Who should win the best actor Oscar?

A drunken pilot turned hero; a former convict turned upstanding citizen; a sex-addicted violent drunk looking for a cause he can believe in; a man with bipolar disorder trying to quell his violent outbursts and reconcile with his estranged wife; and a President determined to end slavery and heal a nation torn apart by war – even if he has to stoop to some very unsavoury horse-trading to do so. If there's a common theme in the roles for which this year's five best actor contenders are nominated, it is the search for some kind of redemption.

Denzel Washington, Flight

Plenty of people have had problems with Flight's flights of fancy – flying a passenger plane upside down, anyone? – but many critics thought Denzel Washington's performance stood above the carnage of Robert Zemeckis' film.

"Washington is playing a drunken hellraiser, but this is one of the less flashy performances in contention," says Jake Wilson. "There are memorable moments of stillness and silence, marking the character's journey from self-satisfaction to remorse."

Ed Gibbs says perennial Oscar contender Washington – this is his sixth nomination, and he has won both best supporting actor (Glory, 1990) and best actor (Training Day, 2002) - brings "depth and pathos" to a "riveting if flawed drama".

Gibbs says the actor "unashamedly lets it all hang out, both physically and mentally".

Sandra Hall, though, is less convinced. She says Washington's turn "left me unmoved – too much brooding and sulking".

Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables

Hall says she had "far more sympathy for Hugh Jackman's embattled Jean Valjean in Les Mis" than for Washington's pilot, while Craig Mathieson loathed the film but loved the performance.

"In a shockingly bad movie Jackman displays absolute dedication and gives his all," Mathieson says. "Only a true movie star could have sung for all those hours with such devout conviction."

Jake Wilson sees something noble not just in the character of the former criminal who turns his life around, but also in Jackman's role. "He plays the tormented Jean Valjean with the jolly, swashbuckling air of a trouper helping out his less gifted friends," says Wilson.

Ed Gibbs feels it is Jackman's "storming presence" alone that makes Les Miserables more or less bearable, and notes that while this is his first nomination, the Australian's past Oscar hosting duties have "helped him remain a popular choice with voters". We'll see exactly how popular on Monday.

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

The mercurial Phoenix plays a sex-addicted alcoholic time bomb of a man in Paul Thomas Anderson's film about a pseudo-religious cult.

It is "a vexing film", says Craig Mathieson, and while Phoenix's performance is "remarkable" it doesn't make sense of the picture overall. Rather, "it turns the unease and confusion into a physical form. His Freddie Quell can't find a moment of peace in his own body".

Sandra Hall feels it is an "extraordinary performance" and Ed Gibbs says it is a "tour de force".

Philippa Hawker thinks it "over the top", but in a good way, while Jake Wilson judges it "a far-out, physically daring performance" and says Phoenix conveys "a callow, teenage quality, but also an adult knowledge of what it means to damage and be damaged in turn".

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

In David O. Russell's romantic comedy-drama, Bradley Cooper is at the centre of everything. His Pat is suffering bipolar disorder but is determined to get his life in order. Well, good luck with that.

All Russell films thrive on chaos, says Craig Mathieson, "and Cooper's caustic screen energy benefits from this. His snap and bite acquire self-loathing and genuine desperation".

Sandra Hall was left a little unmoved by Cooper's performance, but Jake Wilson thinks it is his best yet, with the actor "controlling and modulating his eccentric mannerisms – unblinking stare, wolfish grin, hectoring monotonal delivery – until they add up to a character far more likeable than the smug jock he usually plays".

Ed Gibbs is similarly impressed, calling it "a superb turn" from an actor who came into his own in 2012 (Hangover III notwithstanding)".

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

It hardly seems a fair race when one of the five roles nominated is an American President of such towering, mythical power that to not vote for it would be deemed unpatriotic. Throw into the mix the fact that he's played by Daniel Day-Lewis, widely regarded as one of the best actors – hell, the best actor – of his generation and a decent bookmaker would refuse to take any more money from mug punters.

In short, he's the unbackable favourite. Yes, upsets do happen and if you want to blow your inheritance go right ahead. But don't say you weren't warned.

Jake Wilson says the Anglo-Irish actor "brings to life the myth we all recognise, but also seems to have reimagined Lincoln for himself in every detail".

In his review of the film, Paul Byrnes wrote that the two-time best actor winner (My Left Foot in 1990 and There Will Be Blood in 2008) "gives a performance as good as he has ever put on film. His Lincoln is tall and tousled and bent over with the weight of melancholy responsibility in the fourth year of the Civil War".

Sandra Hall praises Day-Lewis not just for the gravitas but also "because he manages to inject so much quiet humour into what could have been a very reverential portrait".

Ed Gibbs praises the way the actor "inhabits the ageing figure of the 16th President of the United States with exquisite poise, intellect and grace".

The critics: Jake Wilson and Philippa Hawker review films for The Age, Sandra Hall and Paul Byrnes for The Sydney Morning Herald, and Craig Mathieson and Ed Gibbs for The Sunday Age and The Sun-Herald.

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