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Denzel Washington Launches into the Oscar Race for Best Actor

Todd McCarthy says about Denzel Washington in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, “Onscreen for nearly the entire running time, Washington has found one of the best parts of his career in Whip Whitaker, a middle-age pilot for a regional Southern airline who knows his stuff and can still get away with behaving half his age. In the film’s raw opening scene, he’s lying in bed in Orlando at 7 a.m. after an all-night booze, drugs and sex marathon with a sexy flight attendant. With a little help from some white powder, he reassures her they will make their 9 o’clock flight for Atlanta.”

This is easily one of the best performances of the year and will be a strong contender to win the Best Actor race. He will have some competition, though, in Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln — which has to be among the best performances of all time, and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. These are probably the strongest three in the race as we head into the final months.

Denzel Washington is the kind of actor people know and love so much that he really can just go by the single name, Denzel. He commands the frame. Zemeckis keeps most of the movie tight on his face. His actions and motivations are a mystery and his performance, and Zemeckis’ direction elevate what would otherwise be a by-the-numbers drunk-to-rehab movie. But Denzel digs in deeply to the role, disappearing into it. He’s a liar and a drunk but somewhere in there is a good person, which is probably why you continue to root for him as his life is taking the same kind of plunge the airplane took — something wrong with the plane, the resourceful pilot saved it. Something wrong with the man? The resourceful part of him helps to save him. It’s an obvious metaphor but a powerful one. How they managed to find something new out of this oft-traveled road is remarkable.

The plane crash scene is the Zemeckis we all know well – except with visual effects and suspense. But the quieter scenes that expose who Whip Whitaker is might be the Zemeckis we don’t get to see enough of.

That brings the Best Actor race to this.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis and Lincoln- It’s improbable to me that he can win a third Oscar. But it’s even more improbable to imagine anyone else beating him. Though it’s a close call between him and Phoenix, and now, Washington, unless I see a better performance (I have yet to see John Hawkes in The Sessions) I don’t know how you can’t name Day-Lewis the winner. He’s like Sean Penn in Milk or Helen Mirren in The Queen — it’s just one of those improbably perfect performances that so closely mirrors a real life person you forget you’re watching an actor after a while. His walk, his voice, his manner, his jokes, his hair even – it has to be Day-Lewis’ best performance. It’s better than the two he’s won for. Nonetheless, it’s early yet and who knows what folks will make of the film. But for my purposes, I can’t not put him in the number one spot.

2. Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie in The Master – This is, to me, the most emotionally affecting performances I saw but beyond that, his physicality and strangeness seem to come from a primal place. To me, he’s Brando-like in this film – a creature from another world. He’s a concept. I suspect he will clean up at the critics awards, too, winning many Best Actor prizes long before it even gets to the Oscars. The only problem being that people are somewhat confused by the movie. I don’t know where this comes from but half of the people who see it seem to think that, no matter how many great reviews that have come out to declare it a masterpiece and to explain what it means — believe me, it doesn’t mean nothing.

3. Denzel Washington in Flight – I really think he could pull off the win for this performance. It will depend on how the movie is received overall but the power of this performance is one of the most powerful and it will likely stand out – it doesn’t hurt that Washington is so likable in the industry and has already won two Oscars.

4. John Hawkes from The Sessions – since I haven’t yet seen it, I’ll rely on Christy Lemire’s words, “the hugely versatile John Hawkes gives a subtly funny, impressive performance which must have been a massive physical challenge. The lanky but intimidating co-star of “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is called upon here to act entirely with his face and voice, frequently having to keep his torso still while lying down in a contorted posture. Hawkes stars as Mark O’Brien, the Berkeley, Calif.-based poet and journalist whose 1990 article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” inspired the script. Lewin – who also contracted polio as a child – lays out the details of Mark’s daily existence in matter-of-fact fashion, and with zero condescension. He can breathe on his own for a few hours at a time, he can turn the pages of a book or dial a phone with a stick in his mouth, and while he can’t move anything from the neck down, he can still feel sensation.”

5. Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables – we make this assumption about a film we haven’t yet seen. But we’re holding his place in line in case this is finally it for Jackman – it sure looks like it might be.

6. Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock – the same thing applies. We only have the trailer to go on but it seems strong enough to put him into consideration here.

7. Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook – Cooper is wonderfully off the charts as the bi-polar lead who is trying to get a hold of his life. Like Dickie in David O. Russell’s last movie, he is tightly supported by his family and a good woman. It would have been easy for Cooper to slip into stereotype, but O. Russell is good with actors and finds the truth in what Cooper is feeling. His job is two-fold, because he also has to be the guy who is coming off of mania once the meds kick.

8. Richard Gere in Arbitrage. It’s Gere’s best performance in a brilliantly written suspense story about a very rich, very clever snake. In this way, he and Washington and Phoenix kind of come from a similar place – they are trying to get what they can however they can get it. But Gere has never been celebrated and that might help nudge him towards a nod.

The rest:
Jamie Foxx – Django Unchained – we still don’t know anything.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master – he may go supporting.
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour – would be lovely but a tough sell in a crowded category.
Brad Pitt, Killing Them Softly – Pitt and Gandolfini are great in this. Needs good reviews.
Ben Affleck, Argo – he’s fantastic but he’ll likely get rewarded elsewhere.
Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson – it’s an interesting, subtle take on FDR.
Tommy Lee Jones, Hope Springs – probably out since he’s so great and will be nominated for, if not win for, Lincoln.