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Oscar Buzz: Who Are The Best Actor Frontrunners, And Who Could Still Surprise?

Oscar Buzz: Who Are The Best Actor Frontrunners, And Who Could Still Surprise?

It’s been a month or so since we checked in on the state of this year’s Oscar race, and though much of what we said back remains true (the race this year is a backloaded one, with no obvious front-runner yet and plenty of big contenders unlikely to be unveiled before the end of November), the race has crystalized somewhat. Some movies have all but exited the race, if they were even in consideration (bye, “This Is Where I Leave You” and “Men Women & Children“!). Some have arrived with a box-office splash (“Gone Girl,” riding strong reviews, excellent box office, and a billion think-pieces). And some, like “Inherent Vice,” no one quite knows what to make of.

We’ll have more to say about the Best Picture line-up in future weeks, but for now, we wanted to take a look at where the acting races stand, starting with Best Actor. The most hotly-debated beyond the big prize, there’s been a tendency to see these awards get locked in early in recent years (Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto and even Matthew McConaughey were predetermined months in advance), but at this point, all four acting races seem wide open, with nominations up for grabs and only one true frontrunner that anyone else will need to overturn.

So who should start booking their limo and tux for Academy Awards night? Who’s still got a fight to come? And what surprises are potentially on the way in the next few months? We’ve run down where things stand in each category: feel free to make your own predictions in the comments section.

Best Actor:

Traditionally the most packed of the races (Hollywood lacks many things, but good roles for white men between the ages of 30 and 50 are not one of them), Best Actor certainly looks the most competitive of the four categories at this stage, with at least four performances right now that seem like very, very good bets for nomination. But with so many other performances yet to be unveiled, can any of them truly be considered locks? Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher” seems to be the most difficult to ignore at this point. It’s a transformative turn, unlike anything the comedy star has done before, complete with prosthetic disguise, and Carell won rave reviews at Cannes. There’s been some question of which performance from the film goes in which category. Carell’s role is arguably supporting, and he’d be a good bet to win as such, whereas in Best Actor, the film’s darkness may see him might fall out if a number of the late-year performances look like juggernauts. For now, though, Sony Pictures Classics are said to be campaigning both Carell and co-star Channing Tatum as lead actors (the latter is just as good), with Mark Ruffalo in Supporting, and despite the potential for a split vote, we think Carell should make the cut.

Michael Keaton also looks like a good bet. “Birdman” has recevied raves, and he arguably has the best narrative of anyone here, a veteran star who’s been on the outs for a while returning with a tour-de-force turn. Again, it’s darker than some of the competition, but not so much that it’s unlikely to win enough fans for the nod, if not the win. Cheekbones-y Brits Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne also look solid for biopics “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory Of Everything.” Cumberbatch is the more established name at this point (though like many of the frontrunners in this category, he’d be a first-time nominee), but Redmayne might have the showier role, as his Stephen Hawking slowly becomes physically trapped in his own body. Both are undoubtedly deserving, but the question is whether there’s room for them both, given some of the competition still on the horizon.

Still To Come:
Of those performances left to be screened, the most potent might be Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper.” The actor is now a two-time nominee, and has a potent real-life role in “American Sniper,” which if the trailer is anything to go by, looks to have real Oscar potential (though, as with “Invictus,” sometimes Clint Eastwood‘s films look better on paper, awards-wise, than on screen). But Jack O’Connell could well end up delivering too. The young British actor has blown minds with “Starred Up” and “71” this year, and has his big Hollywood coming-out party with Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” playing Olympian/POW Louis Zamperini, and losing significant weight in the process. O’Connell is hugely charismatic in person, but in a less Downton-ish way than Cumberbatch and Redmayne, and there may only be room for a few of these relatively unknown (to older Academy voters, at lest) Brits, but if the work’s good enough, he’ll be a real contender.

Also still to bow and with real potential are “A Most Violent Year” and “Selma.” The former looks to be another great turn from Oscar Isaac, who’s surely a future winner one of these days, but unless the film proves to be a huge Academy force (it looks a little more smart and adult), he might miss out, as he did shamefully for “Inside Llewyn Davis” last year. David Oyelowo is the nominal lead of “Selma,” playing Martin Luther King, and that’s the kind of role that can often lead to a nod. But Oyelowo is again a relatively low-profile British actor, and the film’s apparently more of an ensemble piece than a King biopic. But the potential is there in a big way. There’s also Brad Pitt‘s turn in “Fury” and Matthew McConaughey‘s in “Interstellar“: we’ll find out shortly if the former has the goods, but our gut says Pitt probably won’t figure in this time regardless of the quality of the movie, and while we hear McConaughey is outstanding again in “Interstellar,” acting nods for a role like that in a film like this are rarer, even for the defending champion in the category. Don’t discount Mark Wahlberg for “The Gambler” either, with the actor dropping 60 pounds for the role. It worked for McConaughey last year…

Looking Strong:
A Cannes win for Best Actor can be a way into the race, and Timothy Spall and “Mr. Turner” is certainly one worth considering. The actor is a veteran and well-liked character player in a rare and well-deserved lead role in a film that sees a master filmmaker looking back at his career, something that the Academy isn’t exactly averse to. We’re on the fence on the Oscar potential of the movie (which we love, but isn’t the easiest of sells), and do wonder if Spall’s grunt-and-snort heavy turn might be overlooked for something, well, sexier, but he’s more than deserving, and is certainly in the conversation.

Bill Murray‘s still in the hunt for an Oscar after missing for “Lost In Translation” nearly a decade ago, and “St. Vincent” provides his latest attempt. It’s certainly got more potential than, say, “Hyde Park On Hudson” did, and has been fairly warmly received, but with the strength of competition, Murray needs a little more than an amiable comedy-drama in which he plays a lovable grouch to get another nomination. Joaquin Phoenix is stretching his wings a little further, as he’s reportedly excellent once again in “Inherent Vice.” But the movie itself is seemingly too loopy for Academy tastes, and though Phoenix was nominated for “The Master,” he missed for “Her” last year.

This past weekend saw “Gone Girl” land and prove a big hit, and the film seems likely to go on to significant Oscar nominations. But we’re not yet sure that Ben Affleck will be among them. The two-time winner (for screenwriting and producing) is the best he’s ever been in David Fincher‘s film, but the character’s deliberately (and brilliantly) shallow charm isn’t the sort of thing that wins out over, say, disability or a prosthetic nose, especially with such dark material. In similarly sinister territory is Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler,” who’s also winning the best reviews of his career for Dan Gilroy‘s film. It’s likely to be a critical favorite, but probably not to the extent that it wins the critics’ groups that would be crucial to getting difficult material like this over the line (looks for Keaton, Carell and maybe Spall to be the big leaders with the New York Film Critics Circle and co). Channing Tatum for “Foxcatcher” will certainly be in the conversation too, but as things stand, he’ll probably be overshadowed by Carell. Ralph Fiennes is in the running for “Grand Budapest Hotel” as well, but despite his superb turn, we think the short memories of voters will probably see him overlooked.

Deserving Consideration:
In the spirit of some of what we talked about on our most recent podcast, we’re loathe to spend time predicting who the Academy will be going for without putting deserving movies with less “buzz” in the spotlight too (particularly those from the first half of the year). Jake Gyllenhaal’s got a medium-shot with “Nightcrawler,” but he’s just as deserving for his brilliantly subtle dual role in “Enemy,” while Jesse Eisenberg covered similar territory in a very different way to career-best effect in “The Double” (he’s also superb in Kelly Reichardt‘s “Night Moves“). Almost as challenging as playing a doppelganger is performing almost an entire role with a papier-mache head on, so we’d certainly give Michael Fassbender a shout for his turn in “Frank.”

Also unrecognizable on screen, as per usual, was Andy Serkis, whose work in “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” is maybe his finest performance capture hour to date. Campaigns to see Serkis recognized for his efforts in the past failed to gather much steam (there’s resistance from both actors and visual effects artists to the idea), but both Serkis and co-star Toby Kebbell did phenomenal work and the year’s best blockbuster wouldn’t have functioned as well as it id without either. Also not to be overlooked: Tom Hiddleston‘s revelatory turn in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Guy Pearce‘s savage performance in “The Rover,” and Nicolas Cage‘s major return to form in “Joe,” while either John Lithgow or Alfred Molina would be deserving for “Love Is Strange.” Maybe the actor with the best chance of breaking through from this category is Tom Hardy‘s amazing Richard Burton-esque one man show in “Locke,” though it remains to be seen if A24 are mounting a campaign for him. Still, if you’re an Academy member (or anyone), wander off the beaten path a little more and seek these movies out.

Longer Shots:
There’s plenty more possibilities out there, though we’re currently taking them less seriously than the ones above. Chadwick Boseman looked like a possibility for “Get On Up,” but the film’s underperformance financially likely put paid to any serious chances  —the same could likely be said of Brendan Gleeson and “Calvary.” “Boyhood” increasingly looks like a serious Oscar contender, but we’re not sure that voters will go for young star Ellar Coltrane, never mind the movie. A posthumous nod for Philip Seymour Hoffman and “A Most Wanted Man” would be wonderful, but feels like a long shot despite the film’s sleeper hit status, and Bill Hader is very good in “The Skeleton Twins,” but is likely too small a movie to make an impact.

Of films yet to be seen, there’s Christian Bale in “Exodus: Gods And Kings” and James Corden in “Into The Woods” but they’ll have to be superb to break into a tough race. Russell Crowe deserves but won’t get recognition for “Noah,” his best turn in years, while reviews for “Kill The Messenger” are lukewarm, so Jeremy Renner‘s unlikely to figure in much. Campaigns will be made for Tommy Lee Jones in “The Homesman,” James McAvoy in “Eleanor Rigby,” Al Pacino in “The Humbling,” Mark Ruffalo in “Begin Again,” Jude Law in “Dom Hemingway” and Gael Garcia Bernal in “Rosewater,” but they’re unlikely to make much of an impact on the race.

Steve Carell – “Foxcatcher”
Bradley Cooper – “American Sniper”
Benedict Cumberbatch – “The Imitation Game” 
Michael Keaton – “Birdman”
Eddie Redmayne – “The Theory Of Everything”
Coming next week: we’ll take a close look at the Best Actress race.

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