In "Looper," Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a younger Bruce Willis. (Photo provided by Sony)

TORONTO, ONTARIO -- The Toronto International Film Festival each fall is considered the North American kickoff of the annual Oscar race. While it's premature to place the best picture bets, one thing is certain. The competition will be fierce in this year's makeup category as some fo the world's most famous faces become the canvas for makeup artists' work. Several of the festival's top films boast elaborate makeup and wigs that radically transform familiar faces, or even reassign actors' genders.

For the time-travel thriller "Looper," the festival's opening night presentation, makeup designer Kazuhiro Tsuji added lighter contact lenses, a nose prosthetic, lip and brow tweaks that turn Joseph Gordon-Levitt into a reasonable facsimile of Bruce Willis, who plays the same character 30 years into the future.

Gordon-Levitt called Tsuji "a mad genius ... an alchemist." The best testimonial to his work is that when the actor's mother visited him on the set, "she was kind of freaked out."

To create the artifice-addicted Russian high society of "Anna Karenina," hair and makeup designer Ivana Primorac deployed a furrier's warehouse of wigs, mustaches and beards. The effects for Keira Knightley are subtle touches that showcase her innate beauty, and sensual dark curls that set her apart from any of the other female characters.

The two men in Anna's life are theatrical and stylized. As a youthful, golden boy Vronsky, Anna's partner in scandal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is unrecognizable as the green-suited teen crimefighter from "Kick-Ass." To examplify the character's superficial charm, the actor wears a crown of madly glamorous blond curls and a popinjay's mustache, becoming a peacock who all but outshines his darker lover.

Even more striking are the changes to Jude Law, cast against type as Karenin, Anna's boring husband. His nose is thickened and his hair partly shaved to create a thinning pate, a look based on 19th-century photographs of Moscow's well-to-do. "I was aware of how drastic it was going to be, lasting several months, but Jude was completely up for it," Primorac said.

No film shown here dives as deep into makeup effects as "Cloud Atlas," the adaptation of David Mitchell's planet-hopping puzzle-novel. Star Tom Hanks said "playing different characters in a film is what every actor dreams of." He plays various good and evil characters in the densely layered story, including a postapocalyptic savage, a sinister 19th-century doctor, a 1970s scientist, and a thuggish author who becomes a bestselling superstar when he murders a book critic. Costars Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent and Susan Sarandon also shape-shift extravagantly, sometimes even swapping genders.

On the other extreme is "Hyde Park on Hudson," a World War II drama that is being positioned as this year's "The King's Speech." Playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bill Murray relies on nothing more than pince-nez eyeglasses and a jaunty cigarette holder to alter his appearance. it's an affecting performance, no less effective even though Murray doesn't look a bit like the president.

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