Now that the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is over (just), distributors everywhere can take a deep breath and gauge which world premieres from TIFF will play a major role in the awards season.

My best bet for success from TIFF is Fox Searchlight’s The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s fifth feature which was one of the festival’s biggest crowdpleasers. The Descendants is a family drama-with-comedy set on the island of Hawaii in which George Clooney plays a schlumpy lawyer faced with a wife in a coma, two feisty daughters he doesn’t really know and a wider family putting pressure on him to sell the family land to developers.

The film is warm, witty and shot through with melancholy – a not dissimilar package to Payne’s Oscar winning Sideways. It’s based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, so you can bet Payne will be nominated in the adapted screenplay category with his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

And I am betting that Clooney will make the final five best actor Oscar nominees for his enormously accomplished performance – perhaps his best acting work to date – as the exasperated Matt King. Clooney veers from hilariously comedic – running frantically to his neighbours’ house to confront them – to heartbreakingly poignant – his hospital bed goodbye sequence with his wife is worth a nomination alone.

He could be joined in the acting stakes by Shailene Woodley, a 19-year-old with 12 years of TV work behind her, who plays Clooney’s 17-year-old daughter Alexandra. Woodley is natural and self-possessed as the angry teen and a perfect onscreen foil for Clooney, no mean feat for a young actor.

The Descendants is so well-observed and emotionally resonant that I can’t imagine that it won’t go all the way, especially with awards specialists Searchlight behind it.

Searchlight had a bumper 2010 with Black Swan and 127 Hours, but at the beginning of 2011 the company wasn’t looking as powerful: John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ended up moving to 2012, and Sundance pickups like The Art Of Getting By, Another Earth and Cedar Rapids all disappointed. However, since then, Searchlight adopted Terence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner Tree Of Life, has been building strong buzz for another Sundance title Martha Marcy May Marlene and last week picked up US rights to Steve McQueen’s Shame. Those are all in addition to The Descendants which has now delivered in spades at Toronto. It’s another strong lineup.

I reported in this blog from Venice that I thought Shame would be a tough sell to conservative and older Academy voters, but Searchlight evidently plans to go full steam ahead with an awards campaign for the movie which dazzled Toronto audiences as it had in Venice. You have to assume that even if the film’s strong sexual content turns them off, they couldn’t deny Michael Fassbender some acting kudos. The brilliant Fassbender won the best actor prize at Venice – but that was not such a surprise in light of his profoundly affecting work as a man in crisis.

Also out of the gate with a bang at TIFF was Albert Nobbs, an Irish film from a Mexican director starring America’s Glenn Close as a woman pretending to be a man. If that makes it sound a muddle, it’s not: it’s a well-intentioned, well-crafted, surprisingly old-fashioned film in which Close plays the withdrawn (male) butler at a swanky Dublin hotel in the 19th century.

Roadside Attractions has US rights on the film and will be ensuring that it has a qualifying run, with Close’s performance front and centre for awards consideration. It’s not a grandstanding performance and Close spends much of the film in male garb with very little expression or emotion on display, but when we see Albert light up at the possibilities which could free him from his secret life, the actress is terrific.

Close has five Oscar nominations to her credit – two for best actress (Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons) and three for supporting actress (The World According To Garp, The Big Chill, The Natural). In her 60s, her career has been kickstarted by the success of her TV series Damages for which she won two Emmys and a Golden Globe and which is about to debut its fourth season in the US; it wouldn’t be surprising to see the film community re-embrace her for Nobbs, a project she co-wrote with Gabriella Prekop and novelist John Banville from the short story The Singular Life Of Albert Nobbs.

The film is beautifully designed by the legendary Patrizia Von Brandenstein who lovingly recreates the upstairs and downstairs of the hotel and I can see awards nods to costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud for dressing Close and Janet McTeer so authentically as men as well as for the frocks.

There’s a rich supporting cast including McTeer, the ubiquitous and always radiant Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Brendan Gleeson. Biggest pleasure for me in the supporting cast was Pauline Collins as the cranky hotel manager.

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