BEST ACTOR: THE TOP 10 CONTENDERS
1. SEAN PENN
The performance (according to Screen's review): "Penn gives one of the most likeable star turns of his career as Harvey Milk, a performance filled with passion, humanity and humour which should lodge him firmly in contention for best actor awards." (Mike Goodridge)
The politics: Penn has won the Academy Award before, but his standing as an actor is legion and his performance as Milk is astonishing, both powerful and tender. Because it is Penn as we have never seen him, he stands a strong chance of a second Oscar.
Oscar: 4, for Dead Man Walking (1995), Sweet And Lowdown (1999), I Am Sam (2001) and Mystic River (2003). He won for Mystic River.
Golden Globe: 4, for Carlito's Way (1994), Sweet And Lowdown (2000), Dead Man Walking (1996) and Mystic River (2004). He won for Mystic River.
Bafta: 2, for Mystic River (2003) and 21 Grams (2003).
2. FRANK LANGELLA
The performance (according to Screen's review): "While Frost/Nixon has its problems, attracting awards attention for Langella is not going to be one of them. Reprising his Tony-winning performance as Richard Nixon in a ground-breaking series of TV interviews in 1977, the actor does not deliver an impersonation or a caricature - he looks nothing like Nixon, nor does he sound like him. He rightly treats Peter Morgan's script as a gift to an actor and runs with Tricky Dicky as far as he can go." (Fionnuala Halligan)
The politics: Langella is one of those actors who has a great reputation as a stage and screen actor but has never found the movie role to put him on the awards radar - until now. In Ron Howard's compelling film of Morgan's play, Langella marches off with acting honours and an almost certain Oscar nomination.
Golden Globe: 1, for Diary Of A Mad Housewife (1971).
3. MICKEY ROURKE
The performance (according to Screen's review): "A performance for which Rourke was born ... rarely has a star been so perfectly matched to a role, and the production isn't shy of playing with that, even tantalisingly holding back on the first close-up of his face." (Lee Marshall)
The politics: Rourke has hardly endeared himself to the Hollywood establishment since his heyday in the 1980s, but everybody loves a comeback and none is as spectacular as this. Rourke's beaten-up face and body, combined with his quiet despair at his newfound fragility, help to make his work as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson among the most memorable of the year.
Golden Globe: None.
4. CLINT EASTWOOD
The performance (according to Screen's review): "A highpoint in his career as an actor ... Eastwood still commands the screen even while he is spitting out racist comments or coughing up blood. He growls, scowls, threatens and pulls a gun whenever he feels like it. But while the trailer might imply he is returning to a Dirty Harry persona here, his character ultimately does not obliterate the gang with a gun but with a noble act." (Mike Goodridge)
The politics: The 78-year-old Eastwood has hinted this is the last acting role he will take, a fact alone which might make it a lead contender for awards consideration. That he creates a character who is not only egregiously ornery and racist but also humorous, poignant and finally honourable and decent is a testament to his on-camera abilities as much as to his oft-garlanded off-camera genius.
Oscar (as actor): 2, for Unforgiven (1992), Million Dollar Baby (2004).
Golden Globe (as actor): None.
Bafta (as actor): None.
5. LEONARDO DICAPRIO
The performance (according to Screen's review): "DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are compelling as young people who simply do not have the emotional maturity to juggle their conflicting desires. At first, DiCaprio's boyish features seem ill-suited to play this beaten-down working stiff, but as the movie progresses they work to his advantage, demonstrating Frank's fundamentally childish disposition." (Tim Grierson)
The politics: DiCaprio's performance in Revolutionary Road is probably his best to date, but he always seems to appear in highly competitive years. In 2004, Jamie Foxx took the awards for Ray and in 2006, Forest Whitaker swept the board. This year looks equally daunting for the 34 year old.
Oscar: 3, for What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Aviator (2004) and Blood Diamond (2006).
Golden Globe: 6, for What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1994), Titanic (1998), Catch Me If You Can (2003), The Aviator (2005), The Departed (2007), Blood Diamond (2007). He won for The Aviator.
Bafta: 2, for The Aviator (2004) and The Departed (2006).
6. RICHARD JENKINS
The performance (according to Screen's review): "Jenkins gives a poignant performance as the awkward professor who slowly lets his feelings show, and then learns his tax dollars have paid for the deportation of a man who poses no threat." (David D'Arcy)
The politics: A seasoned character actor also seen in Step Brothers and Burn After Reading this year, Jenkins had the finest hour of his long career as a world-weary professor who finds new life through his friendship with two illegal immigrants in New York City. The fact the film was the independent breakout hit of the year can only help propel him onto any number of final shortlists for best actor.
Golden Globe: None.
7. JOSH BROLIN
The performance (according to Screen's review): "A wonderfully brash and fearless performance by Brolin. Wholly immersing himself in the part, he does not imitate the president so much as breathe human complexity into him. Rudderless and restless as a young man, Brolin nonetheless plays Bush as a likeable enough fellow, a harmless jock, attractive to women and tortured by his father's expectations. As a president, Brolin plays him as a man of some intelligence, even if his arrogance and machismo are on full ugly display." (Mike Goodridge)
The politics: Brolin came out strongest from Oliver Stone's bold biopic of Dubya and, even as critics expressed doubts as to the wisdom of making the film while Bush still sat in the White House, they admired Brolin's spunky performance. Many thought he was overlooked last year for No Country For Old Men, so that could work in his favour.
Golden Globe: None.
8. BRAD PITT
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
The performance (according to Screen's review): "Benjamin Button is played by Pitt throughout, with the help of impressive prosthetic make-up and digitally imposing his head onto other actors' bodies. Pitt gives his best performance to date, capturing the weariness of old age as convincingly as the vigour of youth." (Mike Goodridge)
The politics: Pitt may be a movie star but his acting achievements have rarely been recognised by awards bodies. Benjamin Button is his best shot for awards nominations to date, especially since he plays a man who ages backwards, though voters might incorrectly attribute much of the performance's success to special effects.
Oscar: 1, for 12 Monkeys (1995).
Golden Globe: 3, for Legends Of The Fall (1995), 12 Monkeys (1996), Babel (2007). He won for 12 Monkeys.
Bafta (as actor): None.
9. BENICIO DEL TORO
The performance (according to Screen's review): "Del Toro's commanding performance is equally careful to stress Che the man, rather than Che the hero. His Che is entirely convincing as an inspirational figure. His actions are selfless, his manner is compassionate, his concerns are always truth, justice and integrity. Even facing death in Bolivia, his final words are: "I believe in mankind." (Allan Hunter)
The politics: Del Toro won the best actor trophy at Cannes this year and, if it were not for the fact the Che films run to a total of four hours and are in Spanish, he might be a leading contender in this category. As it is, some voters will discover his bravura performance and others will not. Whether he can reach the final five will surely depend on whether voters can face a 240-minute screener.
Oscar: 2, for Traffic (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). He won for Traffic.
Golden Globe: None.
Bafta: 1, for Traffic (2000). He won.
10. DUSTIN HOFFMAN
LAST CHANCE HARVEY
The performance (according to Screen's review): "Hoffman and Emma Thompson - neither of whom are at the age to guarantee leading-role status any more - sink their teeth into big parts and prove once more they can deliver the razzle-dazzle. They have a nice rapport and exude the presence that has won them Oscars and made them famous - if not as golden at the box office as they used to be." (Mike Goodridge)
The politics: Hoffman has had a good year with the success of Kung Fu Panda and a leading role here. He was nominated in 1997 for Wag The Dog, indicating the Hollywood establishment likes to see him in comic roles, and voters will find his touchingly comic work in Last Chance Harvey hard to resist.
Oscar: 7, for The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Lenny (1974), Kramer Vs Kramer (1979), Tootsie (1982), Rain Man (1988), Wag The Dog (1997). He won for Kramer Vs Kramer and Rain Man.
Golden Globe: 12, for The Graduate (1968, two noms), Midnight Cowboy (1970), John And Mary (1970), Lenny (1975), Marathon Man (1977), Kramer ... (1980), Tootsie (1983), Death Of A Salesman (1986), Rain Man (1989), Hook (1992), Wag The Dog (1998). He won for The Graduate, Kramer ..., Tootsie, Salesman and Rain Man.
Bafta: 10, for The Graduate (1968), Midnight Cowboy (1969), John & Mary (1969), Little Big Man (1971), Lenny (1975), All The President's Men (1976), Marathon Man (1976), Kramer ... (1980), Tootsie (1983), Rain Man (1989). He won for The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, John & Mary and Tootsie.
OTHER LEADing CONTENDERS
Daniel Craig, Defiance
Tom Cruise, Valkyrie
Robert De Niro, What Just Happened
Jeff Goldblum, Adam Resurrected
Ed Harris, Appaloosa
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche, New York
Ben Kingsley, Elegy
Viggo Mortensen, Good
Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon
Will Smith, Seven Pounds
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: THE TOP 10 CONTENDERS
1. HEATH LEDGER
THE DARK KNIGHT
You cannot get much more iconic than Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's event blockbuster The Dark Knight. The tragedy of the brilliant young actor's death combined with a final performance which was a chilling embodiment of amoral criminality should put him firmly in line for a number of posthumous awards.
2. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN
Hoffman has become an Oscar staple after Capote and Charlie Wilson's War and he has another strong shot at supporting actor as Father Flynn in Doubt. He oozes humanity and compassion in the face of authoritarian uber-nun Meryl Streep and he matches her scene for scene.
3. DAVID KROSS
18-year-old German actor Kross is a revelation in the title role of Stephen Daldry's The Reader. Not only does he act in English with effortless ease but he carries the movie as the 15-year-old boy whose heart is broken by a much older woman. Playing both 15 and 23 in the movie, he also meets the challenge of keeping up with Kate Winslet.
4. ROBERT DOWNEY JR
It is fairly certain Downey Jr will not swing many nominations for his enormously popular turn in Iron Man, but his consolation prize may be a supporting nod for his hilarious comic performance as the heavyweight method actor Kirk Lazarus who dons black face to play an African American soldier in Tropic Thunder.
5. JAMES FRANCO
Franco soared in summer comedy Pineapple Express but his best awards chances are for his melancholy and touching performance as Harvey Milk's longtime partner Scott Smith, who ultimately has to walk away from Milk when his political activities threaten to take over their lives.
6. MICHAEL SHANNON
The increasingly prolific Shannon, who has played pivotal roles in Bug, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead and World Trade Center, is strong in a small but key role opposite Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kathy Bates in Revolutionary Road. As the mentally ill son of Bates' character, he passes vocal judgment on the young couple at the film's heart.
7. EDDIE MARSAN
UK character actor Marsan has worked consistently in Hollywood movies of late, but won his greatest acclaim this year for a key supporting role in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. As humourless, mentally unstable driving instructor Scott, he was the perfect foil to Sally Hawkins' Poppy, representing rage, rigidity and rancour in the face of her delight in life.
8. JEREMY IRONS
Irons evidently relished playing cut-throat rancher Randall Bragg in Ed Harris' engaging western, and gave the kind of colourful, villainous turn that often lands on awards nominee lists. The fact he is a hard-working veteran, with one Oscar under his belt, always helps to make voters feel comfortable.
9. BILL NIGHY
In the excellent ensemble of Valkyrie, Nighy is perhaps the most impressive as General Friedrich Olbricht, the man whose hesitation lost the day for the anti-Hitler conspirators. Racked by fear and indecision, his failure to act in the wake of the bomb attack on the Fuhrer lost the plot valuable hours on July 20, 1944.
10. JAMES CROMWELL
In a superb supporting cast of well-known faces, James Cromwell stood out as George Bush Sr. The veteran infused the former president with keen intelligence and political savvy while quietly illustrating his exasperation at his son's increasingly destructive policies.
OTHER LEADING CONTENDERS
Russell Brand, Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Josh Brolin, Milk
Jason Butler Harner, Changeling
Tom Cruise, Tropic Thunder
Richard Dreyfuss, W
Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges
Ralph Fiennes, The Reader
James Franco, Pineapple Express
Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges
Emile Hirsch, Milk
Dennis Hopper, Elegy
Bill Irwin, Rachel Getting Married
Ben Kingsley, The Wackness
John Malkovich, Burn After Reading
Viggo Mortensen, Appaloosa
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading
Michael Pitt, Funny Games
Haaz Sleiman, The Visitor
Brandon Walters, Australia.