Toronto (Canada) (AFP) - The race for the Oscars intensifies this week at the Toronto film festival, where a spotlight will be shined on American politics, youth radicalization, racism, feminism and alien arrivals.
Nearly 400 feature and short films from 83 countries will be screened at the 41st Toronto International Film Festival, the largest such event in North America, which opens Thursday and runs through September 18.
The event is crucial for Oscar-conscious studios and distributors, attracting hundreds of filmmakers and actors to the red carpet in Canada's largest city.
In past years, films such as "12 Years a Slave", "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire" went on from winning the Toronto festival's audience prize for best picture to take the top honor at the Oscars.
Last year, audience favorite "Spotlight" beat all predictions to win best picture at the Academy Awards, while Brie Larson -- who is back again this year in "Free Fire" and "The Headhunter's Calling" -- received a nod for her performance in "Room", which also screened here first.
"I don't think anyone last year thought that 'Spotlight' would go all the way to best picture or that 'Room' would break out and become the kind of phenomena that it did," said festival co-director Piers Handling.
Films being positioned for accolades this year include the new Denis Villeneuve sci-fi movie "Arrival", and Oliver Stone's "Snowden" about former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's massive 2013 leak revealing the extent of government snooping on private data.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone's performances as a jazz musician and an aspiring actress who fall in love in the bewitching musical "La La Land", which opened the Venice film festival before coming to Toronto, has also stirred up a frenzy.
"American Pastoral", which looks back at the ideal American family torn apart by upheavals of the 1960s, and the true story of a boy separated from his family who searches for home 25 years later in Garth Davis's "Lion" are also generating tremendous buzz.
The cast of "American Pastoral", which marks Ewan McGregor's directorial debut, includes Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning.
"These films are getting serious attention and we'll see how that shakes down in the coming months," Handling commented.
- American politics trending -
Several directors this year looked back through history for lessons that may still be relevant.
Historical political figures, notably, have been brought back to life on the silver screen, such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis played by Natalie Portman in "Jackie", and former US president Lyndon B. Johnson in "LBJ".
As US President Barack Obama's term draws to a close, the film "Barry" reflects on his college days in New York.
"I don't know if it's coincidental, with this year's presidential election, that people are looking back," said Handling.
"But there's tremendous interest in dealing with historic subjects, trying to understand what these moments in history meant and in some way tie them in to the present."
The festival's opening film, a remake of the 1960 Western "The Magnificent Seven", starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun and Peter Sarsgaard, "is an interesting metaphor for what's going on in American right now," Handling told AFP.
"Westerns have always spoken directly to what is going on in present day America even though it's dealing with its history," he explained.
"This one certainly speaks to contemporary America.
"It's about a community under duress, under extreme pressure, and the people that come together to defend this community are representative of American society. It's an obvious metaphor for what America is going through these days."
Similarly, true stories "Loving" and "A United Kingdom", about an African royal who marries an Englishwoman, offer insights into current American race relations.
"Loving", which chronicles the battle to abolish a Virginia ban on interracial marriage, premiered at Cannes before coming to Toronto and is also in the Oscar running.
Ripped from the headlines, youth radicalization features in several films from Canada, Europe and Africa, including "Nocturama", "Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves", "Layla M.", "Heaven Will Wait" and "Foreign Body".
Heeding a call from women in Hollywood, the Toronto film festival this year is also promoting more female directors and "female stories". Almost 30 percent of the films on offer were made by women, and several more "deal with subject through the eyes of women," said Handling.
They include "Handmaiden", "Queen of Katwe", "Elle", "Toni Erdmann", "Lady Macbeth", "Anatomy of Violence" and "Strange Weather".