The greatest Best Actor race? Where does this year's class rank in Oscar history?

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Image Credit: Mary Cybulski; Anne Marie Fox; Jaap Buitendijk

This year’s Best Actor race is shaping up to be one of the greatest of all time. And by greatest, I mean both the most competitive and also the most outstanding, in the sense that each nominee is excellent — hypothetical winners in almost any other year. They also reflect the depth of superb male performances in 2013. Consider: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Robert Redford (All Is Lost), Joaquin Phoneix (Her), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) all missed the cut.

EW’s Owen Gleiberman recently analyzed this year’s Best Actor race, calling it the most “fiercely, thrillingly white-hot competitive” race in memory. Matthew McConaughey is the presumed front-runner for his transformative performance as an HIV patient in Dallas Buyers Club. He’s won most of the pre-Oscar prizes, and the media is still enamored with the McConaissance that has him tackling challenging projects after more than a decade of playing shirtless dudes. Chiwetel Ejiofor breaks your heart as Solomon Northup in the epic 12 Years a Slave, an unforgettable movie experience that depends almost entirely on his graceful performance. Leonardo DiCaprio — who’s never won an Oscar despite being Hollywood’s most famous face for 15 years — is making a strong late push for his performance as a crooked financier on The Wolf of Wall Street. Bruce Dern would become the oldest Best Actor winner if he takes home the prize for his stoic role in Nebraska as an aging man who sets out to collect his dubious sweepstakes winnings. And Christian Bale, an Oscar winner who is likely on the short list of greatest working actors in their prime, is the so-called long-shot for his amazing performance as a 1970s scam artist who gets in over his head with crooked pols and the FBI. It truly is a murderer’s row: three glamorous Hollywood leading man in the prime of their careers, one old-timer conjuring up screen magic to remind audiences of his greatness, and one completely mesmerizing performance from an English actor who finally received the leading role that was equal to his obvious talents.

So is this the greatest “class” of Best Actor nominees in history? And if not, where does it rank? Today, on Sirius radio, EW’s Darren Franich, Lanford Beard, and I nominated the best Best Actor races in Oscar history. Darren selected 1968, the year Rod Steiger took home the trophy for In the Heat of the Night, edging Warren Beatty (Bonnie & Clyde), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke), and Spencer Tracy (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Lanford chose 2006, the year Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote, with Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), and David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) in the mix.

Click below for one guy’s top 10 all-time Best Actor races, with the main criteria being iconic performances and legendary actors. Feel free to disagree in the comments.

10. 1952
Humphrey Bogart* (The African Queen), Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire), Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun), Arthur Kennedy (Bright Victory), Fredric March (Death of a Salesman)

It was Bogart’s only Oscar win, Brando’s first nomination. Throw in Clift in his prime, Kennedy — a five-time nominee — and March bringing Willy Loman to the screen for the first time, and you have set the bar high for a 10th-place Best Actor class.

9. 2006
Philip Seymour Hoffman* (Capote), Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), David Stathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck)

This Oscar race is tinged with tragedy after the premature deaths of Hoffman and Ledger, but the work stands. Hoffman’s Truman Capote is sublime, and Ledger’s performance, especially his scenes as the older, more pained Ennis, will break your heart. Howard and Strathairn delivered exquisite turns in their respective films, and Phoenix as Johnny Cash is the role with which he’ll forever be associated.

8. 1994
Tom Hanks* (Philadelphia), Daniel Day-Lewis (In the Name of the Father), Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got to Do With It), Anthony Hopkins (The Remains of the Day), Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List)

Hanks’ first Oscar — he’d win again the next year for Forrest Gump — for playing a dying AIDS patient, represented so much, for Hanks, for Hollywood, and for the culture. Fishburne and Neeson might be only one-time nominees, but Oskar Schindler is an all-timer that might outlive its four rivals. Throw in Hopkins’ reserved performance as an English butler shattered with remorse, plus another he’s-so-great-this-is-expected Daniel Day-Lewis role, and this Best Actor class is aging well.

7. 1940
Robert Donat* (Goodbye, Mr. Chips), Clark Gable (Gone With the Wind), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), Mickey Rooney (Babes in Arms), James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)

Rhett-feakin’-Butler, folks! That’s for starters. Wuthering Heights was Olivier’s first Oscar nomination, and Stewart’s Mr. Smith is another iconic role in a career of iconic roles. Don’t scoff at Rooney — a four-time nominee from four different decades — or Donat, who took home the statue.

6. 1941
James Stewart* (The Philadelphia Story), Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Laurence Olivier (Rebecca)

One year later, Stewart and Olivier went head-to-head again, and this time they had Fonda and Chaplin in the race as well. Stewart took home the prize, but in hindsight, it’s Fonda’s haunted performance as Tom Joad that might have the longest echo. Chaplin did his best work in silent film before the Oscars were established, but his Great Dictator is still essential viewing. Massey might be the plus-one here, but it’s still an awesome crop.

5. 1983
Ben Kingsley* (Gandhi), Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie), Jack Lemmon (Missing), Paul Newman (The Verdict), Peter O’Toole (My Favorite Year)

You have Hoffman in, for my money, the greatest comedic performance since Some Like It Hot, which coincidentally starred Lemmon in another cross-dressing role. Missing was Lemmon’s eighth and final Oscar nod, and O’Toole would ultimately be nominated eight times — without a victory. Kingsley won the prize for Gandhi, but it is Newman’s Frank Galvin in The Verdict that I can watch over and over and over.

4. 2014
Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Time will tell if this class rises or slips, but in the present moment, the growing legacies of Bale, DiCaprio, and McConaughey, along with the extraordinary performances of Dern and Ejiofor, position this year’s Best Actors right near the top.

3. 1963
Gregory Peck* (To Kill a Mockingbird), Burt Lancaster (Birdman of Alcatraz), Jack Lemmon (Days of Wine and Roses), Marcello Mastroianni (Divorce, American Style), Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia)

No other year can compete with the one-two punch of Atticus Finch and T.E. Lawrence. Period. Throw in three great performances from three acting legends, and this is one impressive quintet.

2. 1974
Jack Lemmon* (Save the Tiger), Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail), Al Pacino (Serpico), Robert Redford (The Sting)

A stupendous but odd year in that it included five of the greatest movie stars of the last 50 years — yet they all made slightly better films in the years just before or just after 1973. Still, as a collection of stars, of artists, and of brilliant performances, it’s difficult to deny this group.

1. 1968
Rod Steiger* (In the Heat of the Night), Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke), Spencer Tracy (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner)

This field was so strong, with three truly transcendent performances — Beatty, Hoffman, and Newman — that Steiger’s work is completely undervalued. I’m not going to say it deserved to win, but it is still marvelous work. And when two-time Oscar winner Spencer Tracy is your fifth, you know it was a historic year.

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