A couple of friends were kicking around the Best Actor field yesterday, and they came up with 17 feasible Best Actor contenders. My revised list goes to 19. But after you boil it down, there are closer to eight or nine performances that will probably make the grade in most people’s minds and therefore go the distance. Obviously nobody knows very much at this stage (i.e., the ass wind is our trade wind) but the discussion right now boils down to “we’ve heard things about this and that Venice/Telluride/Toronto film, and it seems as if these names and performances in these apparent award-season films might possibly connect and combust and lift off the ground, especially if favoring moods and winds of the Movie Godz prevail.” But come down to earth: To really break through a performance has to deliver something strong and different and curiously penetrating, and this kind of performance doesn’t grow on trees or happen that often.

Looking More Favorable Than Most: 1. Michael Keaton, Birdman — an allegedly crackling presence + career redemption + the former Batman star who kind of blackballed himself and then finally came in from the cold with a dark satire about same; 2. Eddie Redmayne, Theory of Everything — depends on the film (duhhh) but something about this being Redmayne’s time plus the standard Oscar-bait lure of struggling with a disability plus a Beautiful Mind-ization of Stephen Hawking seems somehow right and fated to ignite IF there’s a mesmerizing musical score; 3. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher — it is written in a subsection of the Dead Sea Scrolls that he who ups his indie-actor cred in a first-rate melodrama by adopting a spazzy vocal style and making himself grotesque by wearing a prosthetic nose will be Oscar-nominated; 4. Kevin Costner, Black and White — easily among the best Costner performances ever (the flip side of Field of Dreams) and arguably his best ever in this child-custody film, which advance-peekers are calling the most honest, intelligent and revelatory drama about racial relations in this country since Do The Right Thing, and directed and written by a white man at that (i.e., Mike Binder); 5. Bill Murray as himself in Theodore Melfi‘s St. Vincent — a role that reportedly fits him like a glove; 6. Mark Wahlberg, The Gambler — a good role (i.e., self-destructive, well-born college professor), possibly a breakthrough for Wahlberg; 7. David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma — who knows but if it’s a half-decent film with three great scenes Oyelowo could hit it out of the park (remember he’s also in A Most Violent Year); 8. Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up — a much more authentic, indeed transformative performance than the trailer indicates; Boseman clearly immersed himself thoroughly to become the Godfather of Soul; 9. Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner — the only problem being that I found it difficult to understand what Spall was saying half the time, a possible remedy being subtitles on Academy screeners; 10. Ben Affleck, Gone GirlRosamund Pike is said to be the big knockout but Affleck, too, is said to be standing on very firm melodramatic ground (although he may be punished down the road for putting on the Warner Bros. cowl); 11. Miles Teller, Whiplash — you need a token Millenial among Best Actor nominees to persuade under-35s to watch the Oscar telecast, on top of which Teller is manic and sweaty and flat-out electrifying as an aspiring world-class drummer.

Attention-Getting but Too Soft or Flaky, Under-Funded, Too Over-Exposed, Not The Right Time, Role Isn’t Strong Enough, etc.: 1. Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice — almost certainly a tasty, crafty performance but will Phoenix seem too stoned and nebulous in a Paul Thomas Anderson period flick that doesn’t do the usual forward-narrative thing that mainstreamers like to swim in?; 2. Tom Hardy in Locke — simply one of the most rooted and masterfully controlled solo-stand performances in film history — it’s simply a matter of whether or not Hardy will campaign, but with the new Innaritu film rolling from October through March, the answer is “he probably won’t be able to”; 3. Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar — between last March’s Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club and the Emmy acclaim for his performance in True Detective, the McConaughey-deserves-it narrative is played out…don’t even go there; 4. Benedict Cumberbatch as closeted gay cryptographer Alan Turing in The Imitation Game…I’m nodding off as I type this; 5. Jack O’Connell in Unbroken — as I told a friend last night, if O’Connell had a more interesting-sounding role than just a real-life guy (the late Louis Zamperini) who survived a brutal ordeal in World War II…if, say, he was playing a headstrong British officer in a Japanese POW camp who decides to prove a point to his Japanese captors by inspiring his men to build a proper bridge only to realize at the last moment that he’s lost sight of his soldierly duty…then there might be serious early-bird Oscar talk, but where’s the shattering profound payoff in a guy who simply made it through an awful experience?; 6. Ethan Hawke in Boyhood — an excellent, earnestly felt, time-spanning performance that nonetheless isn’t as rich or reaching as his work in Before Midnight…on top of which nobody paid any attention to that so why will they pay attention to Hawke in Linklater’s latest?; 7. Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel — if the Variety critics were calling the shots Fiennes would be at the top of the list, but they’re not and so he’s a question mark…a friend maintains that the “smart thing” would be to push Fiennes in Best Supporting, despite that fact that he’s obviously the lead in Wes Anderson‘s film; 8. Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins — obviously a breakout role, obviously a shot for Hader if he campaigns…but will he campaign, and will there be any real dough behind him if he does?

Not to mention: Mark Ruffalo in Maya ForbesInfinitely Polar Bear, Colin Firth in Woody Allen‘s Magic in the Moonlight, Chadwick Bozeman in Tate Taylor‘s Get On Up, and a personal favorite of mine — Andre Benjamin in John Ridley‘s Jimi — All Is By My Side.