Best actor is a crowded race in which 10 slots hardly allow for all the meaty male performances of 2012. Historical figures dominate the field: Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, John Hawkes as the disabled poet-journalist Mark O'Brien, Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock, and Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But, by year's end, we could be singing Hugh Jackman's tune from "Les Misérables."
Daniel Day-Lewis ("Lincoln"): Still pursuing the greatest-actor-of-his-generation crown, Day-Lewis makes Lincoln come alive as a man, a politician, and an American hero in Steven Spielberg's production. The Oscar winner is currently the front-runner in the race, and the one to beat.
John Hawkes ("The Sessions"): The indie actor best known as the threatening meth-maker in "Winter's Bone" and the ominous cult leader in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" breathes life and humor into the erotic adventures of the extremely disabled California writer Mark O'Brien. The crowd pleaser"The Sessions" hasn't killed at the box office, but it's universally agreed that Hawkes's brave performance drives a film that had potential to be maudlin.
Denzel Washington ("Flight"): Robert Zemeckis's return to live action puts the entire movie on the very wide shoulders of Washington, playing a commercial pilot who accomplishes a miraculous crash landing only to find himself embroiled in a huge scandal. It's a career-topping performance that allows the actor to scrape layers and layers of his humanity and pain.
Hugh Jackman ("Les Misérables"): We may love Jackman as Wolverine, but the Aussie is at his most stupendous as a musical star. And now, he has his chance to sing out as Jean Valjean, the paroled convict in that gloriously miserable literary adaptation "Les Misérables."
Joaquin Phoenix ("The Master"): Phoenix does loutish so very well in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," a sweeping tale of an L. Ron Hubbard-like swami (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his alcohol-dependent disciple. Two problems might keep Phoenix from getting the nod: First, the movie was overhyped when it premiered on the fall festival circuit, and second, Phoenix keeps shooting himself in the foot by saying he doesn't believe in awards only to later reverse his opinion.
Daniel Craig ("Skyfall"): With Bond turning 50, the secret agent is finally getting some respect. Craig should ride the wave of big box office and terrific reviews as the actor who found the spy's soulful side without sacrificing his brawn.
Christoph Waltz ("Django Unchained"): Waltz won Actor in a Supporting Role for his smooth-talking Nazi sadist in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." Now he's back and begging for more, newly pushed from the supporting category to lead, as a fast-talking, faster-shooting bounty hunter in the Old South of Tarantino's twisted imagination. If his performance is even better than it already appears in the trailer, then he moves up to sure thing.
Bradley Cooper ("Silver Linings Playbook"):
"Playbook" is a major contender for best picture and best actress, but it feels a little weaker when it comes to Cooper. Love the scene where he maniacally reads Ernest Hemingway until 4 a.m., then tosses the book through the window in frustration with the ending. He also dances maniacally, but is that enough? He suffers from the pretty-boy curse that also plagued Brad Pitt's Oscar run.
Anthony Hopkins ("Hitchcock"): It's no mystery that whenever Hopkins takes the screen, he's a serious thespian. Here, he not only impersonates the famous director of "Psycho" fame, Alfred Hitchcock, he actually gives a strong sense of the insecurities and passions that drove the director to make some of the greatest English-language films ever.
Bill Murray ("Hyde Park on Hudson"): It would be a shame if Daniel Day-Lewis got a nomination for playing President Lincoln but Murray didn't get one for his wise, wily, and sexually manipulative portrait of another major American president. Murray seduces as FDR, a disabled man, a flawed husband, and a great leader.