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Oscars: A Look At The Best Actor Hopefuls, Including Tom Hanks, Chiwetel Ejiofor & Matthew McConaughey

Oscars: A Look At The Best Actor Hopefuls, Including Tom Hanks, Chiwetel Ejiofor & Matthew McConaughey

As ever, all the Oscar categories look competitive even from this far out, but nothing is going to be a tougher fight this year than the Best Actor race. It’s typically a harder slog than most categories — ask John Hawkes, who missed the cut last year for “The Sessions,” despite months of buzz and predictions — but this year looks like something else entirely. It’s still only October, with many of the major possibilities still to open, and a few still to be unveiled completely, and the line-up is stacked.

There’s already several performances that, in most years, would look like good bets not just for nominations, but to win. But with all those already out, and with more on the way, it’s feasible that even some of the front-runners may end up missing out on the final five when January arrives. Having already looked at the supporting Actor and Actress categories, and with “Captain Phillips,” which promises a major contender in the shape of Tom Hanks, in theaters this week, we’ve taken a look at the Best Actor line-up. Take a peek at the possibilities below, and check out this week’s Best Picture chart on the next page.

Early Year Contenders

Sundance wasn’t a major source of awards contenders this year, but there are a few performers that are likely to be in the conversation for a while longer. Perhaps the most potent is Michael B. Jordan, one of the year’s hottest breakout stars thanks to his turn in “Fruitvale Station.” The film’s buzz has quieted down a touch, and Jordan’s probably not well known enough at this stage to make much of an impact with voters, but he’s a sure thing for an Independent Spirit nomination at the very least. Park City also got buzzed about performances from Miles Teller in “The Spectacular Now,” Casey Affleck in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and Ethan Hawke in “Before Midnight,” but none have much traction at this stage (Hawke might have the most, but if anyone is nominated from the film, it’ll be Julie Delpy, and even that may be a stretch).

Cannes, however, did deliver a trio of turns that are serious threats. Oscar Isaac gives one of the very best performances of the year in the Coen Brothers‘ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” In any other year, he’d surely be in the final five, and critics’ awards could yet give him a bump in momentum, but our bet is that despite the praise, Isaac can’t crack an unbelievably tough field. That’s in part because he has competition like Robert Redford, in “All Is Lost,” which also premiered on the Croisette. Redford has an Oscar — for directing “Ordinary People,” as well as a honorary award in 2002, but has never won for acting, with only a single nomination, for “The Sting” in 1974. “All Is Lost” might be a career-best performance from him; he’s the only actor on screen, and it would be an amazing physical turn from any actor, let alone someone who’s 77 years old. The narrative is in place, and he’s a near-lock. He might even win, but as we’ll see, he has some fierce rivals.

One of them is another veteran star, Bruce Dern, whose performance in “Nebraskawas also unveiled in Cannes. Dern, like Redford, has a single acting nomination (for Supporting, for “Coming Home” in 1978), and has never won, and while he’s never had the same megastar status as his rival, he’s certainly due. By all accounts, it’s a fine performance, and while there’s been some degree of discussion over whether he’d go lead or supporting, Dern’s been adamant that he’ll campaign in this category. If he did go supporting, he’d likely win a nomination; in lead, it’s going to be a tougher fight. But the film’s already started screening to Academy audiences, and has apparently gone down a storm, so Dern’s very much in the race.

Not from the festival circuit, but a summer release, was “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” Prognosticators are fairly divided on the prospects of the film in general, and time will tell how it ends up performing but we suspect that lead Forest Whitaker ultimately won’t get through against better-known competition, despite the initial buzz.

Finally, we want to highlight a couple of performances that have basically no chance of even coming close to a nomination, but are very much deserving. Ramin Bahrani‘s “At Any Price” wasn’t exactly embraced by critics the way we did on the festival circuit in 2012, but even those who hated it saw the quality of Dennis Quaid‘s performance. As a spring release that made almost no impact, it’s almost certain Quaid won’t be anywhere near the discussions, but he deserves to be. Lastly, one of the very best performances we’ve seen by anyone this year came from “The World’s End” — Simon Pegg‘s central turn is a dark comic tour-de-force, and the best thing he’s ever done by miles. It’s not the kind of film that would ever get awards traction, but in a just world…

Hot From The Festival Circuit

As we’ve seen already, there were multiple serious contenders even before the festival season kicked off in August. So it may have been something of a relief that a few potential candidates didn’t land: most were counting out Benedict Cumberbatch‘s portrayal of Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate” even as they filed out of the theater; not that he was bad, but the film was tepidly received, and it needed more than that to get in the race. Hopes are a touch brighter for Idris Elba in “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom,” but while the actor’s won acclaim for his portrayal of the South African leader, the film was again greeted with a shrug. The Weinstein Company will make a run at it, but it’s rather a longshot.

Also fairly unlikely to happen is Chris Hemsworth in “Rush.” We actually thought the “Thor” star was terrific in the film, but he’s been overshadowed by co-star Daniel Bruhl. Even there, the film’s box office performance in the U.S. has been fairly mediocre, though audiences are responding to it. Either way, Hemsworth isn’t cracking the field this time. “Prisoners” has performed better, and Hugh Jackman got some of the best reviews of his career, but as well liked as the film’s been, it’s not quite attention-grabbing a performance to supersede his competition. Meanwhile, it’s still unclear if the mixed response to “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” at NYFF is going to hurt the film’s awards chances, but it’s pretty clear at this point that Ben Stiller‘s performance in the title role isn’t going to figure into the Best Actor race going forward.

Venice, Telluride, TIFF and NYFF have provided some hot tickets, though. First among them is Chiwetel Ejiofor, lead of Steve McQueen‘s “12 Years A Slave.” The British actor has been the best kept secret around for a while — he’s legitimately one of the finest actors of his generation — but is likely to be a secret no longer, with the film winning out-and-out raves across the board. Even if he’s never been nominated before, Ejiofor’s likely to follow the movie, which looks to be an awards juggernaut. Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey‘s weight loss alone made him a strong possibility for a nod for “Dallas Buyers’ Club,” but he also won rave reviews for his homophobe-turned-AIDS-sufferer-turned-bootleg-drugs-baron at TIFF. McConaughey was unlucky to miss a nomination last year, and his career turn-around gives him a built-in narrative. Right now, he’s almost certain to be nominated, and should be in a three-way race with Ejiofor and Redford for the trophy.

Then again, there’s Tom Hanks right on their heels: by almost all accounts, his performance in Paul Greengrass‘ “Captain Phillips is the star’s best in a decade, and given that he hasn’t had a nomination since “Cast Away” thirteen years ago, he’s certainly due again. The film seems to be settling into a Best Picture slot, so Hanks is likely to be in there as well.

Except, if you’ve been doing your math, that makes Hanks, Ejiofor, McConaughey and Redford all likely contenders, with Dern and Whitaker just behind, and more possibilities still to come. All four seem like locks right now, but if the new arrivals suddenly get more heat, it’s possible that some might miss. Will voters find that Hanks has been awarded enough already? Will Ejiofor be a big enough name for them? Will McConaughey’s wilderness years have worn off? Will “All Is Lost” be too small a film for Redford to make an impression? Or will they all make the cut?

Still To Come

We have to say, the biggest players have probably mostly been unveiled, but there’s still some potential spoilers lurking. Perhaps the most dangerous is one that may or may not arrive: Leonardo DiCaprio‘s turn in “The Wolf Of Wall Street” looks looser and funnier than anything he’s done in a while, and he’s a three-time nominee without a win.

More definite would be Christian Bale, who’ll be campaigning for lead for his role in David O Russell‘s “American Hustle.” The last time the two worked together, Bale won an Oscar, so it’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for, especially as Russell’s work has earned seven acting nominations for his last two films. There’s a possibility that Bale might cancel himself out with his performance in “Out Of The Furnace,” but we’re not sure that’ll really be in the running. Also, by this time next week, we’ll know about Joaquin Phoenix in “Her.” The actor is hardly a fan of the awards circuit, as we learned last year, but that didn’t stop him being nominated for “The Master.” This seems like a more immediately lovable character, so there’s certainly potential here.

Also worth keeping an eye on, though not immediately too threatening, are Matt Damon in “Monuments Men,” Michael Fassbender in “The Counselor,” Mark Wahlberg in “Lone Survivor” and Josh Brolin in “Oldboy.” All that said, our predictions for how the nominations will go down are below.

Best Actor Predictions – October 7th

Bruce Dern – “Nebraska”

Chiwetel Ejiofor – “12 Years A Slave”

Tom Hanks – “Captain Phillips”

Matthew McConaughey – “Dallas Buyers Club” 

Robert Redford – “All Is Lost”

Best Picture Chart – October 7th (as the race narrows, we’ve gone from 25 to 20 this week…)

1. “Gravity” (last week: 3)
This week, the film gets the top slot: stellar reviews and a killer $50 million opening weekend, which puts it on course to at least equal the $600 million haul of “Life Of Pi.”  It’ s likely locked for a Best Picture slot now, but can it do what Ang Lee’s film and “Avatar” couldn’t, and actually win?

2. “American Hustle” (2)
It test screened for the first time at the end of last week, and the word is good — we’ve heard it’s a culmination of everything Russell’s been working towards in the last few years. If the word is true, will that be enough to beat its rivals?

3. “12 Years A Slave” (1)
No sign of a major backlash yet, and with a brewing opening later this month, word will continue to build as Fox Searchlight gets the word out.

4. “Captain Phillips” (5)
Tracking well ahead of its opening on Friday, reviews look to be strong across the board. As competitors fall it out, it’s looking more and more likely to be among the Best Picture nominees.

5. “Saving Mr. Banks” (4)
About to be unveiled officially, but we’ve heard that this could give ‘Slave,’ “Gravity” and ‘Hustle’ competition as a potential contender for the win, in a way that we’re not sure ‘Phillips’ will be. That said, it’s unlikely to be a critical favorite in a way that they are, which could see it lose ground.

6. “Monuments Men” (10)
After initial word that this wasn’t necessarily an “awards” movie, the buzz has turned around, and there’s some suggestion that it will be in the mix. We’re still a couple of months away from seeing it, most likely, but not to be dismissed.

7. “Nebraska” (9)
The film’s apparently gone down incredibly well with Academy voters and the like, so after the film had a quiet festival season, this is picking up steam again. 

8. “All Is Lost” (15)
We saw it this week, and thought it was terrific, and far from the one-man show we were expecting: J.C. Chandor’s direction is hugely impressive, and while it’s not as showy an achievement as “Gravity,” it’s skilled stuff. Whether the Academy agrees with us remains to be seen — it’s definitely got some work to do to make the cut — but it deserves to be in the mix.

9. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (7)
We continue to maintain that if “A Serious Man” can make the cut, this should be an easier sell. That said, that film had a quieter year, and ten slots (rather than the indeterminate number we now have). Again, support from the critics groups would be helpful to shore this one up.

10. “Dallas Buyers Club” (8)
As Focus’ main (sole?) hope, it’s hard to tell if the film will benefit from the changes at the company announced last week. Will the change of leadership cause continuity issues when it comes to campaigning? Could it benefit from the wealth of feeling brought up by the news? Will concerns about the direction of the company’s future cause hesitation when it comes to voting for it? Or will it not matter at all?

11. “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” (9)
NYFF reactions were mixed, arguably leaning negative (our review here), but as we said in this space last week, it was never likely to be a critical favorite — even if it was following the “Life of Pi” playbook, it was probably something of an error, campaign-wise. What’s more important is if it connects with Academy voters, and we feel like that possibility still stands. We’re getting a sort of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” vibe in terms of response, so this could yet make the cut.

12. “Philomena” (=)
The Weinstein Company’s slate has three main films, and people just plain seem to like this one more. So far, the film’s been more enthusiastically received in Europe than in the U.S (it’ll be a big player with BAFTA), but we sense that Academy audiences will dig it. Still, none of the TWC projects feel particularly strong: could we be looking at a Harvey-free Best Picture line-up for the first time since 2007?

13. “August Osage County” (11)
Still gone quiet, mostly, while it’s recut (or not?) so in a sort of holding pattern. Its hefty ensemble remains likely to bring in votes from actors, but it has some competition on that front from “12 Years A Slave,” “American Hustle” and even “Saving Mr Banks.” The SAG winner may end up being key.

14. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (=)
The lurker: every time a “Foxcatcher” drops out or a “Walter Mitty” gets negative notices, this edges a little closer. Our guess is that this is less likely to break through than “Philomena” or “August” from TWC’s slate, but that may just be wishful thinking…

15. “Blue Jasmine” (19)
An interview with the head of Sony Pictures Classics made it clear that the studio have high hopes for this to recapture the magic of “Midnight In Paris.” It is less of an obvious crowd pleaser, but if anything, seems to be even more admired. But will controversy over the Vanity Fair profile of Mia Farrow, and the accusations over Woody Allen therein, make people reluctant to vote for it?

16. “Her” (17)
By this time next week, we’ll know if this has the right stuff: it’ll either raise up the ranks, or drop off the list altogether. Warners seem confident, having been sowing the seeds for an awards run since the LA Film Festival in the early summer, but they have “Gravity” to take care of as well.

17. “Rush” (16)
Didn’t do great in limited release, didn’t do any better when it went wide. For a tiny indie, that wouldn’t be an issue, for a Ron Howard movie, that’s more important. Still, the film really plays with those who’ve seen it.

18. “Enough Said” (21)
The big surprise of the season so far — a legitimate breakout hit (brushing into the top 10 this week on only 400 screens) with great reviews. Fox Searchlight’s attention will be split with “12 Years A Slave,” so they’ll need to keep the momentum up on this one too, but it’s not impossible. Independent Spirit nods seem there for the taking, and Gandolfini’s Oscar nomination is getting closer too.

19. “The Wolf Of Wall Street” (18)
With a 2013 release date now looking likely, our thoughts on this one will grow as more is shown from the movie, particularly with a new trailer around the corner. Either way, expect this one to move up the chart by next week.

20. “Prisoners” (13)
Box office remains solid, but the awards buzz faded pretty fast: “Mystic River” was always the obvious comparison point, and this doesn’t seem to be “Mystic River.”

Bubbling Under: “Fruitvale Station,” “Out Of The Furnace,” “The Counselor,” “Labor Day,” “Lone Survivor,” “Before Midnight,” “Mud,” “The Past”

Out:The Book Thief” — This screened last week, at the Mill Valley Film Festival (no, us neither). The few reviews and reactions we’ve seen weren’t terrible, but hardly the raves that a film like this needed to break into the race. Maybe we’ll be proven wrong, but with the stiff competition, this feels DOA awards-wise.

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