For complete Oscar coverage, including photos, videos and Peter Travers' breakdown of who should win, who will win and who does win, click here.
Christian Bale (The Fighter)
If you see Bale in The Fighter, playing Dicky Eklund — trainer to half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and a junkie ex-con who once went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard — you are rocked. I have one word for Bale: phenomenal. He dropped 30 pounds to play the skinny, loose-limbed, demon-driven Dickie. But his hilarious and heartbreaking performance cuts deep under the surface. Bale is the one to beat.
John Hawkes (Winter's Bone)
If more people had seen Debra Granik's low-key gem about a young girl (Jennifer Lawrence) caring for her dirt-poor Ozark family, more Academy voters might be checking their ballots in favor of Hawkes. As Teardrop, the girl's meth-junkie uncle, Hawkes etches a devastating portrait of a hard man who hasn't quite buried his tenderness. His final scene just floors you.
Download Peter Travers' 2011 Oscar ballot (right-click and choose "save as")
Jeremy Renner (The Town)
Renner, a Best Actor nominee last year for The Hurt Locker, becomes the standard bearer for director-star Ben Affleck's otherwise Oscar-ignored heist film, The Town. As Gem, the hothead in Affleck's crew of Boston bank robbers, the dynamite Renner radiates ferocity and feeling. He makes you feel the tensions simmering inside his character.
Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right)
Director-cowriter Lisa Cholodenko has allegedly crafted a "women's picture" about a lesbian couple played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. But Ruffalo as the sperm donor who fathered their two children adds a raw and touchingly humane dimension. To watch Ruffalo watching the two children, now grown, that's he's just met is acting of the highest caliber.
Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)
As Lionel Logue, the wildly eccentric Australian speech therapist who made it possible for the stammering King George VI (Colin Firth) to go on radio in 1939 and rally his subjects to support the declaration of war on Hitler's Germany, Rush proves to be Firth's match and the film's fiercely funny life force. Lionel is a failed actor given to grand gestures, and Rush chows down on this feast of a role.
Favorite: Christian Bale. Yes, he's that good.
Spoiler: Geoffrey Rush. Yes, he's that good, too, and could ride in on a predicted Oscar sweep for The King's Speech.
Switcheroo: Since Renner is the only nominee whose movie isn't also nominated for Best Picture, let's trade him for Andrew Garfield, the heart and soul of the much-nominated The Social Network. His portrayal of Brazilian student Eduardo Saverin, who provided the business plan and early financing for Facebook, raises the emotional stakes in a movie that is built on ice cool. Who would you switch out?