Whether the reason boils down to Oscar politics or an overall lack of enthusiasm, it certainly looks like Joaquin Phoenix is about to be snubbed for his work in The Master, despite the mind-boggling excellence of his performance as Freddie Quell. From stature to facial contortions, Phoenix startlingly became someone else while tackling the film's lead role, in a manner beyond the typical transformative acting that annually courts hyperbole. Without looking all that different beyond considerable weight loss, Phoenix adopted a whole new aura as the spiritually starved WWII vet, and spoke his lines with barks and snarls that seemed uncannily natural, as if a pit bull just happened to don Phoenix's skin. The actor's now-infamous dis of the Oscar process couldn't have helped his chances, but it seems Paul Thomas Anderson's movie has, in general, lost steam, its lack of a PGA nod being the most recent evidence. The man most likely to benefit from Phoenix's misfortune is Bradley Cooper, whose turn in Silver Linings Playbook is frothy by comparison, but just the sort of crowd-pleasing lead performance Oscar loves. A likable actor, Cooper's bound to be seen as triumphant for stretching beyond Hangover territory, and with the Academy increasingly honoring flexible comic stars (think Jonah Hill and Melissa McCarthy), his nomination should in fact be an easy get.
The remaining four slots have grown particularly easy to call, as Best Actor may just be the race with the fewest question marks. Already a surefire contender this time last year, Lincoln lead Daniel Day-Lewis needn't worry about being left out January 10; in fact, he ought to be polishing his victory speech. For his heartfelt work as a real-life polio survivor in The Sessions, recent nominee John Hawkes is sure to be included too, earning kudos for headlining the rare grown-up film about sex, and suffering for his art to boot (manipulating his spine to mimic his character's physicality, the actor endured minor back injuries). One can also bet on Hugh Jackman, whose emotional performance as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables may prove a career peak—the fateful, potent merging of his screen and stage talents. Finally, Denzel Washington seems destined to round out the category, cruising toward the finish line for his compelling work in Flight, a film that arguably featured his best performance since Training Day, which, of course, won him a Best Actor trophy in 2002.
As for other performances doomed to be overlooked, there's the incredible work of Holy Motors star Denis Lavant, whose exclusion might just sting even more than Phoenix's. Widely hailed by a mess of critics but way too weird for Oscar, Lavant's onscreen evolution was virtuoso stuff, worthy of any prize on the awards-season menu. On the fringes, there's Thure Lindhardt's heartbreaking turn in Keep the Lights On, an epic saga of doomed love that announced the Danish actor as a fiery talent to watch. There's also Hope Springs star Tommy Lee Jones, who was even better in the golden-years couples comedy than he was in Spielberg's Lincoln. Additional male performances are sure to have their champions, like Richard Gere's highbrow antihero in Arbitrage, Anthony Hopkins's prosthetic-coated film legend in Hitchcock, Jean-Louis Trintignant's helpless husband in Amour, and Sean Penn's aged rocker in This Must Be the Place. But we're going to cap off our picks with a standout performance from Thomas Doret, who was convincing from minute one as the titular lead in The Kid with a Bike, a boy crushingly thrown headfirst into the angst of paternal abandonment.