Oscars Supporting Actor 2013

So far, for the most part, a good chunk of the 2013 awards contenders have been seen but only by the high falutin' critical types that frequent film festivals—as we saw last week. But that started to change last week with the release of two legit Best Picture contenders: Ron Howard's "Rush," and Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners." So even those trying to stick their head in the sand and avoid Oscar season aren't going to have much of a choice from here on out.

The two films, along with Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said," which also opened last week, are united by another thing: they all feature performances that could well be among the Best Supporting Actor contenders when nominations are announced in January. Daniel Bruhl, Jake Gyllenhaal and James Gandolfini are all very much in the running, and with their movies now hitting theaters, it felt like the perfect category to examine first in our week-by-week look at the awards season. Which performers are solidifying their buzz? Who could potentially surprise by shaking things up a few weeks or months from now?

Matthew McConaughey , Mud

Early Year Contenders

As is likely to be the case across most of the categories, there are only a handful of viable contenders coming from films released between the start of January and the end of August. A24 have already started a campaign for James Franco in "Spring Breakers," but it's more for fun than anything else: Franco's certainly deserving, but few Academy members are likely to make it far enough into the film for him to turn up, let alone to watch his metal-faced, Lil' Wayne-aping character fellate a gun. More viable is Matthew McConaughey in another 2012 festival holdover, "Mud." The film was one of the biggest indie hits of the year and fits right into the McConaughey comeback narrative, with the actor already looking a dead-cert for a nomination for "Dallas Buyers Club." Our gut is that he doesn't do the double with "Mud"—it'll feel like old news by the time voting comes around, especially given that it premiered at Cannes in 2012 and 'Buyers Club' will likely get the bulk of the publicity. But it is a film that we can see voters responding to, so you never know.

Another film released months ago that could be seen as being in the Academy's wheelhouse is surprise hit "42," and Harrison Ford is a very faint possibility for a nod; again, the film could end up getting a "Blind Side" kind of reaction from Academy members. That said, they likely saw it months ago and Ford's turn is likely to be superseded by more recent ones. Ben Foster's turn in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is deserving, but the film doesn't have much traction while some have suggested Andrew Dice Clay for "Blue Jasmine," but we suspect that the comic's public persona isn't going to endear him to many. Finally, of the expansive cast of "Lee Daniels' The Butler," David Oyelowo, as the title character's son, seems to have the best shot of the supporting players, but while the actor's destined to be recognized at some point, this feels like a stretch to us.

Rush, Daniel Bruhl

Hot From The Festival Circuit

As we mentioned in the intro, this week sees a fair few possibilities arriving in theaters that have been picking up buzz since they arrived on the festival circuit. Perhaps the most potent, at least at first, is Daniel Bruhl, who's been winning rave reviews for his portrayal of Niki Lauda in Ron Howard's "Rush." The actor's not a terribly familiar face to Academy members, but it'll help that he's also a key part of "The Fifth Estate" (it looked at one point as though he might end up competing against himself, but the latter has so little traction that it seems unlikely), and he's winning new fans every time the film screens. 

Less certain is James Gandolfini for "Enough Said," given that voters have so far resisted Nicole Holofcener's other work. But he's certainly been warmly received in the picture and if the film does decently, Fox Searchlight could well end up pushing through to a nomination. Frankly, if Gandolfini is nominated then there's a damn good chance he might posthumously win the award. It's getting the film into consideration will be the greater challenge. A similar difficulty faces "Prisoners"—as one of the first films in contention to open, it has to keep up momentum throughout the fall without the benefit of a more gradual limited roll-out.

But if it can get that far then Jake Gyllenhaal might well be a viable nominee—he's arguably had the best notices of the film. It'd be a slight element of category fraud as he's essentially the co-lead, but we believe that Warners are pushing Gyllenhaal to supporting and sticking co-star Hugh Jackman in Best Actor, and the "Brokeback Mountain" star arguably has a better chance in a less crowded-field after picking up some of the best reviews of his career. We'd place him outside the final five at present, but if "Prisoners" maintains over the next few weeks, that could change.

Dallas Buyers Club
"Dallas Buyers Club"

Otherwise, both Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club" and Michael Fassbender for "12 Years A Slave" firmly staked their claims to a place in the race during Telluride and TIFF, and both look likely to end up among the final five. The former in particular might be the frontrunner at this stage, winning career-best raves for his first acting performance in four years as the transgendered business partner of McConaughey's character. We stated a touch of skepticism about Fassbender last week—he's less of a lock than co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o—but with an open field he could well follow the film if it's the awards phenomenon most are expecting it to be.

Elsewhere, many are tipping newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who plays the lead hijacker in "Captain Phillips" for a nomination but we'd need to see the film for ourselves to really get behind the idea. We have seen "Gravity" and "Philomena," and George Clooney and Steve Coogan are possible respectively for them, but aren't home runs—Clooney's great in Alfonso Cuaron's film but his most emotional moment is voice-only, while Coogan will likely find better luck with his screenplay for the Stephen Frears film. Meanwhile, if anyone breaks out of the "August: Osage County" ensemble in this category it seems most likely to be Chris Cooper, who's had the best notices, but Benedict Cumberbatch has been mentioned by some critics too. Still, neither feel like dead certs after the film's middling reviews. Similarly, buzz has cooled on Will Forte in "Nebraska" and John Goodman in "Inside Llewyn Davis" since Cannes, and never really got going on Josh Brolin in "Labor Day," though again, there's potential for the latter to be better received by the Academy than it was by critics.