This year's race for Best Actor is almost guaranteed to be formed in the final months of this year. Don't get me wrong there have been some terrific performances. But not the kind that are remembered by voters unless they appear late into the season. Besides, with one of the five slots possibly already reserved for the first appearance of Jeff Bridges as Marshall Rooster Cogburn, the very role that got John Wayne his Oscar. Did they give Bridges his lifetime achievement too soon? Or is he simply being setup to be the first guy since Tom Hanks to go back-to-back?

That's a long ways off though. We don't even have a trailer to look at. And per my own rules of prognostication, if we haven't seen the film nor a tiny glimpse of the performances in action, they are left off the list. For the moment. Not only is it unfair and disrespectful to some of the exceptional performers we have seen already but no scout is going to recommend a pitcher they haven't looked at. So who are the leaders in the race to date?

It begins with someone who may just ultimately be the winner. Call it a hunch, woman's intuition or whatever but Robert Duvall has not won since 1983's Tender Mercies and it's his only won. Without a nomination since 1998's A Civil Action, Duvall is primed for at least that as the grizzled hermit planning his own living funeral in Get Low. After him the only one who may still be in the conversation by October is Leonardo DiCaprio. With two terrific performances under his belt, it's only a question as to which one he will be contending on. Most of us are in agreement that his work in Scorsese's Shutter Island is the stronger work, but that often means nothing to voters. (See: Matt Damon getting the consolation nod in the supporting category for Invictus while his superior lead work in The Informant was forgotten.) DiCaprio was in this same boat in 2006 as well when got the nomination for Blood Diamond instead of his stellar work in The Departed. For my money, if they give DiCaprio a shot with Inception I am not going to complain too much.

After that, eight months worth of performances are likely to go by the boards. It's the shame of doing awards speculation so early. We practically create a memorium for films and actors that will be forgotten not because they should, but because voters have Memento Syndrome and studios brush off their chances. Who will stand up for Michael Douglas doing his best work since Wonder Boys in Solitary Man or Ben Stiller doing the most interesting dramatic work of his career in Greenberg? At least Douglas has the Wall Street sequel in his backpocket which would be a nice springboard to remember the earlier film. (Only Bing Crosby, Peter O'Toole, Paul Newman and Cate Blanchett have ever been nominated twice for the same character. NOTE: And Al Pacino for Michael Corleone in Godfather I & II.)

Veterans have also generated some chatter. Put a gun in Michael Caine's hand in the kind of film people hoped Gran Torino was in Harry Brown and some started screaming Oscar in April. Will enough folks see Martin Landau in the upcoming Lovely, Still for him to be a blip or will he just be this year's Hal Holbrook from last year's little seen indie, That Evening Sun? Much like Fish Tank's Michael Fassbender who will be due for some Oscar attention in the coming years if he can stay away from dreck like Jonah Hex and Centurion. On the same side of that coin though, will horror ever get its due? Patrick Fabian's preacher of alternating faith in The Last Exorcism has to hold our attention around the scare scenes and does it so well that we would be OK to just leave the farmhouse altogether and follow him talking to us for another hour. And how about a little respect for Ryan Reynolds in the upcoming Buried? An entire performance that gives new meaning to acting one's way out of a wooden box. Well, just consider their competition on the horizon.

There's a young and cocky Viagra salesman (Jake Gyllenhaal, Love and Other Drugs), a young and cocky internet pioneer (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network), as well as the young and confused (Andrew Garfield, Never Let Me Go & Keir Gilchrist, It's Kind of a Funny Story). Real-life leftovers from the Dubya years in Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack) and Joe Wilson (Sean Penn, Fair Game). Killers both fictional (George Clooney, The American & Ben Affleck, The Town) as well as real and potentially innocent (Sam Rockwell, Conviction). And then trailers that are practically the first step to highlighting eventual Oscar campaigns (Jim Broadbent, Another Year; Stephen Dorff, Somewhere; John Malkovich, Secretariat)

Who will go lead and who will go supporting will factor in later as well and we're still waiting to get our first looks at Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Matt Damon (Hereafter), Johnny Depp (The Tourist), Colin Firth (The King's Speech), James Franco (127 Hours) and Christian Bale & Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter. Some we'll be seeing in full in Toronto next month, where I will also catch up with Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine. Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful with Javier Bardem also screens there, but like Terrence Malick's Tree of Life currently has no scheduled release for 2010.

1. Robert Duvall "Get Low"
2. Leonardo DiCaprio "Shutter Island" or "Inception"
3. Michael Douglas "Solitary Man"
4. Ben Stiller "Greenberg"
5. Michael Caine "Harry Brown"

1. Stephen Dorff "Somewhere"
2. Sam Rockwell "Conviction"
3. Jim Broadbent "Another Year"
4. Jake Gyllenhaal "Love and Other Drugs"
5. Kevin Spacey "Casino Jack"

1. Mark Ruffalo "The Kids Are All Right"
2. Bill Murray "Get Low"
3. John Hawkes "Winter's Bone"
4. Richard Jenkins "Eat Pray Love"
5. Ben Kingsley "Shutter Island"

1. John Malkovich "Secretariat"
2. Bob Hoskins "Made In Dagenham"
3. Josh Brolin "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" or "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"
4. Tom Wilkinson "The Debt"
5. Jeremy Renner or Chris Cooper "The Town"

Next week we shall examine The Screenplays. And the following week the rankings begin changing quickly at Toronto fest.

categories Oscars, Awards, Cinematical