The supporting race is really still quite open until the first awards start rolling in, but there are a few actors who have worked their way into the Oscar conversation by grabbing the best reviews in their respective films, as a best supporting actor should.
The biggest contenders so far:
The 82 year old actor plays a 75 year old widower who is diagnosed with cancer, comes out of the closet and starts hitting the clubs to make up for lost time, six months after his wife’s death. From arty indie director Mike Mills, this is much more of a heartfelt thing than a sitcom thing. Recently nominated for the first time in a long, excellent career, Plummer is currently the frontrunner to win.
The 80s funny man revels at the chance to play against type as a B-movie producer turned dealmaking gangster in Nicolas Winding Refn’s acclaimed arty thriller, stealing all the best reviews from already highly acclaimed Ryan Gosling & Carey Mulligan. Villains are supporting actor gold, and this is a bit of a comeback for Brooks, a previous supporting nominee back in 1987 for his hilarious turn in Broadcast News.
The Hollywood veteran draws on his rough past to play a devastatingly vulnerable recovering alcoholic trying to bond with the sons whose life he wrecked. Quietly painful with a powerful, unexpected finish. A two time Best Actor nominee (he was on the way to win for The Prince of Tides in 1991, until Anthony Hopkins & Silence of the Lambs came along).
Brad Pitt - Tree of Life
Jonah Hill - Moneyball
Pre-weight loss Jonah Hill brings his every man charm and sharp wit to Bennett Miller's baseball / statistics film, proving that baseball can be won by brains as well as brawn, as he rattles off Aaron Sorkin's quickfire dialogue opposite Brad Pitt. A known comic actor turning in a serious performance in one of the year's biggest films; sounds like an Oscar contender to me.
John Hawkes - Martha Macy May Marlene
The seasoned purveyor of indie eccentrics, and recent Oscar nominee for Winter's Bone, delves into the mind and skin of a creepy cult leader. Manipulative charm a-plenty. As with Winter's Bone, his nomination is hooked on the back of his lead actress's breakthrough performance, in this case Elizabeth Olsen as Martha Marcy etc. If she misses her nomination, it is unlikely he will make it without her, unfortunately.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman - The Ides of March / Moneyball
Phillip Seymour Hoffman has always been the highlight of any film he's in. No-one can make dialogue come alive with more freshness and immediacy than Hoffman. In Ides of March, he takes on Ryan Gosling & George Clooney in a game of shady politics, in Moneyball, he has fun with Aaron Sorkin dialogue opposite Brad Pitt. Hoffman's last Sorkin-scripted film was Charlie Wilson's War, which landed him the film's sole nomination, for Best Supporting Actor. Kind of like a younger, male Judi Dench, his presence in Oscary films is just impossible to ignore.
Corey Stoll - Midnight in Paris
The biggest standout in Woody Allen's Best Picture contender (and highest grossing film ever), Stoll essays Ernest Hemingway's infamous intellectual charm, toughness & genius. A small part in a big cast, but he still has the film's best reviews and plays a legendary literary figure. The academy should be grateful after Chris O'Donnell's version of Hemingway in 1996's In Love and War, who was out "toughed" by Sandra Bullock's love-struck nurse.
Viggo Mortensen - A Dangerous Method
Viggo is a legend. Regrettably, his only nomination has been for the very brilliant Eastern Promises. (among his several snubs, A History of Violence is the most painful). In A Dangerous Method, he plays Sigmund Freud opposite Michael Fassbender's Carl Jung. The film has met only lukewarm response from critics, with Fassbender and Keira Knightly getting most of the attention as the film's forbidden lovers. Fassbender's Best Actor campaign is for his sex addict in Shame and Knightley is fast being edged out of the Best Actress race, but don't count out Mortensen's detailed perfection if the Academy finds themselves looking for a fifth slot nominee.
No-one's seen their performances, but great things are expected.
The novel's most interesting character. Legendary actor. He has been good lately, but not in English, and not in a big, tear-jerking Best Picture contender.
Oscar favourite in the film's most heart-string-pulling role as Oskar's beloved and tragically fated dad.
Previous Oscar-winner for playing Iris Murdoch's long-suffering husband in Iris, British legend takes on another real-life background husband, this time as Denis Thatcher, husband to the better known Margaret.
After making a big impression as both twins in last year's The Social Network, handsome Hammer got cast as J Edgar Hoover's apprentice / alleged lover in Clint Eastwood's biopic. Probably not likely to make the top five, but should certainly show up in nominations along the way.
Not Contenders (but should be) :
Ralph Fiennes - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
Fiennes finally gets to unleash Voldemort's weird intensity, but can the Academy take a non-Tolkien wizard seriously?
Michael Fassbender - X-Men: First Class
Fassbender has more than enough Oscar contending roles in the mix, but his turn as the wounded, sharply intelligent man who will go on to become Magneto is pure perfection. Again, though, try to make the Academy take a comic book villain seriously.