updated 09/04/2014 AT 9:00 AM ET
•originally published 09/04/2014 AT 6:15 PM ET
So long, summer. See you next year, giant robots, CGI apes and men in tights. It’s been a fun fling, Guardians of the Galaxy, but I need to explore a relationship with someone a little deeper. (But text me when you get to Netflix.)
Yes, it’s time for the official kickoff to Serious Movie Season – the Toronto International Film Festival.
Starting Thursday, scores of films will screen in our friendly neighbor to the north – and the Oscar race will begin in earnest.
Last year’s festival was nothing short of exhilarating. Eventual Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, had the whole town talking, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto debuted their Oscar-winning transformations in Dallas Buyers Club, and I’m surprised no one passed out from adrenaline at the Gravity premiere.
And there were plenty of great movies that didn’t go on to major awards glory. (Rent Rush. You won’t regret it. Chris Hemsworth nude scene, people.)
This year, a new slew of contenders are warming up, and I’m eager to see the results: big-time movie stars tackling gritty roles, biopics of fascinating geniuses, new takes on humanity’s big issues, and, I hope, some good grown-up comedies.
Below are 10 films at the top of my list. Stay tuned to People.com and @peoplemag for more on how the festival buzz shapes up, interviews with the stars, the party scene and more!
Reese Witherspoon takes on the Pacific Crest Trail – and hopes to start her hike toward another Oscar – in the adaption of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir, a moving tale of a troubled young woman trying to get her life together. (I’m not the only person it inspired to spend way too much at REI.) With Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée at the helm, it’s earning strong early reviews, and I’m excited to see Witherspoon get serious portraying this complex, very real woman’s journey.
Steve Carell plays way against type as real-life super-creepy rich guy John du Pont, who becomes obsessed with Olympic wrestler brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). It staked an early claim on Oscar buzz at the Cannes Film Festival – here’s hoping it lives up to the hype.
3. The Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne, who sang his heart out in Les Misérables, plays a young Dr. Stephen Hawking, fighting his devastating diagnosis of a paralyzing motor disease alongside loyal love Jane (Felicity Jones), while also finding time to figure out the secrets of the universe. A Beautiful Mind meets My Left Foot, anyone?
4. The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch, who knows a thing or two about playing tortured geniuses, delves into the life of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped turned the tide of World War II by breaking Germany’s codes, but who was later prosecuted for homosexuality, then illegal in the U.K.
5. St. Vincent
Who needs a Bill Murray fix? You do! The actor looks to be at his funny/sad best playing a grizzled alcoholic who bonds with a little boy next door – and clashes with the kid’s single mom (Melissa McCarthy).
6. Men, Women and Children
Up in the Air director Jason Reitman’s comedy-drama examines how the Internet era has rocked the world of relationships, as it follows a group of teenagers and their parents (including Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Adam Sandler and The Fault in Our Stars’ Ansel Elgort).
7. This Is Where I Leave You
The dysfunctional family you wish you had – Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Corey Stoll, and Jane Fonda as their mom – come together to get on each other’s nerves after the death of their dad. It’s August: Osage County with a lower broken-dish bill.
8. The Judge
Two of the most talented Roberts in cinematic history – Downey Jr. and Duvall – team up for a tale about a slick Chicago lawyer who goes back to his hometown only to wind up defending his estranged dad accused of murder.
9. The Equalizer
Denzel Washington reteams with director Antoine Fuqua – who helped him achieve legendary badassery and win an Oscar for Training Day – to play an ex CIA agent who has to protect a young woman (Chloë Grace Moretz) from the Russian mob in an update of the ’80s TV series.
Jennifer Aniston tries something different: not looking ridiculously hot. She’s a schlumpy chronic pain patient who becomes obsessed with the suicide of a fellow support group member in this dark drama. Is this the beginning of her Matthew McConaughnaissance? We’ll find out in a few days!
I’ll be scrambling to check out lots of other cool-sounding movies – including Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer’s race-relations drama, Black and White, Jake Gyllenhaal’s crime thriller Nightcrawler, the inspirational gay-rights saga Pride and Witherspoon’s other role in The Good Lie, about Sudanese refugees.
Now, it’s time to find my passport.