I've always found the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscar races more exciting. It's partly because I'm somewhat of an actressexual (a term introduced by Nathaniel of The Film Experience), but it's also because this race is often so competitive, with two or three slots open to surprise nominees up to nomination night. (Last year was an exception, with all five nominees in the lead actress race practically locks long before).
In an Oscar year that seems to be seeing an uncharacteristic dearth in competitive female performances, the male categories seem unusually, but pleasantly, crowded with so many possibilities. And while most of the significant female performances have already been seen (the few exceptions include Julia Roberts of Charlie Wilson's War, Halle Berry of Things We Lost in the Fire, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno of Love in the Time of Cholera), strong vehicles for male performances (the aforementioned three films, American Gangster, There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, etc.) have yet to come out. The Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor races are shaping up to be the most exciting categories to watch for this year.
My current predicted nominees for the Best Actor race are Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood), Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson's War), Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah), James McAvoy (Atonement), and Denzel Washington (American Gangster). Of these, only McAvoy and Jones are, as of this moment, safe bets. The other three could be replaced by a whole mob of potential nominees. Joaquin Phoenix (Reservation Road) and John Cusack (Grace is Gone) have had their buzz diminished for different reasons (failure of the film for Phoenix, failure to sustain buzz for Cusack). George Clooney (Michael Clayton) is a definite contender, with his characteristic clout in Hollywood and a film that was generally well received. The buzz for Philip Seymour Hoffman's turn in The Savages has a lot of people excited about how it plays out when the film is released to wider audiences later in the year. Johnny Depp may yet shine in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Javier Bardem may capitalize on his astounding success with No Country for Old Men (for which he's almost sure to get a nod for the supporting category) and get more attention with Love in the Time of Cholera.
What makes this race so exciting, however, is the deluge of strong male performances from recent wide releases and Toronto hits. The acclaimed 3:10 to Yuma has lauded co-leads in Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, also a critics' favorite, has Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, though the latter would likely be placed in the supporting category. The victory of Eastern Promises in Toronto ups the chances of Viggo Mortensen for a first nomination, though how much it does so is unclear. Sean Penn directs Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild to a possible first nom of his own. And before we can say, "Whoa, there's too many of them already," Before the Devil Knows You're Dead swoops in from outside the radar with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke looking at awards consideration. Any of these could end up as nominees.
My predicted Best Supporting Actor nominees are currently Affleck, Bardem, Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), Benicio del Toro (Things We Lost in the Fire), and Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton). I'm least confident about the nods for del Toro and Dano, though the Academy likes the former enough (for a nom and a win) and the latter could be propelled by a highly probably nomination for his co-star Day Lewis. Wilkinson's role is too juicy to ignore, as are Bardem's and Affleck's. Hoffman's turn in Charlie Wilson's War has big potential to make him a major contender at year's end. Ben Foster might be given a shot at a first nom with 3:10 to Yuma. Philip Bosco could sneak in by playing the ailing patriarch in The Savages. Maybe oft-ignored Mark Ruffalo could bypass his film's bad reviews even if Phoenix can't. People are all a-buzz about Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild even more than they are about Hirsch in that film. Former nominee Armin Mueller-Stahl could get in for Eastern Promises. Will people remember John Travolta's antics in the well received Hairspray? Alan Rickman could be a scene-stealer in Sweeney Todd, as could Dustin Hoffman in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (he is Mr. Magorium, after all). And what about Hawke's co-lead performance in Devil (it can pit him here against co-star Albert Finney), and Crowe's own in American Gangster?
These are the types of races that make Oscar enthusiasts' hobby of predicting nominees so difficult and yet so fun and rewarding at the same time. Bring it on!