*Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) was considered a snub as well, but if you actually saw that awful performance, you'd understand why I was glad the Academy passed over it.
Demian Bichir, A Better Life
Bichir's visibility in Hollywood was already on the rise before he did A Better Life, having earned raves on Showtime's Weeds and in Steven Soderbergh's Che. But it was in this small, little-discussed indie (directed by Twilight: New Moon's Chris Weitz, returning to his social-drama roots) that Bichir really shines. As an illegal immigrant day laborer trying to provide for his son while keeping him out of East LA's gangs, he shows a deep affection and desperation to make the American dream work for them, knowing full well that it could all go wrong at any moment. When it does, Bichir delivers what may have been the most heartbreaking moment of the admittedly-uneven film, tearfully saying goodbye to his son. His nomination took many by surprise, but he's entirely worthy of it, elevating his film with every moment he's on screen. Take note, Hollywood: here's a real talent.
George Clooney, The Descendants
Clooney's Matt King has a lot on his plate: his wife is in a coma after a boating accident, and he's trying to relate and take care of his two daughters whom he's never really connected with. Then he discovers that his wife had been carrying on an affair before the accident. On top of all this, he has to make a decision on whether to sell his family's large piece of Hawaiian real estate, feeling the pressure from various family members. It should come of no surprise that Clooney plays all of this fantastically; he's convincingly torn by everything happening around him, and he hits the emotional beats perfectly as an alpha male knocked down a few notches. But its also the kind of role Clooney does in his sleep. He's a safe bet to win the prize this year, but I do kind of wish he'd pick up his second Oscar for something a little more special than this.
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
When I saw The Artist a few weeks ago, I had a conversation with the two elderly women that were sitting next to me. One of them, in reference to Dujardin's performance as George Valentin, said, "I thought he had a Douglas Fairbanks quality to him." I'd say she's got a great point. Dujardin is effortlessly charming, and he plays this role with such conviction, arrogant at the top of his fame only to fall to lows that were unimaginable to him, and he conveys all of this without saying a single word. Not only does he ham it up, but he also proves himself to be a pretty magnificent dancer, as well as a skilled comedian and dramatist. He's Clooney's strongest competition for this prize, and he could take the prize should The Artist go on a roll Sunday night. Unless, of course, the Academy remembers the last time they gave Best Actor to a charming European.
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Can you believe this is only Oldman's first nomination? Even so, it couldn't have come for a better role. Oldman's famous for his scenery-chewing acting style, but in playing George Smiley, he dials it all the way back to 1, a stoic cipher of a man who's been in MI6 long enough to know better than to trust anyone. Hunting for a mole that's selling British intelligence to the Soviets, he doesn't so much drive the action so much as react to everyone around him, quietly observing them and taking note of anything suspicious. Still, he's not completely impenetrable; just notice the wounded glint in his eyes when he sees his wife at the office party. This is the kind of performance that Oscar, often confusing "best" with "most," rarely nominates, so it's even more special for Oldman to be in this lineup. He's a longshot for a win, but now he can end his membership in the Overdue Club (new president: Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
There have been many, many pieces over the past few years (or decades, even) about the "death of the movie star," how movie stars just don't exist anymore. Pitt is a notable exception. And in Moneyball, he finds a role that he can really sink his teeth into and even relate to. Yes, Pitt has delivered several great performances in the past, but none of those quite match the charisma, the positivity, and the soul he brings to Billy Beane, manager of the Oakland A's baseball team. Forever the underdog, Beane is struggling to keep his team afloat, and when he decides to take a risk on an unproven mathematical formula for building a better team, he's written off immediately. And yet he keeps fighting, keeps pushing forward and testing boundaries, all in search of glory. Sound a bit familiar? It's hard to imagine anyone but Pitt taking this role, and he uses it to deliver the best performance of his career. With any luck, he'll rightfully take to the podium in a few nights for his first Oscar.
My personal ballot:
1. Brad Pitt, Moneyball
2. Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
3. Jean Dujardin, The Artist
4. Demian Bichir, A Better Life
5. George Clooney, The Descendants
Probable winner: George Clooney
Spoiler: Jean Dujardin
Dark Horse: Brad Pitt