The Best Actor Oscar category is, usually, impossibly crowded. In recent years we have seen contests where a couple of actors who very well might have won didn’t even manage to get nominated. This year, for whatever reason, the field is not nearly as crowded as the Best Actress race, an odd switch of fortune. That is not to say there weren’t a lot of great performances dotting the landscape for actors this year; it is just that fewer managed to break through.

In the run-up to Oscar nominations, there also was a clear favorite in this category, as Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea had been running the table at most critics’ awards, as well as winning a BAFTA, Golden Globe and a Critics’ Choice Award. Suddenly, a surprise win by Denzel Washington at SAG may have changed the whole trajectory. It is certainly a race now. Here’s the handicap of the nominees.

Casey Affleck
Manchester By The Sea

Affleck—previously nominated  for The Assassination Of Jesse James—got the “role of a lifetime,” as Ben Kingsley described it in presenting his Actor of the Year award at the Palm Springs Film Festival. The plum role of Lee Chandler, a man torn apart by personal tragedy, almost didn’t come his way. Matt Damon (a producer on the film) was originally going to play it but had to drop out. Casey came in and ran with it. The result has been dominance through nearly all of the precursor critics’ awards and front-runner status—at least until that snag at SAG.

Andrew Garfield - Hacksaw Ridge.jpeg
Lionsgate

Andrew Garfield
Hacksaw Ridge

Garfield, one of the best actors of his young generation, finally landed an Oscar nomination for his role as Desmond Doss, the first-ever conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor for saving 75 men at a crucial battle in World War II. The emotional prowess, and sheer determination against all odds, that he brings to the story is awesome. It doesn’t hurt that he is also excellent in another year-end contender, Martin Scorsese’s Silence. After two such wrenchingly difficult roles, maybe he’ll try a romantic comedy next.

Ryan Gosling
La La Land

Ryan Gosling - La La Land.jpeg
Lionsgate

It probably surprises Ryan Gosling more than anyone else that he managed to get his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for a musical in which he sings and dances. Considering that Gene Kelly was never nominated in this category for La La inspirations Singin’ In The Rain and An American In Paris, and Fred Astaire was never nominated for any of his musical roles, it is a tall achievement indeed. Add the fact that Gosling had to learn jazz piano for the part and you have all the reason you need for him to be included in this company.

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Cathy Kanavy / Bleecker Street

Viggo Mortensen
Captain Fantastic

Considering that Captain Fantastic debuted a year ago at Sundance, played Cannes in May and then opened in July, it is a tribute to Mortensen’s terrific work as an unorthodox dad of six, just trying to keep his brood together after the death of his wife, that it wasn’t forgotten when Oscar nominations were announced. Mortensen nailed the heart, soul and eccentricity of this man without ever hitting a false note. Voters remembered and took notice, delivering him his second nomination in the category.

Denzel Washington
Fences

Denzel Washington, Viola Davis.jpeg

Already a two-time winner for Glory and Training Day, this is Washington’s seventh Oscar nomination for acting, and it comes for a role for which he won a Tony on Broadway, and in a film he directed himself. As Troy Maxson, Washington is full of fury and regret, a true tour de force performance that has already made him the surprise winner of the SAG Award and the first actor to direct himself to that honor since Roberto Begnini in 1999. If he wins the Oscar he will be the third self-director to claim Best Actor, after Begnini and Laurence Olivier, who did it in 1948 for Hamlet. 

Mahershala Ali - Moonlight.jpeg
A24

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

One Oscar-winning veteran on his seventh nomination against four virtual newcomers to this category colors the race for this year’s Supporting Actor prize. This is a category where upsets can and do happen—most recently last year when Bridge Of Spies’ Mark Rylance pulled off the feat against favored Sylvester Stallone. Considering the number of prizes he has already won this year including SAG, Mahershala Ali’s quietly powerful performance in Moonlight as Juan, a drug dealer who finds his heart, would be the prohibitive favorite over other first timers like Lion’s Dev Patel, who just snagged the Supporting Actor BAFTA in this remarkable true story about a man in search of his birth mother on the other side of the world; and young Lucas Hedges, pulling off a nomination as a confused and conflicted teen in Manchester By The Sea.

Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson - Nocturnal Animals.jpeg
Merrick Morton/Focus Features

After seeing his Nocturnal Animals co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson take the Golden Globe and nab a BAFTA nomination, Michael Shannon might have been right to feel he didn’t have much of a chance at an Oscar nod, but it turns out his grizzled veteran detective was just the ticket for Oscar voters. A win might be a longer shot. Shannon was once previously nominated here eight years ago for Revolutionary Road, and like that film, this one reps the film’s only recognition.

Finally, there is that vet, Jeff Bridges, who like Shannon is playing another sort of burnt-out veteran lawman on one last big case in Hell Or High Water. It may be hard to believe, but this year marks the 45th anniversary of his first nomination in this category for The Last Picture Show, and even though he won the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart just seven years ago, he may be the sentimental favorite to nab a second Oscar this time around.