There really isn’t any contest in the Best Actor category this year. It’s Jeff Bridges’ year to win that career award he so justly deserves and darn it, he’s going to take it.

His performance as Bad Blake, a grizzled, hard-drinking, down-and-out country western singer, looking for redemption in Crazy Heart was a somewhat last minute entry into the actor race, with early buzz leaning towards Up in the Air’s George Clooney (more on him in a minute). But then Bridges came out like gangbusters, winning the Golden Globe, the SAG and some of the smaller critic awards, and soon the writing on the wall became more and more clear.

Is Bridges’ Crazy Heart his best performance to date? Probably not. If I were to pick MY favorite, it would be for his turn as a plane crash survivor in Fearless. It is, however, one of those roles the Academy simply adores: a man at the end of his rope, drunk, belligerent, neglectful, nearly broke – and primed to make it back in the saddle again. Plus, Bridges SINGS. Forget about it. Sealing the deal, however, is the fact Bridges has been nominated three times before and has never won. The odds are simply stacked high in his favor.

That doesn’t mean the other nominees in this category aren’t just as deserving; it’s just hard to beat the career award thing once it’s in motion. Still, we should shine a spotlight on the other four guys on the list, who each turned in their own wonderfully layered performances.

As I said, Clooney was an early favorite for his snarky corporate head-chopper Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, but the bloom faded once Bridges came on the scene. No matter. We appreciate George for what he brings to the table. He has an uncanny knack for choosing roles that seem so similar to his own personality, yet still manage to surprise you with their depth and poignancy. I thought of Ryan as the more lighthearted companion to the darker, troubled Michael Clayton, Clooney’s other Best Actor-nominated turn. Overall, though, Clooney isn’t quite stretching himself like he did with his Oscar-winning performance in Syriana. When you gain weight, George, you win.

Morgan Freeman sort of falls into that non-stretching category as well, with his studied turn as South African hero Nelson Mandela in Invictus. It’s a meticulous performance, full of Mandela’s affectations and mannerisms but done in Freeman’s steady and skillful hands. Maybe I don’t think he stretches because he makes it looks so easy. The real surprise in the film, actually, is Matt Damon as the South African rugby player trying to help Mandela bring their tattered country together as one. The two complement each other nicely, and it’s good to see them both get recognized by the Academy.

The Best Actor nod to newbie Jeremy Renner brings a smile to my face because I love it when actors more known for TV work or supporting film roles get a chance to really bite down and chew it up. Renner’s portrayal of Sgt. William James in The Hurt Locker, is a tour-de-force. All at once James is an adrenaline junky with a death wish, who expertly diffuses land mines and bombs scattered all over Baghdad with a cool hand, but who then lets the job get to him and shows a vulnerability you don’t expect. It could be Renner just had a great director (Kathryn Bigelow) to guide him, and this might be his only shot at an Oscar – but I doubt it. He’s moving on up now.

For me, however, the biggest thrill was seeing Colin Firth make the Best Actor list. Here’s an actor who has done all kinds of roles – from the upper-crusty period pieces (Pride and Prejudice, Valmont) to romantic comedies (Love Actually, Bridget Jones’ Diary) to reeeally dumb comedies (What a Girl Wants) –  and finally gets his chance to shine in something that’s a bit familiar but also a complete departure for the Brit. As George in A Single Man, Firth turns in a beautiful, haunting performance of a gay college professor in the 1960s, whose life is pretty much destroyed when he loses his one and only love in an accident. Firth hands us a quiet, controlled yet achingly painful portrayal of a man who feels he has no alternatives. If Bridges weren’t such a shoo-in, I would have backed Firth all the way. I just hope he makes it back to the Oscars soon.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!