The other contenders
While I'd put Phoenix and Driver in a horse race right now, plenty of people could upset that. Initially, I would have put Robert De Niro at the top of that list. After years in the grumpy old man wilderness, De Niro is back to form with his old pal Martin Scorsese in The Irishman, playing Frank Sheeran, a mob hitman who becomes a confidant to Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa. (It's a lot more complicated than that, but you get the picture.) De Niro has the challenging task of playing Frank over more than 20 years, and while he has help from some digital de-aging, it's horrifying to watch him transform into a decrepit old man whose soul has been corrupted from years of misdeeds. The only issue? He surprisingly has been left out of the major precursor races: The SAG Awards and the Golden Globes.
He faces opposition from other actors on Netflix. First, there's Eddie Murphy finally manifesting his passion project, a biopic of comedy and Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name. Among the many joys of the movie is seeing Murphy win over an audience with stand-up once again, even if he's playing someone else. The streaming service is also the eventual home of The Two Popes, in which Jonathan Pryce gives a tender and surprisingly funny characterization to Pope Francis, the current leader of the Catholic Church.
Any number of these dudes might be upset by Antonio Banderas, never nominated before, who allows his career to come full circle in Pain and Glory, working with (and playing a version of) the man who made him a star, Pedro Almodóvar. Banderas was anointed by both the Los Angeles and New York film critics groups, and got a Globe nomination. Also a potential nominee: DiCaprio doing incredible comedic work as the vain but fading actor Rick Dalton in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. The extended sequence in which Rick questions his abilities on the set of the TV show Lancer is hilarious, devastating, and -- I'm going to say it! -- perfect. (If the Academy falls hard for Tarantino's Hollywood fable, consider him in.)
Other options include Christian Bale in Ford v. Ferrari, who has gotten both Globe and SAG recognition, and Taron Egerton was also an early favorite for Rocketman. Though Rocketman has largely faded from the discussion Egerton is emerging as a presence on the circuit.