TORONTO - The last time a movie topped a half-billion dollars at the domestic box office, it sailed away with most of the Oscars.
That was "Titanic" 11 years back. This time, it's "The Dark Knight," a critically acclaimed film but a genre picture that will be a tougher sell to Academy Award voters, except for the performance delivered by Heath Ledger.
As Hollywood enters the prestige season, when studios unveil most of their awards contenders, Ledger seems a solid bet for an acting nomination as the maniacal bad guy the Joker. The role has been classified as one of the best villains in Hollywood history, a remarkable turn by the actor who died in January of an accidental prescription drug overdose.
While "The Dark Knight" also should score well in technical categories, its Oscar prospects are slim for other key awards, among them an acting honor for Christian Bale, reprising his "Batman Begins" lead role with an exceptional delivery as the comic-book superhero.
"There are no prospects for that," Bale said shortly before "The Dark Knight" came out in July. "It's the genre thing again, but hey, look, I'm very happy with what I did and what I set out to do. But it's not award-worthy. It's not the kind of thing that gets it. Listen, Heath's performance is extraordinary, and I'm quite happy to say he steals the show. He does, absolutely. He's just phenomenal in it."
With "The Dark Knight" finally winding down at theaters after crossing the $500 million mark, studios are beginning to roll out their serious awards contenders, though Oscar night Feb. 22 remains nearly six months off.
The Toronto International Film Festival, along with the Venice and Telluride fests, traditionally launch the marathon of screenings, interviews and celebrity appearances that lead up the Oscars.
"Toronto has a track record over the years of breaking films for awards consideration," said Piers Handling, director of the festival that runs through Saturday. "We're perfectly positioned in September to sort of tee it off."
Among films that played Toronto in advance of their Oscar triumphs were best-picture champs "American Beauty" and "Crash." Acting winners Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote"), Reese Witherspoon ("Walk the Line"), Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland") and Tilda Swinton ("Michael Clayton") also gained early exposure in Toronto.
While surprise contenders almost always materialize near year's end, the lineup so far looks heavy on familiar Oscar names, a veteran or two finally getting recognition, and a handful of fresh faces.
The Toronto lineup includes such potential contenders as past Oscar nominee Keira Knightley for her period piece "The Duchess," Anne Hathaway for her stark family drama "Rachel Getting Married" and relative unknown Sally Hawkins for the comic drama "Happy-Go-Lucky."
Hawkins offers a stellar performance as a teacher whose eternal optimism is put through the ringer in the latest from director Mike Leigh, who has a history of putting British actresses on Hollywood's map with such films as "Secrets & Lies" and "Vera Drake."
Another Toronto star in a potential breakout role is Omar Benson Miller, who steals the show as a gentle giant among a foursome of U.S. soldiers in "Miracle at St. Anna," Spike Lee's tale about members of an all-black unit trapped behind enemy lines in Italy during World War II.
Like most stars and filmmakers entering awards season, Lee brushed aside the Oscar prospects for his film.
"Not concerned. It's not why I make films," Lee said. "If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't."
Potential nominees usually opt for humility; no one wants to jinx their chances by talking too openly about taking home one of those little gold statues.
"I'd go insane," said Daniel Craig, who follows his James Bond adventure "Quantum of Solace" in November with the World War II Jewish resistance drama "Defiance" a month later. "I'd be lying to you if I said I never think about it, but I really do try to think about it as little as possible."
Toronto offers only a sneak peek of awards season, with end-of-the-year releases such as "Defiance" still under wraps. Unknown quantities on the Oscar radar include World War II adventures from Nicole Kidman ("Australia," which reunites her with "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann), and her ex, Tom Cruise ("Valkyrie").
Past nominee Cruise sidestepped Oscar questions about "Valkyrie," which had been scheduled for release early next year but was moved into the last week of December, the heart of awards time.
"I just want to make movies. I love making movies and entertaining audiences," Cruise said. "Those other things, those things I leave to others. It's always nice when you get nominated. It's really nice. It's a fun evening. It's wonderful to be recognized. But I must tell you, I just can't wait for people to see this movie."
Among other awards hopefuls are Sean Penn's "Milk," in which he stars as slain gay politician Harvey Milk; Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.'s music saga "The Soloist"; the Catholic school drama "Doubt" with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams; and Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," about a man who ages backward.
Pitt's romantic partner Angelina Jolie drew solid Oscar buzz at May's Cannes Film Festival for Clint Eastwood's missing-child drama "Changeling." Eastwood also has a second film arriving in December, in which he directs himself as a veteran coping with prejudice against immigrant neighbors.
Oscar winner Ron Howard offers "Frost/Nixon," featuring Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as interviewer David Frost, reprising their stage roles. Director Howard would not discuss his own chances for another Oscar, though he could not conceal his enthusiasm for his collaborators.
"It's probably not for me to say at this point, but they're remarkable performances. They really are, and the writing is just outstanding," Howard said. "I'm very proud of the movie, and I'd love nothing better than for it to find its way into the awards-season discussion."
"Titanic" co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet also could sail back into the awards discussion with their domestic drama "Revolutionary Road."
"I've learned throughout my career never to ever project your chances on anything having to do with awards. You never know what's going to happen," DiCaprio said. "You can't say you never think about these things, but on any movie you do, it's amazing how many different elements can be a positive or negative on situations like that. You never know what people are going to respond to."
On co-star Winslet, who has five Oscar nominations without a win, DiCaprio is clear, though.
"I can tell you," he said, "I'll be voting for her."