This year's Toronto International Film Festival closes without the satisfying sense of certainty that had become a mainstay in recent years. Last year, for example, many critics left Toronto feeling there was no chance "12 Years a Slave" could lose the Best Picture race or Matthew McConaughey wouldn't be an Oscar-winner for "Dallas Buyers Club," and look what happened there. But for 2014, TIFF didn't so much kick off the Oscar race as it nudged it into existence. Several performances have electrified audiences and started awards speculation, but most Best Picture contenders are coming out of the festival with their prospective nominations endorsed less by fists in the air than by shrugs — and that's even taking into account the big win in Toronto for "the Imitation Game." It really is still anyone's game.
• Oscar chances:
This year's early awards speculation at TIFF was much more about performances than films, with two clear early favorites. Eddie Redmayne offers a transformative, career-defining performance as Stephen Hawking in "the Theory of Everything," prompting conversations to quickly turn from whether he'll be nominated for an Oscar to whether he'll win. And Julianne Moore's turn as a woman with early onset Alzheimer's looks to be likely to nab her that long-deserved trophy.
For actors, there were plenty of other performances of note to give Redmayne some competition. He appears to have a natural rival in Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Alan Turing in "the Imitation Game," and Jake Gyllenhaal may have his first real crack at Oscar gold since "Brokeback Mountain" with his chilling work in "Nightcrawler." As for the Cannes favorite "Foxcatcher," the big debate there is how to divide up its three stars — Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo — for awards consideration so they don't get in each other's way. Carell, by the way, has the slight edge on his co-stars.
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On the actress side, previous Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon's performance in "Wild" seems like a safe bet for a nomination at least, and debate has already begun as to whether Felicity Jones' work in "the Theory of Everything" as Stephen Hawking's steadfast wife should earn her a nomination in the supporting or lead category. And if the film gets the attention it deserves, any of the three outstanding actresses from "the Keeping Room" — Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Muna Otaru — could have a busy awards season.
• Big sales:
"The Last Five Years" was the first big sale of the festival in what turned out to be a good year for pickups out of Toronto. The most attention-grabbing, though, was Paramount's acquisition of Chris Rock's comedy "Top Five," which sold for a reported $12.5 million.
The Weinstein Company's Radius imprint kicked things off early by picking up crowd-pleaser "the Last Five Years," a musical starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan that left audiences grinning even if some critics didn't like the taste. Everyone else can make up their minds next Valentine's Day, when it is slated for release. And Radius circled back at the end of the fest to nab the Nick Kroll-starring comedy "Adult Beginners," also starring Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale and a host of NYC comedy talent.
Sony Pictures Classics seized on the early critic love-fest surrounding Julianne Moore and picked up the devastating Alzheimer's drama "Still Alice" for release this year, and distributor A24 nabbed Noah Baumbach's latest, "While We're Young," starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and the near-ubiquitous Adam Driver.
Winning the TIFF People's Choice Award has often meant a shot at Best Picture, if not the big prize itself. Last year's "12 Years a Slave" went from Toronto to Oscar, following in the footsteps of "the King's Speech," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "American Beauty." So does that mean that this year's winner, "The Imitation Game," has some high hopes for Oscar? It certainly does now. Fire up the jets, Mr. Weinstein.
• TIFF 2014 winners:
People's Choice Award: "The Imitation Game"
People's Choice Award For Documentary: "Beats of the Antonov"
People's Choice Award For Midnight Madness: "What We Do in the Shadows"
Best Canadian Feature Film: "Bang Bang Baby"
Best Canadian First Feature Film: "Felix and Meira"
FIPRESCI Prize for Special Presentations Section: "Time Out of Mind"
FIPRESCI Prize for Discovery Section: "May Allah Bless France"
Best Asian Film: "Margarita, With a Straw"
Best International Short Film: "A Single Body"
Best Canadian Short Film: "The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer"
• What was missing:
The lack of real standouts at TIFF this year might be due in part to most festival-goers focusing on the films that weren't screening. Three notable titles were absent and will be vying for attention at the New York Film Festival later this month: David Fincher's "Gone Girl," Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice," based on the Thomas Pynchon novel. "Birdman" in particular, after some rapturous reviews out of Venice, is fast becoming the most buzzed-about film of awards season, and its absence at Toronto was palpable.
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick