Each year, a handful of new faces, and occasionally old ones, revel in the celebratory season known as the Oscar race. It’s either a celebration or a nightmare, depending on how badly you want it. Many are unprepared to do what it takes — to Marion Cotillard and Jeff Bridges your way to a win. You can sometimes get away with Monique-ing, if you turned in that kind of performance — so thoroughly good that your non-campaign can be your campaign.
That said, there are several names being bandied about now and the difference between whether they win or not could end up boiling down to how many times they smiled and pressed the sweaty palms of would-be voters.
The Oscar race wasn’t front-loaded this year — in fact, it’s been profoundly back-loaded. With all of the Big Oscar Movies yet to open it is a tough call to even predict anyone for anything. However, to that end, here are the names so far that are going to have to step up and Jeff Bridges it in the coming months.
1. Jennifer Lawrence — On the heels of her $400 million dollar franchise, The Hunger Games, Lawrence, along with Kristen Stewart, is one of the women who owned the box office in 2012. Lawrence has been smartly gathering cred with her first Oscar nomination already in Winter’s Bone, but always managing to turn in a performance of note in whatever movie she happens to star in. She has navigated every terrain necessary — indie cred, blockbuster cred, red carpet cred. She is the girl of the moment, hard working, drug- and scandal-free. Lawrence knocks it out of the park in the Silver Linings Playbook, and the one-two punch of that and The Hunger Games puts her at the top of the list. She’s more Helen Hunt in As Good as it Gets than Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball in Playbook. If she weren’t such a rising star she would be in the supporting category for her work here, as her function in the film is mainly to support Bradley Cooper’s character arc. What makes this an award-worthy performance is that Lawrence elevates it beyond what’s written on the page. She makes it deeper, richer, more compelling than it otherwise would be — it’s a male fantasy, yet Lawrence finds the truth in who the character is and that makes the difference.
2. Joaquin Phoenix — He’s been kicking around for a while now, usually turning in impressive work. He’s taken his confused teen in To Die For and amplified it to 11 in The Master and has delivered the best performance of the year thus far by any actor. Phoenix didn’t come out of nowhere — he’s paid his dues and has managed to forge his own success out from underneath the shadow of his late brother River. If The Master has any Oscar clout walking in the door it’s Phoenix (though it should also do pretty well, despite its “difficult” subject matter, in the other categories).
3. Jessica Chastain — With an Oscar nomination under her belt already and two major parts this year, Chastain is one of the hardest working, most sought after actresses of her generation already. Like Lawrence, she seems to have a bright future mapped out. With Lawless and the upcoming Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain seems destined to come to the big show again this year. Probably she’ll get there for Zero Dark Thirty, although there is much we don’t know about the film.
4. Tom Hardy — Even if his star has been on the rise for over a decade, the past couple of years have seen a burst of energy from Tom Hardy fueled by prime roles and the respect he’s won from top tier directors. Credit Ridley Scott for spotting his talent as long ago as Black Hawk Down. Now thanks to Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Warrior, Lawless and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Hardy has become a household name whose films make bank — solid enough to step into Cicero as Al Capone next year.
5. Benh Zeitlin — If there is any breakout film director this year, it’s Zeitlin. Sure, there is a goodly chance that both Anne Thompson and Dave Karger are right, that the movie is “too rough” for Academy voters, not pretty enough, not safe enough, not conventional enough. I tend to think of them as still having some 1970s juice left in them, some untamed creative streak that would keep their minds open enough to know something this good when they see it. But you never know. Either way, Zeitlin’s career has been made this year.
6. Quvenzhané Wallis — It’s absolutely debatable whether Wallis was too young to be given credit for turning in a fully realized performance. Some have said that it’s the director who should get credit for her work. But I guess because I’ve worked around kids a lot throughout my life that I’ve noticed there are some who are gifted at a very young age and Wallis is one of those.
7. Amy Adams — Headed for the winning zone, Adams has two strong performances this year. First, a supporting turn in The Master where she plays against type as a rigid, loyal wife to the leader of the religion Phoenix’s Freddie Quell finds himself drawn into. She’s also the lead in The Trouble with the Curve. Like Lawrence, Adams always steals the show but has done more than that this year; she’s evolved as an actress. She is someone whose career really does seem unlimited because she’s more than a flavor of the month — as a young actress she’s already eked out a place playing character parts and leads, which is essential to having longevity in show biz.
8. Ben Affleck — With two solid efforts under his belt (The Town is greatly underrated in my view) he’s evolved to another level with Argo — pitch-perfect, funny, moving and surprisingly lean (he likes to go long, so going lean is unusual) and showed himself to be a director in full command of story and frame. The critics have yet to ring in on Argo and many of the other films headed for Best Picture, so one has to reserve its Oscar chances until that point. As of right now, it feels like the strongest contender so far. But it will depend on how the critics respond, how the public does and whether or not the Academy is ready to take Affleck seriously as a filmmaker.
9. Joseph Gordon-Levitt — What a year for Gordon-Levitt so far. He was one of the best things about The Dark Knight Rises, currently starring in the well-reviewed Looper, and will appear in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Do any of these add up to an Oscar nomination? It’s hard to say but he has proved his versatility by taking on difficult roles in the past and continues to grow as an actor.
10. Jacki Weaver — She isn’t young, like most rising stars, but her star is on the rise nonetheless. Coming at a career in America later in life, Weaver is, to my mind, the great unsung performance of Silver Linings Playbook. Sure, everyone is talking about Lawrence and De Niro – and they’re great – but for me Weaver enlivened every scene she was in. After her creepy turn in Animal Kingdom and now this, Weaver is proving to be one of the most surprising characters actors of her generation.
11. Kristen Stewart — Coming off the heels of a “scandal” with Robert Pattinson, some might think Kristen Stewart is down for the count. But, despite the incident that upstaged her success, Stewart has now proved she can open a film and bring to $100 million even without the Twilight franchise — that makes her a force to be reckoned with. She is also willing to go deeper with smaller independent films. Despite this seeming like the worst year of her life, it is probably one of the best.
12. Nate Parker – Named as one of Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch, Parker is really something in Arbitrage. He leaps off the screen as an actor. He’s able to hold his own up against Richard Gere, which is saying a lot. He also stars in Red Hook Summer and will be in Spike Lee’s remake of Old Boy. He’ll also be starring in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints alongside Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Casey Affleck.
13. Greta Gerwig — It really took a project like Frances Ha to alert the world to the talent and beauty of Gerwig. Once destined to be the girl forever in the background, Gerwig is sensational in Frances Ha. It helps that her boyfriend directed the film because he lovingly showcases her many gifts. As a writer and potentially, director, the sky’s the limit for Gerwig and none of us would never have known were it not for Noah Baumbach.
14. Ann Dowd – Sometimes star power hides in plain sight for years, building confidence in strong ensemble work often taken for granted. And then it explodes with single sensational role. Ann Dowd grabs our attention in the first perplexing scenes of Compliance. The depth of her unsettling presence immediately lets us know we’re invested in a movie that extends its twisted psychological tentacles way beyond anything we’d ever expect from such a tabloid source. What might have been nothing more than a sad sordid story of prankster abuse is lifted to profound levels of monstrous power-tripping. Thanks to the curt coiled performance of Ann Dowd, a small-town can of worms crawl out and grow quickly into the snake hair of a cruel matronly Medusa.
15. John Hawkes– After dozens of simmering back-burner supporting performances, Hawkes catapulted onto the star charts with the back-to-back brilliance of Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene. In The Sessions he’s received universal acclaim for portraying a paralyzed poet, turning all the physical and emotional challenges into rich dramatic assets. Another tenacious talent whose rise has been so steady the arc he’s cut across the horizon feels almost predestined.