There's a Fiona Apple lyric I tend to think of -- and yes, I know it's not the first I've quoted in relation to the Oscar race -- at the outset of any awards season these days, a wistful description of a broken relationship that seems oddly applicable to the many films that are about to get tossed aside at various intervals over the next five months. "It ended bad," she croons with pained acceptance, "but I love where it started."

Well, "ended bad" may be a little strong. In six of the last seven years, the season has concluded with a film I actually like winning the Oscar for Best Picture. In a couple of cases, I'd even have voted the same way. But however just the outcome, the awards race is never more fun than it is at the very brink of autumn, when dozens of shiny prestige prospects loom enticingly in the middle distance -- their potential still undented by the complicating process of actually being seen. At the same time, the critical darlings of summer are fresh in our memories, still warm with hope that they may be The One That Survives. Everyone's a contender at the start of September; virtually every year, we marvel at how "crowded" the field is, wondering how we'll ever winnow it down.

But we do, and we do so rather quickly. The shaping begins in the very first week of September, as the combined -- only occasionally conflicting -- forces of Venice, Telluride and Toronto convert the potential of some into authentic buzz, make instant also-rans of others, and introduce a few we didn't even know were lurking there all along. Once autumn's offerings have been opened, the summer set seem that much older; some beloved titles we stop mentioning altogether, without pausing to think why. The race snugly softens and molds around those that remain, rather than stiffly covering all of them; like expensive selvedge denim, only with slightly more shrinkage.

The shaping seemed particularly zealous in Toronto this year -- though maybe it was because I'd been in Venice, where the last mention of the O-word came about three days in, after "Philomena" premiered to what, only a month later, seems a weirdly rapturous response. (Or maybe not so weirdly: from the outside, no one seemed to be talking about the easygoing Britpic at Toronto, yet it snuck its way to second place in the Audience Award voting.) The biggest talking point on the Lido was a 12-minute take of Lee Kang-cheng tearfully mutilating a cabbage in "Stray Dogs," yet his Oscar buzz has remained strangely flat.

Meanwhile, in Telluride and then Toronto, a frontrunner was anointed with even more aggressive certainty than is usual in this particular circus. A generally level-headed colleague emailed me to explain that, as annoying as the breathless hype sounded to those of us not on the ground, it wasn't misplaced: "12 Years a Slave" really was a dead cert to win Best Picture, and all arguments to the contrary were mere formalities. "Would you have given any film a prayer of beating 'Schindler's List' had it appeared at this point in the season back in 1993?" he asked? I had to admit I wouldn't have done, though I'd have been equally impatient to see it first.

Not that I mind the early jockeying. As frustrating as authoritative-sounding, festival-based Oscar pronouncements are to the non-Toronto crowd, the righteous-sounding pushback to any form of early prediction is rather more annoying. Guessing at, or even betting on, the Oscars at any stage is mere sport; to deem it inappropriate or somehow unfair to the contenders in play is both to credit the awards with considerably more gravitas than they deserve, and those writing about said awards with considerably more influence than they realistically have. 

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