Four Oscar veterans and one newcomer join a best actor race which sees a Brit playing American, an American playing British and an American playing Russian, not forgetting two Americans playing old-fashioned American

GEORGE CLOONEY, Michael Clayton

Clooney gives probably his most accomplished performance to date as the amoral fixer for one of New York's biggest law firms. Like Clooney, Clayton is charming, but the actor imbues the character with dark edges, self-loathing and a chilly soul which make him an effective symbol of high-stakes US opportunism.

Already crowned with a supporting acting Oscar for Syriana in 2005, Clooney has fast become a well-respected actor among his peers for his choice of intelligent movies and a laconic screen presence that evokes memories of screen greats from Humphrey Bogart to Paul Newman.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS: 1, for Syriana (2005, supporting actor). He won. Also nominated for directing and writing Good Night, And Good Luck (2005).

WHAT SCREEN SAID 'Audiences have become familiar with this particular Clooney type - an isolated man on the edge of a moral and personal abyss.' Roger Clarke

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, There Will Be Blood

As Daniel Plainview, a determined silver miner who becomes a self-made oil tycoon in turn-of-the-century California, Day-Lewis delivers another of cinema's great performances. Assuming a voice with a deep, resonant timbre, Day-Lewis' Plainview is menacing and intimidating, yet painfully human and desperate for human connection. It is a grand portrait of a man ruined by the hunger for success.

Many thought Day-Lewis was overlooked for his towering work in Gangs Of New York, so perhaps it is time for him to walk away with a second Oscar for There Will Be Blood. The reality is that few actors can come close to this level of detailed characterisation and, so long as awards voters see the film, he looks like the front-runner.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS: 3, for My Left Foot (1989), In The Name Of The Father (1993) and Gangs Of New York (2002); he won for My Left Foot.

WHAT SCREEN SAID 'Lewis takes the role beyond reality, with a groaning voice that can charm frontier innocents and, like an Old Testament prophet, batter a crowd into submission.' David D'Arcy

JOHNNY DEPP Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

Playing the titular character of Stephen Sondheim's musical classic, Depp gave a striking performance - and sang up a storm - bringing a brooding anger and savagery to the part of the vengeful barber. Hollywood owes an Oscar to Depp, one of its most adventurous and bankable actors, and this might just be the role that does it. He recently won his first Golden Globe for the part after seven previous nominations.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS: 2, for Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (2003) and Finding Neverland (2004).

WHAT SCREEN SAID 'Johnny Depp brings another fanbase and a whole new generation to the table, if only for the novelty of hearing him sing.' David D'Arcy

TOMMY LEE JONES,In The Valley Of Elah

Jones, who won an Oscar for The Fugitive in 1993, gave one of the great performances of 2007 as the tortured army veteran investigating the mysterious death of his son on a US army base. The film had a muted response at the box office despite strong reviews and Jones, who also heads the cast of No Country For Old Men, was all but neglected until now. Not one prone to many words, Jones' craggy face carries all his character's anguish and despair at the way his country has failed his family.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS: 2, for JFK (1991, supporting actor) and The Fugitive (1993, supporting actor). He won for The Fugitive.

WHAT SCREEN SAID 'Handed the gift of a role by Paul Haggis, Jones turns it into one of the highlights of his career so far and it's difficult to imagine him not being among the five best actor nominees when awards season comes around.' Lee Marshall

VIGGO MORTENSEN, Eastern Promises

Mortensen's delicious performance as Nikolai Luzhin, a driver for one of London's most notorious Russian crime families, was the acting highlight of David Cronenberg's latest. Sporting a thick Russian accent and covered in tattoos, Mortensen combined menace with charm, while displaying a physicality essential for the best nude male wrestling scene since Women In Love.

If the film is too dark and violent for some or merely a genre movie to others, many will still take up the cause of Mortensen, a popular actor who has worked with film-makers as diverse as Sean Penn, Jane Campion and Gus Van Sant as well as Peter Jackson on The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. For those who thought he should have been nominated for A History Of Violence, Eastern Promises could be the makegood.


WHAT SCREEN SAID 'Eastern Promises comes across as very much a companion piece to Cronenberg's A History of Violence, not least in that it again stars that film's lead Viggo Mortensen - there an ambivalent hero, here a sombre heavy who gradually reveals unsuspected dimensions.' Jonathan Romney