Off the Carpet: So let’s talk about that crowded Best Actor Oscar race

Let's start with a broad assessment that may or may not be true, but can be taken as close enough for the purposes of this column: there are four Best Actor slots spoken for. What are they? Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher,” Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game,” Michael Keaton in “Birdman” and Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything.” Only one of those films, mind you, has opened and screened for the Academy (“Birdman”). But if I were a betting man, I'd say that quartet is secure. So who slides in besides?

First and foremost, we've been in this place at least since the Toronto Film Festival, when Cumberbatch further solidified himself after “The Imitation Game” debuted at Telluride and Redmayne jumped onto the scene as part of a new wave of contenders that included “Nightcrawler's” Jake Gyllenhaal and “St. Vincent's” Bill Murray. But as one of the most competitive Best Actor races we've seen continues to march through the season, there remains very little room to maneuver.

I've gone back and forth with a number of assumptions. I know, for instance, that while it might not be an overtly vocal contingent, there is real Academy/industry love for “Mr. Turner” among those who have seen it since its Cannes debut. Timothy Spall has been a notable character actor for years and has plenty of peers who'd love to see him recognized in this capacity, to say nothing of how much the British voting bloc could help propel that movie along. He's a real contender.

Bradley Cooper is also a definite threat as Warner Bros. primes “American Sniper,” perhaps the studio's only major Oscar hope, for latter year release. Taking on a real-life figure in what's sure to be an emotional story, he could absolutely negotiate his way into the running. But it's rare for an actor to be nominated three years in a row, so that could be too tall an order. We'll see.

Also still to show is “Unbroken,” which might bring Jack O'Connell into the fold. He's made a strong case for himself this year in films like “Starred Up” and “'71,” but it could simply be too soon. And co-star Miyavi is said to give a showier performance that could draw a lot of the conversation.

Then there's “Selma,” which is getting there. David Oyelowo could be more than viable in a film very different from Paramount's other pushes this year (which includes “The Gambler” and another contender in this race, Mark Wahlberg).

Let's go outside the box, though. I have some recommendations. How about, say, Macon Blair in “Blue Ruin?” One of the best movies of the year, Jeremy Saulnier's thriller builds with expert precision assisted by Blair's low key but focused portrayal. He might find love at the Spirit Awards but he deserves to be in this conversation as much as anyone else.

Since Gyllenhaal is in the mix for “Nightcrawler,” we might as well mention his dual portrayal in Denis Villeneuve's “Enemy.” The actor has already said that project was the birth of a new ambition in his career, and it's evident in the performance, which is dialed down and precise. Tommy Lee Jones, meanwhile, is excellent in “The Homesman.” It may be one of the best performances he's given, and with a lot of focus being paid to Hilary Swank, he ought to be part of the chatter, too.

How about Philip Seymour Hoffman? Look, talking about things in terms of sentiment when an actor dies before his time is gross, and I'm not going there. But there will be an urge to show him a little love and frankly, it's warranted, because his performance in Anton Corbijn's “A Most Wanted Man” is one the best ones he ever gave. It's an uncanny portrayal that he made look easy. He'll land his share of votes and they will, each of them, be deserved.

“Whiplash” made its way into theaters earlier this month and a lot of attention has rightly been paid to J.K. Simmons gnawing on the scenery with a vicious supporting performance. But after really standing out in “Rabbit Hole” a few years ago and, most notably, last year's “The Spectacular Now,” 26-year-old Miles Teller has landed with a massive splash in Damien Chazelle's feature. The film is one of the year's most satisfying, sure to pick up votes in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and, indeed, Best Actor. Could Sony Classics find a way to push him into the fold?

And there's always Ellar Coltrane. Who else can say they gave a 12-year performance?

The Golden Globes will make things interesting, as I imagine names like Chadwick Boseman (“Get On Up”), Joaquin Phoenix (“Inherent Vice”) and Ralph Fiennes (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) will jump into the mix with Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical nominations. But honestly, I might keep my eye on the guy who should have walked away with the award last year.

“A Most Violent Year” from director J.C. Chandor is set for an AFI Fest bow on the horizon, but it has been seen and a lot of love is being thrown Oscar Isaac's way. After missing for “Inside Llewyn Davis” (a film that clearly did not appeal to the Academy on the whole), and with “Star Wars” on the way, he could be primed for industry recognition. I've been told he's more or less Pacino-in-the-'70s good in this thing, so it could be an interesting antidote to the roll call of names everyone has been chewing on for a few months now.

All things considered, the field is wide and full of great work. Pity, though, that minorities are so underrepresented. But if indeed four spots are already reserved at this table, it's going to be a real slug fest to decide who fills the last seat. Just like last year, when Tom Hanks found himself boxed out for a pretty stellar performance in “Captain Phillips,” we – and some unlucky frontrunner – may be in for a surprise when the announcement is made on Jan. 15.

Where are you putting your chips?