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The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview

We've got four frontrunners and a huge field of contenders. So who's worthy this year?

Focus Features | Warner Brothers | Fox Searchlight

Welcome to Awards Season! The glitz, the glamour — it's almost overwhelming! But we all know there's really only one awards show and that, my friends, is the Oscars. The Academy Awards arrives early next year, February 22, and nominations will be announced on January 15. Expect the competitive juices to flow as films and distribution companies jockey for a place at Oscar's table over the coming months. What can we expect? Who are the actors poised to take home little gold men come February? We'll look to answer those questions and many others with our Oscar Race previews over the next few weeks. This week, we'll be examining the race for Best Actor.

The big thing to know about the movies is, as William Goldman said, "Nobody knows anything." So it's silly to anoint anyone a winner this early in the season. But that's exactly what we're going to do here.

With a little help from GoldDerby, the resident internet experts on all things Oscar, we'll break down the Best Actor category by projected nominees while targeting some of the more under the radar thespians yet to generate buzz. Oscar season is always predictable and unpredictable. For every Daniel Day-Lewis, there's a Roberto Benigni. So let's see which actors the experts like, and which they're overlooking.

[Editor's note: GoldDerby aggregates the opinions of film critics and experts from publications such as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, iMDB, and Rotten Tomatoes. You can find the data used for this article here.]

Best Actor

The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview
Fox Searchlight | Focus Features

Five men will be nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. Of the 22 experts polled by GoldDerby, two actors were picked unanimously for a nomination: Michael Keaton in Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Keaton, by virtue of the amount of first place votes he received (nine), is the favorite. But not by much, Redmayne is a close second with six. 

Keep in mind, we're a long ways off from Oscar night and things will undoubtedly change, but Keaton really has it all going for him. Birdman is a filmmaker's film, something the Academy loves, and it's about the process of performance, fame, and the pursuit of acceptance, something everyone in the industry knows about. It's also a tantalizing comeback story for Keaton himself. The actor hasn't totally disappeared since his heyday, but he's a forgotten man for the most part. Birdman not only taps into that (Keaton portrays an actor best known for playing a superhero who tries to mount a Broadway comeback), it uses a ton of technique to tell the story. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has plenty to say about the artistic process and Birdman is full of shots, lines, and references that movie fans will love. 

At this early date, Keaton is as sure a thing for a nomination as there is. The experts obviously think so and Oscar history concurs. But what about the rest of the field? Here's a breakdown of all the actors who received nomination votes on GoldDerby:

  • Michael Keaton

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview
  • Eddie Redmayne

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview
  • Steve Carell

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview
  • Benedict Cumberbatch

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview
  • Timothy Spall

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview
  • David Oyelowo

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview
  • Bradley Cooper

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview
  • Joaquin Phoenix

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview
  • Chadwick Boseman

    The 2014 Oscar Race: Best Actor Preview

1. Michael Keaton: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - As outlined above, Keaton plays a still-famous, but washed up, actor struggling with his personal life while he tries to write, act in, and direct his own Broadway play in Birdman. He's a live wire in the role, sympathetic, and also hilarious. It's a career performance from a highly respected actor whom everyone will be rooting for. (22 expert votes for Best Actor, 9 to win) 

2. Eddie Redmayne: The Theory of Everything - The year's marquee true-life performance is Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in a story about the famous physicist's college years. The film is centered around the relationship between Hawking and his future wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), as they meet, fall in love, and get married. As Hawking's degenerative ALS worsens, Wilde stays by his side and never loses the sight of the man she fell for. (22, 6) 

3. Steve Carell: Foxcatcher - The year's most shocking performance is easily Steve Carell's dastardly turn as John du Pont in Bennett Miller's upcoming Foxcatcher. Du Pont, another true-life role, is a schizophrenic who murders one of the Olympic wrestlers he sponsors on his sprawling estate, called Foxcatcher. The Academy loves comedic actors going dramatic so Carell has been a popular pick for a nomination all year. Miller also won Best Director at Cannes in the Spring. (21, 3)

4. Benedict Cumberbatch: The Imitation Game -  Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), is the British mathematician who helped break the Nazi Enigma Code during World War II and The Imitation Game breaks down how he did it. The role is a natural for Cumberbatch who's easily one of the most-convincing "smart guys" working today. That notion didn't help him last year when he played Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, but that film had bigger problems. (21, 3)

5. Timothy Spall: Mr. Turner - The Best Actor winner at Cannes this year, Spall has seen nothing but acclaim for his portrayal of "Britain's Greatest Artist" J.M.W. Turner. Candidly, it would be a surprise to see a virtual unknown like Spall grab a nomination but no one can question the reviews. And Spall is far from an unknown in the industry, but politics do matter at the Oscars. (8, 0)

6. David Oyelowo: Selma - Oyelowo, one of the finest supporting actors around, finally gets his chance to shine in Selma. Set against the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches of 1965, Oyelowo plays none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. It's an ambitious role based on one of American history's most beloved figures. These kinds of roles usually go one of two ways: either everyone hates it, or everyone loves it. Early indications lean towards the latter for Oyelowo. (3, 1) 

7. Bradley Cooper: American Sniper - Yet another true story, American Sniper follows the life of the deadliest sharpshooter in American history, Chris Kyle, as he rotates back to the world and tries to live his life despite the memories of so many kills. He recalls his past and looks to the future and Cooper captures the heart of the man on both fronts: as a dead-eyed killing machine in Iraq, and as a guy just looking to live a normal life. He also put on a lot of added bulk for the role. Cooper's on an Oscar hot streak, having been nominated the past two years (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). (3, 0)

8. Joaquin Phoenix: Inherent Vice - Another Academy favorite (despite his objections), Phoenix has one of the year's juiciest roles in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice. He plays Doc Sportello, a stoner private eye, who gets involved in too many situations that are way over his head in Los Angeles, 1970. Vice hasn't been seen by many yet, so the buzz around Phoenix has yet to be proven at this point. But, if Anderson's pedigree is any indication, we may be looking at another Boogie Nights-type situation, critically. (2, 0)

9. Chadwick Boseman: Get On Up - Boseman impressed many with an outlandish performance as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in Get On Up earlier this year. It's another role based on a famous individual, but the film was lauded much more for its amazing musical sequences than for its story or individual performances. Boseman doesn't really have much of a shot. (2, 0)

Contenders who received one vote and the rest of the field: Jake Gyllenhaal: Nightcrawler (1), Jack O'Connell: Unbroken (1), Ralph Fiennes: The Grand Budapest Hotel (1), Ben Affleck: Gone Girl (1), Tom Hardy: Locke (1), Miles Teller: Whiplash, Christoph Waltz: Big Eyes, Matthew McConaughey: Interstellar, Ellar Coltrane: Boyhood, Oscar Isaac: A Most Violent Year, Joaquin Phoenix: The Immigrant, Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Most Wanted Man, Andy Serkis: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Nicolas Cage: Joe, Jake Gyllenhaal: Enemy

[Inset photos courtesy of: Fox Searchlight | Focus Features | Sony Pictures Classics | TWC | Sony Pictures Classics | Paramount | Warner Brothers | Universal]

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