The Best Actor category tends to be the realm of the A-list, but it's always gratifying when a rising star sneaks in among the more established names, and this year, one to keep an eye on is Michael B. Jordan. A veteran of TV fare such as "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," he impressed last year in "Chronicle," and at Sundance this year, was one of the breakout stars thanks to his leading role in "Fruitvale." Ryan Coogler's film follows the last day in the life of Oscar Grant (Jordan), a once-troubled young Oakland man trying to put his life on the right track, who is killed by a police officer in the early hours of New Year's Day. And by all accounts, the 26-year-old actor gives a star-making turn. Our hunch is that he may struggle to overcome his better-known competition, but if the film builds enough momentum, he might well follow it.
After two nominations in two years, and winning the Oscar the second time around, Colin Firth has sat the last couple of awards seasons out -- his part in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," the only new film of his released in that time period, unfortunately failed to get any traction. But the British actor has another strong role on the way in the shape of "The Railway Man.' Firth plays Eric Lomax (with Jeremy Irvine as his younger self), a soldier who was captured and tortured by the Japanese during World War Two, who was haunted by his experiences as a POW, but eventually reconciled with one of his torturers. Right now, the film is somewhat under the radar, despite shooting some time ago, but the subject matter certainly seems potent, and all it will take are some rave festival reviews (TIFF is probably a good bet) to put Firth back into the race.
A rarity on this list in that not only is it shot and finished, but we've also seen it, Ramin Bahrani's "At Any Price" proved somewhat divisive when it screened at Venice and TIFF last year, some falling for the film's Arthur Miller-ish melodrama, some finding it overblown and creaky. But one thing united most of the reviewers; the central performance from Dennis Quaid, who plays a charismatic Iowan corn farmer struggling to keep his family and business together. It's a truly titanic turn, easily the role of the (never-nominated) actor's career, and one that even those cool on the film have been impressed by. The question is whether it can get the momentum for an awards run. Sony Pictures Classics held the film back in order to avoid being swamped by the tough 2012 competition, but with the release coming at the end of April, they have a tough task on their hands to keep Quaid in voters' minds for the best part of ten months. But if they can fight for him in the way that Summit did for Demian Bichir in "A Better Life" (making sure the film was the first screener on voters' doorsteps etc.), it could well happen.
We're not entirely convinced by the prospects of "Rush," the reunion of "Frost/Nixon" director and writer Ron Howard and Peter Morgan. Can audiences, and Academy voters, be persuaded to care about Formula 1? (Let's not forget the widely acclaimed "Senna" missed out on a documentary nomination in 2012.) But it could have a potential ace up its sleeve in Daniel Bruhl. The German actor is familiar to U.S. audiences thanks to "Inglourious Basterds," and is a double threat this year, playing Daniel Domscheit-Berg in "The Fifth Estate," and playing Niki Lauda in "Rush." It's the latter that's the real peach of a part. The Austrian driver was engaged in a fierce rivalry with British racer James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), but was caught in a terrible crash at the German Grand Prix in 1976, suffering horrific burns and falling into a coma. But somehow, Lauda returned to racing only six weeks later, and went on to take Hunt right down to the wire. It's a great story and a great part, and even if the film doesn't land with audiences as a Best Picture contender, Bruhl might well be a dark horse to watch.
Given that his last two films have seen seven acting nominations (and three wins) between them, one should always pay attention to the actors in a David O. Russell movie, and with a cast like the one he's landed for his currently-untitled new one, that's no exception. It's hard to tell this far out who will be campaigned as lead, but it looks to us from an early draft of the script that Christian Bale has the edge on Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner. The actor won Supporting Actor the last time he teamed up with David O. Russell, and graduates to lead this time, so expectations are certainly high. The role, a conman brought in to help the FBI in an investigation of organized crime and political corruption, is a fun one, but perhaps it will be viewed as being in the similar comic/drama territory as his turn in "The Fighter." But that didn't seem to hurt Christoph Waltz any this year, when he won his second Oscar for what was essentially the same role.
Though he won an Oscar for directing "Ordinary People" (and another honorary award in 2002), Robert Redford has only ever been nominated for one acting award (Best Actor for "The Sting" in 1974) and didn't win. The decent but muted reaction to his latest directorial effort, "The Company You Keep," doesn't look likely to change that, but one to keep an eye on could be "All Is Lost." The sophomore feature from J.C. Chandor, director of "Margin Call" (who got a nomination for the screenplay of that film), it sees Redford in a man-versus-nature drama, as a man adrift at sea. This sort of thing has worked well in the past, but there's an intriguing element about it that could sink it (excuse the pun); Redford says there's no dialogue in the film. Will audiences forgive that? With the 77-year-old Redford taking on a very physical role, they might well. Plus Lionsgate, who are pretty thin on awards contenders otherwise right now, have the film, so this could be their focus.
Also Worth Considering: Josh Brolin in "Oldboy" and maybe "Labor Day" (though that's probably supporting, which we also think will be true of Bradley Cooper in "Serena" and Jeremy Renner & Joaquin Phoenix in "Lowlife'), Michael Fassbender in "The Counselor," Joaquin Phoenix in "Her," Hugh Jackman in "Prisoners," Liam Neeson in "Third Person," Tahar Rahim in "The Past," Ralph Fiennes in "The Invisible Woman," Clive Owen in "Blood Ties," Jesse Eisenberg in "The Double," Brendan Gleeson in "Calvary," Mathieu Amalric in "Venus In Fur," Dane DeHaan in "Kill Your Darlings," Miles Teller in "The Spectacular Now," Viggo Mortensen in "The Two Faces of January," Ethan Hawke in "Before Midnight," Ryan Gosling in "Only God Forgives" and maybe "The Place Beyond The Pines" (again, the latter could be a supporting performance), and Christoph Waltz in "Zero Theorem."
And our predictions in one place, just so you have them and can mock them in eleven months time. Let us know your own thoughts in the comments section below.
Steve Carell - "Foxcatcher"
Benedict Cumberbatch - "The Fifth Estate"
Bruce Dern - "Nebraska"
Chiwetel Ejiofor - "Twelve Years A Slave"
Matthew McConaughey - "Dallas Buyers Club"