2014 Oscar Power Rankings: Best Actor (Sept. 16)
It’s amazing how little we still know about the 2014 Oscar race in the post-Telluride/Venice/Toronto landscape. Sure, films like Steve McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’ and Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’ made strong showings on the fall film festival circuit. But with so many films yet to screen – from ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ to ‘American Hustle’ and ‘Foxcatcher’ — the overall picture remains murky, at best.
Here’s where I think we stand at this early stage in the race. We’ll have more movement as the New York Film Festival ramps up on Sept. 27. And movies like ‘Rush’ and ‘Prisoners’ have a chance to screen for mainstream audiences. Large box-office openings can only help their causes. For the moment, here are the leaders in the Best Actor category:
Chiwetel Ejiofer, '12 Years a Slave’
The outstanding Ejiofor has been turning in fascinating performances ever since Stephen Frears’ 2002 thriller ‘Dirty Pretty Things.’ Now his turn as a free man mistakenly enslaved in pre-Civil War times is earning well-deserved raves. McQueen’s visceral recreation of the American South during the slave era is a brutal sit, but Ejifor is compassionate, resilient, steadfast and true in his portrayal of a man stripped of his existence. He seems like a lock for a Best Actor nomination.
Matthew McConaughey, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Another rock-solid contender for an Actor nom. Yes, yes -- you’ve heard this story before. Handsome A-lister drastically changes his or her appearance, catching Oscar’s eye and earning a trophy for the mantle piece. But McConaughey pulls no punches in portraying Ron Woodroof, a hard-drinking, blue-collar Texan disagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. The affable McConaughey has been knocking at the Academy’s door for years now, shedding his Golden Boy image and getting dirty for roles in movies like ‘Magic Mike,’ ‘Mud,’ ‘Killer Joe’ and ‘Bernie.’ This is the year Oscar opens the door and let’s McConaughey in.
Robert Redford, ‘All Is Lost’
‘All is Lost’ sounds like Robert Redford’s ‘Cast Away.’ The veteran actor plays an unnamed sailor embarking on a voyage in the Indian Ocean whose ship is damaged. Instead of turning back, the man sails straight on into a pending storm … staring down his own mortality. The movie boils down to Redford versus Mother Nature, with very little for us to look at beyond the Oscar winner’s endless expressions. If it works, Redford likely will sail into the Best Actor race for only the second time in his career … and the first since 1973’s ‘The Sting.’
Tom Hanks, ‘Captain Phillips’
How much Academy love can Tom Hanks earn this season? Already a two-time Oscar winner, Hanks has two major movies in play. He'll assume the role of iconic Hollywood entertainer Walt Disney for 'Saving Mr. Banks.' And he could get into the Best Actor race for his portrayal of Captain Richard Phillips in Paul Greengrass' recount of the Somali pirate raid. The Academy loves Hanks. LOVES him. Do they love him enough to grant him two Oscar nods this season? Does he earn them? We shall see.
Forest Whitaker, ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’
Does Forest Whitaker give an awards-worthy performance as the title character in ‘The Butler.’ Yes. Has the movie earned the required box office to stay in the Oscar discussion. Yes. (It crossed the $100-million mark this past weekend.) So why does Whitaker feel like the most vulnerable of my five picks at the moment? Because his movie came out so early, taking advantage of what’s currently known as the end-of-summer ‘The Help’ slot. The Weinstein Company will have to work very hard to keep Whitaker in the discussion for the next few months, as several other performances clamor for Oscar’s attention. The good news is that few are better at campaigning than the Weinsteins. But there’s a lot of race left to run, and we’ll see if Whitaker’s still there when the dust settles.