This year’s Oscar races are both longer than ever and harder to call: Amid the continuing pandemic, the ceremony has been pushed back to April 25 (with films released through Feb. 28 being eligible), and the usual circuit of pomp, parties and pageantry has all but evaporated, leaving a series of buzzless screening links in its wake.
Still, there’s at least one top category where I feel comfortable anointing a front-runner: In the crowded best-actor race, Chadwick Boseman has the edge for his exceptional work in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Handed this prime opportunity to recognize the late superstar, Oscar voters surely won’t fail to seize it.
Still, don’t expect a final five that’s simply filled with Boseman and four pushovers. This year, the category could be one to remember, as familiar Oscar faces are vastly outnumbered by up-and-comers looking to score their first nomination.
Who are the likeliest of those names to break through? Here are my projections.
Riz Ahmed, ‘Sound of Metal’
Ahmed has done sensitive supporting work in films like “Nightcrawler” and “The Sisters Brothers,” but his leading-man turn in “Sound of Metal” is a step beyond: As a drummer with substance-abuse issues who can’t accept his sudden hearing loss, Ahmed is simply shattering. A recent Gotham Award win over Boseman suggests he’s got the stuff to earn his first Oscar nomination; let’s hope voters also include his wonderful co-star Paul Raci, so affecting as the leader of Ahmed’s recovery group.
Kingsley Ben-Adir, ‘One Night in Miami’
While this civil-rights-era drama (due Friday from Amazon) gives its four-person ensemble equal weight, the streaming service’s awards play is to position Ben-Adir (playing Malcolm X) and Eli Goree (Muhammad Ali) as lead actors, while Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke) and Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown) are meant to make a run in the supporting categories. It’s a risky strategy, but Ben-Adir does feel like a potential best-actor breakout: The British up-and-comer has an intimate take on Malcolm X that makes this icon feel gratifyingly human.
Chadwick Boseman, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’
Though Boseman’s death creates a sense of urgency to honor him, his work in this August Wilson adaptation would have earned Oscar attention no matter what: He’s simply that tremendous in a bold and brash role that is far removed from his stoic performance in “Black Panther.” Posthumous Oscar wins are hard to come by, but Boseman recalls Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” who turned in one of his most acclaimed performances at the end of his too-short career.
Sacha Baron Cohen, ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’
With Borat’s knack for crashing parties, a dark horse like Baron Cohen shouldn’t be counted out, especially since the first “Borat” netted the writer-actor a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. Both are very much in play again this time around, though any best-actor momentum Baron Cohen has may be rolled into his much likelier nomination as a supporting actor for playing Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Tom Hanks, ‘News of the World’
A supporting-actor nomination last year for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” broke a nearly two-decade Oscar dry spell for Hanks, whose more recent performances have often been taken for granted. If voters default to big names this year, Hanks will have a fair shot, but his role as a Civil War veteran in “News of the World” is awfully muted and liable to get lost in a sea of flashy contenders.
Anthony Hopkins, ‘The Father’
Things would have to go very wrong for Hopkins to miss out on a nomination: As a patriarch who begins to lose his place in the world because of dementia, Hopkins turns in a late-career capstone. (The film is due Feb. 26.) Roles this good don’t come along very often for an 83-year-old actor, and in any other year, that sense of timing might have guaranteed Hopkins his second Oscar. But will voters neglect their only real opportunity to give this year’s prize to Boseman?
Delroy Lindo, ‘Da 5 Bloods’
Lindo is enormously compelling as a Vietnam War veteran in Spike Lee’s drama, and the never-nominated 68-year-old has been the beneficiary of a major critics’ push, earning best-actor notices from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. Since he’s the only contender on this list who hails from a summer movie, those continued laurels will help him stay front of mind during an Oscar season that is going to drag out for a few more months.
Gary Oldman, ‘Mank’
Might “Mank” be this year’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” an expensive period film about the movie industry that earns plenty of nominations but has trouble converting them into wins? The Oscar veteran Oldman certainly serves up the sort of performance that voters go gaga for: Every one of his line readings, delivered in a voice that creaks like a screen door, is filled with Big Choices. Still, the voters I’ve spoken to respect the film more than they love it.
Lakeith Stanfield, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
This late-arriving drama about the assassination of the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton will reshape the supporting-actor race, since Daniel Kaluuya’s bravura performance as Hampton has front-runner fire. (The movie is due Feb. 12.) What does that mean for Stanfield, the film’s actual lead, who plays a traitorous F.B.I. informant infiltrating Hampton’s inner circle? If the movie connects, the talented actor could be swept in; while his character’s motivations remain a bit murky, Stanfield still delivers from scene to scene.
John David Washington, ‘Malcolm & Marie’
After landing just outside the best-actor final five during the “BlacKkKlansman” Oscar run, Washington may have better luck with his turn-it-up-to-11 performance in “Malcolm & Marie” (Feb. 5), a quarantine-shot two-hander in which he plays an obnoxiously high-on-his-supply filmmaker who berates his girlfriend (Zendaya) for an hour and 45 minutes. It’s certainly the showiest, chattiest performance on this list, though voters may sympathize more with Zendaya as she weathers his harangues.
Steven Yeun, ‘Minari’
Yeun deserved Oscar attention for his wily supporting performance in the 2018 “Burning,” but voters will soon get the chance to make it up to him. In the acclaimed “Minari” (due Feb. 12), Yeun plays an immigrant father who moves his family to Arkansas to start a farm, and you feel his pride and frustration even when scenes play out with little dialogue. But in a group of thunderous monologuists, can a performance like Yeun’s break through? Even the indie-leaning Gotham Awards snubbed him of a nomination, and his Oscar competition will be tougher still.