This time last year, three of the four eventual Oscar acting winners — Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette — had already been told to start writing their acceptance speeches. Presently, there are no sure things, setting up a suspenseful season. An early look at the four acting races.
Johnny Depp, "Black Mass"
Eddie Redmayne, "The Danish Girl"
Steve Carell, "The Big Short"
Matt Damon, "The Martian"
Michael Caine, "Youth"
Prime contenders: Michael Fassbender, "Steve Jobs"; Tom Hanks, "Bridge of Spies"; Will Smith, "Concussion"
Bubbling under: Bryan Cranston, "Trumbo"; Ian McKellen, "Mr. Holmes"; Géza Röhrig, "Son of Saul"
Not yet seen: Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Revenant"; Samuel L. Jackson, "The Hateful Eight"
For your consideration: Hanks hasn't been nominated since "Cast Away" and seems something of a long shot to make it in for "Spies." That's not because of the quality of the work, which is nimble and generous, but because the character embodies the sort of decency and integrity that we've seen Hanks play before. To that, I'd point out that it takes a singular talent to epitomize American idealism, particularly when that man has a nasty cold.
Analysis: One of the surest ways to win an Oscar is through the "he's due" narrative. And DiCaprio, who has been nominated four times ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "The Aviator," "Blood Diamond," "The Wolf of Wall Street") and could have been nominated another four ("Shutter Island," "The Departed," "Django Unchained," "Titanic"), is more than due. If his work as a frontiersman bent on revenge in "The Revenant" lands and the movie connects with voters, he will become the heavy favorite in this category.
Brie Larson, "Room"
Saoirse Ronan, "Brooklyn"
Cate Blanchett, "Carol"
Carey Mulligan, "Suffragette"
Charlotte Rampling, "45 Years"
Prime contenders: Emily Blunt, "Sicario"; Lily Tomlin, "Grandma"; Charlize Theron, "Mad Max: Fury Road"
Bubbling under: Maggie Smith, "The Lady in the Van"; Blythe Danner, "I'll See You in My Dreams"; Helen Mirren, "Woman in Gold"; Marion Cotillard, "Macbeth"; Cate Blanchett, "Truth"; Julianne Moore, "Freeheld"
Not yet seen: Jennifer Lawrence, "Joy"
For your consideration: Theron. Because after a movie titled "Mad Max: Fury Road" ends and the character everyone is talking about isn't the one named Max, you have pulled off a feat worthy of a nomination.
Analysis: The most interesting acting race this year features a quartet of the world's finest young actresses (Larson, Ronan, Mulligan and Lawrence in David O. Russell's "Joy"), recent Oscar winner Blanchett (who's even better as the desperate title character in "Carol" than she was two years ago in "Blue Jasmine") and the 69-year-old Rampling, revelatory in "45 Years." The stellar work from these women will likely mean we'll see different winners spread across the precursors (critics groups, Globes, SAG) and some serious tension in the room when the envelope is opened on Oscar night.
Mark Rylance, "Bridge of Spies"
Michael Keaton, "Spotlight"
Mark Ruffalo, "Spotlight"
Idris Elba, "Beasts of No Nation"
Paul Dano, "Love & Mercy"
Prime contenders: Benicio Del Toro, "Sicario"; Joel Edgerton, "Black Mass"; Jacob Tremblay, "Room"; Harvey Keitel, "Youth"
Bubbling under: Jeff Daniels, "Steve Jobs"; Jason Segel, "The End of the Tour"; Jason Mitchell, "Straight Outta Compton"
Not yet seen: Robert De Niro, "Joy"; Tom Hardy, "The Revenant"; Kurt Russell, "The Hateful Eight"
For your consideration: Dano's turn as the tortured Beach Boy Brian Wilson is brilliant on a technical level — he actually sang those "Pet Sounds" songs! — but, even more impressive, he captured the soul of the man who just wasn't made for these times. It's one of the true highlights of the film year.
Analysis: Will voters find a place for both "Spotlight" actors? How cute would 9-year-old Tremblay look in a tuxedo? Can there be room for two turns about tragic musicians (Dano's Wilson and Mitchell's empathetic Eazy-E)? What I'm getting at is that there are few sure things in this category at the moment, though there's some sentiment that Keaton could win for his fine work in "Spotlight" after coming close with "Birdman" last year.
Rooney Mara, "Carol"
Alicia Vikander, "The Danish Girl"
Kate Winslet, "Steve Jobs"
Joan Allen, "Room"
Jane Fonda, "Youth"
Prime contenders: Rachel McAdams, "Spotlight"; Elizabeth Banks, "Love & Mercy"
Bubbling under: Ellen Page, "Freeheld"; Kristen Stewart, "Clouds of Sils Maria"; Julie Walters, "Brooklyn"; Rachel Weisz, "Youth"; Helen Mirren, "Trumbo"; Julianne Nicholson, "Black Mass"
Not yet seen: Jennifer Jason Leigh, "The Hateful Eight"; Diane Ladd, "Joy"; Virginia Madsen, "Joy"; Isabella Rossellini, "Joy"
For your consideration: Rose Byrne belongs in the top echelon of comic actresses working today, and her turn as the haughty Bulgarian arms dealer with the gravity-defying hair and (in her words) the fashion sense of "a slutty dolphin trainer" in Paul Feig's "Spy" builds on the brilliance we saw in "Bridesmaids" and "Neighbors." Just a reminder: Great work can be found in comedies too.
Analysis: David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino have a long history of writing Oscar-friendly roles for actors, so it's easy to imagine the dynamics in this category changing rapidly once "Joy" and "The Hateful Eight" screen for academy members. Safe to say though that Mara and Vikander, essentially leads being campaigned in supporting, aren't going anywhere. Winslet too has a meaty role, but could face fallout if voters reject the movie after all those "'Jobs' bombs" box-office headlines.