The Next 5
Michael Keaton ("Birdman")
After years in something like the wilderness during the '00s, Michael Keaton's been on the serious comeback trail of late. Small, but well-received roles in "Toy Story 3" and "The Other Guys" led to a renewal of interest in the one-time "Batman" star, and he's already had a busy 2014, with roles in "RoboCop" and "Need For Speed." Could the comeback be cemented by an Oscar? Keaton has the lead role in "Birdman," a new comedy from "Babel" director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and it's one that seems to be partly a meta-commentary on his career with the actor playing a faded star, best known for a superhero role, trying to revive his career on Broadway. After a few years where comeback narratives have won out in this category (Colin Firth, Matthew McConaughey), Keaton, who's never been nominated, has a good story to latch onto, and Inarritu's landed five Oscar nods for his last three films (including Best Actor for Javier Bardem in "Biutiful," a much less accessible film than this promises to be). As ever, it'll depend on how the film turns out, but Keaton could be in the mix.
Eddie Redmayne ("Theory Of Everything")
Another Young Turk in a year where the veterans mostly look to be sitting proceedings out, Redmayne is an Academy neophyte, beyond his on-stage performance in "Les Miserables" last year, but he's stranger to awards, having won an Olivier and a Tony for his appearance in "Red." In his biggest screen role to date, Redmayne takes the lead in this biopic of Stephen Hawking, the legendary theoretical physicist who became one of the world's most famous scientists, despite suffering from motor neurone disease that left him paralyzed and unable to speak without technological aid. Disability plus an inspirational story often leads to at least a nomination, but Redmayne's biggest hurdle may be Benedict Cumberbatch (who coincidentally played Hawking in a TV biopic a few years back) -- there may only be room for one cheekbones-y young British actor in the final five.
Jeremy Renner ("Kill The Messenger")
As the only principle cast member of "American Hustle" not to get an Oscar nomination (and having given a performance at least as good as his colleagues'), Jeremy Renner must be feeling a little hard done by from the Academy this year. But the two-time nominee (Best Actor for "The Hurt Locker," and Best Supporting Actor for "The Town") probably won't be licking his wounds for too long, as he's got a true-life story coming up that seems like it has a lot of potential to return him to the Dolby Theater. Renner has the lead in Michael Cuesta's "Kill The Messenger," playing investigative journalist Gary Webb, who uncovered CIA links to cocaine smuggling by Nicaraguan Contras backed by the Agency. Webb's reporting, which took many years, was initially discredited, but later proved to be pretty much on the money, but his career was left in tatters, and he later took his own life. It's a sort of "All The President's Men" vibe but with a more tragic ending, it seems, and with a promising director (Cuesta's best known on the big screen for "L.I.E," but has reinvented himself after helming the "Homeland" pilot) and cast, you can see why Focus have high hopes for it -- they just set it for the same October slot that helped them take "Dallas Buyers Club" to Oscar glory. It'll be execution dependent (the script is from Peter Landesman, who wrote the dire "Parkland"), but if it comes off, Renner will certainly be a contender.
Joaquin Phoenix ("Inherent Vice")
After a few years out for a fake hip-hop career and the related documentary shenanigans, Joaquin Phoenix has come storming back. Having cut out some of the, uh, filler he was making before his alleged retirement ("Ladder 49," anyone?), he's delivered nothing but great performances since his return, with his Oscar-nominated performance in "The Master" being followed by two more crackers, in Spike Jonze's "Her" (which in a less competitive year would surely have figured in), and James Gray's "The Immigrant." As such, he's always worth keeping an eye on, and though the Weinsteins' treatment of "The Immigrant" suggests that won't make much awards impact, a reunion with Paul Thomas Anderson on "Inherent Vice" certainly feels like it has potential. Phoenix was a relatively last-minute replacement for Robert Downey Jr on the project, but the chance to see him take on some lighter fare as a pothead P.I. could well pick up another nod if the film appeals to the Academy (though as we've said before, we're not 100% sure it will), despite Phoenix's refusal to campaign, and stated disdain for awards.
Brendan Gleeson ("Calvary")
A few years back, Brendan Gleeson picked up a surprise Golden Globe nomination for his hilarious turn in John Michael McDonagh's "The Guard," but couldn't convert it into further awards traction. But his reunion with McDonagh for the much-lauded Sundance picture "Calvary" could perhaps get further on. A more soulful and slightly less profane picture than its predecessor, Gleeson has received some of the best reviews of his career, and the film seems to be connecting with critics and audiences in a big way, if the reaction at Sundance and Berlin is anything to go by (read our rave review here). Given that he's been in everything, but has never been Oscar-nominated, Gleeson could well be a contender for that sort of Demian Bichir/Richard Jenkins slot, and Fox Searchlight seem to agree. They unexpectedly picked the film up, partly because, we're told, that they're planning a big awards push for Gleeson in particular. There's still obstacles (the film does start with an unseen man saying "I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old," which may cause more timid Academy voters to turn it right off) but if critics get behind him, Gleeson could definitely be a possibility.
Honorable Mentions: As ever, this is the most crowded category, and there's a lot of serious potentials lurking elsewhere too. Many have mentioned Philip Seymour Hoffman's last major role in "A Most Wanted Man" as a possibility for a posthumous nod, and he's said to be terrific in it. But it's hardly a crowd-pleaser, and the Academy can be difficult with posthumous nominations -- if Fox Searchlight couldn't get James Gandolfini one for "Enough Said" last year, the smaller Roadside Attractions might have an even tougher task on their hands. Meanwhile, this year's winner Matthew McConaughey will be back in Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar." The film does look like the helmer's most awards-friendly picture so far, but we suspect it'll be too soon for the star to crop up again unless it's another blinding performance.
There's already buzz for Ralph Fiennes in "Grand Budapest Hotel," and the actor is brilliant in it, but it'll be a real feat if it can keep up the momentum for nearly a full year. If the film lands in time, Michael Fassbender could get his second nod for "Macbeth," but it's worth noting that it's decades since someone was nominated for playing a Shakespearean role. It's not quite as long since a Mike Leigh film picked up Oscar nods, so it might be worth keeping an eye on Timothy Spall in "Mr. Turner," though it may be more BAFTA territory unless the film wins across-the-board raves.
Al Pacino is on the comeback trail, and has two of his most promising prospects in a long while coming up, in the shape of David Gordon Green's "Manglehorn," and comedy-drama "Imagine," but both are unknown quantities at this point, so we wouldn't bet the farm. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina got strong reviews at Sundance for "Love Is Strange," while further back, James McAvoy also got good notices for "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby," which the Weinsteins will be putting out at some point this year (hopefully).
In terms of big names, it's also worth watching Brad Pitt in "Fury"; Christian Bale in "Exodus"; Ben Affleck in "Gone Girl"; Robert Downey Jr in "The Judge"; Jeff Bridges in "The Giver"; Tobey Maguire in "Pawn Sacrifice"; Jonah Hill in "True Story"; Mark Wahlberg in "The Gambler"; Tommy Lee Jones in "The Homesman"; Adam Sandler in "The Cobbler" and Ben Stiller in "While We're Young." And for some potential first-time nominees, don't discount James Corden in "Into The Woods"; Tom Hardy in "Child 44"; John Cusack and/or Paul Dano in Brian Wilson biopic "Love & Mercy"; Gael Garcia Bernal in "Rosewater" and Dane DeHaan as James Dean in "Life," while there may yet be another campaign to see Andy Serkis' performance-capture work recognized, for "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes." Any others you think we've missed? Let us know in the usual place.