By Anthony Breznican
November 29, 2013 at 04:00 PM EST
Jaap Buitendijk; Hopper Stone; Daniel Daza; Merie

Daniel Day-Lewis spoiled us. Last year, the Best Actor race was an easy call, but this time around, it’s the hardest of the Oscar fields to predict. The race is jam-packed with worthy contenders, each with an equally strong chance of finding his name in that winning envelope on March 2.

With a month to go before voting opens we could still see some shifting. Who could still sneak in?  Forest Whitaker for The Butler or Joaquin Phoenix for Her have the potential to rise in the ranks. So does Oscar Isaac for his musical, downtrodden turn in Inside Llewyn Davis.

Most Academy members haven’t seen the ’70s grifter drama American Hustle yet, but since it began screening for the press earlier this week reactions have been ecstatic. Expect to see that film in as many as eight Oscar categories this year, including each of the acting fields.

Christian Bale’s comically seductive, balding, pot-bellied con artist from that film should soon be joining the list of Best Actor contenders. The question is: Who will he knock out?

Right now, if you ask voters to pick front-runners, they almost always name the five below. Each delivers an impressive performance, but also have a compelling backstory, which can help make the difference in a tough race.

Bruce Dern, Nebraska – He may look like a wispy-haired codger, but the 77-year-old is a savvy and sophisticated presence on the awards circuit, charming crowds with his lively speeches at industry events. In Nebraska, his terse, aging Midwesterner who mistakenly thinks he’s won a fortune is the kind of rich role that longtime character actors dream about, especially in their later years. Dern has a lifetime of friends in the Academy, and now he has a performance worth putting on their ballots.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave – As a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery with no recourse or hope of rescue, Ejiofor delivers the most wrenching and emotional of the lead actor roles this year. He’s also the one who undoubtedly  suffered the most for his role. Even though we’re sure he was safely rigged, the film’s unbearable hanging scene must have been physically and emotionally taxing. The 36-year-old wasn’t a household name before, despite acclaimed roles in Kinky Boots, Salt, and Children of Men, but an Oscar nod — and especially a win — would mint Hollywood a new A-list star.

 Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips – At the Academy’s honorary Governors Awards, Martin Short introduced Hanks as “an Oscar-winner from the ‘90s.” That may need updating thanks to Hanks’ gripping, shell-shocked scenes at the end of this high seas hostage drama. The 57-year-old previously won back-to-back lead actor awards for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but that was — astoundingly — nearly 20 years ago. He’s also a likely supporting actor nominee for playing Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks.

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club – The first thing that got voters’ attention was the stark 47-pound weight loss, but that’s just one part of McConaughey’s transformative work as a withering AIDS patient who turns smuggler to get his hands on experimental treatments. The greater trick was making a self-destructive, homophobic jerk relatable and — ultimately — redemptive. The 44-year-old actor has been doing strong work in for the past two years, and his defiant, charismatic work in this film is the peak of that career renaissance.

Robert Redford, All Is Lost – He barely says a word, which makes his performance all the more powerful. The 77-year-old is the lone figure in this survival drama about a man trapped at sea on a crippled boat, and every moment of calculation and desperation plays out wordlessly on that famous face. His only Oscar is for directing 1980’s Ordinary People, and his one and only acting nod came exactly 40 years ago for The Sting. In a tight race, a history of iconic, overlooked performances can tip the balance with Academy voters.