helped propel them to Academy Award glory.

But as this year's festival launches, it's not necessarily TIFF's identity that is in question, but the status of the 2016 Oscar race itself. After a mild spring and a dismal summer at the movies – and thanks to a number of high-profile controversies and question marks – this year's awards season is the murkiest it's been in years. If the best-picture race begins in Toronto, then the surefire contenders are hiding in plain sight.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The twin events of Sundance and Cannes usually help distill the prestige-picture roster for the rest of the year – in May, 2015, for instance, we already knew that Carol, Son of Saul and Sicario were going to be favourites, thanks to their receptions on the Croisette. This year, though, Cannes only delivered polarizing offerings (Elle, American Honey, Personal Shopper), one hopeful (Loving) and two maybes that might squeak in to the awards conversation by default (I, Daniel Blake and Paterson).

Sundance, meanwhile, produced two juggernauts, at least on the surface: The Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea. But as everyone knows by now, Nation has been thrown into an ugly news cycle involving filmmaker Nate Parker's past trial (and acquittal) for sexual assault. And although mostly forgotten reports of Manchester star Casey Affleck's 2010 sexual-harassment cases haven't yet become part of the narrative (he settled with two women who accused him of unwelcome advances during filming of I'm Still Here), expect that history to surface as the film gathers more acclaim.

The fall season's other heavy hitters, meanwhile, are either MIA (Martin Scorsese's Silence still doesn't have a release date), radio-silent (there's been little word leaked about Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe, and the industry is desperate for any reactions to Denzel Washington's Fences), or highlighted for all the wrong reasons (Clint Eastwood's Sully may be as good as the early reviews say, but everyone just wants to talk about the director's affinity for Donald Trump).

All of which makes this year's TIFF that much more of a challenging awards environment to parse – it could be anyone's game, but for reasons that discomfort, both on the industry side and the societal one.

Leaving aside Birth and Manchester, there are at least four sunnier Oscar stories that could emerge from TIFF: La La Land, Arrival, Moonlight and Nocturnal Animals. All will come to Toronto having played either Venice or Telluride (or, in the case of La La Land and Arrival, both), and each will be riding their own unique waves of critical anticipation. Already, the film world seems to be doing backflips over La La Land and Moonlight, both because of the films themselves and, perhaps more importantly, the awards-friendly narratives they can deliver.

The Hollywood-set La La Land, for instance, represents a return to the big, glorious musicals of show business's golden days – and as history has demonstrated, the Academy cannot resist celebrating itself (see The Artist, Argo). Plus, the film could be seen as the confident maturation of an Academy-admired artist, as it's the latest effort from Damien Chazelle, whose debut Whiplash so enamoured voters in 2015.

Moonlight, meanwhile, chronicles one African-American man's life over three distinct periods, focusing on his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality. Like Chazelle, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins comes with his own intriguing, though completely different, history – it has been eight long years since his breakthrough, Medicine for Melancholy. And, however crass it may be to position it in these terms, the drama could become just the type of diverse film the Academy desperately needs to embrace after last year's #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

If Toronto was a betting town – remember when a downtown casino was almost a reality? – La La Land and Moonlight would have the best odds for snagging TIFF's coveted People's Choice Award, so often a harbinger of Oscar success. But then again, as the festival has proved countless times, there is always room for a surprise.

Let the race – and all the inevitable ugliness that comes with it – begin.