Premature Predictions: The 2014 Best Actor Nominees

As part of our steady quest to go cold turkey from the Oscar season over the next few days, we've been running down some of our possibilities for the films that will be elbowing each other for awards in 2014. Yesterday, we looked at Best Picture, and today, we turn to Best Actor, won this year by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Last year, our Best Actor record wasn't too bad; excluding a category mix-up between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, we named all five eventual nominees as contenders, and directly predicted three of them. Still, we're very aware we're just gazing far off on the horizon, anything could happen and the year will crystallize itself closer to the fall. We're obviously working with minimal information, but we still feel ever-optimistic, and certainly feel more confident this time around. Take a look at our picks below, and let us know your own thoughts in the comments section. And tomorrow: Best Actress.

Best Actor

Strong Contenders

Steve Carell
Steve Carell - "Foxcatcher"
Despite starring roles in "The Office" and Best Picture nominee "Little Miss Sunshine," Steve Carell hasn't been an awards magnet to date. He won a Golden Globe seven years ago for playing Michael Scott, but remarkably never picked up an Emmy for the performance. But we're reasonably confident that the Oscars will come calling in 2014, thanks to his starring role in Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher." Carell has impressed in his more restrained roles so far, and Miller's proven to be an ace hand with actors (getting Jonah Hill a nomination for "Moneyball"). Plus the part -- John DuPont, a schizophrenic millionaire wrestling fan who became the wealthiest man ever convicted of murder -- is a doozy. Carell's well-liked too, so unless the film or performance fails to live up to scratch, this might be the one to beat.

Chiwetel Ejiofor - "Twelve Years A Slave" (set image)
Chiwetel Ejiofor - "Twelve Years A Slave"
One of our favorite working actors, British star Chiwetel Ejiofor has impressed consistently in films as diverse as "Dirty Pretty Things," "Serenity" and "Children Of Men" without ever quite finding the one part that would take him to the next level of stardom. But that part could well be here with "Twelve Years A Slave." The film was envisioned from the ground-up by "Shame" director Steve McQueen, and stars Ejiofor as central character Solomon Northrup. And while the likes of Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt turn up in the film, Ejiofor is very much the sole lead, unlike Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained," who had to share the limelight with Christoph Waltz. There's always the possibility that the film proves to be too brutal for Academy tastes -- Fassbender was hotly tipped for "Shame," but missed out at the last -- but we think Ejiofor has a better shot.

"The Fifth Estate."
"The Fifth Estate."
Benedict Cumberbatch - "The Fifth Estate"
Ejiofor's "Twelve Years A Slave" co-star Benedict Cumberbatch is set for a big year in general: he'll also play the villain in "Star Trek Into Darkness," and appear in the next installment of "The Hobbit," as well as crop up with a meaty supporting part in "August: Osage County." But the showiest role is likely to be Julian Assange in Bill Condon's Wikileaks movie "The Fifth Estate." One only has to look at Jesse Eisenberg a few years back to see the potential of a slightly anti-social website founder who changed the world, as an awards contender, and Cumberbatch has the added benefit of the film hitting as his wave crests. This is one of those performances that, unless the film really tanks, may be irresistible to Academy members.

Matthew McConaughey - "Dallas Buyers Club"
Despite an extraordinary creative renaissance with "Killer Joe," "Bernie," "Magic Mike" et al, Matthew McConaughey failed to break into the Best Supporting Actor category this year for his role in the Steven Soderbergh film. But there's a lot of goodwill towards him these days, and he has one of the most awards-baiting lead roles of his career on the way, with the based-on-a-true-story tale "Dallas Buyers Club." McConaughey's weight loss to play AIDS sufferer Ron Woodruff -- who experimented with non-FDA approved drugs to extend his lifespan by six years (and helped other sufferers along the way) after being diagnosed with AIDS -- will surely earn him attention right off the bat. A part once intended for Brad Pitt, the physical transformation coupled with a strong performance could put McConaughey well in the race, even if the movie itself doesn't quite deliver.

Bruce Dern Will Forte Nebraska
Bruce Dern - "Nebraska"
Everyone loves a comeback story, and there's the potential for a doozy this year in the shape of Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," and the central performance from Bruce Dern. The actor has a fifty-year career under his belt, with one previous nomination (for "Coming Home" in 1978), and parts in plenty of classics, including "Silent Running," "The King Of Marvin Gardens" and "The Driver." Dern hasn't led a movie in years, but after Robert Forster, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall were all rumored, he landed the co-lead in Alexander Payne's black-and-white movie, about an estranged father and son on a road trip to collect a Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes prize. Payne's last three films have all led to acting nominations, the part's apparently an excellent one, and Dern's enough of Hollywood royalty that the narrative could be irresistible.