Best Actor Oscar race heats up in Telluride

TELLURIDE – If you asked me to pick between the three commanding, sure-fire awards-contending lead actor performances on display at this year's Telluride Film Festival, I'd have a break down. Yet that's just what Academy voters will surely be asked to do in a few months' time, with added pressure in the form of whoever fills out the rest of the competitive category.

In “Birdman,” Michael Keaton may well end up putting forth the most compelling case for a win. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but some things are just patently obvious. Keaton is resurrected by this film, a tried-and-true narrative that we just saw play out last year with Matthew McConaughey. More than that, he's revealing shades of a character that will no doubt connect with actors, presenting the very id of a soul desperate to perform but hamstrung and even quarantined by the realities of the “business” of “show business.”

In “The Imitation Game,” Benedict Cumberbatch delivers his career-best work in a biopic that is sure to find Academy love and adoration across the board. “Birdman” certainly left a crater, but Morten Tyldum's film feels very much like the breakout of the festival. It's on everyone's lips and I've overheard more than a few compare the experience to the “King's Speech” coming out of 2010. And a lot of that stems from the undeniable layers Cumberbatch exhibits in his performance as ill-fated computer pioneer Alan Turing, finding graceful emotional notes amid the otherwise eccentric playground of the film's subject.

And in “Foxcatcher,” Steve Carell catches any viewer, however confident he or she in the actor's dramatic faculties, completely off guard. This isn't just a stunning inhabitation of a character, it's an at times hypnotizing exercise in absolute control. His John du Pont is the result of a from-the-toes-up possession, at atmosphere unmistakably manifested by Carell's choices, be they broad or quiet.

The truth is Carell is the only one of these three in a position to shift to the supporting race if everyone involved were to agree that's best. I'm not saying it necessarily would be, though I do believe Channing Tatum – also deserving of mention in an article detailing this race – is the definitive lead of the piece. And Carell would probably walk away with the Oscar if he ran in supporting. But his presence in a leading race would bring a certain profile to the film that you can't discredit, and it would be bold and fair, frankly, for Sony Pictures Classics to continue ahead with a dual lead push. (If Tatum somehow drops to supporting, I would have to cry foul.)

“Mr. Turner” also turned up here, and with it, Timothy Spall's crotchety leading turn (I haven't been able to fit it in my schedule yet). I would also add “Mommy's” Antoine-Olivier Pilon to the pile, who was overshadowed by adulation for co-stars Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément in Cannes but is obviously a crucial, and remarkable, part of that film's equation. Meanwhile, Jon Stewart's “Rosewater” landed in much more welcoming arms here than the trades (save Variety) that reviewed it ahead of the fest. Surely if the film were to make any headway with the Academy at all, Gael García Bernal's performance would be in the conversation.

Then there's Jack O'Connell, who won't necessarily be awards-bound for his performance in “'71,” but a year after “Starred Up” premiered here (it finally landed in theaters this weekend), the pump has been thoroughly primed for his major breakout in “Unbroken.”

But getting back to that original trio, man, what a Sophie's choice to start the season with. It's going to be brutal. Don't ask me to pick, OK?