My god was this a stacked year in this category. I feel like I could have dropped all five of my nominees and went with the next best five lead actors and still have come away with a pretty respectable roster of nominees. Honestly, this was a tough choice, but with a roster this good you have a pretty good winner wherever you end up.
- Bradley Cooper- American Sniper: Until recently I haven’t taken Bradley Cooper all that seriously as an actor. At best the guy always just came across like a lightweight pretty boy and at worst his onscreen persona seemed downright douchey. Recently he’s slowly earned respect acting in prestige comedies like Silver Linings Playbook, but it’s with his work in American Sniper that I think he finally breaks through as a dramatic actor. He certainly pulls off a bit of a physical transformation by becoming the muscular Chris Kyle but he also managed to bury his usual persona under Kyle’s Texan sincerity.
- Michael Keaton- Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): Yes, there are parallels between Michael Keaton and the character he plays in Birdman, but let’s set that aside and just look at this performance divorced from the meta-story that surrounds it. This performance is a great reminder of just how charming and interesting Michael Keaton is when he’s on screen. His character is put through the ringer in this movie, he’s constantly on the verge of insanity and has some pretty radical mood swings that Keaton keeps interesting.
- Ralph Fiennes- The Grand Budapest Hotel: Ralph Fiennes has been plugging away as a respected theatrically trained British actor, almost like a modern day Peter O’Toole; the kind of dude you expect to see doing Shakespeare and shit. What he hasn’t done much of before is comedy and he’s found the perfect vehicle to start in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The performance works in part because it incorporates his refined onscreen persona and then subverts it. Fiennes’ energy level in the movie is really amazing and he really holds the movie together.
- Joaquin Phoenix- The Immigrant: Joaquin Phoenix has gotten a lot of attention for his work in Inherent Vice, but I think I actually liked him a little better in a film he released earlier this year: James Gray’s The Immigrant. In the film Phoenix is tapping into the same timeless features of his look that he used so effectively in The Master, but here he’s playing someone who is troubled in a much more subtle way. Phoenix manages to be both highly controlled but also somewhat deranged in this rather quietly complex role.
- Timothy Spall- Mr. Turner: Timothy Spall has been something of an unsung British character actor for years but with Mr. Turner he was finally given a chance to take center stage. He’s playing a historical figure here, but he never really seems to be doing an impression of the real J.M.W. Turner so much as he’s creating a rich and well considered character who goes against what you usually expect out of an artist. This is a prickly character to be sure, but Spall finds the humanity in him and makes him consistently watchable.