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Oscars: The Hollywood Reporter's Guide to the Actor Categories

This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Actors will insist that it's folly to try to judge performances, one against another. After all, how can you compare the work that animates a gripping drama to that which lightens up an evanescent comedy? But then awards season is all about comparing and contrasting. To make that job a little easier -- while also offering a sense of the sweeping range of performances that have lit up the screen in 2013 -- why not attempt to separate the performers into groups? So here's a look at contenders for best actor and actress and those who will be aiming for best supporting actor and actress accolades as another hotly contested season gets underway.

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TRUE-LIFE TALES

This year, a lot of movies -- and performances -- drew their inspiration from real life. The list includes Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips, the kidnapped captain of the Maersk Alabama in Captain Phillips; Matthew McConaughey as reluctant AIDS activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club; Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, shot and killed by transit police in Fruitvale Station; and Daniel Bruhl as Formula One racer Niki Lauda in Rush. The work of Phillips' Barkhad Abdi, Fruitvale's Octavia Spencer and Dallas' Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner adds a further air of authenticity.

FAMILY DRAMA (DARK)

The mood surrounding other families is pretty grim. Without any of the powers of the Wolverine, Hugh Jackman searches for his missing daughter in Prisoners, which also features Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled detective and Melissa Leo as a woman who might hold the key to the mystery. In Out of the Furnace, Christian Bale and Casey Affleck are brothers living in a decaying Pennsylvania steel town who turn to bare-fisted boxing and drugs as their lives go from bad to worse. And fathers visit their problems on their sons in The Place Beyond the Pines, which kicks off with Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle stuntman who starts robbing banks.

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FAMILY DRAMA (LIGHT)

The Weston family of August: Osage County might have its share of dark secrets and bitter memories, but with Meryl Streep sitting at the head of the table as its sharp-tongued matriarch, it delivers a healthy dose of laughs. And the supporting cast led by Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale all give as good as they get. Something similar takes place in Nebraska: Bruce Dern, who already has earned best actor laurels at the Cannes Film Festival, has his comic moments as an addled and cantankerous old man who is convinced he somehow has won the lottery. As his wife, veteran actress June Squibb plays a character who's equally ornery and feisty as she tries to set him straight.

Cate Blanchett also suffers from delusions of grandeur in Blue Jasmine -- she plays something of a modern-day version of Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois, a former member of the 1 percent who is forced to depend on the kindness of relative strangers as she moves in with her working-class sister, played by Sally Hawkins. And Judi Dench also has more than her share of funny quips in Philomena, in which she portrays a woman looking for the son she gave up for adoption.

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FINANCIAL SHENANIGANS

The two movies that remain the big unknowns of this awards season (they have yet to screen) are Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and David O. Russell's American Hustle. But giving them the benefit of high expectations, the movies, which revolve around plenty of funny money, could boost several thespians into the acting categories. Hustle, inspired by the Abscam bribery scandal of the 1970s, will showcase the work of Christian Bale and Amy Adams, with support from Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner. And Wolf of Wall Street, also based on a true story but set in the '80s, when freewheeling "Masters of the Universe" ruled, could give Leonardo DiCaprio a chance to grab his fourth Oscar nomination and Jonah Hill his second.

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HISTORY LESSONS

Then there are the actors asked to bring the past to life. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a free man sold into slavery, anchors 12 Years a Slave, which presents plenty of suffering (from Lupita Nyong'o) and villainy (from Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson). Continuing the story of the African-American experience, Forest Whitaker quietly bears witness to historic upheavals in Lee Daniels' The Butler -- with able assists from Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo. Harrison Ford disappears into a character part as Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, who champions Jackie Robinson in 42. The focus shifts to South Africa in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, with Idris Elba as the towering Nelson Mandela and Naomie Harris as his former wife Winnie. And World War II shows up in The Book Thief, with Sophie Nelisse as a girl in wartime Germany and Geoffrey Rush as her adoptive father.

LOVE STORIES

Love, in all its varieties, always gives a performer the opportunity to pull out all the stops. That's certainly true for Adele Exarchopoulos, the young French actress who conveys all the raptures of young love -- of the Sapphic variety -- in Blue Is the Warmest Color. How love matures, and sometimes sours, is demonstrated in Before Midnight: Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who have portrayed the same characters in two previous films, appear as a couple locked in marital battle. In Enough Said, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a game but insecure divorced Angeleno, confronts the possibility of taking a second chance at love when she meets up with James Gandolfini, who in a bittersweet valedictory performance proves that even if he isn't the man of her dreams, he may be the man she needs.

Things are even more complicated for Kate Winslet, who in Labor Day plays another divorced mom, but one who finds herself harboring Josh Brolin's escaped convict. And love takes quirkier turns in Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls for the voice of his computer's operating system, a heard-but-unseen Scarlett Johansson, and in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where Ben Stiller's crush on Kristen Wiig spurs him to break out of his humdrum life.

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SOLO ACTS

Robert Redford and Sandra Bullock certainly didn't have to worry about any other actor stepping on their lines: Redford has nearly no dialogue as the unnamed seafarer he portrays in All Is Lost goes about trying to survive when his sailboat is incapacitated in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In Gravity, Bullock is left to try to make her way back to Earth on her own after the International Space Station is lost in a barrage of killer space junk. On the other hand, both actors had to command the screen all by their lonesome, but that challenge is just the sort of acting showcase that commands attention -- when Tom Hanks pulled a similar stunt in 2000's Cast Away, he scored an Oscar nomination. And though Mark Wahlberg, playing Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, starts out as part of a four-man team charged with taking out a Taliban leader in Afghanistan in Lone Survivor, before his movie ends -- as its title telegraphs -- Wahlberg, too, becomes something of a party of one.

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SONG AND DANCE

There's no full-blown musical a la Les Mis to test the vocal cords of this year's contenders, but that doesn't mean a couple of movies don't carry a tune. Saving Mr. Banks offers an insider's look at the creation of the songs for Mary Poppins: In one affecting scene, Tom Hanks' Walt Disney hears "Feed the Birds" -- said to be the mogul's favorite song -- for the first time, and in another, Emma Thompson's P.L. Travers drops her starchy reserve to join in the chorus of "Let's Go Fly a Kite." Meanwhile, Inside Llewyn Davis offers a different side of the '60s as Oscar Isaac plays a struggling Greenwich Village folk singer, guitar at the ready.