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TIFF 2017

Several heavy hitters are already lined up as healthy bets for Academy Awards, but a number of prestige projects are heading to Toronto hoping to disrupt the narrative

Gary Oldman portrays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

If we are to accept the common industry wisdom that the Oscar race begins in Toronto every September, then the contenders this year are practically crowding each other off the starting line. Unlike 2016, when the twin events of Sundance and Cannes failed to crown any obvious contenders save for Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, the cinematic landscape this year is looking steadier, perhaps even predictable, heading into the Toronto International Film Festival.

Already, Robert Redford's annual gathering in Park City, Utah, delivered a handful of healthy Academy Award bets, if producers play their cards right: Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name, Dee Rees's Mudbound, Margaret Betts's Novitiate and Michael Showalter's The Big Sick. With the exception of Showalter's comedy, which was released this summer to universal acclaim, all will play TIFF in the hopes of gathering Oscar momentum.

Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

On the Croisette, matters were less clear. This year's Palme d'Or winner, The Square, should score a foreign-language nomination but won't travel further. Cannes shoved a few other contenders into the spotlight: Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck, Yorgos Lanthimos's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Robin Campillo's 120 Beats per Minute and, in the Directors' Fortnight, Sean Baker's The Florida Project. Although Wonderstruck is bypassing TIFF to play the New York Film Festival, the rest will seek further critical goodwill and buzz in Toronto.

Yet even with those heavy hitters, there are an intimidating number of prestige projects heading to TIFF with the hope of disrupting whatever awards narrative has already been built. The bigger players: Alexander Payne's dark comedy Downsizing, Guillermo del Toro's fantasy The Shape of Water, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's tennis biopic Battle of the Sexes and Joe Wright's Second World War drama Darkest Hour. All will arrive in Toronto having played either Venice or Telluride immediately prior to TIFF, and each will be trying to spin its own PR campaign.

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.

At this early juncture, the hype is building for Gary Oldman's turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Emma Stone and Steve Carell's feminism-spiked sparring in Battle of the Sexes, Sally Hawkins' performance in The Shape of Water, and generally everything about the Matt Damon-led Downsizing, which earned rave reviews in Venice last week, even if the hype simmered down in Telluride.

Making waves around those titles are less splashy but still impressive movies that could drown out the competition at TIFF: the historical drama The Current War, the Judi Dench-starring Victoria and Abdul (the Academy legally cannot resist Dench playing royalty), the Boston Marathon biopic Stronger with Jake Gyllenhaal, George Clooney's Coen brothers adaptation, Suburbicon, the Denzel Washington legal thriller Roman J. Israel, Esq., Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut, Molly's Game, Angelina Jolie's Cambodia-set drama, First They Killed My Father, and the Darren Aronofsky thriller mother! (even though it looks bonkers, Aronofsky is just the kind of bonkers Academy members tend to go for).

Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig in Downsizing.

TIFF doesn't wholly own the Oscars narrative, though. There are still several giants looming over the entire awards conversation that will bypass Toronto and, save for some last-minute surprise in New York, skip the festival circuit altogether: Paul Thomas Anderson's new fashion drama, possibly titled Phantom Thread and starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his final on-screen performance before enjoying a self-imposed retirement; Michael Gracey's musical The Greatest Showman, which casts Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum; and the one film to rule them all, Steven Spielberg's The Post, which dramatizes the Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers and stars Academy catnip Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

As those films already have built-in appeal and holiday-friendly release dates (if you didn't already have Christmas Day plans with your parents – surprise! – you're going to be taking them to see The Post) they can do without the buzz building and media junketing that TIFF affords. There's little incentive to hit the festival circuit, and even danger in doing so – what if, in a world gone mad, Daniel Day-Lewis just isn't good any more?

Meanwhile, the biggest player in the awards conversation – Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk – has already come and gone, no festival traction needed. But in TIFF's intense desire to lay the groundwork for the Academy Awards, it has still managed to latch onto the narrative. The other week, after ostensibly finalizing its programming for 2017, TIFF announced it will screen the Second World War film in Imax at the Ontario Place Cinesphere, with Nolan in attendance. Anything to win the Oscar war, it seems.