Ifthe winner of the best actor Oscar was hardly a surprise last year whenPhilip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote or 2004 when Jamie Foxx won forRay, 2006 is anything but a one-horse race. No single performance hasleapt out so far, a far cry from the best actress category which is,unusually, bristling with top-notch contenders. Yes, there are greatperformances by male actors this year, just none which has so far wonoverwhelming approval.

At time of going to press, three leadperformances have yet to be seen - Ken Watanabe in Letters From IwoJima, Matt Damon in The Good Shepherd and Guy Pearce in Factory Girl.From all the other films this year, Screen International handicaps themain contenders.

1 Forest Whitaker, The Last King Of Scotland

WHYEven though he has far less screen time than James McAvoy, Whitaker hasbeen forwarded as lead actor and McAvoy supporting actor in The LastKing Of Scotland. His larger-than-life portrayal of Idi Amin, thetitular dictator at the heart of Kevin Macdonald's acclaimed drama, isone of the most admired performances of the year. Whitaker shiftseffortlessly between bonhomie, paranoia and murderous tyranny, creatinga full-blooded portrait of madness in power.

CHANCES Whitaker'sperformance has been generating Oscar talk since it was first seen inTelluride and Toronto, and that buzz has been growing as the seasoncontinued. A highly respected and well-liked actor who has never beennominated for an Oscar before - he was passed over in 1988 for Birdeven though he won the best actor award at Cannes and a Golden Globenomination - he is a shoo-in for a nomination and, at this stage in thegame, the favourite to win.


2 Will Smith, The Pursuit Of Happyness

WHYSmith gives his best performance to date in the real-life story ofChris Gardner, a husband and father down on his luck in early 1980s SanFrancisco who risks everything to pursue an unpaid internship at astock brokerage.

As directed by Italy's Gabriele Muccino, the actorsuccessfully ejects his easygoing blockbuster persona to play thedogged, sometimes obnoxious Gardner and the chemistry between directorand actor elevates the film to a satisfying story of human spirit.

CHANCESThere are several sentimental factors in Smith's awards story thisyear. He produced the film, brought in his own son (Jaden ChristopherSyre Smith) to play Gardner's son and has been on the publicity trailwith Gardner himself. It is also a chance for Smith to play down hismagnetic good looks and buff build, adopting greying hair, unshaven jawand shabby clothes to reflect Gardner's frustration and poverty.

PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: three, for TV series The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (1992 and 1993), and for Ali (2001).

3 Peter O'Toole, Venus

WHYThe 73-year-old O'Toole has not had a standout leading role on screenprobably since My Favourite Year in 1982, so it was with delight thatcritics welcomed his work in Roger Michell's witty, penetrating Venusthis year.

Playing an elderly actor who has one last taste of youth inan unexpected friendship with a surly teenage girl, O'Toole was onceagain drawing on the full range of his acting brilliance and charisma.His flawed, rapacious Maurice is one of the most complex, heartbreakingportraits of old age in recent years - in an industry which rarelymakes a senior citizen the central role in a film.

CHANCES Ofcourse, O'Toole would be a deserving winner for Venus, especially sincehe has seven Oscar nominations to his credit and no wins apart from anhonorary statuette in 2003. Whether the members of the Academy will getto see such a modest British film (it does not open in the US untilDecember 21) or care for the bleak, unsentimental tone reminiscent of akitchen-sink drama from the 1960s are other matters. A likely nominee,but in the final count Academy voters might shun a dirty old man likeMaurice.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS: seven, for Lawrence Of Arabia(1962), Becket (1964), The Lion In Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr Chips(1969), The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980) and My FavouriteYear (1982).
PREVIOUS Bafta NOMINATIONS: three, for Lawrence OfArabia (1962), Becket (1964) and The Last Emperor (1987); he won asbest British actor for Lawrence Of Arabia.

PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBENOMINATIONS: nine, for Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), Becket (1964), TheLion In Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969), Man Of La Mancha(1972), The Stunt Man (1980), TV mini-series Masada (1981), MyFavourite Year (1982) and TV mini-series Joan Of Arc (1999); he won forBecket, The Lion In Winter and Goodbye, Mr Chips.

4 Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond

WHYThe ever-versatile DiCaprio is battling himself in two majorend-of-year films, The Departed and Blood Diamond.

Both showcase fineDiCaprio performances but perhaps the more compelling case can be madefor Blood Diamond, in which he gives probably his first commandingadult romantic lead performance as diamond smuggler Danny Archer.Effortlessly assuming a southern African accent, DiCaprio oozescharisma as the crook with a heart of gold and a background of violenceand loss.

CHANCES DiCaprio, snubbed by the Academy for Titanic andsomewhat tainted by the extreme pin-up status he earned from that film,has subsequently found favour again with establishment Hollywood and isfast turning into one of its most consistent and persuasive leadingmen.

Although there is a chance DiCaprio will cannibalise his ownchances for a nomination, it is not a fiercely competitive year in thiscategory and he should win at least one nod. Voters might consider thathe made more of a stretch donning foreign accent and fast-talking charmin Blood Diamond.

and 5 Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed

WHYDiCaprio toughened up his screen persona to play undercover cop BillyCostigan. That DiCaprio could hold the screen against a brilliant JackNicholson while effectively representing the emotional centre of thedrama is another feather in his cap.

CHANCES The Departed is abetter movie than Blood Diamond and is fast turning into one of theyear's Oscar front-runners, so DiCaprio might be given primaryconsideration for Billy Costigan over Danny Archer. As Robert De Nirowell knows, working with Scorsese can be fruitful come awards season.

PREVIOUSOSCAR NOMINATIONS: two, as supporting actor for What's Eating GilbertGrape' (1993) and as lead actor for The Aviator (2004).
PREVIOUS Bafta NOMINATIONS: one, for The Aviator (2004).
PREVIOUSGOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: four, for supporting actor in Gilbert Grape(1993) and lead actor in Titanic (1997), Catch Me If You Can (2002) andThe Aviator (2004). He won for The Aviator.

6 Toby Jones, Infamous

WHYPreviously best known as the voice of Dobby, the house elf in HarryPotter And The Chamber Of Secrets, Toby Jones exploded onto theHollywood radar this year in Doug McGrath's Infamous.

Although thestory of how Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood has suffered at the boxoffice, coming just a year after Bennett Miller's Capote, many criticshave pointed to Jones' performance as being even better than PhilipSeymour Hoffman's. He inhabits the role with a gusto that goes beyondmere physical likeness or vocal verisimilitude; his deliciousinterpretation illustrates clearly why Capote was the doyenne of NewYork high society.

CHANCES The film failed to register at the boxoffice despite some strong reviews, and its blink-and-you'll-miss-itprofile might harm Jones' chances to score nominations in awardsseason. He was curiously omitted from the Independent Spirit Awardsnomination list when his co-star Daniel Craig received a supportingactor nomination for playing Perry Smith.


7 Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat

WHYBorat may be a comic phenomenon in the US and around the world, but itis also one of the best-reviewed films of the year. Baron Cohen's BoratSagdiyev is a savagely funny character whose easily voiced bigotry actsas a catalyst for prejudice to pour out of the mouths of those whoshare the screen with him. The character is a politically charged,socially relevant and bruisingly funny achievement.

CHANCES Onlyvery rarely do Academy voters leave their serious dramas behind andrecognise a broad comedic performance. It happened in 2003 when JohnnyDepp was nominated for Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The BlackPearl, and before that in 1988 when Tom Hanks was nominated for Big.

Baron Cohen is bold and brilliant enough in Borat to merit one of theseunusual nominations - he is certainly a front-runner for a Globe nod inthe musical or comedy category and a home-grown Bafta favourite - butthe question is how Academy voters respond to his subversive brand ofhumour and the film's unflattering picture of the US.

PREVIOUSBafta NOMINATIONS: three for TV work - best entertainment performancefor The 11 O'Clock Show (1999) and best comedy programme and bestcomedy performance for Da Ali G Show (2000). He won both categories forDa Ali G Show.

8 Derek Luke, Catch A Fire

WHYLuke is magnetic as Patrick Chamusso in Phillip Noyce's thriller setduring Apartheid in early 1980s South Africa. Chamusso was an oilrefinery worker wrongly accused of terrorism whose treatment at thehands of the white police led him to join the ANC. The actor from NewJersey effectively turned himself into Chamusso thanks to intensivevoice coaching, soccer training (Chamusso was a football coach) andmeetings with the man himself, and he delivers an authentic, emotionalperformance which ignites the film.

CHANCES Luke was seen as alikely Oscar front-runner at Toronto this year, but that was before thefilm opened poorly in theatres and closed shortly afterwards. FocusFeatures will have to ensure voters get to see the film in order forLuke to stand a chance of recognition. As the volume of new filmsbuilds up, that will be a tall order.


9 Richard Griffiths, The History Boys

WHYRecreating the role he played on stage of Hector, the teacher who isthe idol of his pupils but a fallible, unhappy man out of theclassroom, Griffiths brings the same passion, humour and melancholy tothe screen version of The History Boys. He has already won the OlivierAward on the London stage and a Tony on Broadway for his part in theplay.

CHANCES The Academy likes to recognise distinguished Britishcharacter actors - witness nominations in recent years for JimBroadbent, Tom Wilkinson and Nigel Hawthorne - and Griffiths fits thatmould perfectly.


10 Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine

WHYKinnear is one of the most solid actors working in Hollywood, and sincehis breakthrough role in As Good As It Gets he has delivered a stringof strong performances in films such as The Matador, Nurse Betty, AutoFocus and, in a fine supporting role, this year's Fast Food Nation.

Best known as a comic actor but equally at home in intense drama,Kinnear blended both disciplines to perfection in the tragicomedysleeper hit Little Miss Sunshine. Playing a failed motivational speakerwith unrealistic ambitions and a wildly dysfunctional family, Kinnearmanaged to bring humanity and complexity to the ostensible role ofloser.

CHANCES An actor respected by his peers but one who makes itlook too easy to garner much awards buzz, Kinnear has a shot this yearif Fox Searchlight can get the Little Miss Sunshine awards minibusrolling. If the film can score a best picture nod, Kinnear might bealong for the ride in the best actor category.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS: one, for best supporting actor in As Good As It Gets (1997).
PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: one, for best supporting actor in As Good As It Gets.

11 Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
12 Will Ferrell, Stranger Than Fiction
13 Aaron Eckhart, Thank You For Smoking
14 Christian Bale, The Prestige
15 Jamie Foxx, Dreamgirls
16 Edward Norton, The Painted Veil
17 Robert Downey Jr, Fur
18 Patrick Wilson, Little Children
19 Hugh Jackman, The Fountain
20 Sean Penn, All The King's Men