James Gandolfini, Enough Said
While posthumous nominations can be argued as driven by sentiment as opposed to merit, James Gandolfini's work in "Enough Said" is certainly worthy of consideration with or without the tragic news of his passing earlier this year. Gandolfini -- a true gentle giant -- sees his underlying sweetness finally gets its due in the film, portraying a middle aged divorce man who falls for Julia Louis-Dreyfus (he's so adorable in the film it's almost hard to take given awareness of his death). If Gandolfini ends up getting his first Oscar nomination for "Enough Said" -- and he is perhaps the most likely to do so of any actor on this list -- let's hope people can view it not for a culmination of his career but for successfully going in a different direction.
Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
Julie Delpy has tended to get most of the acting kudos for the "Before" trilogy, and there's no denying she's worthy of it (she made the female version of this list last week). But Ethan Hawke has managed to step up to Delpy's wholly impressive plate time and time again during the series, perhaps more than ever with its suggestive final act "Before Midnight." The film -- which Hawke and Delpy co-wrote with director Richard Linklater (the three of them seem likely to end up with an adapted screenplay nod) -- finds Hawke's Jesse in his early 40s, navigating a (spoiler alert) now long-term relationship with Delpy's Celine. Delpy gets the showier scenes as the two have a mini-meltdown, but Hawke inhabits his less dramatic character with just as much conviction. Together, the two have created one of the most interesting couples in contemporary cinema, and if there was any justice they'd both be getting Oscar nominations for it.
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers have a pretty good track record as of bring their actors Oscar nominations, from Javier Bardem to Jeff Bridges to Hailee Steinfeld. But while their latest "Inside Llewyn Davis" has received some very strong critical notices and seems like a good shot for a best picture nomination, the film's greatest acting asset -- Oscar Isaac -- seems unlikely to follow suit. With a lead actor category that's stacked with the likes of Bruce Dern, Robert Redford and Tom Hanks, relative newcomer Isaac seems likely to be shut out despite for his lovely, retrained turn as the film's titular folk singer. It's simply a case of too crowded a house, though Isaac deserves to be there just as much as his more established colleague.
Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Speaking of Oscars, Michael B. Jordan plays one in Ryan Coogler's story of 22 year old Oscar Grant, the Bay Area resident who was shot by a police officer at the Fruitvale BART station in 2009 after an altercation that most definitely didn't call for it. Like Oscar Isaac, Jordan offers a performance of exceptional and powerful restraint. But also like Isaac, Jordan is someone who probably would have easily taken a slot in the best actor race in less crowded years. But "Fruitvale" -- which followed in the footsteps of recent best picture nominees "Winter's Bone," "Precious" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" when it won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize earlier this year -- needs a serious boost of support to get back in a race that has grown exceptionally heated. It's not impossible, but as a result Jordan will probably have to be content with his recent Gotham Award nom, a likely Spirit nod to follow and, well, a very promising career.