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Cinema Siren's Best Actor Oscar Contenders for 2014

Is '12 Years A Slave's' Ejiofor staying strong or will 'The Wolf of Wall Street's' DiCaprio steal the spotlight?

"12 Years A Slave" is oscar-worthy, says Cinema Siren. Credit: Fox Searchlight
"12 Years A Slave" is oscar-worthy, says Cinema Siren. Credit: Fox Searchlight
By Leslie Combemale aka Cinema Siren

What a year for acting 2013 has been. Cinema Siren is excited to give you readers some ideas for must-see movies in the last months of 2013 and into the new year to prepare for Oscar season…and don’t you want to know what to do when you’ve been holiday shopping for hours and need a break in the dark?

I’m here to help. Below are the front-runners for best actor as the race is shaping up for the 2014 Academy Awards. Many names are missing, like Michael B. Jordan for Fruitvale Station and Hugh Jackman for Prisoners, who just didn’t make the cut because the field is so incredibly strong this year! 

All the movies below are worth seeing, and while some are hard to watch, they all offer not only stellar performances, but either a feeling of hope or catharsis. Just like how you’ll feel when you drive that last relative to the airport after their holiday visit…   

Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) Ejiofor is the frontrunner for Best Actor, and for good reason. You may not know him, but Steven Spielberg recognized a good actor back in 1997 and cast him in his film Amistad. Well known in England, he has since then been balancing stage and screen acting and while American audiences may not know him, he has a strong following in the UK, having won the coveted Olivier Award for his performance in the title role of Othello alongside Ewan McGregor in 2008. 

His portrayal in 12 Years A Slave is nothing short of spectacular, although played with nuance and subtlety, which is the only way an audience can feel the full depth of his despair. We see him struggle to maintain a graceful dignity and fight his inner battles, which show up as sparks of emotion throughout the film. It is true this film is hard to watch, but it does leave the audience feeling lifted up, not least through Ejiofor’s transcendent performance. (In theaters now.)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) Otherwise known as “Marty’s Muse,” DiCaprio has rather remarkably remained Oscar-free thus far in his career. Oscar noticed him for Blood Diamond (2006), The Aviator (2004) and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993); he is overdue for recognition. Beyond the roles for which he has been nominated, he was overlooked for last year’s controversial Django Unchained, Revolutionary Road (2008) and The Departed (2006). 

Many thought his role as the brutal slave owner in Django outshined all others in the running for Best Supporting Actor, but it was not to be. Once again this year with The Wolf of Wall Street, he takes the hard road, playing flamboyant, unsympathetic real-life putz Jordan Belfort. Will this role break through to the Academy? Wolf clocks in at three hours and barely escaped an NC17 rating, so this will probably not be his winning year, but he will get a nod. (Opening wide Dec. 25.)

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) McConaughey has had a busy year, and his career continues its fascinating trajectory with Dallas Buyers Club, a movie about  real-life 1980s AIDS patient Ron Woodroof and his struggle with finding medications for his disease. The character arc of Ron and how his life and understanding of himself and those around him changes is so powerfully performed by McConaughey, you almost forget just how thin he made himself for the role. 

A perennial darling of the Indie Spirit Awards, they have awarded him for Mud and Magic Mike, and nominated him for Killer Joe and this year for Dallas Buyers Club. It’s time for the Academy to recognize him, especially since earlier this year, the buzz was all about Mud, and he has outdone himself with Dallas Buyers Club

It’s not an easy sit, but this movie is astonishing and deserves attention.  Check it out and see if you’d agree that he deserves to be the biggest threat to Chiwetel Ejiofor for Best Actor. (In theaters now.)

Robert Redford (All is Lost) Until a few weeks ago, Mr. Sundance was all the rage as the frontrunner for a film that is essentially a one-man show, All Is Lost. Playing an aging sailing enthusiast traveling the ocean alone, director J.C. Chandor puts Redford through his acting paces and he carries the whole movie, and the audience, through 107 tense minutes to its conclusion. Redford has won an honorary Oscar for his career, as well as for directing 1980’s Ordinary People. 

As an actor he has been nominated only once for 1973’s The Sting, and not recognized for the greats All The President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor. A champion of film who built the Sundance Film Festival from nothing, he is beloved by all members of the Academy. In a year with so many amazing performances, he may not be at the head of the pack, largely because the film has not been widely seen, and he speaks very few lines during his time onscreen. Still, there’s no denying he is still as magnetic as ever. (In theaters now.)

Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) What would the Oscars be without a nomination for Tom Hanks? He’s come so very far from Bosom Buddies…Tom’s portrayal of a man trying to save his ship and his crew from pirates is on par with the work he always does. He is great. However, he is competing against himself in two ways: His former roles that have won him Oscars are more well-developed, and his portrayal as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks is at least as good or better than this one.

He will get a nomination, but will not likely win against the other men in this category. When you win two Oscars back to back—Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994)— the Academy gets out their microscope. (In theaters now.)

Bruce Dern (Nebraska) Ever the heavy, the weirdo, the criminal in films, Bruce Dern has been a mainstay character actor and lead since the '70s when he was the go-to for that era’s new wave of auteur directors. Nominated, but not awarded for his great job as Captain Bob Hyde in 1978’s Coming Home, Dern has once again created an indelible character as Woody Grant in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska

A hard-headed old grumpus who believes he’s won millions, he bulldozes his son into a road trip to “collect the winnings.” This beautiful film captures with subtlety, deterioration, desperation and hope, in equal measure, and all in black and white. Dern may not win an Oscar, but he’s already won Best Actor at Cannes, and judging by his easygoing attitude at a recent film festival, he’s proud and happy already. (In theaters now.)

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) Currently residing in the “up and coming” file, Isaac, a Juilliard-trained actor heretofore known for his work in the movies Drive, The Borne Legacy and Robin Hood, he is about to become a member of the "A" list. The Coen brothers chose him to star in the title role of their new film about a '60s folk singer down on his luck, and looking for a break. 

Isaac sang and played all the songs live in the film, and played the angry, lonely, stubborn artist to perfection. In another year, he would have a lock on the win in this category, but at the very least, he will be nominated. How his chances shape up will depend on how the film does in theaters and how it is received by Oscar voters. One thing is sure, more great things are coming from this actor. (Opening wide Dec. 20.)

Joaquin Phoenix (Her) Look up "quirky" in the dictionary, and you might find a picture of actor Joaquin Phoenix. That may be part of his charm or his undoing, depending on who you ask. In any case, there is no denying his acting talent.  Nominated three times so far, for Gladiator (2000), Walk the Line (2005) and The Master (2012), it is only a matter of time before he walks away with the statue. 

Her, the newest from director/writer Spike Jonze, is about a lonely man who falls in love with his OS system computer, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. It may seem like a little story, but it is getting all kinds of buzz, and has already mopped up awards for Best Film and Director from the National Board of Review. The movie and Phoenix could gain last-minute momentum. (Opening wide Dec. 25.)

Anyone who has seen or sees these movies, by all means weigh in about your favorites and who you’d like to see nominated or win the Best Actor Oscar this year.  

Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren," is a movie lover and aficionado with a background in writing, film, and art history. She owns ArtInsights Animation and Film Art Gallery, which specializes in the original art of film. She is often invited to present at conventions including the San Diego Comic-Con, where she has moderated "Legendary Animators of Classic 60s Cartoons" and "The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster" and is a perennial panelist on the Harry Potter Fandom panel.  Visit her art gallery online at www.artinsights.com, and see more of her reviews and interviews on www.artinsightsmagazine.com.

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