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Toronto Film Festival Shifts Awards Accent From Films to Actors

The films themselves might not take off with voters but there was great work in front of the camera.

If Telluride and Venice helped set the table for potential best picture entries in the forthcoming awards race, the just-concluded Toronto Film Festival served up a number of standout performances in movies that themselves may or may not resonate with voters.

For instance, Jay Roach’s slice of (dark) Hollywood history, “Trumbo,” took a few shots for being lightweight, as well as a bit heavy-handed with its messaging. But one thing everyone could agree on was Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of the embattled title character. After receiving laurel upon laurel for the final season of small-screen darling “Breaking Bad,” the actor could draw strong Academy support for his rollicking depiction of the blacklisted writer.

Meanwhile, “I Saw the Light” was DOA with critics, but Tom Hiddleson’s take on country music star Hank Williams, and co-star Elizabeth Olsen’s role as Audrey Mae Williams, were largely applauded. Similarly, “Legend” didn’t appeal for many beyond Tom Hardy’s central performance(s) as twin London gangsters Reggie and Ron Kray.

Reigning best actress champ Julianne Moore was back a year after “Still Alice” bowed in Toronto with the equality drama “Freeheld.” Withering onscreen from a fierce police detective to a cancer patient fighting for the right to transfer pension benefits to her domestic partner, she is as committed and engaging as ever. But critics really went after this one, too, for its lack of dimension beyond an important message.

With “Carol” and the Dan Rather-gate drama “Truth,” Cate Blanchett has a couple of shots at snatching the actress Oscar crown this time around. “Truth” unspooled in Toronto, with the actress front and center in the meaty role of CBS News producer Mary Mapes, who was fired for her part in the Killian documents scandal. It’s the kind of iron-willed performance that could survive more overt scrutiny of the film itself, and is particularly notable in a strong year for female-driven contenders.

Speaking of which, two years after “Gravity” came to Toronto, Sandra Bullock made another big splash with her fiery performance in “Our Brand Is Crisis.” Highlighted by a balance of broad comedy and smaller dramatic beats, it’s the kind of work that made Bullock a star in the first place. It was also originally written for a man.

Finally, Matt Damon popped as an abandoned astronaut in Ridley Scott’s bestseller adaptation “The Martian.” The film itself is more commercial than prestige, but Damon’s is a delightful turn that must singlehandedly maintain the audience’s attention for long stretches.

Curiously, the film that opened the Toronto Fest, Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Demolition,” featuring a buzzed-about leading performance from an actor in the prime of his career, won’t be seen in theaters until 2016. The movie itself was dismissed by many critics, but Jake Gyllenhaal’s dynamic portrayal of a man who comes unglued after his wife dies in a car crash, dodged most of the barbs. Some were left to ponder whether Fox Searchlight should have stayed the course with an Oscar-qualifying run.

Come what may, an April bow isn’t a death sentence: Just last year the studio managed to keep its March release “The Grand Budapest Hotel” percolating throughout the long awards period. So perhaps we’ll be talking about Gyllenhaal’s work next season.

And of course, films that debuted elsewhere also made the trip to Toronto, continuing the drumbeat for several striking performances in the likes of “Black Mass,” “The Danish Girl,” “Room” and “Spotlight.” Other puzzle pieces will hit the table at the New York Film Festival later this month, and the L.A.-based AFI Fest in November. Slowly but surely, the season is taking shape.

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