Twenty Performances, or If I Had a Ballot

My standing tradition is to post this little exercise is Oscar wishcasting on the day of the actual ceremony. I don’t want to preempt the recurring feature that resides on that day (especially since one of the two albums featured this week is a big personal favorite), so we’ll jump the gun a bit. It’s not like there’s some hallowed sanctity to the timing of this, after all.

Having made my opinion on the best films of the cinematic year 2010 abundantly clear over the course of the past few weeks, I want to turn my attention to the other Oscar categories that command the most attention. If some unlikely turn of events had placed a fresh, unmarked actors’ branch Academy Award ballot in my hands, this is the way I would have filled it out.

1. Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
2. Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
3. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
4. Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
5. Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right

Might as well begin with the heresy of omitting one the front-runner that all the cool kids seem to agree upon. Though I’ve previously noted my dislike of Darren Aronosky’s dull, puddle-shallow mess of an arty horror movie, I do think Natalie Portman does a nice job in the lead role and will be a suitably deserving winner on Sunday night. But I don’t think she displayed the same level f range and inner intricacy as the five actresses listed above. It was a very good year in this category; leaving Greta Gerwig off pains me even more, though not enough to follow the Academy’s ill-footed lead and make room by relegating Hailee Steinfeld, an actress who appears in damn near every scene of her movie, to the supporting category. I’m thrilled Williams got an actual nomination, though I harbor no illusions about her winning. I think she delivers the best acting job of the year, regardless of category.

1. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
2. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
3. Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island
4. Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
5. Jeff Bridges, True Grit

I’ve weighed in on my appreciation for Jesse Eisenberg’s performance elsewhere, but Firth’s sterling work in The King’s Speech is just a notch behind in my estimation. Assuming Spech does as expected and cops the Best Picture prize, it’ll be the squarest winner in years. That’s no reflection on Firth’s efforts, though. He makes the aches of his character’s verbal struggles piercingly tough and real in a way that the rest of the film often seems too skittish to do. I know that the Academy had no interest whatsoever in Shutter Island (not even in the tech categories, where I think even it’s detractors would say it’s deserving), it’s also beginning to seem that DiCaprio is tragically undervalued by this group of voters. He should have also been nominated two years ago.

1. Amy Adams, The Fighter
2. Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone
3. Patricia Clarkson, Shutter Island
4. Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer
5. Ellen Wong, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I think Adams was sensational in The Fighter but the other three Oscar nominees who actually belong in the supporting category elicit little more than a shrug from me. It would have been nice to see the Winter’s Bone appreciation extend to Dickey’s imposing performance, but that was probably asking too much. I’ve already extensively covered Clarkson’s work. Williams gave nice shadings to a fairly predictable role in Roman Polanski’s overpraised thriller, and Wong was good enough as Knives Chau that was sort of rooting for her to win out over Ramona Flowers for the hand of the titular hero. As for the Oscars, this category is the one true toss-up among the acting honors with Melissa Leo squandering what was probably a precarious lead with the ill-conceived and surprisingly tacky personal campaign she mounted. Many think Hailee Steinfeld will be the beneficiary, and I hope they’re right. I suspect that the strength of The King’s Speech will sweep Helena Bonham-Carter into a surprise win. Now that I look again at the list, this is a batch of pretty tough characters I’ve lined up for praise.

1. Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
2. Christian Bale, The Fighter
3. Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
4. John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
5. Tom Hardy, Inception

It’s a shame about Andrew. The emotive counterpoint to Jesse Eisenberg’s constrained social misfit, Garfield is, in many ways, the real heart of the film, the person who shows the emotional cost of the choices that went into building a digital empire. Bale will win the Oscar on Sunday night, and it’s hard to argue with that. His performance moves beyond gimmick in a way that Bale has never quite accomplished previously. He uses the mannerisms of the performance and his trademark poundage yo-yo to burrow deeply into the character. Again, the other names on my list are plenty familiar, though it would have been nice to see Hardy get a little more attention to applying a droll humanity to the intellectual loop-de-loops of Christopher Nolan’s unlikely blockbuster. Of course, the performance elevated him from intriguing fringe player to burgeoning star, so Hardy’s done just fine without any Oscar attention. Not every cinema reward comes from the Academy.

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