BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
When you stop and think about it, it makes sense that only Branagh could have been cast as legendary actor/director Sir Laurence Olivier. Just as Olivier was a Shakespearean master, so is Branagh, and you can feel the latter channeling the former all throughout My Week with Marilyn. He steals just about every scene he's in, as well as delivering the best lines of the film ("Its like teaching Urdu to a badger!"). And despite the wafer-thin lightness of the film, he still manages to sneak in some pathos, knowing full well that his caliber of talent is far above Marilyn's and that he shouldn't have to be doing this. Though its unlikely that he'll win, the nomination alone for Branagh is certainly deserving.
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
I'm going to be completely honest here: if you had told me a year ago (hell, five months ago) that we would be using the phrase "Oscar nominee Jonah Hill," I probably would have laughed it off. This isn't to say I didn't think he was a good actor; Superbad is testament enough to his casual comic brilliance. But then he took the role of Peter Brandt, a nerdy mathematician who helps Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) develop the theory of sabermetrics, and showed a completely new side of himself. He's mostly relegated to the background, but he matches the soul that Pitt brings, and compliments his performance while still forming his unique voice and presence. He's a longshot to win, but hopefully we'll see more of Hill's dramatic side in the future.
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Warrior is a surprising film: you don't expect much from it, but man, does it come up and really knock you out emotionally. Of course, leads Joel Edgarton and Tom Hardy are a major part of the film's success, but it's Nolte who really makes those gut punches hit hard. As the sobered-up, Melville-loving father of these two men, Nolte brings a lot of pathos as he tries to mend his relationship with both of them, only to find himself being turned down and spited with every attempt. He's a broken man just trying to make good, and Nolte - you can see a lot of himself in the role - pours everything he's got into it. Given the film's small reception, it's almost a miracle that Nolte managed to get a nomination, but he earns it with this performance.
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Plummer has had a long career full of incredible performances, but none are quite like what he brings to Beginners. As a newly-out man dying of cancer, Plummer takes what could have been a drab role and plays it vivaciously, never letting us forget Hal's humanity and newfound lust for life. At the same time, he still brings gravity to the role, and his bonding with son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is never short of touching. His was hands-down the best supporting performance of the year, and barring any major surprises, Plummer will be making his way to the stage Sunday night to collect his first Oscar.
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Yes, the nomination is surprising. But not because of Sydow's performance. In a role that is completely silent, his portrayal of "the Renter" relies completely on his body language and the dense gravity that he's brought to every role in his career. It's remarkable to see the legendary actor still working in peak form, and he's certainly the best part of the (rather unfairly, personally) critically-lambasted film. The film's reception is the reason his nomination is surprising. But he's more than worthy of it.
My personal ballot:
1. Christopher Plummer, Beginners
2. Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
3. Nick Nolte, Warrior
4. Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
5. Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Predicted winner: Christopher Plummer
Spoiler: Max von Sydow (I doubt this will happen, but stranger things...)
Dark Horse: Jonah Hill (if they suddenly go nuts for Moneyball)