Daniel Day-Lewis is probably a lock to get an Oscar nomination for "Lincoln", but we're doubting he'll win. If the Academy were to award Day-Lewis, it would be his third Oscar, and only once before in Oscar history has an actor, (Jack Nicholson), won three. We're guessing Day-Lewis will win the majority of the critics awards, and he'll certainly get an Oscar nomination, but he won't take home the big prize.
Bradley Cooper could get an Oscar nod for "Silver Linings Playbook". When a film is highly acclaimed, Oscar voters feel obliged to nominate at least one actor from the film, otherwise, they have little justification for why they thought the film was good. But for Cooper to win the Oscar, he'd have to overcome his "Hangover" reputation with the older Academy members that he's just a good-looking, slightly talented actor meant for sophomoric comedies. Great actors are allowed to star in low-brow comedies after they achieved greatness, (i.e. Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, etc.), but not before.
Denzel Washington is getting Oscar buzz for "Flight", but just like Day-Lewis, Washington already has two Oscars. And for us to vote for Denzel for Best Actor, you'd have to convince us that he's doing something other than just being himself in every role. And Denzel Washington's self is not that interesting.
Joaquin Phoenix is almost certain to get an Oscar nomination, and we'd put good money on a possible win for the twice-nominated actor. Phoenix's work has long been respected by Oscar voters, and in our opinion, he should have already won the golden trophy for "Walk The Line", but there's a but here. Phoenix just stated in an interview in October that he thinks the Oscars are "bullshit", and many in Hollywood have yet to forgive Phoenix for his mock-documentary, "I'm Still Here", in which he skewered his own industry, not to mention that the said-skewering was considered unfunny and dragged on for far too long. Never underestimate the fact that the Oscars are often nothing more than a high school popularity contest, and Phoenix might have pissed off the Homecoming Queen once too often.
Another front-runner for Oscar glory is Anthony Hopkins in the title role in "Hitchcock". But Hopkins has been adored by the Academy for so many years, he almost seems passe at this point. Plus, "Hitchcock" is getting mixed reviews and has yet to impress at the box office. This might just be the year in which the Oscar voters look at Hopkins and say, "Ehh. Is that all you got?"
Hugh Jackman's name is being thrown around for what seems to be a revelatory performance in "Les Miserables", and Oscar loves Jackman; he even hosted the show one year. But as with Bradley Cooper, a lot of Academy members will struggle with rewarding an actor who is considered by many to be too "light-weight" for Oscar immortality. This one's a toss-up.
Our best guess for the actor who will not only get an Oscar nomination but who will also win the little golden man is John Hawkes for "The Sessions". Hawkes is little known with mainstream audiences, but he's very well-liked by Oscar voters, and having already gotten a previous nomination, ("Winter's Bone"), the voters can make the case that he's legitimately due for a win. Plus, it doesn't hurt that Hawkes plays in a true-life story of a man with a severe physical disability, two attributes of a film role which are guaranteed Oscar bait.
The first major acting award of the season will be given out on December 5 by the National Board of Review. And at that point, we'll have our first good indication of which actors will need to start rehearsing that story where they "slept-in" on Oscar nomination morning and didn't even know they got a nom until their agent called and woke them up. Right.