(Welcome to the Oscar Guide, your chaperone through the Academy’s 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 24, with the Best Picture finale on Friday, February 22.)

For the first time in Oscar history, we have an acting category composed entirely of past winners. Seth MacFarlane noted this is a “breath of fresh air.” He has a tendency to use sarcasm. Not only are the nominees all past winners, the race for the nominations was terribly predictable, notwithstanding occasional precursor support for Javier Bardem (“Skyfall”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Django Unchained”) and Matthew McConaughey (“Magic Mike”).

And like Best Supporting Actress, I found this year's supporting actor nominees largely underwhelming. In my view, two of the nominees are giving slightly different takes on the characters that already won them an Oscar. Two veterans are very good but fall short of greatness in my opinion. And the one truly great performance in the lot is a leading role masquerading as supporting. This is, nevertheless, by far the most exciting acting category when it comes to the race for the win. Indeed, plausible cases can be made for every contender.

The nominees are…

Alan Arkin (“Argo”)
Robert De Niro (“Silver Linings Playbook”)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (“The Master”)
Tommy Lee Jones (“Lincoln”)
Christoph Waltz (“Django Unchained”)

Who would I have preferred to see? For starters, I felt Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson stole the show in “Django Unchained.” Ditto Sam Rockwell coming out on top of a great cast in “Seven Psychopaths.” Dwight Henry was a perfect foil for Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Matthew McConaughey electrified the screen in an eerily realistic manner in “Magic Mike.” And Michael Fassbender always drew attention without distraction while being utterly committed to playing David in “Prometheus.”

Alan Arkin seems like a classy individual and he’s always fun to watch. I’ve enjoyed his late career renaissance and he was undeniably joyous in “Argo.” But is his crotchety old man shtick not tiring anyone? The film seems like it will pull off a Best Picture win, and that means other wins will likely come along. There have, however, been precursor wins for the actor. And there's no rush to reward him again after he won in 2007. So I'd say he’s the least likely to triumph. But it’s not impossible; in such an open category, a showy role in the likely Best Picture winner can’t be ruled out. Could “Argo f*** yourself!” be the new “Show me the money!”?

It’s certainly good to see Robert De Niro back in the race after a 21-year absence. In “Silver Linings Playbook,” he shows convincing warmth that we have rarely seen out of him. Did I always buy it? No. But the Academy clearly loved this film, giving it a nomination in every category where it had a plausible chance. De Niro hasn’t won any precursors but he is working the circuit to an extent he never has before – much moreso than other contenders. Giving him a third Oscar in a similar manner to Ingrid Bergman’s third seems so right. But there is still the lack of ANY precursor wins. And assuming Jennifer Lawrence staves off the brilliant Emmanuelle Riva, there is also the question of whether the Academy will feel like springing for the film outside of Best Actress: 10 of the 13 past Best Actress winners have been solo wins for their films, and two others have won just Best Makeup besides. The Academy doesn’t seem to like anyone pulling attention away from their leading ladies. That’s a somewhat tangential aside but I ultimately won’t go out on a limb and predict De Niro for the win.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd gripped me. Utterly charismatic with just enough sinister elements shining through, I managed to be enthralled, disturbed and, above all, intrigued by this character. Well done. Despite being the best of the five nominated performances, this leading turn has no business in this supporting category. That, however, rarely matters with Oscar. Indeed, it can help. Like co-star Amy Adams, Hoffman is on his fourth nomination since 2005. I fully expect him to win a second Oscar one of these years. With a BFCA win behind him, this could be it. But his film seems to have underperformed outside the acting branch (to put it mildly). And don’t Waltz and De Niro seem to be preferred contenders from The Weinstein Company?

We grew to like and respect Tommy Lee Jones's take on Thaddeus Stevens, with “the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of 'em.” And who wasn’t cheering him on during his character’s climax? Then again, I still always felt I was watching Tommy Lee Jones and I never felt for a moment that this Texan was from Pennsylvania. My opinion doesn’t matter but the fact that Jones only has one major award this season does. The fact that he wasn't able to show up to accept his SAG Award – and his face during the Golden Globes becoming a ludicrous meme – doesn’t help. Moreover, I have an inexplicable intuition that Daniel Day-Lewis is going to emerge as “Lincoln”’s only win. Even so, SAG can sometimes be enough (just ask Morgan Freeman) and unlike Hoffman, Waltz and De Niro, he doesn’t have to compete with two other performances from the same production company. He also fits the mould of an actor who becomes a two-time winner…and if not now, when? I’m predicting him, but not without reservations.

I was really convinced that Christoph Waltz would a one-hit wonder, albeit a very deserved one, with Oscar. How to prevent that? Give the same performance in what is essentially a co-leading role but turn the showy bad guy into a showy good guy! My distaste for this nomination is not so much that it isn’t a good performance (on the contrary, I think it is very good) than the fact that I felt there were two better, actually supporting, performances in the same movie. Waltz won both and the Golden Globe and the BAFTA and therefore cannot be ruled out in the race for the win. Indeed, Waltz is the only contender to have won two of the four big precursors. He also has never lost a major award for which he has been nominated. But even if the lack of BFCA and SAG nominations can be explained by a lack of screeners, do people really expect Waltz to become a two-time Oscar winner and on only his second nomination? This film is not a “Million Dollar Baby” or “American Beauty” in the eyes of AMPAS. Precursors aside, this doesn’t feel right to me.

Will Win: Tommy Lee Jones in “Lincoln”
Could Win: Robert De Niro in “Silver Linings Playbook”
Should Win: Robert De Niro in “Silver Linings Playbook” (only because I can’t bring himself to countenance Hoffman’s category fraud)
Should Have Been Here: Samuel L. Jackson in “Django Unchained”

Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

What’s your take on this race? Might the best way to predict be playing eeny-meenie-miny-moe? So much craziness will at least make for suspense until Octavia Spencer opens the envelope!