As any critic will tell you, 2007 was an unusually strong year for American film, and it shows all the way down to the Oscar nominations for best supporting actor. The nominated performances are all strong, but there isn’t exactly “stiff competition,” as a clear frontrunner dominates the list.

oscar-supactor2.jpgJavier Bardem, No Country for Old Men

Given that Bardem has already won 17 awards for this performance, including the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award, he seems a favorite, if not a shoo-in, for the award. Despite some stiff competition, he could certainly be said to have earned it. (I might vote for someone else, but that doesn’t mean his performance isn’t masterful.) Bardem plays Chigurgh, an out-an-out psychopathic assassin, but he plays it all with his eyes, which reveal a wealth of great emotion. (Not to mention his gravelly, trembling voice.) It elevates his unredeemed killer beyond the mere cardboard Frankenstein a lesser actor might have made him.

oscar-supactor01.jpgCasey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Academy’s distinction between lead and supporting actors seems arbitrary, considering that Anthony Hopkins got a best lead actor nomination—and win—for 16 minutes of screen time in Silence of the Lambs. Why Casey Affleck got nominated for best supporting actor and not best lead performance is anyone’s guess, especially as his character, Robert Ford, is a major character in the film, enough so that he merits mention in the film’s exhausting title.

I suppose co-star Brad Pitt, as the title’s Jesse James, overshadowed him. Pitt, despite his lack of a reinforcing nomination, gives his most tender performance to date in the film, but it’s Affleck’s turn that makes the film the treasure that it is. (Certainly one of the year’s best.) The gorgeous cinematography, brilliant script and patient, poetic direction are all essential, but without a performance as strong and cryptically complex as Affleck’s, the film wouldn’t be able to stand so firmly. Combined with his fine work in Gone Baby Gone, he beats even Daniel Day-Lewis for the title of 2007’s best actor, if only for the sheer volume of solid performances.

oscar-supactor5.jpgTom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

They say that the roles only get better with age, for men anyway. If that’s not entirely true, surely the actors get better as they get older—there was a treasure trove of great performances this year from actors over 60 (Wilkinson, Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones in No Country, Albert Finney in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.) It may not be a country for old men, but it’s certainly an industry for one.

Wilkinson has been making a name for himself only in the last few years with solid roles in indie flicks (mostly supporting, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but also lead, like In the Bedroom.) He’s a powerful and convincingly credible actor, so it’s encouraging to see him recognized by the Academy, even if he lacks the necessary buzz to take the award.

oscar-supactor4.jpgHal Holbrook, Into the Wild

Into the Wild was an awful film, but it wasn’t the fault of its cast, particularly Hal Holbrook. He plays a father figure to the adventurer Chris McCandless, who abandons him like everyone else in the young man’s life. It might be kind of sad when McCandless leaves Catherine Keener behind, but it’s downright devastating and heartbreaking when he does it to Holbrook, who single-handedly drives home the emotional cost of McCandless’ solipsistic existence.

oscar-supactor3.jpgPhilip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War

Hoffman gave two highly respected performances last year…and he was also in Charlie Wilson’s War. As fine as he is in Charlie Wilson, he gave the performance of his career, hitherto, in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and yet it went un-nominated. Given how crowded the lead actor category is, and what a favorite Hoffman is of the Academy (best actor, Capote, 2005), this looks more like a pity nomination, one to round out the category.

Who’s going to win?
Javier Bardem

Who should win?
Casey Affleck or Hal Holbrook
(No Country‘s not going to win enough awards in other categories?)

Who got overlooked?
Albert Finney, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead


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