We name five of our favorite performances sure to get Best Actor nominations

By Anthony Breznican
November 29, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

Daniel Day-Lewis spoiled us. His performance last year in Lincoln made the Best Actor race an easy call, but this time it’s the hardest of the Oscar fields to predict. The race is crammed with worthy contenders, each with an equally good chance of finding his name in the winning envelope at the Academy Awards on March 2.

With a month still to go before voting opens, we could see contenders like Forest Whitaker (The Butler) and Joaquin Phoenix (Her) enter the ranks. But today, if you ask voters to pick the front-runners, almost all name one of the five men below. Not only does each actor deliver an impressive performance, but each also has a compelling backstory, giving voters an extra reason to root for him. Don’t place your bets yet.

Matthew McConaughey
Dallas Buyers Club
Yes, he lost 47 pounds for this role, but it’s his interior transformation — from self-destructive, homophobic AIDS patient into redemptive outlaw — that’s wowing voters. The actor, 44, has rescued himself from rom-com oblivion with strong work in recent years, and his defiant, charismatic turn 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, and every moment of calculation and desperation plays out on that famous face. He has been nominated for acting only once, 40 years ago, for The Sting, and his career of overlooked performances could tip the balance with voters.

Tom Hanks
Captain Phillips
At the Governors Awards, Martin Short introduced Hanks as an Oscar winner “from the ’90s.” That may need updating. Hanks’ scenes at the end of this high-seas hostage drama are gripping. The actor, 57, won Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump but hasn’t nabbed a nod in 13 years. Now he could get two: He’s also a likely supporting nominee for playing Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks.

Bruce Dern
He may look like a wispy-haired codger, but the 77-year-old is a savvy presence on the awards circuit, charming industry crowds. His performance in Nebraska as a terse Midwesterner who mistakenly thinks he’s won a fortune is the kind of work that veteran character actors dream about. Dern has a lifetime of friends in the Academy, and now he finally has a role they can reward.

Chiwetel Ejiofor
12 Years a Slave
Ejiofor, 36, turns in the most wrenching performance of the lead-actor roles this year. (The film’s hanging scene alone is almost unbearable to watch.) This British actor of Nigerian parents isn’t a household name, despite acclaimed roles in Kinky Boots and Children of Men, but an Oscar nod — and especially a win — would mint Hollywood a new A-list star.