Matthew McConaughey in "The Dallas Buyers Club," one of the… (Focus Features )
When the Toronto International Film Festival announced its high-profile premieres on Tuesday, the lineup was filled with the expected prestige — an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning work starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts ("August: Osage County"), a 19th century race drama from the British artist and director Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave").
But the list also included a more surprising crop of films. Among the world and North American premieres set for the festival when it begins Sept. 5 are potential awards turns for mainstream commercial actors such as Matthew McConaughey ("The Dallas Buyers Club") and Kristen Wiig ("Hateship Loveship"), along with upscale science-fiction movies starring Sandra Bullock ("Gravity") and Scarlett Johansson ("Under the Skin").
Ron Howard is coming with an auto racing movie starring the man who played Thor ("Rush"). The director of the Oscar-nominated foreign-language "Incendies," Denis Villeneuve, will be there with a thriller starring Hugh Jackman ("Prisoners").
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There's even a feature from "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner--starring Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis ("You Are Here").
Toronto serves as a critical early stop for movies on the fall awards circuit and commercial campaigns; last year, "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Argo" both established themselves as potential hits and Oscar front-runners there.
But more than most cinema gatherings, Toronto offers the possibility of reinvention. Coming at the end of a movie summer filled with explosions but before autumnal awards-ennui kicks in, the festival offers a chance for audiences to get a fresh start — and plenty of famous film people to do the same.
"There's a shorthand that movie stars have that has us enjoying watching them do similar things again and again," TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey said in an interview Tuesday. "But there's also something very liberating about seeing them do something new, and it's part of our mission to bring that to audiences."
The festival is taking its mission particularly seriously this year. After a period of pushing in new directions with "Magic Mike" and "Mud," McConaughey expands further with "The Dallas Buyers Club" as the real-life, fast-living Texan Ron Woodroof, who, after being infected with the AIDS virus in the 1980s, began smuggling drugs from Mexico to help himself and other patients. The film also stars Jared Leto, in just his second big-screen role in six years, as a cross-dressing AIDS patient, and Jennifer Garner as a doctor.
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"Ron Woodroof's determination to live and to refuse to die inspired this film. Inspired me. And wait to see how it inspired Matthew, Jared, Jenny, the whole cast and crew!" enthused "Dallas Buyers Club" director Jean-Marc Vallee in an email message Tuesday.
A similar unexpected spirit permeates "Hateship Loveship," a movie that stars Wiig but is directed by Liza Johnson, a filmmaker who previously made the intimate military-themed indie drama "Return." The new movie has Wiig playing a shy caregiver who finds herself in the grip of a new desire, in an adaptation of a novella from the Man Booker International Prize winner Alice Munro. "Bridesmaids" this isn't.
Meanwhile, after coming to Toronto with the hard-hitting "Incendies" in 2010, Villeneuve has made the long-gestating Hollywood script "Prisoners," about a desperate father (Jackman) who seeks answers after his daughter is kidnapped.
"The first three days making this movie I almost had a heart attack when I realized that this could be my movie but also a Hollywood movie," Villeneuve said in an interview, adding, "People will get a chance to see Hugh Jackman do things they don't get to see him do."
Genres are being cast in a new light too. Bullock stars opposite George Clooney in the outer-space tale "Gravity," a movie that marks Alfonso Cuarón's first new film in seven years — and offers a rare chance for a science-fiction movie to be positioned as an awards contender. "The people who responded most to the film when we screened it are the ones with the most sophisticated tastes," Bailey said.
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Also in the sci-fi realm is "Under the Skin" as Jonathan Glazer, who more than a decade ago directed the heist antihero picture "Sexy Beast," unveils his first movie in nine years. Oh, and Johansson? She plays an alien who must drug and kidnap earthling hitchhikers.
Of course, the actress will have competition on the new-horizon front from Adam Levine: The Maroon 5 frontman and "The Voice" mainstay takes a turn to the big screen as a star of "Can a Song Save Your Life?" the new drama from "Once" director John Carney.