To reiterate what we said over the last few days; a million things can change before the end of 2011—some of these films may disappoint, and some of the performances won’t live up to our hopes. Dark horses will emerge, and favorites will fall out. But we’re feeling as confident as we can this early in the game about these 10 men and women.
Best Supporting Actor:
John C. Reilly -- "We Need To Talk About Kevin"
Reilly's one of those actors who's been around for so long and is so reliably excellent that it's easy to forget that he's only been nominated the once -- and for "Chicago," rather than for his work with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson. He's spent most of the last few years in more comedic territory -- indeed, you have to go back to 2005 to find a fully dramatic role from the actor (in Walter Salles' "Dark Water"). He's back in a big way this year, as Tilda Swinton's estranged husband in Lynne Ramsay's "We Need To Talk About Kevin," and we suspect that he's a very strong contender. Again, it's dark, challenging material, and the kind of thing that the Academy swoons over.
Christopher Plummer -- "Beginners"
We're absolutely dying to see Mike Mills' sophomore film, "Beginners" but, as we said yesterday, it doesn't seem heavyweight enough to make a real impression at the Oscars. But there's one exception to that. Incredibly, Christopher Plummer has only been nominated once, for 2009's not-that-great "The Last Station." But here, as a man who comes out in the twilight of his life, he seems to have a killer role, and from the glimpses of the film we've seen so far, the performance looks like a joy. Plus, there are hints of terminal illness in the film's plotline, which can't exactly hurt. With Focus Features behind the film, we've got a hunch that this could finally be Plummer's year.
Paul Giamatti -- "The Ides of March"
In the list of the great Oscar snubs of all time, Paul Giamatti missing out on a best actor nomination for "Sideways" (and to the unremarkable likes of Clint Eastwood in "Million Dollar Baby" and Johnny Depp in "Finding Neverland," no less), must rank pretty highly. The Academy made up for their error the following year with a make-up nomination for "Cinderella Man," but there's certainly a feeling that the character actor stalwart hasn't yet got his due. As we said earlier, a nomination for Tom McCarthy's "Win Win" is a possibility, but his supporting turn in George Clooney's "The Ides of March" feels more likely; it's the kind of Machiavellian turn at which the actor excels. We'd be surprised if at least one actor from the ensemble doesn't get nominated, and Giamatti feels like the most likely at this stage.
Kenneth Branagh -- "My Week With Marilyn"
The behind-the-scenes drama "My Week With Marilyn" looks likely to be nothing if not an actor's showcase, and the major role, other than Monroe herself, looks to be that of another iconic star: British acting legend Laurence Olivier. The tempestuous relationship between the two on the set of "The Prince and the Showgirl" seems to form the heart of the film, and in a neat bit of casting, Olivier's being played by Kenneth Branagh, who at the start of his career drew comparisons, sometimes consciously, with Olivier. Branagh hasn't received an acting nomination in 20 years, but he's back in the limelight this year as the director of Marvel's "Thor," and if that film makes decent coin, it could increase the chance of Branagh getting in here. He's not a cert by any means, but it's entirely possible.
Patton Oswalt -- "Young Adult"/Tom Hiddleston -- "War Horse
Ok, so we're cheating a bit here, but we genuinely couldn't decide on the fifth slot here. In this category in particular, the Academy love nothing more than a funnyman showing their serious side (see Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams, Alan Arkin), and the performance that could best fit that this time around is Patton Oswalt in Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's "Young Adult." The part, the chubby, physically disabled voice of reason to Charlize Theron's lead is a good one, and something of a heartbreaker. However, Oswalt's sole dramatic performance to date, in Robert Siegel's "Big Fan," divided people, he's something of an outsider in Hollywood, and the film's so dark and the characters often so unsympathetic, that we can see it missing it out in the way that, say, "Margot at the Wedding" did. A safer bet would be Tom Hiddleston, who's having a very good year between his villainous turn as Loki in "Thor" and his supporting turn in "The Deep Blue Sea." That film's a possibility for a nom, but we can definitely see his performance in "War Horse" being recognized -- he was the first person cast in the project, and it's the biggest supporting role outside of Jeremy Irvine's lead. And the horse, obviously. This writer's gut says Oswalt, his head says Hiddleston.
Also In Contention: In much the same way as Branagh, Jim Broadbent plays the foil to an iconic figure in "The Iron Lady" opposite Meryl Streep, and managed to win with a similar role in "Iris" back in 2002. The similarity between the parts is the only reason Broadbent didn't make our five, but he could well make it in if any of the others fall off. Brits historically do well in this category, and Bill Nighy (who, surprisingly, has never been nominated) and Tom Wilkinson could both make the shortlist for John Madden's "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." Similarly, theatre veteran Simon Russell Beale could break out as Rachel Weisz's estranged husband in "The Deep Blue Sea."
If anyone gets nominated for Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion," our gut says it'll be Jude Law, as a fear-mongering blogger, but even so, it's an uphill battle: it's not really an actor's movie, as such. He's also in Scorsese's "Hugo Cabret" and, while we believe his role there is too brief to make an impression, either Ben Kingsley or Sacha Baron Cohen could be strong candidates as well. Armie Hammer sadly never got the traction for "The Social Network," but this time around he's got a key supporting role in Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar," without the VFX issues that robbed him this time around. Some will tip Sean Penn in "The Tree of Life," but the role's actually very small, and we're not sure we see it happening.
Not to sound like a broken record on "God of Carnage," but Reilly and Christoph Waltz are potential threats if the film debuts before Berlin 2012, while Reilly's son in "We Need To Talk About Kevin," Ezra Miller, is another distinct possibility. If Michael Fassbender impresses more in "A Dangerous Method" than in "Shame," he could get in here. Tom Cruise's cousin, William Mapother, could break out in a similar way to John Hawkes as a grieving father in "Another Earth," while Hawkes himself, having broken down the door, might pick up another nomination as a cult leader in "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Finally, Ryan Gosling will show a lighter, more romantic side in "Crazy, Stupid, Love." and, if the film's a big a hit as we suspect it's going to be, could make his way in as well.
Best Supporting Actress:
Viola Davis -- "The Help"
Oprah favorite "The Help" was a genuine best-seller, and the upcoming film adaptation, which marks Emma Stone's coming-out party as a serious actress, is already gathering some buzz. There's a strong supporting female cast, including Alison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain, but it's Viola Davis who has the key role as grieving maid Aibileen, and we reckon she's a lock for a nomination and at this stage even the possible front-runner. Davis is highly revered, and managed to pick up her first nomination from a single scene in "Doubt" a few years back, so we can't see why she couldn't manage it again. The biggest question here is the quality of the film itself: the film marks the studio debut of actor-director Tate Taylor, whose previous feature "Pretty Ugly People" isn't that well regarded.
Vanessa Redgrave -- "Coriolanus"
While Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut, an action-packed contemporary version of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus," didn't pick up unanimous praise on its debut last month at the Berlinale, the critics seemed to agree on one thing: the performance of the great Vanessa Redgrave, as the title character's mother Volumnia, was a thing of wonder. Redgrave's possibly the best-regarded classical actress of her generation, but has rarely had the opportunity to unleash her verse-speaking skills on screen -- until now, anyway. She's a six-time nominee who won in 1978 for "Julia," but who knows how many more chances the Academy will have to recognize her. With The Weinstein Company picking up the film and likely putting their weight behind a nomination for Redgrave, a bet on her making the final five is a safe one.
Anne Hathaway -- "One Day"
So here's that category grey area we referred to above. Emma, Hathaway's role in "One Day" carries the film just as much as Jim Sturgess' Dexter. It's also easily the role that carries the most chance of awards success -- particularly with the well-liked Hathaway, nominated once already for "Rachel Getting Married," taking up an accent to play a British character -- which worked wonders for Renee Zellweger a decade ago. All being fair, Hathaway would be up for Best Actress, but with the category looking so strong this year, at this point at least, we have a sneaking suspicion that Focus may pull a category switcheroo and push Hathaway for Supporting, where she'd stand a much better chance of winning. One to look for in either category, certainly.
Keira Knightley -- "A Dangerous Method"
The cast of David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," based on the play "The Talking Cure" by Christopher Hampton, is a heavyweight one -- and it should be, considering the legendary figures they play. Viggo Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud, with Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, and as we said above, both are certainly contenders, but we think the safest bet here is Keira Knightley. The actress (nominated once before, for "Pride & Prejudice") is playing Sabina Spielrein -- a former patient of Jung's who had an affair with the psychiatrist before going off to study the science with his great rival Freud -- and it sounds like it's the pivotal part in the piece. Knightley's getting better and better each time at bat (she gave the best performance in "Never Let Me Go"), and may well get the nod again here. Again, the category's a question -- Knightley could well get pushed into lead, but again, she stands a better chance of winning here.
Elizabeth Banks -- "Welcome to People"
Put it this way: when you have awards favorites like Hilary Swank and Amy Adams (who eventually turned the part down, finding it too dark, being a new mother) praising and chasing a role, you know it's going to be a good one. "Welcome to People," the directorial debut of "Transformers" and "Star Trek" writer Alex Kurtzman, which also stars Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde and Michelle Pfieffer, has been getting plenty of buzz over its script, and none more so than the role being taken by Elizabeth Banks of the alcoholic sister of Pine's character. The film may be a little too small-scale to get awards attention elsewhere, even if Kurtzman sticks the landing, but with Banks' star consistently on the rise, she could well get in if the critics take the film to their hearts.
Also In Contention: If anyone else from "The Tree of Life" gets in, it'll be Jessica Chastain; indeed, she might be a safer bet than some of the above, although she is a very new name. Some of the big best picture contenders have supporting players who could well sneak in as well: Emily Watson in "War Horse," Chloe Moretz in "Hugo Cabret," Naomi Watts in "J. Edgar" and Patricia Clarkson in "One Day" are all potentials.
Carey Mulligan's got a role in Steve McQueen's "Shame" that's very different to the English rose she's played for the most part so far -- much rawer and more vulnerable, so she shouldn't be counted out. Maggie Smith's a potential stand-out in "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," and with six nominations in the past, is always going to be in the mix. And while Lasse Hallstrom's no longer the Oscar juggernaut he once was, Kristin Scott-Thomas could be a possibility for "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" if the film works out.
Finally, while it's far too early for Mel Gibson to win back Hollywood's love and get nominated for "The Beaver," his director and co-star Jodie Foster could be rewarded if the film's well-liked. And finally, like Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman's performance in "Tyrannosaur" was praised to the sky and could be a dark horse in the category, although Lesley Manville missing a nomination this year suggests it could be an uphill struggle.