Everyone heading north this week is already looking forward to something amid the sprawling, eclectic, star-studded and ever-ambitious Toronto International Film Festival, which begins Thursday and will screen more than 300 films before it concludes Sept. 14.

For many film fans -- and industry, press, buyers and sellers -- the most anticipated date will be Bill Murray Day (Friday), marking the comedian's return to Toronto with his latest film ("St. Vincent") with screenings of "Stripes," "Groundhog Day" and "Ghostbusters," which is celebrating its 30th anniversary (and "Ghostbusters II" its 25th).

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But TIFF is not about looking back: Since its inaugural 39 years ago it has established itself as a kind of gateway to the minefield of the fall movie landscape, the Oscar season and the annual end-of-year awards sweepstakes, all of which begin as soon as Toronto ends.

Which films and people will be in the mix? They'll likely be at TIFF. This year, the hotly anticipated films include "Foxcatcher," directed by Bennett Miller ("Capote") and starring Steve Carell; "The Imitation Game," in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays the legendary British code breaker Alan Turing; "Mr. Turner," Mike Leigh's latest, about the visionary painter J.M.W. Turner, played by Timothy Spall; and "While We're Young," Noah Baumbach's follow-up to "Frances Ha," which features his "Greenberg" star Ben Stiller.

Among the folks scheduled to appear both in films and in person during the TIFF series of public conversations are Robert Duvall ("The Judge"), Denzel Washington ("The Equalizer"), Richard Gere ("Time Out of Mind"), Jon Stewart (his directorial debut, "Rosewater"), and Reese Witherspoon, who will be appearing in two festival films by Quebecois directors: "Wild" by Jean-Marc Valee ("Dallas Buyers Club") and "The Good Lie" by Philippe Falardeau.

Elsewhere, the foreign-film crowd and doc lovers will be salivating: "Merchants of Doubt" by Robert Kenner ("Food Inc.") examines the well-organized and very well-financed campaign to characterize global warming as a crackpot theory; "Meet Me in Montenegro" is a romance directed by Alex Holdridge and Linnea Saasen; and the documentary "Red Army" should go over really well in Toronto: It is, after all, about hockey.