"He is a wonderful actor," said his "Master" co-star Amy Adams. "He was so invested and entrenched in being this unhinged person. His performance in this is beyond anything I've ever seen before."
Best performance by an actress -- drama
The competitors are Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty"), Marion Cotillard ("Rust and Bone"), Helen Mirren ("Hitchcock"), Naomi Watts ("The Impossible") and Rachel Weisz ("The Deep Blue Sea").
Of these, only Chastain and Watts have Oscar nods, but Chastain has the edge. "Zero Dark Thirty" is a procedural, however, and despite Chastain being a great actress, it's not the best showcase of her work.
But Cotillard has never given a finer performance as a woman who loses her legs in a tragic accident. "It's really about her relationship to her body," Cotillard told CNN. "Before, she was empty, because she didn't enjoy her life. And after, she had to learn to live again. She has a fuller life without legs. It's an unconventional love story."
Best performance by an actor -- comedy or musical
If only the great comedians didn't have to go up against the great musical performers, because there's only one leading man in this category who's both funny and sings: Jack Black for "Bernie."
Black's competition includes Hugh Jackman ("Les Miserables"), Bradley Cooper ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Ewan McGregor ("Salmon Fishing in the Yemen") and Bill Murray ("Hyde Park on Hudson").
Jackman will win for his portrayal of Jean Valjean, but the most truly insane performance of the year belongs to Cooper. DiCaprio called it "unbelievable." Josh Brolin called Cooper "amazing." We call him another should-be winner.
Best performance by an actress -- comedy or musical
Jennifer Lawrence, Cooper's "Silver Linings" co-star, has some stiff competition in this category -- Meryl Streep ("Hope Springs"), Maggie Smith ("Quartet"), Judi Dench ("The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel") and Emily Blunt ("Salmon Fishing in the Yemen").
Despite facing off against such heavyweights, Lawrence should win for her portrayal of a promiscuous widow with a depressive disorder who ropes Cooper into a dance competition. "When she came over the transom with her Skype audition, I was like, 'Oh my God, who is this?' " director David O. Russell said. "Even though I had seen her on the Oscar circuit (for 'Winter's Bone'), I never understood who she was, and she showed up on Skype dressed as the character and knocked me out. She's a weapon waiting to be fired."
Best performance by an actress in a supporting role
And here the separation between drama and comedy/musical ends -- too bad for anyone who isn't Anne Hathaway ("Les Miserables").
Hathaway's competitors include Amy Adams ("The Master"), Sally Field ("Lincoln"), Helen Hunt ("The Sessions") and Nicole Kidman ("The Paperboy"). Kidman is the only one here who didn't make it in the Oscar nominations -- Jacki Weaver ("Silver Linings Playbook") replaced her for the nod.
Only Field seems geared up to give Hathaway a run for her money. Her turn as Mary Lincoln was a tour de force.
Best performance by an actor in a supporting role
The supporting actor nominees are Alan Arkin ("Argo"), Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master") and Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio (both for "Django Unchained"), with only the latter (and the youngest) not receiving an Oscar nod this year.
Jones is the clear favorite for his portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, with Hoffman not far behind as the charismatic leader of a cult. But Waltz's performance as a German bounty hunter in the Deep South had more meat to it.
Best animated feature film