This article originally appeared on Capital New York.
Demián Bichir as Carlos Galindo in A Better Life
Mexico-born actor Demián Bichir plays Carlos, an undocumented immigrant struggling to get by in Los Angeles, working as a gardener, and sleeping on the couch of the small home he shares with his teenage son. A Better Life is directed by Chris Weitz, whose credits include American Pie, About a Boy and Twilight Saga: New Moon (way to keep them guessing, Mr. Weitz). A Better Life came and went briefly last year, and despite strong reviews, the nomination of Bichir was a surprise. (“Who is Demián Bichir?” was a common headline the day following the Oscar nominations announcement.) Bichir, a series regular on Weeds with a long string of credits, including playing Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che, has worked steadily with a low profile (this nomination should change things). As Carlos, Bichir gives us an in-depth and very human portrayal of a member of the invisible nose-to-the-ground immigrant population. He is mostly quiet and stoic, and yet filled with nameless and constant worry. His life is chaotic. He is undocumented. He can’t make plans. He does not have a driver’s license. Everything is precarious. I was struck by Bichir’s walk, a sturdy and yet somehow passive walk, the walk of a man who never wants to make a false move, who aspires to blend into the scenery as much as he can. It’s painful to watch such a strapping man attempt to be invisible. The beauty of the performance is in the details. The scenes with his teenage son are heartbreaking: an abyss of silence lies between them. They don’t know how to talk to each other. In a year when A-list actors such as Leonardo Dicaprio, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling were expected to be nominated, Bichir is a welcome surprise. In interviews, Bichir sounds mainly excited that now people are going to seek out the film and watch it. I love nominations like this one. He is the third Latino to be nominated for a best actor Oscar.
George Clooney as Matt King in The Descendants
George Clooney is such a regular presence on the American Movie Star scene that it is sometimes hard to remember that he became a star pretty late, as these things go. He was not a hot young actor in his 20s. Stardom hit for him in his 30s, when he was already seasoned, when he had some miles on him. After a couple of years appearing in typical romances as a typical leading man (with not too much success), he started finding his way, and has since then carved a very independent and interesting path in Hollywood. He has to be a leading man in his own way. He is too cranky, too singular, to submit to a well-worn formula. Shmoopy sentiment doesn’t suit him. Matt King in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is a man baffled by his daredevil wife, baffled by his daughters’ burgeoning adolescence, and baffled at the tragedy befallen him. It is interesting to see George Clooney allow himself to be baffled, because his movie star status gives him a natural cock-of-the-walk energy. Clooney seems like he would be comfortable in any environment. Being as big a star as Clooney is is, of course, a blessing and allows him to develop the projects he wants to develop. But it can also be a trap. Audiences may not accept him in different types of roles. Here, he is still recognizably Clooney, but he has somehow removed his cockiness, his certainty, and most of his humor, and has replaced it with a quiet worried sense of confusion. There’s an existential malaise working on Matt King, although he is given no words to express it. It’s always a joy to watch Clooney work, although I am not so sure this is an Oscar-worthy performance. I thought he should have been nominated for his mostly-silent role in The American, one of my favorite Clooney performances. But The Descendants is interesting because it plunges Clooney into the middle of a raucous ensemble, and it allows him to play a father, something he has rarely done.
Jean Dujardin as George Valentin in The Artist
George Valentin in The Artist is a beloved silent film star. He is on top of the world in 1920s Hollywood. With the advent of sound, Valentin is kicked to the curb. Hard times follow. The Artist, filmed in black-and-white, with no sound, and title cards, imitating the silent films of a bygone era, has experienced critical acclaim as well as critical “backlash”, and seems to delight and offend critics in equal measures. I thought it was charming and funny, although I don’t quite get the fervor of those who proclaim it a masterpiece, and etc. Valentin, an obvious nod to famous silent film stars like John Gilbert or Rudolph Valentino, is played by the smiling jaunty Jean Dujardin. Dujardin is a gifted physical comedian with an eloquent expressive face. Valentin’s interactions with rising star Peppy Miller (played by Best Supporting Actress nominee Bérénice Bejo) are fun and touching. It’s an appealing romance. Dujardin has already won multiple awards for his performance, including the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role. When I first saw The Artist, I was not particularly struck by his performance. It’s an ensemble film. Dujardin is appealing, though. I don’t quite get this nomination either.
Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Gary Oldman’s performance as ex-spy George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has brought him his first Oscar nomination. It is, perhaps, the most interior work he – normally expressive and huge in gesture and voice – has ever done. saw the film after the nominations came out, and for the first forty minutes or so, I was wondering why this was a nominated performance. By the end of the film, it was 100% clear to me why. This is a performance that does not want to be noticed or congratulated. What is so incredible about Oldman’s work here is the faith that he, the actor, has in what he is doing. George Smiley is not expressive. He does not have a catharsis. He does not even have a bad temper. There are no comforting scenes where Oldman gets to “let it all hang out”. Smiley is pained, and silent, and watchful. To maintain this over the course of a film, and have it add to the tension as opposed to dissipate it, is no small feat. Oldman’s performance works in increments, slowly building in power, almost invisibly. The film is a Cold War thriller – already made to great success a number of times (Alec Guinness played the role twice, putting his stamp on the role for all time). Even with the busy plot, and the large cast, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a character study in Oldman’s hands. His is the kind of acting I like best: invisible and yet effective. Oldman’s Smiley stands at his office Christmas party and looks around him, incapable of anything even approximating joy, and he has a tentative smile on his face, there for show. He’s at a party, after all. Oldman builds his character brick by brick, so you ache for him at the end of it. You ache for his loneliness, and you ache for his isolation. The character does not explain himself, or reveas himself, except for once when he has too much to drink. Oldman has been booked solid with the Harry Potter franchise over the last ten years. Here, he gets to go deep. So deep it appears bottomless.
Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in “Moneyball”
In my review of Moneyball, I wrote:
Over the years, people have been surprised when [Brad Pitt] turned in a good performance, as though they didn’t think he had it in him. Brad Pitt has always had it in him. Robert Redford cast Pitt as his own younger self, basically, in A River Runs Through It, and his joy and unselfconsciousness wearing that mantel is a revelation. His career has been diverse, and he has become successful enough to pick and choose what projects he wants to do. And age is making him even more interesting to watch.
In this year alone, Pitt appeared as the rough stern 1950s father in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, as his Oscar-nominated performance as the quirky, watchful, track-suit-clad, awkward Billy Beane in Moneyball. His performance is a master class in listening, which I mentioned in my review. Giving just one of these performances would be considered a triumph, but two in the same year shows Pitt’s dominance. Like I said, he has always had it in him. It should be no surprise. His performance in Moneyball is his best to date.