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Best Actor

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When the first seven critics’ awards produce seven different Best Actor winners, you know it’s an open race. As often happens in this category, many of the front-runners have previously been nominated (and in many cases, have won). After missing out on a nod last year for The Green Mile, four-time nominee and two-time Best Actor TOM HANKS, who spends much of his Cast Away screen time alone, delivered a performance that will surely prove too notable to ignore. Likewise, GEOFFREY RUSH’s revealing embodiment of Quills’ Marquis de Sade should earn him his first props in this category since winning for 1996’s Shine. Last year’s nominee RUSSELL CROWE, who was cited for The Insider despite its small box office, will only benefit from Gladiator’s blockbuster status. And 13 years after winning for Wall Street, MICHAEL DOUGLAS, Wonder Boys’ pothead professor, could get lucky; he remains fresh in voters’ minds thanks to a Golden Globe nod, a high-profile Wonder Boys rerelease, and a strong supporting performance in Traffic.

There are enough other previous nominees to fill their own category: Past winners SEAN CONNERY and MATT DAMON (who won for writing) were considered strong candidates for Finding Forrester and All the Pretty Horses, respectively, until their films received some negative reviews and were virtually ignored by the Golden Globes and critics’ groups. And Glory victor DENZEL WASHINGTON needed more critical support for his football drama Remember the Titans to be a serious contender this season. Meanwhile, two-time nominee RALPH FIENNES, who plays three different characters in the epic Sunshine, has seen his profile raised by that film’s surprise Globe nod for best picture.

But expect the fifth slot to go to one of the year’s top newcomers: If Billy Elliot proves a leading contender, 14-year-old JAMIE BELL could plie his way to the Shrine Auditorium, though voters are usually kinder to young’uns in the supporting categories. You Can Count on Me’s MARK RUFFALO has been hailed as a revelation reminiscent of Marlon Brando, but some may deem his role as too secondary to costar Laura Linney’s to merit lead status. So we’ll give it to a guy who’s a newcomer only on these shores: Spanish superstar JAVIER BARDEM, whose decades-spanning performance as Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls is as urgent as it is timeless.

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With two other Best Actor contenders (Geoffrey Rush and Javier Bardem) getting raves for playing real-life artistes, let us not forget the man who morphed most memorably into an actual tortured soul: As the increasingly brilliant and increasingly difficult painter Jackson Pollock in Pollock, ED HARRIS directed himself in a reckless yet beautifully lived-in performance. And look again at those final scenes: We guarantee he gained just as much weight as Tom Hanks lost.