(Photo by Warner Bros.)
Our Ridiculously Early Prediction Series feels particularly ridiculous this time around because it has only been a few months since the last awards season wrapped. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Nomadland was crowned Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards? Not quite, but the 2022 season is now in full swing, and we are back to kick off our series with the Best Actor contest.
Most of the films on our list of potential Best Actor performances have yet to screen for critics or at a festival, but most will debut soon, and early buzz is out for some that borrow from existing source material. The Best Actor race is poised to feature several prior winners and former nominees competing against an ever-growing slate of newcomers and marquee names yet to receive their first Oscar nominations. If history — or basic math — tells us anything, it’s that many of these names won’t make it to Oscar night, but we’re pretty confident most of them will be right up there in the awards chatter. So read on as we break down our ridiculously early picks for 2022’s Best Actors.
Disagree with our picks? Have at us in the comments.
King Richard (2021)
Nowadays, Will Smith makes more headlines for his meme-worthy Instagram feed and guest appearances on his wife’s Red Table Talk series, but King Richard should remind everyone that he is, in fact, one of the best actors of our generation and one of the last bona fide “movie stars.” Starring as Richard Williams, the father of future tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, Smith is on track for his third acting nomination.
We don’t know much as of yet, and though the new trailer offers a glimpse of what to expect from the sports biopic, it’s still unclear if it will push past its “Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side” appeal to snag our Fresh Prince an Oscar win. No matter what happens on nomination morning, the film should enjoy similar commercial success to the football biopic that won Bullock the Best Actress statue in 2012 – or it would have in a typical year at the box office. Centering on earlier days of the Williams sisters’ tennis careers as they catapulted to the national stage, King Richard, like The Blind Side, will live or die by what Smith does on screen. Casting him as a dedicated and determined father should also bode well for him, as his last Best Actor nomination for The Pursuit of Happyness shared a similar crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking appeal. Funnily enough, for all that Smith has done in Hollywood, he has yet to win a golden statue, and both times he was nominated, he lost to another Black actor. Forest Whitaker topped him in 2007 for The Last King of Scotland, and our next pick for Best Actor took home the prize in 2002 when Smith was nominated for Ali.
(Photo by The Tragedy of Macbeth. Courtesy of Apple and A24.)
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
We thought Denzel Washington had his third Oscar wrapped up when he was nominated for 2016’s Fences. (Clearly so did he, as his disappointed reaction when Casey Affleck took home the prize went viral.) That said, it isn’t too difficult to envision several nominations emerge from his next film, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which he plays the ill-fated king. Besides the drama we expect from Washington and his on-screen wife Frances McDormand, director Joel Coen has to contend with his own bit of drama behind the scenes as this will be the first film of his career without his writing and directing partner, brother Ethan Coen, who announced he wanted to take a break from filmmaking to focus on theater. This black-and-white feature, which will open the New York Film Festival in September, is one of the most hotly anticipated films of the fall circuit, and early pundit whispers have been echoing the project with a different “M-word” actors get superstitious about – masterwork. With two Best Actor Oscars at home and nine total nominations, Washington is a threat whenever he is on screen, but with the addition of a director and co-star who both have four Oscars each, it’s hard to imagine Denzel’s name won’t be called come nominations morning. Right now, several months ahead of the ceremony, he is also the blind-speculation frontrunner.
The Card Counter (2020)
Speaking of the Coens, we might as well remind everyone that we are still upset that our next Best Actor contender, Oscar Isaac, was not nominated for his brilliant work in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. This time around, we’re hoping he can finally snag his first nomination for Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter. Isaac plays an ex-con card counter named William Tell who looks to be plotting to avenge himself of a wrong committed by Oscar-nominated actor Willem Dafoe. We know from Oscar-nominated revenge thrillers like Unforgiven, Cape Fear, and Promising Young Woman that Academy voters love a dark revenge tale.
Despite his incredible filmography of groundbreaking cinema, Schrader has only been nominated once in his nearly five-decade career. His last effort, 2018’s First Reformed, snagged him his first nomination for writing, but in the same year, lead actor Ethan Hawke was snubbed for what we argued was a much-deserved nomination. Unlike First Reformed or even Isaac’s on-the-Oscar-bubble performance in Ex Machina, The Card Counter appears to be a more commercial effort that will appeal to wider audiences and the younger members of the Academy. Plus, the Star Wars actor also has another little sci-fi feature this year that will keep him top of mind throughout the season, and another potential Best Actor nominee plays his son…
Adaptations of Frank Herbert’s seminal novel Dune is a fraught enterprise – just ask director David Lynch, whose 1981 adaptation was a commercial and critical failure. This latest version, set to hit theaters in October after months of delay, could be our best shot to pay homage to the iconic sci-fi series. At the center of all that attention is Oscar-nominated actor Timothée Chalamet, who has been a staple of award-worthy cinema since he rose to prominence playing Elio in Call Me By Your Name. Chalamet also has the enviable honor of appearing in not one or two but three awards contenders this season, and word has it he is a threat to be nominated for all of them.
Many have remarked on Chalamet’s comedic chops in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, and he will go up against the likes of Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio for Adam MacKay’s Don’t Look Up. We are thinking his performance as the prodigal prince returning home in Dune will be the one to capture the voters’ attention, but it never hurts to be featured in multiple contenders. Denis Villeneuve has racked up Oscar nominations for just about every one of his efforts in recent years, and though he has a less than stellar track record for grabbing Oscar nominations outside of below-the-line categories, the A-list talent of Dune could be what allows the Blade Runner 2049 director to overcome a hurdle he has yet to clear – directing an Oscar-nominated performance. In Lady Bird, Little Women, and The King, Chalamet has proven his ability to command an audience with a performance that belies his years. Considering the rich source material here and what we spied in the trailer, he will have plenty for an awards highlight reel.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)
Andrew Garfield is another name on our list with two potential bites at the Oscar apple, with lead Performances in tick, tick… Boom! and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Both have the potential to make a deep run come awards season, and it just might be down to which film is more beloved by the voting body. While tick, tick… Boom! could appeal to the Gothams and Indie Spirit crowd, playing televangelist Jim Bakker, who had a penchant for activities one would hardly classify as “living within the faith,” is the kind of role actors dream of playing. The Bakkers’ PTL ministries were, for a time, some of the most popular television programs in the United States, the donations from which exceeded millions of dollars. Their epic rise to the top of Christian television entertainment was only rivaled by their equally epic fall from grace. tick, tick… Boom! will showcase Garfield’s talent as a singer and performer, but we also expect to see that in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, in which he will deliver the gospel performances that catapulted the Bakkers into superstardom. Adding a delicious true-crime tale of rags to riches and a downfall by dirty deeds, we think his work alongside Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain will be the performance that voters single out.
(Photo by A24)
Red Rocket (2021)
This one is going to surprise some, and we have to admit it is a non-traditional choice. However, we are confidently placing our bet on Simon Rex as the narcissistic aging porn star in Red Rocket to make it to Oscar night. Rex is likely more memorable from his days on MTV, his modeling work for Calvin Klein, or his comedic turns in the Scary Movie franchise, but he shows true acting prowess and comedic timing in this entertaining character study that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July. Playing adult film star Mikey Saber, who is down on his luck and back home in Texas after washing out in Los Angeles, Rex is already prompting conversations among critics about end-of-year honors; Guy Lodge for Film of the Week called it the “role of a lifetime for the former VJ.”
In truth, director Sean Baker’s uncanny skill with bold casting choices is what gave us Rex in the lead and what makes the film feel so indescribably authentic. At Cannes, Baker expressed his desire to center his next story on male sex workers (his previous efforts Tangerine, Starlet, and The Florida Project centered on female sex workers). That’s when he discovered so-called “suitcase pimps,” typically the unemployed boyfriends or husbands of porn stars who “take care” of the women and usually rake in a cut for their services. Rex, a man with more than few chapters in his Hollywood career, is the perfect choice, as he knows all too well what happens to people when the industry leaves them behind. His delivery on screen is undeniable and award-worthy, but he will have to work the circuit and have a little luck if he wants to rise above the fate that befell Adam Sandler during his Oscar campaign for Uncut Gems. Like Sandler, we predict Rex will find love and possibly a win at the Independent Spirit Awards no matter what happens with the Academy.
Dear Evan Hansen (2021)
The internet has been having a bit of fun with the idea of Ben Platt playing a high schooler while he himself is just three years shy of 30, and Platt hasn’t been doing himself any favors with his reaction to the naysayers, but we think he is a more than worthy contender for Best Actor. Already taking home a Grammy, Tony, and Emmy for his work on the smash Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, it is hard to argue he has more than a fighting chance at a Best Actor Oscar nom. Playing an awkward teenager who finds himself caught up in a lie he can’t undo, Platt has a part built to wow Oscar voters as he did Tony Voters in 2019. After Anthony Hopkins took home the Best Actor prize in 2020 for The Father, we think it is noteworthy to lean on the original theater production’s pedigree: Like the role of the father in the eponymous play, every actor who has played Evan Hansen on stage has taken home a Best Actor prize. Though many have shaken their heads at some of the more controversial aspects of the film, it is anchored by such a gut-wrenching lead performance and underscored by Oscar-winning composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and we think the Academy will be less concerned and more awed by what Platt will do on screen. This is another tearjerker with commercial appeal, and as many detractors as the film has online, there is an even more dedicated fanbase that has been anxiously waiting for the film to hit theaters.
The Green Knight (2021)
Outside of dark horse pick of Simon Rex in Red Rocket, our next outside-the-box pick is Dev Patel for The Green Knight, which is only fitting as it also was produced by the folks who gave us Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse. The Green Knight will undoubtedly be a strong contender for below-the-line categories, but we don’t want to dismiss the lead performance by Patel, which might just be a bit too out there for many Oscar voters but remains one of the best performances we have seen this year. Like Rex, Patel has already enjoyed outstanding reviews from critics, with Sara Michelle Fetters of Movie Freak calling him “simply marvelous” and, despite the dense source material and lyrical adaptation, stating he “still makes it all work… while his physically stoic permutations gradually give way, stripping the character of his confidence and leaving him contentedly naked as he readies himself for his ‘gift’ from The Green Knight.” A polarizing film, to be sure, but even those who aren’t a fan of David Lowery’s Arthurian fable agree Patel is incredible in it. Such envelope-pushing performances have also not been a favorite among Academy voters in recent years, but the same could have been said for foreign language films and Best Picture… until Parasite made history.
Also in contention:
Thumbnail images by Warner Bros. and A24