- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

TORONTO (AP) - This year’s Toronto International Film Festival belonged to the actors.

Among the 300-plus films premiering at the annual movie feast - the north star to much of Hollywood’s fall season and the continent’s largest film fest - there were, of course, many terrific movies and a theater’s worth of fine filmmakers. But nothing captured the spotlight of this year’s Toronto, which wraps up on Sunday, like the performances.

That’s unlike many previous years where the loudest buzz from Toronto rang out for a freshly proclaimed masterpiece like “12 Years a Slave” or a stunning cinematic event like “Gravity,” both of which left last year’s festival hoisted upon the shoulders of enthusiastic Oscar prognosticators and awed moviegoers.

While likely best-picture nominees certainly played at Toronto, no movie quite stood out like those heavyweights or previous TIFF sensations like the Academy Award-winners “Slumdog Millionaire” or “The King’s Speech.” Instead, the applause was thickest for its stars, many of whom turned in memorable feats of transformation, reinvention and, yes, some pretty interesting hairdos.

Many of these performances will surely be drafted into the autumn awards hunt, joining a field of such previous festival standouts as Michael Keaton (“Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Innocence”), Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”), Timothy Spall (“Mr. Turner”) and Kristen Stewart (“Clouds of Sils Maria”). The best of this year’s Toronto talent:

EDDIE REDMAYNE - The only question after the debut of James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking film “The Theory of Everything” was whether Redmayne had already won the Oscar for best actor or not. Nothing wowed Toronto like the 32-year-old British actor’s depiction of Hawking’s gradual physical deterioration and his undeterred spirit.

JAKE GYLLENHAAL - For “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal lost 30 lbs. and slicked back his hair in a bun, but it’s the overall creepiness of his character that most impresses. He plays a poor but ambitious Los Angeles man whose nighttime prowling exposes him to a potential new career: shooting video of murder and car crashes for the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” local news.

REESE WITHERSPOON - Last year, Toronto was abuzz from the premiere of Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Dallas Buyers Club” and Matthew McConaughey’s lead performance. This year, Vallee debuted another film with another comeback: Witherspoon in “Wild.” She plays a woman looking for catharsis on the Pacific Coast Trail after a divorce and her mother’s death.

BILL MURRAY - For at least a day, Toronto belonged to Bill Murray. The festival hosted a “Bill Murray Day” of screenings, culminating with the debut of “St. Vincent,” a comic but touching tale of a curmudgeonly neighbor (Murray) who reluctantly befriends a young boy next door. It’s the biggest, most dynamic role Murray’s taken on in years. After the premiere, even he looked moved, whipping tears from his eyes. He quickly recovered, though, noting Jack Nicholson had been director Theodore Melfi’s first choice. When the crowd laughed, he deadpanned: “It’s well documented.”

FELICITY JONES - While the headlines for “The Theory of Everything” went to Redmayne, the film wouldn’t work without Jones as his wife, Jane Hawking. It’s not just your typically supporting wife role. “The Theory of Everything” is less a biopic of Hawking than a portrait of a marriage, one enabled by the uncommon strength of Jones’ Jane.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH - The precision and complexity of the “Sherlock” star is already well known. But in “The Imitation Game,” in which he plays World War II British code-breaker Alan Turing, Cumberbatch tackles an even bigger brain. The role is not only complicated by depicting the mathematical brilliance of Turing, but of the pressure he was under as a closeted gay man at a time when homosexuality was criminalized.

JULIANNE MOORE - Just as she was at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Moore was again one of the most acclaimed actresses of a major international festival. While it was her aging actress of “Maps to the Stars” (also a Toronto entry) that earned her kudos (and the award for best actress) in Cannes, she took Toronto with “Still Alice,” in which she plays a Columbia University professor in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.

JENNIFER ANISTON - Aniston’s film, “Cake,” likely won’t hit theaters until sometime next year (the film is looking for distribution), but the actress earned the best reviews of her career with what Aniston called her “dream role.” In surely her most unglamorous role ever, Aniston plays a woman left scarred and in constant pain from a car crash.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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