By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 9, 2013 at 1:33PM
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 "Nebraska" was 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?