Last week this column took a look at the quickly tightening best actress race (in the wake of two drop outs via Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard), so it seemed appropriate to turn the table over to their male counterparts, especially since one of the main contenders in that arena also headed to 2014 last week. That contender was Steve Carell, whose turn as a a paranoid schizophrenic multimillionaire in Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" had been garnering major buzz all year (the trailer sure does suggest he's great in it). But the film wasn't going to be ready in time to make this year's cut off. But our loss in having to wait is a definite gain for the dozen or so men in contention for this year's best actor race, which unsurprisingly (and problematically) offers a much more expansive race than best actress.
The best actress race is already narrowed down to about 7 or 8 sincere challengers (Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts and Kate Winslet, in order of likelihood at least as far as we're concerned), whereas best actor has at least twice that and a lot more question marks (Thompson and Adams are the only sight unseen contenders left for best actress). So let's try and sift through them to make sense of where things stand now.
It would take a lot of incredible work from the actors whose films we've yet to see to knock down a pretty mighty trio come off raves on the film festival circuit (and all coming into theaters in the next five weeks): Chiwetel Ejiofer (as a free black man who is captured into slavery in "12 Years a Slave"), Robert Redford (as a man lost at sea in "All Is Lost") and Matthew McConaughey (as a man who smuggles life saving drugs during the onset of the AIDS epidemic "Dallas Buyers Club"). Ejiofer and McConaughey would both be first time nominees, while Redford has rather shockingly only received one Oscar nomination for acting (in 1973 for "The Sting," which he lost to Jack Lemmon), though he did win a directing Oscar seven years later for "Ordinary People." That track record is a direct contrast to the best actress race, which could very well feature 5 women who have already won Oscars, let alone been nominated (which out current predicted 5 actresses have been a collective 33 times).
Probably next in line is a man who has indeed won an Oscar -- two in a row, even -- Mr. Tom Hanks. After being a constant fixture in the awards races of the 1990s, Hanks is aiming for quite the comeback this year, with an upcoming role as Walt Disney in "Saving Mr. Banks" gaining serious buzz in the best supporting actor race alongside his lead performance in Paul Greengrass's "Captain Phillips," which just opened the New York Film Festival to huge raves and a whole lot of love of Hanks' titular performance as the real man who fended off Somalian pirates that hijacked his ship (which, in another fun twist could give us two nominees whose performances almost exclusively happen on a boat). The nomination (or two, if "Mr. Banks" works out as well as it seems it will) would mark exactly 20 years from Hanks' first of two back-to-back Oscar wins, for 1993's "Philadelphia." Not a bad Oscarversary gift.
Another Oscarversary gift could meet Bruce Dern this year, too. It's been 35 years since he received his first and only Oscar nomination for "Coming Home," and Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" has been consistently building buzz since it debuted in Cannes. Dern won that festival's best actor prize for his work as a man dealing with deteriorating health as he makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar lottery prize. Sentiment will be in Dern's corner to get this nod, and the film is certainly beloved enough to back that up.
So there's our five nominees right? Maybe, but what about Oscar Issac (so great in "Inside Llewyn Davis"), Forest Whitaker (the lead in the hugely successful, Oscar-aiming "Lee Daniels' The Butler"), Michael B. Jordan (one of the year's biggest breakouts is heartbreaking in "Fruitvale Station"), Hugh Jackman (at his best in the very well received "Prisoners") and Idris Elba (commanding as Nelson Mandela in "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom"). Any other year you'd think any of those were pretty safe bets.
Then there's the potential wealth of things to come. Christian Bale has what looks like a very showy role in David O. Russell's "American Hustle" (December 13th), in addition to the lead in Scott Cooper's follow-up to Oscar-winning "Crazy Heart," "Out of the Furnace" (December 6th). Joaquin Phoenix is playing way against his role in last year's nominated "The Master" in Spike Jonze's very promising "Her" (out December 18th, but closing NYFF next week). Ben Stiller could definitely surprise us in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (out in December, but also screening at NYFF). Matt Damon is campaigning in lead for George Clooney's promising ensemble "Monuments Men" (also December 18th). And then there's long overdue Leonardo DiCaprio, who sure looks like he's on fire in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" (currently slated for November 15th but heavily rumored to be moving to Christmas).
What if they are all great? It's enough to make any of those 15 men wish their films weren't going to be ready until 2014.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire's Senior Writer and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
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