Okay, enough of this trifling supporting-actor nonsense. Let's get to the important ones. The top-billed ones. The leads.
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Why They’re Here: Bale rode the wave of enthusiasm for Hustle in particular and David O. Russell movies in general (this is the second straight year a DOR movie has placed a nominee in each acting category). Dern elbowed out Robert Redford for the so-called "veteran slot," because I guess we can't have two grizzled old bears in the same acting race. DiCaprio wowed many critics with his gumby legs and billionaire's smirk in Wolf of Wall Street (and it seems lots of people think he's lived quite enough of his life without an Oscar statue and that should be remedied). Ejiofor was the lead actor in the Best Picture front-runner, which rarely doesn't add up to a nomination (unless you're Ben Affleck in Argo, and now we've found a new reason to feel bad for Ben Affleck re: Argo!). McConaughey did it all, really. Lost weight, played an AIDS victim, played a real person, turned away from a life of Kate Hudson rom-coms and began to take his career seriously ... he did everything but sing "I Dreamed a Dream" in tight closeup.
Who Should Be Here Instead: The race for a nomination was insanely right, so at least 2-3 great contenders were always going to be left out, but at the top of any list of the unnominated should be Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) and Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis). But cases could (and have) been made for Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Robert Redford (All Is Lost ), Joaquin Phoenix (Her), and Forest Whitaker (The Butler). There. We just made an alternate-universe Best Actor category that's just as good (if not better) than the real Best Actor list and we still went over five.
Which Actor Would Present His Nomination If They Revisited That Star-Chamber Format: We'll stick with the 2008 format where the presenters all had to be previous winners in this category, so: Bale draws Sir Anthony Hopkins because they're both Welsh, obviously; Dern gets his Coming Home co-star Jon Voight; DiCaprio can get the Scorsese hand-off from Robert DeNiro; Forest Whitaker presenting Ejiofor would be a nice way to pull together some themes from the year in film without having to do something gauche like a montage; and if they can't get Jack Nicholson to present McConaughey (because, really, Jack is McConaughey's future), they should nab Nicolas Cage, because why shouldn't the rest of us be entertained?
Best Chance at a Follow-Up Nomination: Ejiofor has lined up ensemble crime drama Triple Nine and sci-fi disaster flick Z for Zachariah, neither of which seem like awards plays. McConaughey appears to be the Interstellar cast member who's being singled out, but Christopher Nolan movies have never been much of a player in the acting categories (Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight being a notable exception). Terrence Malick movies don't get acting nominations either, but Christian Bale's lead performance in Knight of Cups seems like the most likely recidivist next year.
The Real Contenders: McConaughey has won the Golden Globe, the SAG, and the Critics Choice awards, but the Brits didn't seem to care much for Dallas Buyers Club, so the BAFTA went to Ejiofor, which I guess makes him the spoiler? You'd think strong campaigns could have been made for Dern and DiCaprio at least, but they never materialized. What once looked like a crazy open race managed to funnel itself very quickly into a foregone conclusion.
Fun with Stats: With a win for anyone but Dern or Bale, it will mark the seventh time out of the last ten that the Oscar for Best Actor will have gone to an actor playing a real person.
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Why They’re Here: Starting from the bottom, Streep is here because she's Streep, and if you somehow missed the memo that the Academy loves, her, there are seventeen more memos. "Memos," in this case, means "career Oscar nominations." Don't sleep on Judi Dench, though. She's been nominated seven times in the past seventeen years. In that same span, only Streep has been nominated more times (eight). Blanchett, by the way, has six nominations in that span, plus her Blue Jasmine performance had people leaping from their seats once the closing credits started to shout "OSCAR!" into the night air. Bullock, even moreso than her statue-winning performance in The Blind Side, impressed people with her range in Gravity, plus the Academy likes to toss unexpected/dubious winners a follow-up nomination just to prove they weren't reaching. Amy Adams nabbed her first lead-actress nomination by proving once again that David O. Russell may well be her strongest collaborator. As with her work in The Fighter, she shows off a side of herself that isn't available all that often, and it has nothing to do with her costumes. (Maybe the hair, though.)
Who Should Be Here Instead: Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) was the big snub of nomination morning, but, delightful a presence as she is on the planet Earth, that performance isn't really all that award-worthy. ("Oh, but Streep's is better?" you ask, incredulously. Yes, it is.) The best overlooked performances came from the world of talky indie, with Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said), and Julie Delpy (Before Midnight) all delivering incredibly deserving performances.
Which Actress Would Present Her Nomination If They Revisited That Star-Chamber Format: Okay, well start off with Gwyneth Paltrow presenting Cate Blanchett, since Cate winning Best Actress finally might get everybody off of Gwynnie's back for beating her Elizabeth performance. Julia Roberts can present Bullock (she'll be there anyway) and we can all read into her body language to see if there's friction between America's Sweethearts past. Liza Minnelli can present Amy Adams (she'll be there too), because why the hell not? Maggie Smith could present Judi Dench, and we can all pray we get a recreation of these remarks. And then all four can phone Glenn Close from the stage and ask her to present Meryl Streep, and she'll have to be like "But I've never—" and then they'll hang up and turn to Meryl, and everyone will laugh and laugh.
Best Chance at a Follow-Up Nomination: I mean, the answer is Streep because it's always Streep. Though if I were placing my chips on Streep to nab a nomination for Into the Woods, my hand would be awfully shaky. Adams has a couple chances to repeat, with the weepy-seeming drama Lullaby and Tim Burton's Big Eyes wherein she'll play the artist Margaret Keane. Burton's name is not anywhere close to a guarantee of quality these days, but Johnny Depp nabbed a nomination for Sweeney Todd not all that long ago, so who knows? Like Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett is in Malick's Knight of Cups and his next, untitled film. She's also in Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, but that won't be an awards play. Neither Bullock nor Dench have anything concrete lined up, though how long can it possibly take to film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel sequel?
The Real Contenders: Is there a real competitor to Cate Blanchett? She's been a stone-cold lock since the summer, and not even the recent Woody Allen unpleasantness has slowed her roll. It's a testament to how strong her performance was that Amy Adams doesn't stand a better shot. She's the only one of the five who hasn't won an Oscar, and she's the clear standout in her cast. Look for major "when's her turn?" style buzz for Amy in the next few years.
Fun with Stats: After last year's Best Actress field comprised the fewest previous nominations (8) of any field since 1997, this year's Best Actresses have racked up 38 previous nominations and six wins.
Prediction: Cate Blanchett