It has been a relatively weak year for movies, so the lack of powerful acting performances should come as little surprise. This coming January, voters may have a difficult time jotting down five names for both the lead actor and lead actress categories. Sad. Let me put it this way, when Sasha Baron Cohen starts generating buzz for what is essentially an extended (although extremely hilarious) reality show, you know you’ve got a problem.

In previous Oscar seasons, strong frontrunners have usually emerged by Thanksgiving. Last year, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix were both viable winners and raved by critics everywhere. In 2004, Jamie Foxx was already preparing his acceptance speech for “Ray.” Sean Penn, Bill Murray, and Johnny Depp headlined a talented contingent in ’03. The actress category tends to reveal itself later in the year, but Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, among others, in their respective years, were at least widely mentioned heading into December.

What do we have now? In the lead actor race, it seems to be Forest Whitaker vs. Peter O’Toole. Though Whitaker’s performance was masterful, it is arguably a supporting one. Furthermore, his film, “Last King of Scotland,” has quickly fallen off the Oscar radar. The word on O’Toole is that he might win less for the quality of his actual performance, and more for the fact that he is Peter “Freaking” O’Toole. As you all know, the Oscars are notorious for make-up awards. Lately, Will Smith has been gaining momentum for “The Pursuit of Happyness” and Leonardo DiCaprio for “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond.” But none of these films showcase these actors’ best performances. If Dicaprio couldn’t qualify with “Catch Me if You Can” in 2002 but gets in with “Blood Diamond” in ’06, you know you’re dealing with a weak field.

The actress race seems to have a more solid frontrunner in Helen Mirren (“The Queen”). The question is whether she can stay the course. Other potential challengers are Meryl Streep for “The Devil Wears Prada” and Judi Dench for “Notes on a Scandal.” Could it be that after years of awarding youth and popularity, the Academy is finally returning to its roots? Well, Penelope Cruz and Kate Winslet may have something to say about that. Cruz appears to be going heavy on the publicity, which always helps, though we wonder if the Academy will award a performance that’s in a foreign language. Winslet’s “Little Children” has disappeared fast, but voters may remember her past nominations for “Titanic,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Iris,” and “Sense and Sensibility.”

Probably the main reason the lead acting races haven’t caught on is because most of the contenders are not from likely Best Picture nominees. A look back at the last four Oscars indicates that only three winners were from films not nominated for Best Picture (Witherspoon, Theron, Berry). Among those three, at least two of the films were bona fide contenders for nominations (“Walk the Line” and “Monster’s Ball”). Though some may disagree, it seems unlikely that films such as “Venus,” “Last King of Scotland,” “Notes on a Scandal,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “The Pursuit of Happyness” will crack the top five.

But is still November, so as they say, anything can happen. A sleeper candidate can always emerge thanks to recognition from a critic’s association. We say keep an eye on Matt Damon for “The Good Shepherd” and Naomi Watts for “A Painted Veil.” Both have generated little to no buzz, but their films have yet to be released or even screened. As for more conventional picks, we’ll give O’Toole the edge over Whitaker for sentimental reasons and predict Winslet to upset Helen Mirren when all is said and done.

December is right around the corner and hopefully soon, we should be getting more answers instead of questions.