The Locks: Clooney is the closest thing to a lock in this category, thanks to his much-hyped performance in 'Up in the Air' as a frequent-flying bachelor who's astonished to discover his need for companionship. Want to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar? Play a man having a midlife crisis. That seems to be the formula for success this year, at least for such leading Academy Awards contenders as George Clooney (pictured, right), Colin Firth, Daniel Day-Lewis, Matt Damon, Clive Owen, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Nicolas Cage.
The Locks: Clooney is the closest thing to a lock in this category, thanks to his much-hyped performance in 'Up in the Air' as a frequent-flying bachelor who's astonished to discover his need for companionship. A previous Oscar winner, Clooney's having a banner year (with simultaneous roles in 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' and 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'), and nothing can stop him, except maybe Firth -- as a bereaved, suicidal college professor in 'A Single Man,' which has already earned him Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival -- or recent winner Day-Lewis, as a film director having a personal crisis in the musical 'Nine.'
Day-Lewis gets shortlisted just for being Day-Lewis. Same thing with recent winner Morgan Freeman, playing a beloved world leader (Nelson Mandela) in frequent collaborator Clint Eastwood's 'Invictus.'
The Hopefuls: The late entry into the race of 'Crazy Heart' means a vault to the front of the pack for Jeff Bridges (pictured, left), who's been nominated unsuccessfully four times before and is certainly due. He's playing an aging country singer seeking redemption, the same kind of role that won this trophy for Robert Duvall in 'Tender Mercies.' Damon is a strong prospect for his unreliable corporate whistleblower in 'The Informant!', a much trickier and less cartoonish performance than it appears at first glance. (He may, however, have a better shot at a supporting nod in 'Invictus.') Viggo Mortensen caps a decade of intense performances with his role as a survivalist dad in 'The Road,' a tony literary adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, though the post-apocalyptic movie may be too grim for Oscar voters. Owen is grabbing attention for playing an unusually tender, change-of-pace role, as a widowed dad, in 'The Boys Are Back,' though the film itself hasn't earned as much buzz as he has. And Stuhlbarg, who's impeccable as a Job-like family man in Joel and Ethan Coen's 'A Serious Man,' is a serious contender, though his virtual-unknown status and self-effacing performance may work against him.
Other strong hopefuls: Ben Foster has been getting raves in 'The Messenger' as a soldier who delivers bad news, though if Oscar voters give the film just one nod, it'll be for higher profile supporting actor Woody Harrelson. And don't rule out Brad Pitt in 'Inglourious Basterds.' He brings the crazy and seems to be having the time of his life, in a way not seen since his canny lunatic in '12 Monkeys,' another role that earned him a nomination.
Long Shots: Robert De Niro's turn in 'Everybody's Fine' (pictured, right) as an ailing widower visiting his adult children (shades of Jack Nicholson's nominated performance in 'About Schmidt') is his strongest chance in 20 years at a third Oscar; too bad the movie is such a standard, sentimental dramedy. Careening cop Nicolas Cage is once again a serious prospect in 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.' The film may be too off-putting for Academy voters, but Cage gives a risky, nervy performance for the first time in ages and earns his best shot at a return to the podium since his victory for 1995's 'Leaving Las Vegas.'
Michael Sheen follows his acclaimed turns in 'The Queen' and 'Frost/Nixon' as yet another real-life Brit in 'The Damned United,' though getting American voters to care about soccer seems an uphill battle. Ben Whishaw is also a real-life Brit (19th century poet John Keats) in 'Bright Star,' but all the buzz seems to have landed on costar Abbie Cornish. Jeremy Renner stars in Kathryn Bigelow's acclaimed Iraq War drama 'The Hurt Locker,' but that film's topic also seems as likely to scare awards voters as it has audiences. Finally, it's hard to believe Hal Holbrook has never had a solo lead in a movie or an Oscar; his role as a feisty farmer in 'That Evening Sun' could make up for his recent Supporting Actor loss in 'Into the Wild,' if anyone ever sees the movie.
Globe Hopefuls: The five extra slots the Golden Globes provide for actors in musicals and comedies mean a few extra names Oscar might not otherwise consider. Globe fave Sacha Baron Cohen (pictured, left) is a lock for 'Bruno.' So is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lovestruck lad in '(500) Days of Summer.' Watch for a nod for at least one of the 'Hangover' boys -- probably Bradley Cooper, though it could be Zach Galifianakis if he's not pitched as a supporting actor. Dueling 'It's Complicated' stars (and Oscar hosts) Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin may cancel each other out. And Robert Downey Jr. can do no wrong, so he may score a nod for 'Sherlock Holmes' if Globe voters decide it's a comedy.
Don't Forget: These performances probably aren't on Oscar's radar, but they should be. We're thinking of Sam Rockwell's lonely astronaut in 'Moon,' Patton Oswalt's football obsessive in 'Big Fan' and Hugh Dancy as a man with Asperger's s syndrome and romance on his mind in 'Adam.'