The frontrunner: Joaquin Phoenix
Phoenix's win would be a long time coming. A nomination for Joker would be his fourth after recognition for his work in Gladiator, Walk The Line, and The Master. Playing Arthur Fleck, who eventually takes up the Joker mantle, marks another physical transformation for the actor, who lost weight to let his super-villain exist in a terrifying state of emaciation. But of course, dropping pounds isn't exactly a mark of good acting, though the Academy has been confused regarding that point before. As Arthur, Phoenix is unnerving, certainly. His version of the character's maniacal laugh is chilling. But he's also trapped in a film that doesn't really know what to do with its protagonist, which means his performance must cut through all that messiness. For a lot of people, it does. Another wrinkle: The Academy has already awarded a Joker performance to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Phoenix acknowledged Ledger's legacy when accepting his SAG Award, one of the many precursor awards he has collected.
Close behind: Adam Driver
While Baumbach's film is remarkably evenhanded in the way it depicts the divorce at its center, Driver is astounding as a man coming to terms with his own failures as his life is ripped apart. There are showy moments where he explodes in anger, but a lot of what makes his work so great is how he portrays Charlie as a person becoming aware of his own loneliness and flaws. A Driver win could be a coronation of sorts for a guy that plenty of people have hailed as one of the best of his generation.