In the male-dominated culture of Hollywood, the Oscar category with the most contenders each year is Best Actor. But for 2004, there are enough to drown out the 17-year cicada.

From performances I’ve seen and from the buzz surrounding those yet to come, I could field two football teams and have three men on the bench.

That’s 25 – and I’m not even counting Oscar fave Tom Hanks, who acted up a storm earlier this year in The Terminal and The Ladykillers.

Jamie Foxx might have one of the five spots on the final ballot locked up. He’s unbelievable – that is to say, he’s completely believable – as the late Ray Charles in Ray, which is scheduled to open Oct. 29.

The other four could be filled by names from this list of 10 from upcoming movies I have already seen:

Kevin Bacon gives a courageous and compelling performance as a paroled pedophile fighting his urges in The Woodsman (scheduled for Dec. 24).

Gael Garcia Bernal should be considered for two roles – as a conniving transvestite in Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education (Nov. 19) and as the young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries (opened Sept. 24).

Don Cheadle is heartbreaking in the true story of a Rwandan hotel manager protecting native Tutsis from the genocidal Hutu militia in Hotel Rwanda (Dec. 22).

Daniel Craig, the rising British star of last year’s Sylvia, gives a complex performance as a man being stalked by another man in Enduring Love (Oct. 29).

Johnny Depp follows his Oscar nomination for The Pirates of the Caribbean with a poignantly sweet performance as Peter Pan creator James M. Barrie in Finding Neverland (Nov. 12).

Paul Giamatti, the sad-sack star of last year’s American Splendor, is hilarious as a wine snob and failed author in Alexander Payne’s comic masterpiece Sideways (Oct. 20).

Liam Neeson gives a career performance as the obsessive sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in Kinsey (Nov. 12).

Al Pacino, never better, manages to make the moneylender Shylock sympathetic in The Merchant of Venice (Dec. 29).

Sean Penn backs his Oscar win for last year’s Mystic River with standout work as would-be presidential assassin Samuel Byck in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (no date set).

Kevin Spacey gives an amazing vocal performance as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea (Nov. 24). I missed the Spanish film Out to Sea (Dec. 17) at the Toronto Film Festival, but those who saw it were ready to concede a nomination to Javier Bardem for his role of a bedridden quadriplegic fighting for the right to die.

Still unseen by anyone are a pair of biographical epics that look like pure Oscar bait for their stars. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a young Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (Dec. 17) and Colin Farrell has the title role in Oliver Stone’s Alexander (Nov. 24), about the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Now that Academy voters have discovered Bill Murray, nominated for last year’s Lost in Translation, they could jot his name down again for the holiday comedy The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Dec. 24).

And, of course, there is the long-anticipated adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (Dec. 22), which could land Scottish actor Gerard Butler on the ballot.

I haven’t mentioned performances that generated Oscar talk earlier this year. There have been enough to fill out a solid Best Actor ballot in any other year:

Jeff Bridges gives what many critics regard as his finest performance in The Door in the Floor.

Jim Carrey is extraordinary as a man fighting to protect the memory of his lover in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jim Caviezel plays the title role in Mel Gibson’s controversial movie The Passion of the Christ.

Kevin Kline is outstanding as Cole Porter in De-Lovely, a movie that struck a

brighter chord with industry people than critics.r> Brad Pitt is every bit as good in Troy (playing Achilles) as Oscar-winner Russell Crowe was in Gladiator. If you’ve been counting, that’s 21 contenders. The other four on my Top 25 are Christopher Walken (Around the Bend, opening Friday), Denzel Washington (The Manchurian Candidate), Christian Bale (The Machinist, Oct. 22) and Jude Law (Closer, Dec. 3).

I might add Adam Sandler, who stars in Spanglish (Dec. 17), the fifth film by James L. Brooks, whose previous movies have delivered two Oscars for Jack Nicholson and one nomination for William Hurt.

But Sandler would be 26, and I can’t make myself believe it.

© 2004, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.