Re-ranking the contenders in Best Actor

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As I mentioned last week and the week prior to that, with the festival season well underway and a good portion of the major contenders for the Academy Awards having screened or about to screen, now seems like as good a time as any to take a look at the big eight categories and see what’s what in an updated and more expanded fashion. I did this with the major categories a couple of months back, but that was when almost everything was still speculation. We have some facts to go on now, so while much of this is still just an educated guess, I’m not completely relying on overt hunches this time around. It’s more of an even mix, depending on the film/director/performer in question, of course. Today I’m turning my attention once again to the Best Actor field, which won’t necessarily match up with Best Picture in any major way, but perhaps won’t be too far off either. Read on to see what I mean…

One special note about Best Actor this year is that it’s as deep as I’ve ever seen it to be at this point in the season. Each of the ten men that I have cited as the ones with the best chance at a nomination could presumably even wind up winning, and I’d go so far as to say that extends to the next few as well. When have we been basically in October previously and had a dozen viable contenders to win an Oscar? Besides that, you can go nearly 20 deep in terms of who could legitimately wind up getting nominated. It’s going to be a bloodbath when we whittle this down to the ultimate lineup…

Here are the ten gentlemen that I have in play for Best Actor currently, with the top five cracking the lineup at this point and time:

1. Michael Keaton (Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – You really can’t write a better narrative for a comeback performance than this one. Not only is Keaton a former typecast superhero turned critical darling in this film, his character is an actor trying to emerge from the shadow of the hero that he played. It’s the perfect storm not just to get him nominated, which almost surely will happen now, but the right combination of things to result in a win. Right now, he makes the most sense for this top spot. Things could change, but he’s there at the moment.

2. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) – If there’s someone hot on the heels of Keaton, it’s Cumberbatch, who apparently owns the screen in this biopic that’s likely to be a big contender in Best Picture as well. Being newer on the scene could prevent him from winning, especially in this category, but talent can’t always be ignored. I’m not sure I can buy him as a winner right now, but it would be a major snub if he doesn’t wind up getting nominated in Best Actor.

3. Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) – Once the odds on favorite to win Best Actor, Carell has seen his stock drop a tiny bit, mostly owing to new competition on the scene. He still seems to be sitting pretty for a nod, but that nom is now less likely to become a win than it once was. He also will have to contend with a co-star in Channing Tatum who will be in the Lead category with him (unless there’s a last minute decision to switch him to Supporting, in which case he’ll have Mark Ruffalo from the film to compete with, not to mention that Sony Pictures Classics probably already has a Supporting Actor winner in J.K. Simmons and might not want to mess with that). Overall, Carell could be this year’s Bruce Dern…always a threat but unlikely to turn out to be the winner.

4. Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) – If Redmayne was a little bit older or had a previous nomination under his belt, we’d have to talk about him as potentially the runaway winner in this category. Alas, Best Actor is a category where they prefer you to be at least older, if not a prior nominee as well. There are exceptions to that, but with other options, it seems like a well deserved nomination for Redmayne will wind up being his prize, as opposed to truly having a shot to take home the gold. This could be a year to upend tradition though, so stay tuned…

5. Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) – Having now seen Gone Girl, I feel better about predicting Affleck for his first ever acting nomination. He’s never been better than he is in the film, delivering a mannered yet explosive performance that’s pitch perfect for the role. In a less crowded year, he’d be a slam dunk nominee, if an unlikely winner, but with the logjam this category has going, he’s only barely in the top five. Basically, everyone in the five to nine spaces is almost in a de facto tie, but having seen Affleck’s terrific work, I’m deferring to him right now.

6. Bill Murray (St. Vincent) – One of the newer arrivals on the scene, veteran Murray apparently is terrific in this comedy, giving him a leg up on some of his more serious competitors. In fact, something tells me that if he can actually pull of the nomination for a smaller work like this, he could have a fair shot at a surprise win. The Academy knows how thrilled people would be to see him emerge victorious, so it’s just a matter of managing the nomination. If he gets that far…watch out.

7. Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) – I’ve seen O’Connell own the screen in two small films already this year (’71 at the New York Film Festival and Starred Up from the Tribeca Film Festival), so his big coming out party could be here with this epic. If the movie is well received, he’ll certainly be in heavy contention. The older nominees could keep him out of the lineup this year, but he’s clearly someone who’s going to be nominated sooner rather than later. It’s just a matter of if it happens with Unbroken or not.

9. Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice) – Seemingly always a contender these days, Phoenix will have a harder road than usual with the odd duck that is Inherent Vice. I’ll be seeing it at NYFF this weekend, so I’ll know more about his chances then. As such, we’re in the waiting game right now. If it’s the sort of performance that could conceivably get nominated, he’ll have to be moved up a space or maybe even two, but if it’s not, he’ll drop out of the top 15, I think. I’ll get back to you next week on that one…

10. Miles Teller (Whiplash) – One of the best performances I’ve seen this year is from Teller in Whiplash. Both he and Simmons are extraordinary, so I can only hope that Simmons being an odds on favorite to win Supporting Actor will help Teller legitimately contend for his first nomination ever. Best Actor is going to be rough, as you can tell, but right now I’m bullish on this film in all regards, so I think he has the potential to pull off a surprise on nomination morning.

Next in line I’d have these ten contenders (just sans commentary here, though take note of 11-16 as being not far off from that top ten above) for Best Actor:

11. Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner)
12. David Oyelowo (Selma)
13. Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
14. Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year)
15. Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
16. Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes) *Could go Supporting
17. Gael Garcia Bernal (Rosewater)
18. Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar)
19. Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher)
20. Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood)

Finally, here are ten more to give us a top 30 overall to cull from, just sans commentary as well:

21. Brad Pitt (Fury)
22. Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
23. Jeremy Renner (Kill the Messenger)
24. Mark Wahlberg (The Gambler)
25. Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins)
26. Christian Bale (Exodus: Gods and Kings)
27. Tom Hardy (Locke)
28. Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again)
29. Tommy Lee Jones (The Homesman)
30. Andy Serkis (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)

Stay tuned next week for my updated look at the Best Actress race!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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