A sexy ballerina. A 14-year-old out for justice. A monarch fighting his stammer. These are just a few of the characters that have fascinated moviegoers over the past year — and now, the actors who brought them to life are poised to enjoy that greatest of Hollywood achievements: an Oscar nomination. Just before the contenders for the Academy Awards are announced (on January 25), LIFE.com presents exclusive portraits, taken by photographer Jeff Vespa, of eight stars hoping to find their name on the ballot. Here: The King’s Speech star Colin Firth, the front-runner for Best Actor (more on that in a bit). See the full gallery on LIFE.com.