Jennifer Aniston — Oscar contender? You better believe it after the tumultuous standing ovation she received at the Elgin Theatre on Monday afternoon for her potentially career-changing film Cake after tifflogothe end credits had rolled. Sans makeup but for scars and other disfigurements, Aniston proved way beyond cosmetic changes that she is the real thing. She’s heartbreakingly good, alternately bitingly dramatic and funny in this story of a woman suffering with chronic pain. It is also partially to the credit of writer pete_hammond_300x100Patrick Tobin  and director Daniel Barnz (Phoebe In Wonderland, Won’t Back Down) that Aniston’s character Claire doesn’t strike a false note throughout.

Given the right distributor (and I hear several are in the hunt) this should be Aniston’s Monster or Monster’s Ball — or even Dallas Buyers Club, which transformed Matthew McConaughey’s career last year and brought him the Best Actor Oscar. There are really no tricks to this performance. It’s raw and real, poignant and unexpected.

In a conversation shortly after the screening the palpably excited star told me the reaction received by the film and her performance was a bit overwhelming. “It was such an emotional moment for me. I was nearly brought to tears,” she said. In fact I heard she was in tears later backstage, when the positive tweets started coming in. As for the film, she said she simply couldn’t turn it down when it came to her less than a year ago. “You have to go with the script,” she said. “When I read it I knew it was the role of a lifetime. How could I turn that down?”

At the post-screening Q&A she elaborated: “It was a no-brainer. Just reading Patrick’s script I actually saw myself doing it. I just felt like it was already happening and it was pretty easy to say ‘yes.’ It was such a beautiful, complex, layered, tortured character. I just tapped into something I was meant to do,” she said. She did extensive research and even had friends who suffered with similar pain and addiction to prescription drugs to curb it. She said she talked to a lot of people who deal with this huge problem, who could “walk me in that walk.”

2014 Toronto International Film Festival - Day 5Many pundits would probably dismiss Aniston as a major studio movie star who does lighter fare like We’re The Millers (a personal favorite by the way), but she has proven in the past with indie fare like The Good Girl  and Management that she is no one-trick pony but rather a star with still-untapped potential. I actually thought she was great opposite Vince Vaughn in The Breakup, a wildly underrated studio dramedy.

Barnz says she was a joy to work withJennifer-Aniston-Gets-Makeunder-Face-Scar-for-New-Movie-Photo, jumping in feet first into the project that came together unusually quickly. He had reluctantly been judging a screenwriting competition in Southern California when it suddenly dawned on him the winner was a script he should make. “That was June, 2013; we were in pre-production in February and before the cameras in April, finishing in May,” he said of the accelerated schedule. He managed to get some more money from the producers for a faster postproduction schedule and got it ready just in time for Toronto. Aniston jokingly told me that quick pace caused windburn and whiplash, but they got it done in 25 days. One of the key producers is Mark Canton, largely known by his own admisson as the guy behind heavy testosterone flicks like 300. He says in addition to those he wants to do a program of about 10 smaller films of this kind of quality, even though he’s not quitting his day job. (He will be on the set for his latest epic, The Last Witch Hunter, today.) Canton told me at the after-party that there is no question they want to get this film out this year in time to qualify it for Oscars. They should, not only for Aniston’s bravura turn but also for past Supporting Actress nominee (for Babel) Adriana Barraza.

As for Aniston, this is the fourth time she’s been to the Toronto Film Festival. “Let’s hope the fourth time’s a charm,” she laughed, although it wouldn’t  surprise me at all if it were.

As for the one and only Monday of this TIFF, it was chock-full of a number of other films that could be considered contenders. "Rosewater" TIFF Premiere Party Hosted by GREY GOOSE vodka and Soho House Toronto
"Wild" Premiere - Arrivals - 2014 Toronto International Film FestivalAnd now that the hot festival real estate of the first four days has passed, there’s room for some very big names that chose instead to premiere first at Telluride or Venice. Foxcatcher, a Cannes and Telluride hit, was received here with equal praise after its premiere Monday night with the entire cast in tow. Jon Stewart’s Rosewater,"Foxcatcher" Premiere - Red Carpet - 2014 Toronto International Film Festival  a Telluride debut now coming to TIFF as a special screening, screened earlier Monday and has the advantage of  coming to TIFF with strong word of mouth.

Two more Monday fest debuts: Reese Witherspoon in Wild, which world premiered in Telluride, won another enthusiastic standing ovation and further cemented Witherspoon’s Oscar potential. And 99 Homes, previously on the circuit at both Venice and Telluride, also came from a position of strength within the competition and looking to finalize a deal here that would put it squarely in the heart of this year’s awards race. The threat by TIFF to demote any film that played Telluride first didn’t seem to have an effect one way or another. On Tuesday night, another Telluride expat, The Imitation Game, gets its day in the Toronto sun. And so it goes.