In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

This year's Best Actor race was the most competitive I've seen in years. The nominations could easily have been filled with a different quintet, actors like Forest Whitaker, Oscar Isaac, Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and more all boasting potential throughout the season. Indeed, the category brought a shocker in the form of Hanks being dismissed in favor of — in all likelihood — one of the actors from the year's two late-breaking contenders. It was an embarrassment of riches, and the final five are hard to argue with, to be perfectly honest. I mean, I can't speak for anyone else, but I'd be happy with any of them winning. We've likely seen the writing on the wall for over a year, however, ever since a certain project was announced for a certain actor changing the trajectory of his career.

The nominees are…

Christian Bale, "American Hustle"
Christian Bale actually put out a pair of fine performances in 2013, it's just a shame his superior work in Scott Cooper's "Out of the Furnace" wasn't the one that was remembered. Nevertheless, he offered up yet another transformative piece of work in David O. Russell's "American Hustle," one of four cast members from the film nominated for Oscars. As good as he was in it, though, and as solid a year as he had, he feels like he's bringing up the rear in this race. All of his co-nominees have precursor support or narratives going for them where Bale is just sort of here, keeping that even keel of greatness going. Perhaps we're in an age of taking it for granted. (Check out our interview with Bale here.)

Bruce Dern, "Nebraska"
Against all odds (including sniping journalists and Oscar bloggers who thought it was insane for Paramount to chase a lead campaign, even after he WON the Cannes lead actor prize), Bruce Dern is finally a Best Actor nominee. His performance in "Nebraska" is, like a number of great pieces of work this year, deceptively simple. It's less a performance than a becoming, and the actor relished the opportunity to get under the character's skin. Behind the scenes he's had the likes of Jack Nicholson stumping for him, and plenty of goodwill built up besides. So you can bet he's landing his share of votes. It probably isn't enough to win, but the question is, which of the three most likely players is he pulling votes from? (Check out our interview with Dern here.)

Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Leonardo DiCaprio turned it on at just the right moment with his "Wolf of Wall Street" campaign. During phase one, with ballots in hand, he hopped on the phone with the press, defended the film against certain rhetoric and basically just planted a flag. Along the way he picked up Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards, though in comedy categories. And his last real opportunity to take a stand and position himself as serious competition for the win may have been at the BAFTA Awards, with the film surging at the UK box office. He wasn't able to turn the trick there, so that may be a sign that he didn't quite build up enough steam. But don't be surprised if he pulls it off after all; this is one of his greatest performances and his campaign highlighted that. (Check out our interview with DiCaprio here.)

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