The Locks: The only bet-the-farm sure thing in the race is Christoph Waltz (pictured, right), a front-runner since May's Cannes Film Festival for his non-cartoonish Nazi villain in 'Inglourious Basterds.' Oscar race handicappers don't usually complain about a dearth of supporting actor contenders; there's usually plenty of buddies, sidekicks, dads, and villains to fill the bill. Not this year, though. Aside from one or two sure things, there's no telling who might sneak into the category, or how deep the Academy and Globes voters may have to dig to find the rest of the supporting actor slate.
The Locks: The only bet-the-farm sure thing in the race is Christoph Waltz (pictured, right), a front-runner since May's Cannes Film Festival for his non-cartoonish Nazi villain in 'Inglourious Basterds.' Oh, and Alfred Molina's sensible dad in 'An Education' will probably ride that film's goodwill all the way to a nomination. Beyond that, um...
Christopher Plummer's portrayal of Leo Tolstoy in 'The Last Station' has a shot, though some see it as a lead performance (not Independent Spirit voters, who've already nominated him in the supporting category). Woody Harrelson has also been nominated for a Spirit prize for 'The Messenger,' but few moviegoers have seen the acclaimed military drama. And Stanley Tucci deserves a nod, but he may not get one because he'll split the vote with himself for two strong performances, as the killer in 'The Lovely Bones' and as Julia Child's supportive husband in 'Julie & Julia.'
The Hopefuls: There's plenty of talk about Matt Damon's rugby-field role in 'Invictus' (pictured, left), but he may siphon votes away from himself with his leading role in 'The Informant!' Anthony Mackie is a strong contender in 'The Hurt Locker,' but too few have seen the much-lauded Iraq War drama. Voiceover actor Fred Melamed has earned buzz for his small but scene-stealing role in 'A Serious Man' as an unctuous, wife-stealing widower.
The Long Shots: Peter Sarsgaard's slick seducer in 'An Education' (pictured, right) would be a worthy nomination, but his costar Molina may steal his thunder here. Jake Gyllenhaal is a possibility for the love triangle 'Brothers,' though he also may find himself competing with costar Tobey Maguire, who has the flashier role. Christian McKay earned a Spirit nod for playing the young Orson Welles in 'Me and Orson Welles,' but the film is still largely unseen. As poet John Keats' chief cheerleader and taskmaster, Paul Schneider has a dim chance for 'Bright Star.' And Robert Duvall has a Stanley Tucci dilemma: his supporting roles in 'The Road' and 'Crazy Heart' could cancel each other out.
Too Soon to Tell: Does Jude Law (pictured, left) deserve a nod for playing Watson to Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes in 'Sherlock Holmes'? Maybe not, but the Globe and Academy voters love him. And they love Alec Baldwin, too, though his Oscar-hosting gig may keep them from voting for him for the romantic comedy 'It's Complicated,' just so as to avoid the appearance of favoritism.
Don't Forget: Some high profile films had performances that haven't made the buzz shortlist. But in a field this meager, voters should go back and look at Richard Gere (the best thing in the otherwise lackluster 'Amelia'), Zach Galifianakis' starmaking comic buddy role in 'The Hangover,' and Richard Kind, as the sad-sack protagonist's even sadder-sack brother in 'A Serious Man.'