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The 84th Academy Awards is almost here! Leading up to the event, we’re going to put all the hours we spent watching these films to good use by giving our thoughts on all the categories, big and small. We may not be experts on everything, but I daresay that’s never stopped anyone from blogging before. On the (very remote chance) you disagree with us or the (much more likely chance) you want to applaud our picks, please chime in below.

Actor in a Leading Role

The nominees are:

  • Demián Bichir, A Better Life
  • George Clooney, The Descendants
  • Jean Dujardin, The Artist
  • Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • Brad Pitt, Moneyball

JOHN

Actor is the hardest category this year. It’s a super strong line-up and I’m having a hell of a time picking a favorite. Honestly, I don’t think you can go wrong. It may even be the best slate of nominees in a major category since we’ve started this project. There’s also a convenient split in the type of performances represented here: the subdued and the classic movie star.

In the former category I’d put Bichir and Oldman. Neither are showy performances but both make a powerful impact. Bichir does a great job of selling the desperation of his situation as a man who is not used to displaying much emotion. I really liked his scenes with his son and the mixture of awkwardness and exasperation in their interactions. Oldman, meanwhile, turns in one of those blank slate performances that wow me every so often. He’s a closely guarded guy, used to the secrecy and politicking of spycraft and yet he can say so much with a little flicker or movement. Every action is so precise and measured.

Clooney, Pitt, and Dujardin instead shine as classic leading men. They have the charisma, conviction, and, indeed, the looks to really lead a film. You may say that’s not all that impressive, but think of how many films sink as their leading men can’t carry them on their shoulders. How many films must sink under Ryan Reynolds’s floundering?

I’ve been a long time Clooney proponent and have given him great praise in this space in previous years for Up in the Air and Michael Clayton. I know people seem to think he plays the same role again and again, but I maintain there’s nothing wrong with taking similar roles. While within something of a “Clooney Realm,” all have their own impressive nuances. His part in The Descendants is a great match for him and he gets to show a little range compared to the previous Best Actor nods. The film bounces around tonally and it works partly because he carries it, balancing the anger, bewilderment, sadness of his predicament. (The narrative doesn’t work nearly as well but that’s not his fault.)

Dujardin brings great physicality to his silent role in The Artist. Presumably he’s never tackled such a role before but he’s a natural. The heightened emotiveness needed for a silent film could easily come off as mimickry or over the top in less suave hands. He just has a magnetism that makes it work. I have a bit less to say about Pitt. The guy is always solid and he does a good job, though I didn’t really find myself thinking, “Pitt is awesome” while watching Moneyball. But I understand that to those who fell for the movie his performance was a big part of it. A good, confident leading performance.

So who should win? At any given moment I could go for Clooney, Dujardin, or Oldman. But I suppose I’ll pick one and I’ll go with Gary Oldman, who is also sort of a sentimental pick. Though this decision is prone to change at any time!

It was a strong year all around for actors. As great as this slate is, it would have also been great to see Michael Fassbender (Shame), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), and Leonardo DiCaprio (J Edgar). I don’t know how I’d pick just five out of all of these great performances.

JARED

I’ll give Adam the voice he’s lacking: Where’s Brendan Gleeson?!  Playing basically a mix of all the characters who did get nominated, he absolutely belongs in this list.

I like Gary Oldman a lot.  If I ran the world, he’d probably already have at least one Oscar.  I’m thrilled he finally got a nomination.  But I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger here.  He’s received lots of plaudits for his super-restrained, barely emoting performance.  At some point, though, doesn’t that just translate to a boring performance where nothing happens?  I wouldn’t go that far here, but I’m not seeing what others are.

It is too facile to dismiss Clooney’s role as another one in a series of charming Clooneyesque guys dealing with #whitepeopleproblems. I also wouldn’t have gone so far as to give him a nomination.  There’s a lot of good stuff here, though.  And I think Clooney was a solid choice to portray the not quite sympathetic “hero” of the story because he certainly makes the film more watchable, and he adds a lot of needed nuance to the script.

I have to make a conscious effort to not just say for all of these guys how much I like their body of work.  Brad Pitt is no exception.  But I’m just not quite seeing it here.  To me, he’s just doing a Coach Taylor imitation.  And granted, everyone should be doing a Coach Taylor imitation.  But I’d love to see Oscar and Pitt better line up with each other.

I’m tickled pink that the Academy saw fit to nominate Bichir.  A Better Life went out super early to members, so maybe that turned out to be an effective strategy.  For me, this performance was a case study in how a role doesn’t have to be showy to have a big impact.  There’s nothing you’d expect from a typical Oscar performance, such as wild swings of emotion.  Bichir commands the screen here, nearly flawlessly portraying the character and turning it into something quite real.

It was always going to be Jean Dujardin for me, though.  Not because his is the biggest and broadest role of the bunch.  But because he is just so darn good in the role.  I mean, honestly, even his crooked half-smile lights up the day.  Dujardin creates a character that feels so much like the actors of yesteryear would pull off, screwball and slapstick while also being dramatic and serious.  Dujardin nails the range and the depth of the character. And it feels like he is having tons of fun, a feeling that can’t help but be infectious.

BRIAN

Jean Dujardin

ADAM

Jean Dujardin

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I can see why some people would love A Better Life.  There’s a pervasive sense of realness throughout, the kind that seductively passes itself off as truth. That, for better or worse, doesn’t affect how I watch movies, at least consciously.  So while I may not have found the movie anything special, that wouldn’t preclude me from recommending it to others.  A Better Life was sent out around September as one of the first for your consideration screeners of the year.  Not to me, of course.  Though, hey.  If anyone mistakenly stumbles across this post in some google search gone horrible awry, please feel free to send us stuff.  We’ll happily review anything, and with the four of us, someone is bound to like it.  Plus, we are voting members of the Independent Spirits awards, so, you know, that almost means something.

The story is relatively simple.  Demian Bichir is an illegal immigrant living in LA, eking out a living as a gardener.  An only father, he works long hours in an effort to provide for his son (Jose Julian), your typical disaffected high schooler.  After starting as a day laborer offering services outside a Home Depot (or Home Depot-like place), he found steady work for a fellow Mexican with a truck.  He’s presented with an opportunity to buy the truck, and I won’t spoil the rest of the movie after he buys the truck, but there’s a reason I brought up his immigration status.

I actually really liked the relationship between Bichir and his son, in particular how it relates to this better life.  In any other movie, Julian is a rather standard kid, who has a good heart, but thanks to plentiful opportunity and limited means, is pulled toward bad elements.  If the film took place in middle America, he’d be pulling pranks and hanging out with the kids who cut class to smoke cigarettes, and there’d be a bittersweet ending where he finally realizes everything his dad had done for him.  Here, though, the stakes are higher.  Bichir has sacrificed any semblance of a life and at the risk of deportation, just to make sure his son has a chance in life, and the kid seems to be spitting on the opportunity, even if just by being a kid.  It is a heartbreaking thought.

Bichir just received a Spirit Award nomination, hopefully not the culmination of months of buzz surrounding his performance.  In some sense, Bichir is just like his character when compared to most other Oscar Best Actor contenders.  The category seems likely to be chock full of Hollywood luminaries: Clooney, DiCaprio, Pitt and here’s a guy who’s just happily (?) chugging along.  His performance is delightfully subtle, contributing above all else to the sense of realness.  A comparison to Kyle Chandler is probably silly, but I think Bichir would absolutely knock a character like Coach out of the park, given the chance.

The film itself isn’t terribly interesting, though Bichir helps prevent the film from ever getting boring.  The story is slight and dialogue not particularly memorable, if generally effective. I guess it made me think a little, but that may well be a function of the fact that I knew I was going to write a post about the movie.  Assuming, I suppose, you believe I put any thought into this stuff.

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