The race to win the Best Actor prize at the 2015 Academy Awards is crazily crowded. These are the ten actors we think are the strongest contenders
1/10Michael Keaton in Birdman
The sort-of-original Batman actor sends up his superhero roots.
Why might he win?Hollywood loves a comeback. Last year it was the McConaissance. This year we’ve got the less snappy Keatonaissance: Michael Keaton makes an astonishing return to form playing has-been superhero star Riggan Thomson in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s celebrity satire. Not only is it a brilliant performance in a brilliant film, it’s a genuinely brave one. Riggan is ridiculous and egotistical, and since Iñárritu’s metadialogue invites you to blur Birdman and Batman, this is the opposite of a vanity project.
What’s against him?Honestly? Not much. He's the bookies’ odds-on favorite to win.
When can I see it?Birdman is now playing.
2/10Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
The British actor plays the legendary scientist Stephen Hawking.
Why might he win?Oscars voters love a transformation. And Eddie Redmayne pulls off a dynamite one playing Stephen Hawking—from his student days at Cambridge, where he meets the love of his life (Felicity Jones) and is diagnosed with motor-neuron disease, right through to his rock-star-scientist 40s. Hawking emailed the director to say there were points in which he thought he was “watching himself.” Quotes like that could be Redmayne’s ticket to the Oscar.
What’s against him?Stiff opposition from fellow Brit Benedict Cumberbatch playing another tweedy genius, the WWII hero Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.
When can I see it?The Theory of Everything is now playing.
3/10Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game
This fans’ favorite plays the gay British wartime hero Alan Turing.
Why might he win?Because so many millions want him to: Armies of Tweeters, bloggers, Cumberbitches and Sherlock fans threaten to join forces and storm Hollywood if their man doesn’t win gold. Also, producer and Oscar magnet Harvey Weinstein is giving The Imitation Game the full-court press, and he knows how to seal the deal.
What’s against him?There’s a risk that The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything—two biographical dramas about British brainiacs—will cancel each other out.
When can I see it?The Imitation Game is now playing.
4/10David Oyelowo in Selma
This actor slips into the shoes of one of American history’s true greats.
Why might he win?In the past 10 years, seven out of the 10 Best Actor awards have gone to actors portraying real-life men. And in Selma, 38-year-old Brit David Oyelowo plays not just any man, but one of the greatest ever, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That itself won’t translate into gold but Selma and Oyelowo’s performance have been picking up ecstatic reviews (as did Ben Kingsley's Gandhi, which went all the way in 1982).
What’s against him? The fact that the Best Actor category is so crowded this year with worthy winners.
When can I see it?Selma opens December 25, 2014.
5/10Steve Carell in Foxcatcher
The funny-man turns serious for a morbid true-life tale.
Why might he win?Steve Carell might literally win by a nose—a prosthetic one. Robert De Niro wore a fake nose for his Oscar-winning performance in Raging Bull. Ditto Nicole Kidman in The Hours. Steve Carell has ditched all hints of a smile (and his real nose) to play John du Pont, the schizophrenic millionaire and Olympic trainer. And if there’s something the Oscars love more than a physical transformation, it’s a comic actor showing off his dark side. Carell does both.
What’s against him?Foxcatcher is basically 134 minutes of unrelenting doomy despair, which isn’t for everyone. It might be too much of a downer.
When can I see it?Foxcatcher is now playing.
6/10Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler
The Brokeback Mountain nominee gets super creepy in this satire of modern America.
Why might he win?Because he gives the performance of his career playing closet psycho and compulsive liar Lou Bloom, a freelance cameraman. More impressive than the 30 pounds he dropped for the part is Jake Gyllenhaal’s ferocious, near-OCD monologues.
What’s against him?He's Travis Bickle-good, but director Dan Gilroy’s twisted Hollywood satire might be too unwholesome for many Academy voters. And De Niro's Bickle didn't actually win.
When can I see it?Nightcrawler is now playing.
7/10Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner
This veteran British actor becomes the artist J.M.W. Turner for Mike Leigh.
Why might he win?We would love to see Timothy Spall take home gold for his grunting and grimacing, toad-like portrayal of JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s meticulously researched biographical drama. It’s a heart-and-soul performance that has already earned Spall the Best Actor prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. And don’t forget, the Oscars have always had a little soft spot for Mike Leigh’s films.
What’s against him?Well, it’s unlikely that anything so grand as an Oscar campaign is being masterminded at Mike Leigh’s HQ in Soho. With no Harvey Weinstein-ish Mr. Big behind it, Mr. Turner might struggle for attention in such a competitive year.
When can I see it?Mr. Turner is now playing.
8/10Oscar Issac in A Most Violent Year
The American actor tries to stay straight in this 1980s-set New York crime drama.
Why might he win?Any other year, Oscar Isaac, best known for Inside Llewyn Davis, might have found himself a Best Actor frontrunner. He gives another committed, utterly convincing performance in J.C. Chandor’s thriller as an immigrant chasing the American Dream during 1981—statistically the most violent year on record in New York.
What’s against him?Winning Best Actor at the National Board of Review awards (shared with Michael Keaton) puts him in play, but the competition will make a nomination, let alone a win, tough.
When can I see it?A Most Violent Year opens December 31, 2014.
9/10Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson teases an unexpectedly hilarious performance from the British heavyweight.
Why might he win? Chances are that he won’t, but Ralph Fiennes’s performance as a camp concierge with impeccable etiquette and a taste for rich elderly women is the funniest we’ve seen this year. And if the Oscars gave out an award for Best Moustache, Fiennes would be a surefire winner.
What’s against him?That bit about him being funny. The Oscars like a dash of rom with their com (The Artist)—or at least a few tears (Forrest Gump).
When can I see it?The Grand Budapest Hotel is available on DVD now.
10/10Bradley Cooper in American Sniper
The U.S. star transformed himself to play a soldier for Clint Eastwood.
Why might he win?B-Coop is a late arrival to the Oscars race. But he could pick up his third nomination in three years (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) for playing Navy Seal Chris Kyle. Cooper bulked up on an 8,000-calorie-a-day diet to play America’s most deadly sniper in what many people are calling Eastwood’s best film since Million Dollar Baby. Kyle served four tours of duty in Iraq, racking up 160 confirmed kills.
What’s against him?There are those who say it’s going to be an uphill struggle for Clint Eastwood to get liberal Hollywood behind a movie that involves a man killing people.
When can I see it?American Sniper opens Christmas Day 2014.