Kate Winslet in "A Little Chaos"
Kate Winslet in "A Little Chaos"

Last year’s Toronto International Film Festival provided invaluable lift-off to at least three female-driven movies that landed in the 2013 Oscar race: Gravity, Philomena, and August: Osage County.

However, it appears there will be no sightings of Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, or Meryl Streep either onscreen or on the red carpet for this year’s edition of North America’s premier celebration of cinema, which runs from September 4 to 14.

Not to worry. We can happily make do with Kate Winslet (as a gardener for Louis XIV in Alan Rickman’s period piece A Little Chaos, the fest’s closing-night selection), Maggie Smith (who matches wits with Kevin Kline in My Old Lady), and Jessica Chastain (in an adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, directed by no less than Ingmar Bergman’s muse, Liv Ullmann).

With 2014 already being designated as a Reese Witherspoon revival, it makes sense that this year’s bill offers a double helping of the actress who won her first Oscar as June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line. She stars in Wild, a much-anticipated true-life drama about a troubled woman who hikes more than 1,000 miles, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, whose Dallas Buyers Club wowed the fest last year. She also headlines The Good Lie, an uplifting tale about a woman who assists four young boys in war-ravaged Sudan to qualify for relocation in the United States. Alas, Witherspoon’s other hot year-end release, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, is promised to the New York Film Festival – which will also premiere David Fincher’s Gone Girl -- based on the best-seller and featuring Rosamund Pike -- later in September.

Another two-timer is Julianne Moore, who inexplicably has gone this long without having an Oscar to call her own despite three previous nominations. It wouldn’t be a proper Toronto festival without hometown director David Cronenberg, whose Maps to the Stars already collected the Cannes seal of approval and created buzz for Moore. The actress also headlines a surefire heart-tugger, Still Alice, as a linguistics professor who starts forgetting words and learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Other possible acting opportunities that might prove award-worthy: Cake provides Jennifer Aniston (and her fans) some relief from her run of lewd comedies with a slightly more grounded story about a testy, well-off woman who undergoes a transformation; The Keeping Room is a Civil War drama that could attract attention for Brit Marling; The Last Five Years capitalizes on Anna Kendrick’s pitch-perfect musical talent; Naomi Watts might get a third shot at an Oscar opposite Ben Stiller as her spouse in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young; and Octavia Spencer, who packs an Oscar for 2011’s The Help, goes head-to-head with Kevin Costner over the custody of a grandchild in Black and White

On an even brighter note -- especially given the lack of female directors who had any real shot at an Academy Award in the last race -- a fair number of high-profile women filmmakers will be heading to Toronto with their latest projects, judging from Tuesday’s announcement of 59 features (with more to come) that will participate. 

They include a pair of Danish directors. Susanne Bier, whose 2010’s In a Better World won the best foreign-language film Oscar and made its North American debut in Toronto, is bringing A Second Chance -- about the fallout following a tragic event. And Lone Scherfig, whose An Education was warmly embraced by festival crowds in 2009 and earned three Oscar nominations including best picture, has The Riot Club -- about the questionable goings-on among members of an elite Oxford dining club.

Meanwhile, noted Catalan filmmaker Isabel Coixet pairs the perpetually wonderful Patricia Clarkson against the mighty Ben Kingsley as a Manhattanite and her Sikh driving instructor in Learning to Drive.

Too bad there is no sign of this year’s two most-anticipated films by female directors. Ava DuVernay’s Selma, about the fight for Civil Rights just finished shooting and is still in post-production. As for Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the true story of an Olympic hero and World War II POW-camp survivor, it could possibly end up being a headliner at the Telluride Film Festival, which kicks off Aug. 29, or perhaps at Venice, which starts Aug. 27.

The trifecta of Toronto/Telluride/Venice is the awards-season kick off. But with the festivals duking it out over world premieres, one thing this could mean for women on screen and behind the camera is getting less opportunities for exposure. And for women, the ability to be seen and to get into the Oscar conversation is always vital.