Best Actor - Joaquin Phoenix - "Her"
He might have an off-puttingly odd public persona, but that doesn't mean that Joaquin Phoenix isn't making a pretty strong case for being one of the most gifted actors of his generation. The star was always alarmingly talented, but since his return from his self-imposed exile (for the documentary "I'm Still Here," it turned out), Phoenix has blossomed into a truly remarkable performer, with "The Master" and "The Immigrant" both providing stellar showcases for his skills. Unlike with Paul Thomas Anderson's film last year, Phoenix is extremely unlikely to get a nomination for Spike Jonze's "Her" this time around, if only because of the strength of the competition, but he's as deserving as anyone. It's a character just as insular as Freddie Quell, but Theodore Twombly is a much warmer presence, quietly heartbroken and desperate for connection. So much has been said (rightly so) about Scarlett Johansson's vocal performance as Samantha, and it's an impressive partnership (especially given that Phoenix was acting opposite a different actor during the shoot), but the film simply doesn't work without Phoenix's face, which is front-and-center for virtually the entire film. And despite his reputation, Phoenix makes Theodore relatable, sweet and, actually, rather ordinary. Which is in itself rather extraordinary.
Best Actor - Isaiah Washington - "Blue Caprice"
It takes a pretty special performance to come back from scandal, and whatever his previous sins, Isaiah Washington gives that kind of turn in "Blue Caprice." The actor's barely figured in any significant work since he was fired from "Grey's Anatomy" in 2007, but Alexandre Moor's retelling of the real-life Beltway Sniper killings puts him front-and-center as serial murderer John, and reminds us all of how impressive he could be at his best. He has a thin veneer of charisma on the surface—just enough that you can believe he can lead his surrogate son into terrible acts—but underneath is a terrifying and broken man, a portrait of evil and mental illness, or somewhere in between, that's not quite like any seen before on screen. Even if the film had found a wider audience, it's likely that Washington's baggage would have prevented a nomination, but if he keeps letting the work speak for itself like this, a full-on comeback could be on the way.
Best Director - J.C. Chandor - "All Is Lost"
Happily, Alfonso Cuarón looks to finally be recognized with a directing nomination last year, thanks to his bravura work on the stunning "Gravity." But it's a shame that Cuarón's success has caused the filmmaker behind another hugely impressive and ambitious survival picture to be overlooked, because J.C. Chandor's work on "All Is Lost" is equally worthy of nomination. Chandor picked up an Oscar nod for the screenplay of his first film, "Margin Call," but seems to have been out to prove that he was a filmmaker, not just a writer with his follow-up: while the financial drama was dialogue-driven, "All Is Lost" is all action with only a few spoken lines of dialogue. Chandor's clearly a fine director of actors, his experience with the previous film carrying over to a very fine turn from Robert Redford, but he's grown immensely as a filmmaker, carefully parceling out the storytelling in a clear and direct way, and despite the limited locales, constantly finding new ways to frame Redford and his surroundings. Bar some occasionally questionable effects work (probably limited by budget), the technical work across the board is incredibly strong—Chandor uses sound and music better than filmmakers with three decades more experience than he has—and he knows how to end something on an ambiguous note without it frustrating. "Margin Call" made him a promising filmmaker, but "All Is Lost" cemented him as one of our most exciting young talents.
Best Original Screenplay - Asghar Farhadi - "The Past"
If we had to pick a favorite unexpected Oscar nomination from the last few years, we'd be very tempted by the Best Original Screenplay nomination for Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation"—an almost unprecedented nod in a mainstream category for an Iranian movie, but a very welcome one, given that it was one of the very finest scripts, and best movies, of the past decade. The director's follow-up, the French language "The Past," isn't as perfect at its predecessor, but what is? Comparisons aside, it's still a moving and deeply humane piece of work, again displaying that Farhadi is someone that anyone with aspirations to write should be paying attention to. Again playing in territory that's close to melodrama, and with a tight fat-free nature reminiscent of the proverbial well-made stage play, "The Past" might deal with some soapier subjects than "A Separation" (a wife in a coma!), but Farhadi writes every character as a fully-dimensional human being so it never risks becoming hysterical or implausible. You understand completely why every character does what they do, or says what they say, and a fascinating and rich tapestry of guilt, heartbreak and melancholy unfolds. We can only assume that Farhadi won't be nominated because it risks making his fellow nominees look bad.
Best Cinematography - Bradford Young - “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”
It's a hugely exciting time in the cinematography world, but no one—no one—is a more promising talent right now than Bradford Young. Having broken through with the likes of "Pariah" and "Restless City," Young had a terrific 2013, with both "Mother of George" and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" looking gorgeous from the first frame to the last. It's the latter in particular which might serve as the peak of Young's stellar career to date. Terrence Malick comparisons abound for David Lowery's breakthrough feature, and that's not an unfair comparison, with Young making full use of autumnal magic-hour landscapes. But its use of darkness was truly remarkable: Gordon Willis and Vilmos Zsigmond might be more appropriate comparisons for the under-exposed, woozy half-light that much of the film takes place in. And all on 35mm, too: while some of the more exciting DoPs out there have never worked on anything except digital, it's thrilling to see someone like Young producing such glorious work with old-school techniques. Young's still not well-known enough, and the film too unlikely to make an impression with the Academy, for a nomination this year, but with Ed Zwick's "Pawn Sacrifice" and J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year" on the way, it's surely only a matter of time.