The Academy Awards (search) are six months away, yet contenders already are off and running.

The Toronto International Film Festival (search), which opened Thursday, offers an early glimpse of potential competitors for Hollywood's top awards, among them the Johnny Cash film biography "Walk the Line," the romances "Elizabethtown" and "Shopgirl," the working-stiff drama "North Country," the sister tale "In Her Shoes" and the cowboy saga "Brokeback Mountain."

"I think Toronto is, for better or worse, the starting gate for awards season," said festival co-director Noah Cowan. "The awards crop we're already seeing this year is terrific. Some really standout films."

As they do throughout awards season, stars are playing it coy about their Oscar prospects next March 5. They tend to take the high road, hoping the work speaks for itself while insisting the Oscars are the last thing on their minds.

"I just went through that, so for me to be thinking about it again would just seem very selfish," said Charlize Theron, who won the 2003 best-actress Oscar for "Monster" and stars as a woman who leads a sexual-harassment case against a mining company in "North Country."

"You can't control those things. When they happen, it's great, but if you put too much emphasis on that, you lose track of what you're supposed to be doing and the work itself."

"Shopgirl" star Steve Martin, who also wrote the script based on his novella, said he felt co-star Claire Danes had a real shot at an acting nomination and jokingly alluded to the Oscar prospects for his screenplay.

"I'll quote Nora Ephron," Martin said. "She said, `I don't care who you are. When you sit down to write the first page of your screenplay, in your head, you're also writing your Oscar acceptance speech.'"

Martin, who plays a wealthy older man vying with a young rival ( Jason Schwartzman) for the affections of a Saks clerk (Danes), brushed off his own acting chances.

"Comedians don't get Oscars, so I gave up on that a long time ago," Martin said. "And I can't really speak about the Oscar worthiness of my own performance."

The Toronto festival allows others — critics, film journalists and industry professionals who may be members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — to handicap on the Oscar worthiness of many movies.

In 1999, the domestic satire "American Beauty" premiered at Toronto and caught a critical wave of admiration that lofted the film to five Oscars, among them best picture, actor for Kevin Spacey and director for Sam Mendes.

"`American Beauty' really reinforced in Hollywood's eyes the idea that Toronto could actually break a film that was very important," said Piers Handling, the festival's chief executive officer. "They came here and gathered acclaim and critical support that lasted through the Oscars. Subsequent to that, virtually every year we've had a significant number of films here that later came out with nominations and Oscars."

The best-actor race for 2004 was virtually over after the world premiere of "Ray" at Toronto last year. The buzz that began for Jamie Foxx's extraordinary embodiment of Ray Charles never let up, carrying him to an easy win on Oscar night.

This time around, Joaquin Phoenix as country legend Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter are almost certain to catch Oscar attention for "Walk the Line," which has earned high praise in pre-Toronto screenings.

Phoenix prefers not to think about whether the movie will do well or whether critics will like it.

"There's really nothing I can do about that," Phoenix said. "My work is to just make the film and try to make it as true as possible."

Philip Seymour Hoffman as another real-life artistic figure, Truman Capote, could emerge as a best-actor front-runner for "Capote," a Toronto entry dramatizing the author's ordeal researching his true-crime novel "In Cold Blood." Hoffman delivers a remarkable portrayal of the effete raconteur, backed by an excellent supporting turn from Catherine Keener as Capote's lifelong friend, "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee.

Other possible Oscar entrants playing during the festival's 10-day run include Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine in "In Her Shoes," a comic drama of squabbling sisters and the grandma who reunites them; Viggo Mortensen, Mario Bello and Ed Harris in the mobster tale "A History of Violence"; Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom in "Elizabethtown," a romance set against a Southern patriarch's funeral; Keira Knightley in "Pride & Prejudice," a period pageant based on Jane Austen's classic; and Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain," playing cowboys swept up in forbidden love.

Of course, plenty of films will enter the Oscar mix long after the Toronto festival.

Past best-actress winner Diane Keaton turns in an Oscar-worthy performance in the ensemble comic drama "The Family Stone," while Steven Spielberg's "Munich," Sean Penn's "All the King's Men," Rob Marshall's "Memoirs of a Geisha," Chris Columbus' "Rent," Terrence Malick's "The New World" and the new version of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" are on the horizon.