Fall typically ushers in Hollywood's annual onslaught of Oscar hopefuls, and this year is no exception. Three of the year's most influential film festivals — Venice, Telluride, and Toronto — were held this month, premiering some of this year's most hotly anticipated awards bait, from George Clooney's Oscar "sure-thing" political thriller to a racy sexual thriller that hopes to win over prudish Academy audiences. With the Oscar race officially underway, here are six things critics are talking about:

1. It's the year of Clooney
Not only does George Clooney star in two films with major awards prospects, The Descendants and The Ides of March, he also directs the latter. Dave Karger at Entertainment Weekly calls Ides, a film about the dark side of a presidential campaign, the year's "first slam-dunk Best Picture nominee." But Steve Pond at The Wrap says it's the seriocomic Descendants that will "get all the heat" this year. As a father struggling to reconnect with his two daughters, Clooney "will charm every voter" come awards season.

2. Ryan Gosling gives Clooney a run for the money
Clooney's Ides of March co-star plays an increasingly conflicted campaign adviser in a performance that "caps off an extraordinary twelve months" for the actor, says Oliver Lyttelton at Indie Wire. In Drive, his other Oscar pony (which won raves at its Cannes debut in May), Gosling plays a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway car driver. This fall, says Brian D. Johnson at Maclean's, "no one is creating more heat than Gosling."

3. Moneyball is better than anyone expected
Moneyball has long been referred to as "the Social Network of baseball movies." (Aaron Sorkin wrote both films.) But now that I've seen it, says Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere, Moneyball — about Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane's pioneering use of statistics to field a cheap, surprisingly good baseball team — is much more than just a sporty Social Network. It's "a triumph of surprise and deception" that should score Oscar nods for Best Picture and Best Actor (Brad Pitt, portraying Beane).

4. Madonna's Oscar hopes are dashed
Madonna's forays into film are typically met with raised eyebrows. So imagine critics' surprise when, earlier this summer, Oscar guru Harvey Weinstein bought Madonna's most recent directorial effort W.E., about the romance between American divorcee Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII, and announced plans to distribute it in the prime of Oscar season. But the Madonna Oscar buzz was quickly silenced when W.E. debuted in Venice to abysmal notices

5. Shame might be too racy for Oscar
In Shame, Michael Fassbender stars as a Manhattan man with a debilitating sex addiction. It's a performance that won him Best Actor at Venice, and a movie that Sasha Stone at Awards Daily calls a "brilliant, uncompromising film that says something new about the human experience." But packed as it is with graphic sex scenes and loads of full frontal nudity, Shame will likely be "too gutsy, NC-17, and sexually charged for Academy audiences," says Kyle Buchanan at New York.

6. Oscar might just jump on The Help bandwagon
Much is being written about the unlikely box office success of The Help. Could the film now be an unlikely Oscar frontrunner, too? "Reviews are so strong," says Tom O'Neil at the Los Angeles Times, and the subject matter — how Mississippi's racial politics affected the relationship between black maids and the white women they worked for — so Academy-friendly, that it could break into the Best Picture race. Expect the stellar performances of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain to win nominations, too, says Buchanan.