Monday, February 21, 2011

Oscars 2010: Best Actor

A stuttering king. A one-eyed US Marshal. A reckless adventurer trapped between a rock and a hard place. The most miserable Spaniard in the world. The world's youngest billionaire. These are the characters that occupy this year's Best Actor category, and the actors who portray them bring varying styles and ideas to their roles. There are some really good performances here, but not only did the Academy miss one of the year's best (Blue Valentine's Ryan Gosling), but the category is also one of the least competitive, as one of these men is all but guaranteed to take home his first trophy.

 Javier Bardem, Biutiful

Biutiful was a flawed movie, but Bardem almost single-handedly saves the film with his terrific performance. He's a surprise choice for a nomination, since many believed that Robert Duvall had locked up this spot for Get Low (and an impressive career in general). And he's the first person to be nominated for Best Actor for a Spanish-language performance, which is a welcome breath of variety. We could say that he's here now thanks to pal Julia Roberts, who campaigned hard on his behalf. But that would be discounting everything he did as Uxbal, a man for whom things only get worse as the film goes on. Despite all the suffering and excessive subplots, though, Bardem never lets him lose his humanity, painting a portrait of a man who always made the best of his situation, know matter how bad it got (and it got really, really bad). He's a major longshot for a win here, though, and I suspect he's not holding his breath to see if his name will be called Sunday night.

 Jeff Bridges, True Grit

Last year's champion becomes the first repeat nominee in this category since Johnny Depp in 2003/2004 with his nomination here for playing Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers' True Grit (Colin Firth also achieved it this year). This is the same role for which John Wayne won his only Oscar back in 1969, and though I've never seen the original, I've heard plenty of people say that they prefer Bridges' Rooster. And I definitely like this performance more than his Oscar-winning Bad Blake from last year, this time making his consistently-inebriated lawman a representation of how the West was really won. He's a gruff man with a heart of gold and an itchy trigger finger, and Bridges imbues him with an unexpected intensity and humor that makes him the kind of rich character that only exists in Coen movies. Thanks to his win last year and much stronger competition, its highly unlikely that he'll pick up a second Oscar this year, even if True Grit does pull off a stunning sweep.

 Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

Eisenberg has been doing interesting work in independent films for several years now, with only a few flirtations with the mainstream - Zombieland was probably his most well-known film before The Social Network came out. And, though he's done fine work before, he's been routinely type-cast as the nebbish loser that's socially awkward and talks faster than he thinks, roles that can bleed together if you watch enough of them. When you look at the role of Mark Zuckerberg, the inventor (or is he?) of Facebook, its a typical Eisenberg role, and he easily could have coasted, turning in the same kind of performance he's given many times before. Instead, he delivers a terrifically douchey performance, never shying away from the pricklier aspects of the character. The film itself has received criticism for its cold cynicism, but Eisenberg doesn't let us forget that Zuckerberg is, at his core, an insecure human being that may actually be a good person somewhere deep, deep down inside. Its a testament to his talent that he's able to pull off this balancing act without us ever getting to know who the real Zuckerberg is. If anyone has a chance at pulling an upset in this category, its him. But the Academy doesn't tend of like more-subdued performances such as this one, so I wouldn't count on him winning.

 Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Disability? Check. Royalty? Check. Friendship with a lower-class eccentric? Check. World War II setting with the Nazis on the horizon? Check and check. Essentially, the role of King George VI, who ascended the throne on the cusp of WWII and needed to overcome his stammer in order to lead his people into war, is the stuff that Oscar wins are made of. But a performer of Firth's magnitude wasn't going to just settle into the role and coast. He expertly conveys all of the anger and frustration that "Bertie" feels from his stutter, a man looking for his voice in a position that he's not even sure he can handle. He also has real chemistry with co-star Geoffrey Rush, which makes their friendship all the more believable. That's not even to mention his gift for comedy, playing his stutter for laughs with excellent timing. Firth's been on a roll for most of the awards season, and at this point he's all but guaranteed the win come Oscar night (though, to be honest, I preferred last year's performance in A Single Man to this one, and he should have won last year, in my book).

 James Franco, 127 Hours

127 Hours is essentially a one-man show, with the character of Aron Ralston alone on screen for most of the film's 90-minute screentime, and, to make things even more difficult, he's stuck in one place for most of that time. Luckily, not only was Franco up for the challenge, but he blew us away with his phenomenal performance. Franco managed to inject pathos into Ralston's predicament, often saying everything with only a look or a frown. He made Ralston's descent from happy-go-lucky, borderline reckless adrenaline junkie into desperation was nothing short of amazing to watch, and he elevated the film into one of the year's best (it placed #6 on my personal top 10 list last year). Its tacky that he's also hosting the ceremony this year, and that plus Firth's presence means he probably won't win, but he's the most deserving of the nominees this year (and between him and Firth, that was a really hard decision to make).

So, who's your pick? Here's how I'd vote for them:

1. James Franco, 127 Hours
2. Colin Firth, The King's Speech
3. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
4. Javier Bardem, Biutiful
5. Jeff Bridges, True Grit

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