Now that the summer blockbusters have been tucked away, it's time for Hollywood's next big season: the marathon haul to Academy Awards night.
The Toronto International Film Festival that runs through Sunday and the recently wrapped Telluride and Venice film fests are the usual starting points for awards season, with studios trotting out contenders months ahead of time to spark Oscar buzz.
Unlike last year, when eventual Oscar champ "The King's Speech" charged out of the festival circuit as the film to beat, a mixed bag has emerged so far this time.
Festival films have showcased great performances from past Oscar winners and nominees, among them George Clooney, Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave and Ryan Gosling.
The Toronto festival also has some searing performances from emerging stars, including Michael Fassbender's full-frontal turn as a sex addict in "Shame," which earned him the best-actor prize at the Venice festival just before Toronto.
No matter how it all plays out on Oscar night Feb. 26, the odds are that many nominees will have gotten their start at the late-summer festivals. Five of the last six best-picture winners played one or more of the Telluride, Venice and Toronto fests, including 2009's "The Hurt Locker" and 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire."
Studios once unveiled more awards contenders later in the year. But when the Oscars moved from late March to late February a few years back, Hollywood scrambled to get their prestige films in the pipeline sooner to get the awards hype going.
"With the new Oscar dates, Toronto has really become the launching ground for the Oscar season," said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.
Clooney — who had 2005 writing and directing nominations for "Good Night, and Good Luck" and won a supporting-actor Oscar for "Syriana" the same year — is back with two films at Toronto that could compete for awards.
He directed and co-starred in the political thriller "The Ides of March," which features a powerful performance from Gosling as a campaign press secretary who stumbles into a scandal. And Clooney delivers a heartbreaking turn as a neglectful father forced to step up his parenting after his wife falls into an accident-induced coma in "The Descendants," from director Alexander Payne ("Sideways").
Two-time Oscar nominee Brad Pitt already earned awards chatter last spring for "The Tree of Life," filmmaker Terrence Malick's challenging family saga that won the top prize at Cannes. Pitt came to Toronto with his baseball tale "Moneyball," putting in a flamboyant performance as iconoclastic Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane.
Pitt likes the thought that awards attention can help films find an audience, but he's uneasy at the prospect of the months of glad-handing and public appearances that go along with Oscar season.
"I don't want to spend any time thinking about it," Pitt said. "It's really nice when your number comes up, and it's really nice when your friends' numbers come up. In fact, that's even nicer. You've got something to root for, and ultimately, you don't have to give up your Sunday.
"There's a reason they call it a season now. I wish they would just combine them all into one. Can't we just make it one day? Everyone conglomerates, get it over, and then we can enjoy our lives."
Other festival films grabbing Oscar attention: Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I and Rhys Ifans as an aristocrat some think actually wrote Shakespeare's plays in "Anonymous"; Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain for "Take Shelter," about a family man with visions of a coming apocalyptic storm; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cancer patient in "50/50"; and Close as a woman who disguises herself as a man to find work as a hotel butler in 19th century Ireland in "Albert Nobbs."
Plenty of potential contenders have yet to screen, including Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar," a portrait of FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover that stars Leonard DiCaprio. Steven Spielberg has two films coming in December, the action tale "The Adventures of Tintin" and the World War I epic "War Horse." Meryl Streep, the acting record-holder with 16 nominations, might be in the running for another as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
Summer also produced a possible awards contender with the hit literary adaptation "The Help."
Close has been nominated five times for Oscars for films such as "Dangerous Liaisons," "Fatal Attraction" And "The World According to Garp." She's not a fan of judging one performance against another, but Close has a nearly 30-year history with her "Albert Nobbs" character, which she first played on stage in 1982 before developing the film version as a producer and co-writer.
"How you actually choose who's better than who I've always been a little uncomfortable with," Close said. "But this, to be so invested in something and to be recognized for it, would be thrilling to me."
"The Artist," a hangover from May's Cannes Film Festival, continues to charm as it plays to Toronto crowds and could be one of the most unusual contenders for major prizes the Oscars has seen in decades.
The film is a black-and-white silent movie about a 1920s Hollywood star (Jean Dujardin) whose career crumbles as talkies take over the big screen. Dujardin won the best-actor prize for "The Artist" at Cannes, and the film has awards prospects for best picture and actress for co-star Berenice Bejo, who plays a rising star of the sound era and is the wife of the film's writer-director, Michel Hazanavicius.
The filmmaker is trying to ignore the awards talk, considering "The Artist" has not yet opened in theaters.
"It's very touching for me and very gratifying, but what can I say now? I cannot really take it seriously, to be honest," Hazanavicius said. "It's OK people are talking, but also maybe, I don't want to be disappointed in three months."
Toronto International Film Festival: http://tiff.net