This time last year, one of the few things we could count on was J.K. Simmons winning an Oscar for his turn as the maniacal jazz-band conductor in the beloved indie Whiplash. Neither Robert Duvall’s gravitas in The Judge nor Ethan Hawke’s humanity in Boyhood could lure voters away from Simmons’ irresistible narrative of a long-working character actor getting his due. But turn to this year’s race and anything can happen: Actors as disparate as 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (Room) and 69-year-old Sylvester Stallone (Creed ) could be vying for the same prize. Add Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight), Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), and Paul Dano, who recently took home a Gotham for his role in Love and Mercy, to the mix, and the race is anyone’s to win.
One thing we do know to be true: Michael Keaton should score his second Oscar nomination in two consecutive years for his role as the head of the investigative team in Spotlight — a fact that won’t be lost on voters who last year opted for Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything over Keaton’s career-revitalizing turn in Birdman. (The NYFCC threw a slight wrinkle in to the race, but giving Keaton its award for best lead actor.)
Also destined to make the cut is Tom Hardy for his fierce and feral turn in The Revenant. Bigger questions abound over whether Mark Ruffalo finds himself in the running, joining Keaton as another entry from Spotlight, which boasts a crop of worthy supporting performances. And does Sicario have enough momentum to carry Benicio Del Toro back into the winner’s circle? (He was there back in 2001 for his supporting role in another drug-related thriller, Traffic.)
In the end, maybe it does come down to new blood versus veterans. Tremblay is astonishing in Room and gives the movie its soul. But then there is Stallone, revisiting the character that made him famous close to 40 years ago and doing it better than he ever has.
That’s almost impossible to resist.