In selecting ten supporting actor contenders, we could easily have stretched it to twenty. So many of these stars have played lead roles in the past – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio – that when they do the lighter lifting of a supporting role they can really let it fly and, often, play against type.
Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master"): While "The Master" showed promise at the beginning of the fall film season, enthusiasm has waned. It may rise again when the critics' awards begin, but at the very least Hoffman will nail a supporting slot, even if his co-star Joaquin Phoenix stumbles on the road to best actor. Hoffman carries slightly less plot baggage than Phoenix in a showy Barnum of a role as a charismatic cult leader that plays to his strengths. Alongside Phoenix, Hoffman, who can blow up on screen, seems restrained.
Robert De Niro ("Silver Linings Playbook"): Who doesn't love De Niro? He's played his share of fathers — good, bad, and evil — and here he's a gambler with a bipolar son played by Bradley Cooper. It's clear that Dad has some undiagnosed issues himself, and De Niro is a terrific ensemble player.
Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln"): Jones does curmudgeon with a slice of heart rocking an awful wig and period togs as the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. The Pennsylvania congressman united with President Lincoln to pass the 13th Amendment, and Jones is first among a number of strong supporting performers riding the "Lincoln" wave, including James Spader and David Strathairn.
Leonardo DiCaprio ("Django Unchained"): DiCaprio is overdue for Academy recognition and he rarely plays downright bad. Quentin Tarantino gives Leo his chance as a sadistic slave owner, complete with a mustache to twirl (and a goatee!).
Eddie Redmayne ("Les Misérables"): As the romantic tenor revolutionary Marius, who woos Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Tony Award winner Redmayne finally crosses into mainstream recognition. The freckle-faced "My Week With Marilyn" star sings sweetly and cries heartbreakingly as a young man who falls in love at first sight. He has tough internal competition with Russell Crowe, but he's the movie's male breakout star.
Russell Crowe ("Les Misérables"): Yes, Crowe can sing. He has a band. And he gives the "Les Mis" villain all the gravity and stiffness the upright, uptight man of the law deserves. Charisma warning: Every time he enters a scene, the energy picks up. Wouldn't we just love "Gladiator: The Musical"?
Alan Arkin ("Argo"): Arkin's Hollywood producer at work on a fake futuristic sci-fi film in tandem with Ben Affleck's CIA agent and John Goodman's makeup maven is a study in comedic timing. His voice is bone dry, and so is his delivery.
Ewan McGregor ("The Impossible"): In this season of grown men weeping (even James Bond wept!), McGregor has a massive breakdown with just cause. He plays a handsome holiday vacationer in Thailand who becomes separated from his wife (Naomi Watts) and his eldest son when the 2004 tsunami hits. His phone call home to the grandparents, during which he has to articulate his fears that his wife and son may have been swept away, brings a wave of tears.
Matthew McConaughey ("Magic Mike"): McConaughey is experiencing a massive comeback. He was just nominated for Indie Spirit Awards for this and for his lead role in "Killer Joe." I loved him as "The Lincoln Lawyer." Here, he uses his beefcake beach build to play a sleazy stripper-entrepreneur who still has the female audiences calling, "Take it off! Take it all off!"
Jason Clarke ("Zero Dark Thirty"): There are a lot of men and only two women in Kathryn Bigelow's thriller about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The one man that stands out is Clarke ("Lawless"), who plays a CIA agent whose job it is to torture the enemy, within the lines allowed by the U. S. government. He does unthinkable things with the agility of a college quarterback, but when he says, "I think I've seen too many guys naked" and retires to a desk job, it's the understated delivery that works in Clarke's favor.