In looking over this year’s race for Best Actor, several names are emerging from the very crowded field. You’ll notice that many of the Best Actor frontrunners will be appearing in films that will ultimately be the Best Picture frontrunners as well. Still, within this closed world, Gravity will be a strong contender and features a female lead. Kate Winslet is also the lead in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day. Cate Blanchett still dominates the field as Jasmine in Woody Allen’s finest film since Crimes and Misdemeanors, Blue Jasmine. But for the most part, we’re looking, always, at stories that surround a male lead. The human experience, it seems, is defined by Hollywood as just that. At least, that’s what people seem to buy tickets for. The theme of survival dominates many of the strongest contenders, or facing life’s meaning while barreling towards towards the end. In the mix are also films about identity and success. In the full spectrum human experience of the modern man it seems there are unlimited avenues to explore. Would that the same variety could be applied to females. As it is, the studio requested Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity to be male. Cuaron refused. The rest is history. The season started with Forest Whitaker getting much acclaim for his performance in The Butler. Whitaker must volley between playing a deferential black butler to playing a strong husband and father. It’s a mesmerizing turn, heartbreaking as the film concludes. He was joined by Michael B. Jordan who gives an exceptional performance in Fruitvale Station. But the race tipped in Robert Redford‘s favor when All is Lost premiered at Cannes. Redford carries the entire film almost completely without dialogue. It is his most raw and accomplished performance of his many decades acting and directing in Hollywood. He was matched by Bruce Dern in Nebraska, with a touching performance of an asshole who is coming of old age. Telluride launched Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. A fierce and unflinching portrayal of Solomon Northrup a freed slave thrust back into imprisonment. His is the kind of performance you can’t turn away from and one that haunts you long after the film ends, this because director Steve McQueen includes a scene where Ejiofor stares directly into the camera’s lens for a prolonged take (for which McQueen is famous). He is looking directly at us. Ejiofor’s strong competition will include Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, which just received notice out of Toronto. McConaughey famously lost a serious amount of weight for the character who is dying of AIDS. McConaughey is very much at the top of the many lists as the one to watch for the big prize not just for work in this film, but his masterful, memorable performance in Mud. He enters the race this year with three memorable performances from last year, none of which received an Oscar nomination. To date, McConaughey has never been nominated for an Oscar. Then there’s Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. Hanks has won twice and nominated three additional times. He also has Saving Mr. Banks coming up. But Hanks is undeniable in Captain Phillips. Oscar Issac in Inside gives one of the best performances of the year so far, complete with singing with his own voice. Isaac’s is one of those that doesn’t fit into a category except – yet another brilliant incarnation by the Coen brothers. Performances still waiting in the wings – Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street and Christian Bale in American Hustle. How they will shift the race can’t be known. With the Oscars it’s always better to go with what you know right now rather than what you don’t know. To that end, many are declaring 12 Years a Slave the frontrunner to win Best Picture. To do that, it will have to have Slumdog-like appeal. McQueen will have to be the kind of winner that makes you feel good every time he wins. The film will likely thunder through the critics awards, winning everything. Though I’ve been doing this long to declare any film the winner right now (it also does the film no favors) that is a decent declaration to make. Old timers in this game have learned their lessons in that regard. You can’t ever live down those sort of dramatic claims if they don’t pay off in the end, which this one might. Either way, Best Actor might look like this: Frontrunners: Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club Robert Redford in All is Lost Forest Whitaker in The Butler Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips Close behind: Bruce Dern, Nebraska Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station Hugh Jackman, Prisoners Benedict Cumberbatch, the Fifth Estate Waiting to be seen: Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street Christian Bale, American Hustle Steve Carell, Foxcatcher Idris Elba, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Josh Brolin, Oldboy Joaquin Phoenix, Her Ben Stiller, the Secret Life of Walter Mitty The sticking point here seems to be which of the yet to be seen performances will bump the top five so far, and whether Bruce Dern can make the cut, or whether he’ll be put in supporting to make his chances for a nomination greater.