This category usually doesn't interest me as much as the Best Actress category does, but this year there are so many possibilities, many of whom are actors that I really like, so it's rather fun to catch the buzz on their performances. Right now, there's no question that two actors are leading the race in terms of buzz and critical praise: Ralph Fiennes and Joaquin Phoenix (two of the best actors around, IMO). Fiennes is getting astounding raves for his performance in The Constant Gardener, which is also generally being lauded. Fiennes has always been a fine, incomparable actor (can't wait to see him as Lord Voldemort), and the Academy has not been unkind (he has been nominated twice). But in terms of being more in the Oscar mold, I still think that his role in The White Countess is what will get him a nomination. The best that can come out of the first film is probably strong momentum for when the second comes out and the awards season begins. I won't change my opinion here until a) I watch both films and realize that he's better in the first, or b) The White Countess is moved to 2006 and therefore officially abandons Oscar contention.
Joaquin Phoenix is also a former nominee (for The Gladiator), but he can still be considered an underrated actor. Now he and costar Reese Whitherspoon are being considered as the best elements of Walk the Line (itself a praised film this early), with career-best performances. Jamie Foxx's win last year for playing Ray Charles at first had me worried that Phoenix was not going to get Oscar attention, but I greatly doubt that scenario now. The Academy loves biopics and the actors that are able to capture the greatness of those that they portray. It is being said that Phoenix was able to do just that. Plus, he sings the songs in the movie!
Tommy Lee Jones has been nominated before and even won (for The Fugitive), and recently he took home Best Actor honors at the Cannes Film Festival for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Cannes has never been a good predictor of Oscar glory (Bjork, who won in Cannes for her amazing turn in Dancer of the Dark, was snubbed by the Academy), but he's American, and he directed this film as well. Chances are, he'll take another nomination for this, though a win is doubtful.
The last two slots are, I believe, a toss-up between three actors: Jake Gyllenhaal (Jarhead), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck.) and Robert Redford (An Unfinished Life). Gyllenhaal, a young, talented actor, has been getting decent critical attention for some time now, so playing one of the soldiers in Sam Mendes' Gulf War movie can do the trick. That and his other strong role, that in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (for which he's likely to go for Supporting). Strathairn is an extremely underrated actor, but he seems to be in good form (from the trailers) and early reviews say that he actually is. Robert Redford, who prior to my 2 September update of the charts was among the contenders, has, unbelievably, only one nomination (for The Sting) as an actor to his credit. I'm not one for this kind of Oscar attitude of giving career awards, but yes, isn't it time to give him at least another one? Roeper has just recently praised his performance in this movie. Right now I'm considering replacing Gyllenhaal with Redford, but I'm hesitant to do so. There are other actors also vying for Oscar glory, like Steve Martin for self-penned Shopgirl and George Clooney for political drama Syriana, or even Colin Farrell for either The New World or Ask the Dust. That's why this category is becoming more interesting than it has been for the past few years.