Best Actor

It’s an honor to just be nominated, right? You hear that politely said every year, even though you know it’s total hogwash for the four silver medallist of Oscar season. In reality, it’s not just an honor to be nominated; it’s quite easily a shot of go-go juice to an actor’s career. However, when the field of Best Actor nominees is populated almost entirely with people who have won before, it becomes an academic exercise.

Best Actor is a category reserved (mostly) for seasoned actors who have been around the block a few times. There are occasional dark horses who come on strong, but the first-time nominees and those breaking out of genre roles usually show up in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Yet every year, there seems to be one or two races in the Big Six that appear to be a lock. This year, we see that run in the Best Actor category, even though all of the nominees did fine work. It’s a popularity contest, to be sure, but it’s also an oft-accurate gauge of the best performance out there. (Because, let’s face it, if it were just a popularity category, where the hell is George Clooney this year?)

Read on for the nominations and my predicted winner in red

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Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)Bradley-Cooper-Best-Actor

Why He Was Nominated

When you look at how many awards and nominations David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook has received this season, it’s no big surprise. In fact, that film is the only one with the honor of nominating someone in every acting category across the board, so it would seem a bit crass to snub Bradley Cooper for his leading role. Plus, he does a fine job in it, especially considering his high-profile and prolific career lately. Yeah, he made people stand up and take notice when he led last year’s Limitless to box office success, but that was still considering a middling release with one foot in the sci-fi genre. It’s about time he got some recognition for the work he’s been doing over the years.

Why He Might Win

The greatest asset that Cooper has in this race is the film in which he starred rather than the performance he gave. Silver Linings Playbook is a nominations darling, so that gives him some credibility to bring home the statuette. Also, as previously mentioned, he did a good job in the role. Playing a man with mental illness is a potential bear trap for actors. One can go too far and play it too crazy; he can also play it too reserved and not show the real conflict in the character. Cooper struck a fine balance, and he held his own against the rest of the high-profile cast, including Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence.

Why He Might Not Win

As much as Silver Linings Playbook has gotten accolades and nominations, the number has diluted the impact of any single role. Additionally, Cooper seems to be the last one mentioned of the acting nominations from this film. Throw in a movie like The Words into his yearly filmography, and he’s even less memorable. He’s taken home some awards this year, but they’ve been generally relegated to a Comedy subcategory or been smaller honors that aren’t indicative of Oscar gold. Also, it’s possible that Cooper hasn’t completely shed the memories of his other major roles, like being the pretty face in films like The A-Team or being the guy who has eye-drop-induced diarrhea in Wedding Crashers.

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Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)Daniel-Day-Lewis-Best-Actor

Why He Was Nominated

Similar to Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln got a large number of nominations, leading the list with a dozen. The film is killing at the box office, making it a monetary success in addition to being a critical darling. This success comes not just at the hand of director Steven Spielberg but also on the shoulders of the title character. With as massive a cast as Lincoln has, featuring a who’s who of Hollywood, Daniel Day-Lewis stood above the rest and dominated every scene he was in. Sure, Day-Lewis gets nominated for pretty much every movie he does (at least that’s the perception since we tend to block out movies like Nine and Last of the Mohicans), but it’s his transformative roles in films like My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood that give him the most attention. His performance as Abraham Lincoln is one of those roles. We’ll never look at a penny the same way again.

Why He Might Win

Because he’s Daniel Day-Freaking-Lewis. Because he is one of the most respected actors of our time. Because he played Abraham Lincoln historically accurately rather than apocryphally. Because he led a 2 1/2-hour movie by telling stories and giving speeches and still managed to make it compelling. Because it was his first time working with Steven Spielberg. Because he killed vampires, or at least he could have. Because his tears can cure cancer. Because he is a wizard. And did I mention he’s Daniel Day-Lewis?

Why He Might Not Win

The buzz for Lincoln has certainly died down a bit from the nominations (though most of that buzz went to Argo, which isn’t featuring any real competition in the Best Actor category). It’s still making money, in the top 10 of the weekly box office, but the momentum has slowed a bit. Aw hell, I’m just making excuses at this point.

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Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables)Hugh-Jackman-Best-Actor

Why He Was Nominated

There was a time when a musical was a sure-fire win for Hollywood. Then the age of the movie musical died down, but that made the rare entries in the genre stand out even more. Over the past decade or so, when musicals were made, they brought a lot of attention, and that often meant good things during award season (see Chicago and Moulin Rouge as examples). With previous Oscar-winner Tom Hooper adapting the wildly popular Les Misérables musical for the big screen and releasing it on Christmas Day, it was bound to get some eyes and ears. Hugh Jackman’s performance in the film comes as no surprise to people familiar with his theatrical experience, but anyone who just sees him as Wolverine were blindsided by it. It takes a special performer to act and sing, as evidenced by the misfire of Jackman’s co-star Russell Crowe in the film. Jackman shows a range of emotions throughout the movie and transforms from rugged prisoner to man of state to tragic victim.

Why He Might Win

Jackman has had a high profile career in entertainment even before he landed the role of Wolverine in Bryan Singer’s X-Men more than a decade ago. He has a respectable theatrical career, which gives him a bump in terms of deserving an award like this. The average moviegoer might think he just broke out of action movies, but the man has paid his dues over the years on the stage and on the screen. In spite of the box office cooling a bit, Les Misérables is still an adored film, and Jackman makes the role of Jean Valjean his own.

Why He Might Not Win

In a less competitive field, Jackman might actually have a chance. Sadly, his performance in Les Misérables – while good – didn’t turn as many heads as that of his co-star Anne Hathaway. His other stumbling blocks were fighting against audience love for whoever they saw play Valjean on stage and Liam Neeson’s non-musical performance in the box adaptation from 1999. Sure, he won the Golden Globe, but that was in the Comedy and Musical category, which strips out all the dramatic competition. Jackman was good in the movie, but he wasn’t good enough to steal the statue from Daniel Day-Lewis.

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Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)Joaquin-Phoenix-Best-Actor

Why He Was Nominated

Forget I’m Still Here and his turn as a wacky rapper who wants to sniff a hooker’s butthole. Joaquin Phoenix managed to re-reinvent himself back into an Oscar-nominated actor. His level of commitment to the role of a troubled man in The Master was inspiring. Not only did he deliver the emotional need of the role, but he embodied the physicality of the character. Like Day-Lewis as Lincoln, Phoenix transformed for this film and carried the audience through the entire movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman was just set dressing next to him, and that’s not an easy feat.

Why He Might Win

There’s a lot going for The Master, including director P.T. Anderson’s gravitas and the backing of the Weinsteins, who helped secure awards for their talent over the last two years. Compare Phoenix’s performance to that of his previous Oscar-nominated performance in Walk the Line, and the man is almost unrecognizable. The Master as a film had plenty of momentum going into theaters, breaking records for per-theater grosses. Some of this was because of the 70mm print allure, and some was for P.T. Anderson’s filmmaking, but a lot was due to Phoenix’s commitment to the role.

Why He Might Not Win

Even though The Master has the backing of the Weinsteins, they’ve done a typical Weinstein move and abandoned all of their second-chance hopefuls. It’s clear that the weight of the Weinstein influence has been thrown behind Silver Linings Playbook rather than The Master. Plus, with a September release date and a DVD street date on the Tuesday after the Oscars, there is very little to remind voting members of this film’s existence. He’s won some awards for The Master, but they have been largely regions ones and none of the major Oscar indicators. Oh, and Daniel Day-Lewis.

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Denzel Washington (Flight)Denzel-Washington-Best-Actor

Why He Was Nominated

Like George Clooney last year, Denzel Washington helped secure a nomination this year for being Denzel Washington. Let’s face it, this is the aspect of the popularity contest that throws nominations at known quantities. Washington also was lucky enough to have a role that actors dream of. It’s the acting cliche of a man struggling with alcoholism. The only thing less cliche for a leading role would be if he didn’t know how to read. Still, Washington commands a fan base, and his performance in Flight was a solid one. Even though the reviews were mixed, it was never Washington that was cited as the problem in this film.

Why He Might Win

You’d think an Oscar field that includes Daniel Day-Lewis would not have another actor with more nominations, but Washington has done that. He has been honored as an actor for more than twenty years, and he’s already got a couple Oscar statuettes on display somewhere in his house. In spite of criticisms of the film itself, Washington’s role in Flight was layered and covered a range of emotions. He also managed to play the part of a not-so-nice guy and still manage to come across as likeable (which is the special mutant power of Denzel Washington). He even throws a bottle of liquor against the wall, for crying out loud! That’s acting!

Why He Might Not Win

Certified fresh or not, Flight is not remembered as one of the best films of 2012. Washington was good in it, but the uneven delivery, overlong run time, and mixed messages about drug and alcohol use muddy the waters for a clear path to victory. Washington is a popular choice at the box office, but that doesn’t make him a lock for an award. In spite of being nominated for this film in multiple other ceremonies this year, he has won almost none of them.

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