THE TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL HAS BECOME THE UNOFFICIAL OPENING FOR OSCAR SEASON. LAST YEAR Lost in Translation, The Cooler and 21 Grams used TIFF as their first shot at an Academy close-up. This year's fest, which ended Saturday, had a rich crop of performances you'll hear about in February. Here's a rundown of contenders:
•LIAM NEESON IN KINSEY As the pioneering sexologist whose studies of male and female sexuality helped liberate and outrage America, Neeson is bold, troubled and charismatic--his finest screen performance.
•JAMIE FOXX IN RAY In the battle of movies about 1950s rock stars, this one on Ray Charles beat out Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea. The kudos Foxx received could presage an Oscar nod.
•PAUL GIAMATTI IN SIDEWAYS The indie-film stalwart proves himself a leading man in this smart, engaging comedy about the search for the perfect wine and other pleasures. His partner is the adorably horny Thomas Haden Church--a cinch for a Supporting Actor nomination.
•GAEL GARCIA BERNAL IN THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES AND BAD EDUCATION This hunky, soulful Mexican could be his own toughest competitor. We'd pick his virtuoso turn in Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education over his more conventional role as the young Che Guevara.
•LAURA LINNEY IN P.S.She should have won in 2001 for You Can Count on Me, and she also scores as Neeson's wife in Kinsey. In this tale of a teacher- student affair, she uses subtle gestures to create a smart, sexy, vulnerable woman. Other actresses may cry Uncle. We cry Oscar! --By Richard Corliss