(You'll notice I didn't mention 2012 in that list. There were great performances: Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook. But Philip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for The Master and Christoph Waltz won for Django Unchained; these were both very good performances, especially Hoffman's, but neither one of them could realistically be considered "supporting" roles. Hoffman was every bit the lead as Joaquin Phoenix, and Waltz was, honestly, more of the lead in Django Unchained than Django himself, Jamie Foxx. So egregious category fraud kind of spoiled that year.)
That has changed this year. Performance for performance, these five men constitute what is, by far, the strongest acting category this year, each one of them a marvel in their films and delivering some of their best work to date. It's so good, in fact, that I will be pleased as punch no matter who wins, because each and every one of these nominees deserves the Oscar (though obviously I do have a favorite). Let's hope that this category can leave those weaker days behind it.
Check out the five nominees after the page break.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Look, I've been raving about how great Barkhad Abdi is as Abduwali Muse, the leader of the Somalian pirates who boarded the Maersk Alabama in 2009, ever since I saw Captain Phillips in October. I've written about how he holds his own against Tom Hanks in the lead role, sometimes even stealing the scene from him, how electrifying his "I'm the captain now" moment is (there's a reason that's become the most memorable - and parodied - scene from the film), and how it's a startling performance for a first-time actor who was formerly a limo driver in Minneapolis. Recently I re-watched the film, and what I noticed this time was how magnetic Abdi's screen presence is. Even when he's quietly thinking, you can't take your eyes off of him, and you wonder what's going on inside his head. The facade of confidence betrays the fear and uncertainty at his core. Now I'm positive: Abdi's is the best performance of the year, period.
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
A year ago, it seemed surprising to see Bradley Cooper nominated for an Oscar, even though he had done career-best work in Silver Linings Playbook. Fast-forward to today, and his second nod - again for a career-best performance in American Hustle - is in no way surprising. Cooper has proven that he's at his best when his characters are at their most unhinged, and his FBI agent Richie DiMaso is constantly on the verge of tipping into Wolverine-like berzerker rage. But Cooper doesn't just play crazy: he finds the man's heart, his conflicting desires, and his (unfortunate) confidence that he is always the smartest guy in the room, or at least the one in control. In his hands, Richie becomes the film's stealth tragic figure: when things fall apart around him, it's ultimately his own doing. There's no more surprise in Cooper. He's proven that he deserves this recognition.
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
For years, it seemed like Michael Fassbender would never get an Oscar nomination (at least in his prime). The closest he's probably come to breaking through was in 2011, when he likely finished sixth in the voting for Best Actor for Shame. Then came 12 Years a Slave, his third collaboration with director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), and his performance as Edwin Epps, a brutal plantation owner. The role could have easily been played as a caricature, but Fassbender never lets you forget that Epps is a human being, albeit one with a penchant for physical, emotional, and sexual violence. Which is ultimately what makes this performance so astounding: Fassbender makes you understand the circumstances that bred and protected men like Epps, but at the same time never lets you sympathize with him either. The character is the face of an evil that is too often buried with shame, and one who's specter still looms over American society. Fassbender brings that face to real, horrifying life.
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Similarly to Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill is cited as a wholly unexpected two-time Oscar nominee (his first was for Best Supporting Actor in Moneyball in 2011). "This is the guy from Superbad, Accepted, and The Sitter, how can he be a two-time nominee?" Well, it's time to put an end to that noise: Hill is a truly great actor, and his performance as Donnie Azoff in The Wolf of Wall Street proves it. Donnie is a wholly immoral, ethically reprehensible guy, and Hill expertly plays the utter joy Donnie gets from being a sleaze. Yet Hill also understands why Donnie is so attached to Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), and why that friendship mattered so much to him: it was the only way he would ever be allowed to act without consequence. There's been speculation as to how much Hill improvised his character's dialogue. If much of it was improvised, then it makes the performance all the more impressive, since this shows how in-tune Hill was with his character. But the best way to understand how incredible Hill is as an actor, and how he easily earned his second nomination? Try picturing anyone else in this role. It simply can't be done.
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Once upon a time, Jared Leto was a teenage heartthrob, the too-cool-for-you Jordan Catalano in one-season wonder My So-Called Life. Despite several high-profile (and very good) roles in a variety of films, including Requiem for a Dream and American Psycho, he couldn't shed his reputation and opted to devote his energies toward his band, 30 Seconds to Mars. Before Dallas Buyers Club, he had even unofficially retired from acting. Thankfully, he came back, because his performance as AIDS-stricken Rayon is his best work yet. Of course, the big scene where Rayon visits her father has been the big attention-getter, but that focus does a disservice to the whole of what Leto does here. In his hands, Rayon isn't simply a tragedy. She's living fully, openly as herself, regardless of what society thinks, yet she's also covering up a drug habit that, in turn, covers her own insecurities. It's great to have Leto come back in peak form. Hopefully he'll stick around.
"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." So far, Leto has been the runaway frontrunner in this category, picking up nearly every prize that he's been nominated for. For a race this competitive, it's a shame that it already seems so sealed-up in Leto's favor. However, if anyone has a chance to spoil, it'll likely be either Abdi (if they can't resist his newcomer narrative) or Fassbender (if they decide to go all-in on 12 Years a Slave). Those chances are slim, though.
It's nearly impossible to truly rank these performances, as every single one of them are worthy of the Oscar. Still, if I had a vote, here's my ballot:
1. Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
2. Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
3. Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
4. Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
5. Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club