Probably the biggest gamble of the 2012 awards season, Tom Hooper's decision to get his cast to sing live on the set of "Les Miserables" might turn out to be a disaster, or might be a stroke of genius. But if any actor stands to benefit, it's Russell Crowe: the three-time nominee has been looking to show new facets to his personality, and as the antagonist, who gets several key numbers to sing, this could be it. He could also turn out to sing like Pierce Brosnan in "Mamma Mia!," but until proven otherwise, we think Crowe is the big awards play here.
Joaquin Phoenix - "The Master"
Having been away from the limelight for some time, Joaquin Phoenix returns in a big way in 2012, and while he's the nominal lead in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, we suspect any awards campaign will push him in supporting (so as not compete with Philip Seymour Hoffman). He's been nominated in the past, for "Gladiator" and "Walk The Line," so the Academy could well welcome him back with open arms, but the overall tone of the film may be the deciding factor here.
We have a feeling that Ben Affleck's latest is going to play big with the Academy this year, and we have think that someone from the impressive supporting cast could break out. It's hard to say who at this point, but good bets would be John Goodman, who plays "Planet of the Apes" make-up artist John Chambers, and Alan Arkin, who plays spy-turned-movie producer Lester Siegel. The latter part sounds more colorful, but Arkin won recently (2006 for "Little Miss Sunshine"), whereas Goodman has never been nominated. Time will tell which, if either, emerges as a frontrunner.
Guy Pearce - "The Wettest County"
While it's probably more palatable than the director's previous works, and a mooted Venice premiere means that the Weinsteins are taking the film's awards prospects seriously, we suspect that John Hillcoat's "The Wettest County" isn't going to play super well with the Academy. But that doesn't rule out a nomination or two, and the word we've heard from test screenings is that Guy Pearce, as a lawman tracking the three moonshining brothers the film focuses on, is the standout. That doesn't necessarily mean awards play, but this far out, it's more rock solid info than most.
Generally deemed to have been snubbed this year for "Drive," comeback kid Albert Brooks could well have another chance next time around, back more in comedic territory for Judd Apatow's latest, "This Is Forty." Playing the father of Paul Rudd's character, we can see that the Academy might well feel happier about rewarding him for something like this, in part as commiseration for missing out this year. That being said, it depends entirely on the part: it'll need to be bigger than Harold Ramis' role in "Knocked Up," and ideally be an important aspect of the plot.
Robert De Niro - "The Silver-Linings Playbook"
Another father figure role, playing the dad of Bradley Cooper's mentally troubled protagonist is Robert De Niro, who hasn't been nominated since "Cape Fear" twenty years ago. He's seemingly taking more interesting roles of late and he could have a good shot here, particularly now that David O. Russell has made an awards breakthrough with "The Fighter." Again, it's dependent on the material, but this is likely De Niro's best chance in years.
Given how "The Assassination of Jesse James" played with the Academy, we're not holding our breath for the pulpier "Cogan's Trade" to sweep the Oscars. That being said, Brad Pitt holds a lot of sway, and again, the cast is full of character actor veterans who could end up with a good showcase here. We won't know for some time who'll emerge from the pack, but veteran Ray Liotta, who plays a mobster, and James Gandolfini, who plays a troubled hitman, could be the ones.
Domnhal Gleeson - "Anna Karenina"
Who? Well, Domnhal Gleeson is the son of veteran Brendan Gleeson, who's cropped up in films like "Never Let Me Go," "True Grit" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" so far. But he gets his best showcase to date in "Anna Karenina" as Levin, the most sympathetic character in Tolstoy's novel, and one who seems to take a central role in Joe Wright's take. It feels like a more awards-worthy part than Jude Law or Aaron Johnson's, but it's still a wild shot at the moment.
Can Tom Hardy follow the path of previous Bat-villain Heath Ledger to Oscar glory? Probably not, to be honest. We suspect Ledger would have been nominated even if he hadn't passed away beforehand, but that was a colorful part, a real actor's showcase. From what we've seen of the threequel, Hardy's part isn't nearly as voter-friendly, what with the mask and the Vincent Price voice and all. But who knows?
Also In The Mix: Either Joel Edgerton or Tobey Maguire in "The Great Gatsby" are plausible, Alec Baldwin or Roberto Benigni could emerge from Woody Allen's "Nero Fiddled," Bradley Cooper has got a meaty role in "The Place Beyond The Pines," there's a few possibilites in Kathryn Bigelow's next, including Jason Clarke, Mark Strong and Edgar Ramirez, and virtually anyone could emerge from "Lincoln," but it's impossible to tell at this point who it could be. From Sundance, there's William H. Macy in "The Surrogate" or Nick Offerman in "Smashed" to keep an eye on, while "The Company You Keep" or "Cloud Atlas" might provide an actor or two. And a possible surprise to look out for? Matthew Goode in "Stoker."
Best Supporting Actress
A year ago, after the Berlin premiere at "Coriolanus," it seemed like Vanessa Redgrave was on the path for her seventh Oscar nomination. But the mixed reception for the film caused the momentum to ebb away, and it never came to pass. Fortunately, she's got another shot this year, with Paul Andrew Williams' "Song For Marion." The role, as a British housewife in a choir who's diagnosed with a terminal illness, couldn't be more in the Academy's remit, and she'll have the support of the Weinstein Company for the film too.
Samantha Barks/Anne Hathaway - "Les Miserables"
There's plenty of supporting roles in Tom Hooper's musical that could end up leading to the Academy Awards; anyone from Eddie Redmayne to Helena Bonham Carter and Amanda Seyfried could end up with a nod, assuming the film turns out well. But as Jennifer Hudson and John C. Reilly have proved in recent years, all it takes is one barnburner of a number to get a nod, and Anne Hathaway, as the tragic Fantine, and newcomer Samantha Barks, as Eponine, have the two key ones, in "I Dreamed A Dream" and "On My Own." It won't be both, but one or the other has a good chance.
While two-time nominee Amy Adams has a decent chance at Best Actress with "Trouble With The Curve," we think her real shot at gold comes with Paul Thomas Anderson's latest. The wife of Philip Seymour Hoffman's charismatic relgiious leader seems to be the most obvious female part for awards attention, particularly given her past nominations (if you ask us, she was robbed for her turn in "The Fighter"). That being said, Laura Dern might emerge from the film as the one, or newcomer Ambyr Childers, as Hoffman's daughter.
Isla Fisher - "The Great Gatsby"
Assuming that Carey Mulligan competes as a lead rather than supporting for Daisy in Baz Luhrmann's film, that offers a real opportunity for Australian actress Isla Fisher to pick up her first nomination. She's best known for her comedy work, most notably in "Wedding Crashers," but Mrs. Baron Cohen has always seemed capable of more, and the role of Myrtle, the unstable, tragic mistress of Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Daisy's husband, will allow her to show some range. If the film doesn't connect in general, it likely won't happen, but we think Fisher has a real shot to break out.
Even given the offbeat way in which Joe Wright is approaching the Russian literary classic, there's more than a few great roles in play. And while he's attracted a spectacular line-up of actresses, including Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, Holliday Grainger, Ruth Wilson and Michelle Dockery, we've got a feeling that the one that might emerge from the pack is Kelly MacDonald. The Scottish actress was unlucky not to get more attention for "No Country For Old Men," but she's a more familiar face these days thanks to "Boardwalk Empire" and Pixar's upcoming "Brave," and she's got a key role here as Dolly, the wife of Prince Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen). But don't count out Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as her sister, Kitty, either.
Sally Field - "Lincoln"
As a Civil War-era political drama, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" isn't exactly going to be overrun with women. But there is one key female: Sally Field, as the president's other half, Mary Todd Lincoln. With Tony Kushner's script kept under wraps, there's no word on the size of the role, but our guess is that it'll be one of the more substantial ones. Field has won twice previously, but with the bulk of her work being on television recently, she's been out of the spotlight for a little while; might this be her glorious return?
We've already pointed to Bill Murray and Laura Linney as major threats in the lead acting categories for "Hyde Park On Hudson," but there are a couple of supporting roles that show real potential as well. Despite a string of great performances since "Rushmore," Olivia Williams has never been nominated, but as Eleanor Roosevelt, she's got both a famous figure to impersonate and some strong material to play, as she watches her presidential husband conduct an affair. But don't ignore Olivia Colman either: she didn't get much traction last year for "Tyrannosaur," but it put her on the radar, and as Queen Elizabeth, she's taking up the mantle that saw Helena Bonham-Carter nominated for two years ago.
Olga Kurylenko - "Untitled Terrence Malick Project"
As we've said more than once, while Terrence Malick has never been an acting branch favorite, his latest holds more potential than usual, and a potential dark horse in the supporting category could be Olga Kurylenko. Right now, the actress is best known as a Bond girl, but she's got chops that go beyond that, and might well be one to keep an eye on here, as the other side of Ben Affleck's faltering marriage.
Last year, Carey Mulligan had two possibilites for a nomination with "Drive" and "Shame," but both proved too tough to connect with voters. But a period picture about the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, from unlikely Oscar favorites the Coen Brothers seems like far better material. She's the most established name in a young cast, although only time will tell if the part is nomination material. However, if she ends up with momentum for "The Great Gatsby," or if that performance is campaigned in supporting, this will fall by the wayside.
Frances McDormand - "Moonrise Kingdom"
Wes Anderson's characters have always been a little too offbeat to manage to breakthrough to the Oscars, but as we said yesterday, we think this might have the potential to be the one to break through, and the performances might follow. From what we've read and seen, we think that former winner Frances McDormand (who's managed two additional nominations since "Fargo") might have the best chance. But if the film turns out to be more "The Darjeeling Limited" than "Rushmore," count her out.
Also In The Mix: After a nomination last year, Jessica Chastain has two possibilities: Kathryn Bigelow's Bin Laden movie, and "The Wettest County." Neither seem like obvious material, but she's clearly going to be an awards favorite for years to come. Mia Wasikowska could also turn up from "The Wettest County," or even "Stoker," while either Rose Byrne or Eva Mendes might break out from "A Place Beyond The Pines." If the film works, Maggie Gyllenhaal might get a second nomination for her work with Viola Davis in "Won't Back Down" as well. Finally, in a cast full of veterans, Julie Christie or Susan Sarandon might work in Robert Redford's "The Company You Keep."
And, for the record, our definitive early picks.
Best Supporting Actor
Russell Crowe - "Les Miserables
Leonardo DiCaprio - "Django Unchained"
John Goodman - "Argo"
Sean Penn - "Gangster Squad"
Joaquin Phoenix - "The Master"
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams - "The Master"
Samantha Barks - "Les Miserables"
Isla Fisher - "The Great Gatsby"
Kelly Macdonald - "Anna Karenina"
Vanessa Redgrave - "Song For Marion"