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Okay, so I’m kind of an awards season addict, I look at my movies through that scope, my best films of the year takes the form of a ballot rather than a list, I love predicting which films and performances make the cut and which will fall off, and then complaining when my preferred choices don’t make the cut. (Aside: 2 of my five made the AMPAS list this year, 1/5 the year before) so, while it’s much too soon, here are some potential contenders for the 2014 Best Actor crown, and my earliest stab at a prediction 

Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Fifth Estate” as Julian Assange 

Benedict Cumberbatch is poised to do a Michael Fassbender/Jessica Chastain in 2013, playing the villain in “Star Trek Into Darkness”, a supporting role in the next Hobbit movie, and potential Best Picture candidates “August: Osage County” and “Twelve Years A Slave”, and on top of all of that, he gets to play Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in Bill Condon’s (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) “The Fifth Estate.” 
While Fassbender failed to score a nomination in his banner year (his work in “Shame” was criminally ignored), Chastain did (Best Supporting Actress, “The Help”), and Assange could be just the role Cumberbatch needs to cap off that year. 
The role ticks a lot of Academy boxes, it’s a topical real life story with a morally ambiguous protagonist, with the film being extremely timely. The film follows the rise and fall of Wikileaks, and Assange’s disintegrating work relationship with Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl). It sounds a lot like the role of Mark Zuckerberg, which landed star Jesse Eisenberg an Oscar nomination for his revelatory performance, and Fifth Estate could do the same for Cumberbatch. 

Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club” as Ron Woodroof 

Despite a career renaissance last year, McConaughey’s work in “Magic Mike” failed to win him a Best Supporting Actor nomination despite winning him the NYFCC award. 
However, that’s probably led to a lot of goodwill for him, and the role of Ron Woodroof could be the one that lands him on that AMPAS ballot. 
Like Cumberbatch he ticks Academy boxes, he plays a real person, who suffered from and died as a result of AIDs who worked to get non-FDA approved medication to prolong the lives of both himself and others, and McConaughey even dropped weight for the role. 

Leonardo Dicaprio – “The Great Gatsby” as Jay Gatsby and “The Wolf of Wall Street” as Jordan Belfort

The danger of the vote split, there is no arguing that DiCaprio plays the lead in Scorsese’s new movie, and despite the fact that Jay Gatsby in F Scott Fitzgerald’s (masterful) novel, the movie adaptation is unlikely to follow that line.
Either way, after missing a nomination again for his strong work in Django Unchained, DiCaprio is back in the heat of the race, with strong roles in films from director’s who have either won nominations (Nicole Kidman in Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge!”) or wins (Robert DeNiro in “Raging Bull”, Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas”) for their actors. And given his extremely strong body of work DiCaprio could be considered “due” for another nomination despite his relatively young age. 
However, the production troubles and early blockbuster release of The Great Gatsby could hurt it’s awards season hopes. 

Michael Fassbender in “The Counselor” as The Counselor 

Ridley Scott (directed Russel Crowe to a win for “Gladiator”) directs “No Country For Old Men” scribe and Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay, with an awards friendly cast including Javier Bardem , Penelope Cruise, and Brad Pitt. And Fassbender, overlooked for his work in “Shame” two seasons ago and to a lesser extent “Prometheus” last year, gets the title role. 
However, one of the things that plagued Fassbender’s hopes for Shame was that the film was extremely edgy, uncomfortable viewing for many, and The Counselor, a tale of violence and drug trafficking, could suffer the same fate.

Bruce Dern in “Nebraska” as Woody Grant

Alexander Payne movies have a nice track record for their actor’s, George Clooney and Jack Nicholson both got Best Actor nominations for “The Descendants” and “About Schmidt” respectively, and while Paul Giamatti was snubbed for “Sideways” that still picked up two nominations for his co-stars. 
And so that leads us to “Nebraska”, since, instead of taking another seven year break, Payne follows up The Descendants with relative speed, with Bruce Dern, a veteran actor who hasn’t received an Oscar nomination in over 30 years, getting the role of an alcoholic father taking a trip to Nebraska with his estranged son to collect a prize. 
A potentially awards friendly role for a veteran with a director with a great track record. 

Tom Hanks in “Saving Mr Banks” as Walt Disney and “Captain Phillips” as Captain Richard Phillips 

Two real life roles for two time winner Tom Hanks, twenty years removed from his last nomination, and one of them is Walt Disney, so he’s, in theory, a safe bet. But, the vote split, which has the potential to hurt DiCaprio too, could factor in here, because, unless category fraud abounds once again and he campaigns Walt Disney in Supporting, he’ll have two awards friendly roles facing off in the same race. 

Ryan Gosling in “Only God Forgives” as Julien 

It is extremely likely that “Drive” helmer Nicholas Windig Refn’s new revenge movie “Only God Forgives” will prove utterly inaccessible to AMPAS, but Ryan Gosling, who delivered stunning, snubbed work in Drive (not surprising) and “Blue Valentine” (more surprising) could still figure in the race somehow, even if it’s just in the critics groups. 

 Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale” as Oscar Grant

Fruitvale left Sundance with rave reviews, many of them for it’s breakout star, Michael B. Jordan, known to TV audiences for his work in “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights”, and he plays a real person who was gunned down by police in the early hours of New Years Day, with the film charting the day leading up to his death. 
It’s a long road from Sundance to the Kodak Theater, but films have managed it, with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” being both the most recent and one of the most successful. 
The potential for a breakout star to receive a nomination is there, if the film can hang on. 

Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher” as John DuPont 

First off, everyone loves Steve Carell, one of TV’s most beloved comedy leads of recent years, and widely considered an egregious Emmy snub, but nobody has seen him like this. 
In the role of real life millionaire John DuPont, Carell plays a paranoid schizophrenic who killed an Olympic wrestler, and is the richest person ever to be convicted of murder. I mean, there’s playing against type and then there’s this. 
And in the hands of Bennett Miller, whose two previous directorial efforts (“Capote”, “Moneyball”) landed both of their stars, Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote and Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, Best Actor nominations (Hoffman won), and were themselves biopics, Foxcatcher is a very strong contender. 

Forest Whitaker in “The Butler” as Cecil Gaines

Whitaker hasn’t really contended for much of anything since winning an Oscar for his brilliant performance in “The Last King of Scotland”, but his role in “The Butler”, as a man who served no less than eight Presidents in a film almost too Oscar baity to continue to exist, could be his ticket back to the race. 
It’s an Oscar friendly performance in almost every way, but there’s one danger, if the role is extremely passive, serving as a foil for the huge cast of Presidents and First Ladies across from him, he’s unlikely to take a nomination. 

Oscar Issac in “Inside Llewyn Davis” as Llewyn Davis

After coming to my attention with his great, underrated work in “Drive”, Oscar Issac is set to explode with the title role in the new Coen Brother’s movie. The trailer along suggests he’s front and center for the whole movie, and he’s great in that. While Best Actor is often heavy on the big names, Issac could find a way in, despite the fact that Jeff Bridges (“True Grit”) is the only leading man in a Coen Brothers’ picture to get a Best Actor nomination. 

Joaquin Phoenix in “Her” as Theodore

After rightfully being nominated for his utterly stunning work in “The Master”, Joaquin Phoenix has a big year ahead, with Spike Jonze’s “Her” and a potentially awards friendly villain role in “Lowlife.”
And his role here, of a man who falls in love with his mobile phone, sounds oddly brilliant, and nothing could be further removed from Freddie Quell. However, the question remains, can what sounds like an extremely out there comedy break into the acting categories? It’s tough, but Joaquin might be the man to do it. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Twelve Years a Slave” as Solomon Northupp 

Steve McQueen gets great performances from his actors, and so the role of Solomon Northup, a free man sold into slavery, a life he leads for the twelve years of the title, could be the role to put the relatively unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor into the Best Actor race. Slavery was big at the Oscars last season, with two of the four acting winners being in the big “slavery movies” of the year. And so what looks to be McQueen’s most (only) award friendly film to date could be a big hit with AMPAS, with Ejiofor benefiting from that. 

Colin Firth in “The Railway Man” as Eric Lomax

With two straight nominations, winning the second, Colin Firth had a nice little run with AMPAS, and then his superb supporting work in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, his only contender since “The King’s Speech” was ignored, and now we’re here, with “The Railway Man.”
And Eric Lomax could be the role to bring him back in the race, the true story of a man who searches for those who tortured him during WW2, still suffering from psychological trauma. A strong role for a great actor. 

Peter Dinklage in “My Dinner With Hervé ” as Hervé Villechaize

Emmy winner and Oscar snub (“The Station Agent”), Peter Dinklage has a chance at Oscar glory in the role of Hervé Villechaize, the “Fantasy Island” actor who took his own life. 
It’s a strong role for Oscar contention, a real person who committed suicide, in Dinklage is a superb actor, an incredible talent. 
The only question is if the film will actually get a 2013, and frankly, I have no idea if it will. 

My Predictions as of  Wednesday February 27 for the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Steve Carell as John DuPont in “Foxcatcher” 
Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate” (WINNER)
Bruce Dern as Wody Grant in “Nebraska” 
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “Twelve Years a Slave”
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club”