Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
The winner: Sean Penn
The Best Actor category is usually very competitive, with plenty of notable omissions every year. This year's field is strong, though, with the main showdown being between Penn and Rourke. Rourke gave an incredible performance in a role that mirrored his own life, and he never let go of our attention. It certainly helps that The Wrestler is essentially a character study of his character, and he gets more than enough screentime to wow us. Penn, on the other hand, gets to put his showboating to good use as Harvey Milk, an outsized personality who became the first homosexual to serve on the San Fransisco City Council. Whereas sometimes Penn can overact, in this role it works, and he gives a full, fascinating performance as a result. He, too, benefits from a lot of screentime and a great supporting cast.
The rest of the category is also fine. Langella gives such a strong, commanding performance as President Nixon that you can forgive the fact that he bears little resemblance to the former President. Reprising his Tony-winning role, he effectively makes Nixon slimy, controlling, and manipulative, but still manages to lend him some humanity. Jenkins, a surprise nominee, gives a fantastic performance in the first lead role of his career. His Walter Vale goes through a full gambit of emotions, going from grudgingly letting the couple who's been living in his New York apartment to fighting for their rights to stay in the country. Its a fascinating performance from a constantly great actor. Pitt's performance as Benjamin Button, though excellent, is not as strong as the others in the category, though. Its mostly Forrest Gump with reverse aging, and sometimes its hard to tell how much is performance and how much is special-effects/makeup.
Here's how my ballot would have looked:
1. Sean Penn, Milk
2. Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
3. Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
4. Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
5. Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button