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Javier Bardem (Biutiful)
It would be impossible to list the Oscar-worthy performances of 2010 without highlighting Bardem in Biutiful. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu describes Uxbal, the character Bardem embodies in flesh and spirit, as "devoted father, tormented lover, mystified son, underground businessman, ghost seeker, spiritual sensitive, consumer-goods pirate, guilty conscience and urban survivor." All of this and more can be seen on Bardem's indelibly expressive face.
Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
As Rooster Cogburn, the fat, one-eyed drunk of a U.S. marshal, Bridges steps into the role created by John Wayne in 1969 and that won the Duke his only Oscar as Best Actor. Under the direction of Joel and Ethan Coen, Bridges is killer good, putting his own stamp on the loneliness Rooster disguises with swagger. And in the film's big scene — Rooster's two-gun, reins-in-his-teeth showdown ("Fill your hand, you son of a bitch") —The Dude does the Duke proud.
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
As Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard undergrad who made billions by creating Facebook and helping technology win the battle against actual human contact, Eisenberg makes a staggering acting challenge look easy, nimbly negotiating Aaron Sorkin's rat-a-tat dialogue and revealing how alienation and loneliness actually fuel Mark's ambition. The highest praise I can give Eisenberg is that can't imagine anyone but him playing it.
Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
As King George VI, father of the present Queen Elizabeth and a stammerer who needed speech therapy to rally his subjects to war against Hitler in 1939, Firth displays a nuanced brilliance that is a thing of bruised beauty. His towering performance deserves a shower of awards, and so far he doesn't seem to have missed any.
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James Franco (127 Hours)
Playing Aaron Ralston, the real-life climber who is pinned down by a boulder in an isolated Utah canyon until he manages, horrifically, to free himself after six days, Franco does the best, most natural and nuanced acting of his career to date, lacing terror with bracing humor. There's an incendiary daring to Franco's performance, a willingness to go for broke.
Favorite: Colin Firth. If there is one sure thing on Oscar night, I'd bet the farm it's Firth. Oscar co-host James Franco should get busy practicing his good loser smile.
Spoiler: Jesse Eisenberg. I keep dreaming that Academy voters may actually wake up to the supreme accomplishment of this twenty-seven-year-old actor. Like I said, I'm dreaming.
Switcheroo: Actually, all these guys deserve their nominations. But I think Bridges himself would make the supreme sacrifice, knowing that he's never going to the podium for a role for which American legend John Wayne has already been garlanded. If so, there's a host of replacements, including Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, Robert Duvall in Get Low, Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island and Inception, and Michael Douglas in A Solitary Man. My personal choice would be Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine; he deserves to share in the honor bestowed of costar Michelle Williams. What nominee would you trade for one of the snubbed?