Pete Hammond

Okay let’s just cut to the chase.

What does today’s first announcement of galas and special presentations at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival mean for the Oscar race? Of course it is only still July but with this news out of Canada the lineup for awards season is starting to become a reality. Venice (which is opening with Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalistalso a Toronto Gala pick which bodes well), Toronto and Telluride have increasingly become key outposts for the official beginning of awards season and 2012 films the studios and indies are premiering at the trio of oh-so-important fests will be scrutinized for their pure-bred Oscar potential. Venice may be downsizing a bit this year according to early indications and Telluride, per tradition, keeps  its lineup fairly secret until August 30, the day before the Colorado Labor Day weekend fest begins but you can bet it will overlap heavily with the other two fests, particularly Toronto since Telluride doesn’t label any of its films as North American or World Premieres and can play many of the same films under the radar. Toronto gets the honor of official premieres and so it is Toronto that is giving us the most to work with — so far.

The September 6 Opening Night film is action thriller Looper which on the surface does not appear to be an awardsy-type film, just a solid genre piece. I don’t believe Film District plans any kind of major Oscar campaign here.

Related: Toronto Film Festival 2012: ‘Looper,’ ‘Argo,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ Highlight 60+ Films

Top Academy prospects among the Toronto Galas, at least on paper, would seem for sure to be Ben Affleck’s thriller Argo which a top Warner Bros exec told me as far back as the Academy Awards Governors Ball was going to be one of their key 2012 Oscar pushes. Early word is it delivers with special mention for Bryan Cranston’s supporting turn and Affleck’s direction.

UK directors Mike Newell with his version of the Dickens classic Great Expectations  and Roger Michell with Hyde Park on Hudson  should be expected to compete since the Academy loves period pieces  and the latter with Bill Murray channeling President Frankin Delano Roosevelt and the odd relationship he had with a relative played by Laura Linney offers the kind of thing voters usually respond to. But is the movie too slight? Toronto will tell the tale but both stars have cred with the Academy.

Related: Toronto: ‘Looper’ To Open Fest, Slate Coming This Morning

Billy Bob Thornton will try to turn things around for his southern fried dysfunctional family drama Jayne Mansfield’s Car after it got a lukewarm response on its first go-round in Berlin. It is always tough to overcome negative reviews in this game but vets Robert Duvall and John Hurt could provide some awards fodder.

Robert Redford will use Toronto to launch his latest starring/directing effort , The Company You Keep, which with its impressive cast including  Julie Christie, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper and Nick Nolte is just loaded with past Oscar nominees and winners. Plus Redford playing a civil rights lawyer whose radical past is revealed and sends him into hiding could bring him back into Oscar contention himself. But like his last film, The Conspirator, it appears he may just be using the Toronto gala to build up buyer buzz for a more likely 2013 release than a last minute rush for this year.

The other potential Oscar biggie among the Galas is The Weinstein Company’s release of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, a comedy/drama starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro that has extremely strong awards potential based on everything I’ve heard and the footage shown at Cannes.

Among Toronto’s Special Presentations much awards curiosity will surround Focus Features Anna Karenina  which simply because it is the third time around for director Joe Wright and star Keira Knightley after being in past races with Pride & Prejudice and Atonement and now in another period piece with a Tom Stoppard adaptation of Tolstoy would seen to be catnip for the Academy. We’ll see.

Warners hopes it has a contender with the challenging , nearly three hour epic , Cloud Atlas from the directing TRIO of  Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski and starring Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant among others, each playing multiple roles in the film which spans centuries. Hanks and Broadbent are strong prospects in acting categories for sure and the film is a shoe-in for Makeup. The rest of its awards fate depends how challenged audiences want to be. It’s also known that Warners screened this for Telluride consideration but we will have to wait and see if it shows up there too.

End Of Watch from writer/director David Ayer is a funny, emotional, gritty (and violent) L.A. cop drama with exceptional performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as beat cops. Open Road plans to campaign Gyllenhaal for lead and Pena for support even though both have roughly equal screen time. It may have a better chance than last year’s gritty L.A. cop drama Rampart which struck out with the Academy. The genre is not one that is often recognized although Denzel Washington won Best Actor for Training Day and these performances are strong.

Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona’s true story of a vacationing family of five separated by the devastating Thailand tsunami, The Impossible has brilliant special effects and a story as gripping as they come. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts deliver strong performances, with Watts very effective as an extreme accident victim. This one has the emotional heft to appeal to Oscar voters if Summit/Lionsgate gets it out there in time. It doesn’t get released until late December so its Toronto reception will be key .

Dustin Hoffman’s  directorial debut Quartet starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins as four retired opera singers might be too much like Searchlight’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  (which also stars Smith) so it’s possible The Weinstein Company may want to hold off until 2013 after its Toronto premiere but that cast and Hoffman would certainly gain some Academy interest. Weinstein also has the musical, The Sapphires which premiered in Cannes but is more of a Golden Globe thing.

Rust And Bone  from Sony Classics features terrific performances from Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts and could also figure strong in the Foreign language film race if France enters it. The Sundance hit, The Sessions (formerly The Surrogate)  should be a winner for Searchlight with strong award-calibre performances from Helen Hunt and John Hawkes. The studio also wanted it to play Telluride but that fest doesn’t like going second to Sundance so Toronto will be its first post-Sundance stop on the awards circuit. Definite contender.

Finally we should mention Terrence Malick’s  To The Wonder which is still looking for a distributor and likely won’t be a 2012 awards contender unless  Toronto stirs the action to a boil. Malick is coming off Best Picture and Director nominations for The Tree Of Life so shouldn’t be ruled out completely but this one is more likely for 2013 if it works at all.

There’s much more to come. This is just the first announcement. Where’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master rumored for all three Fall fests? Stay tuned . It’s only the beginning.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.