Likely Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Only the third acting job he's taken in a decade, this turn as a misanthropic oil tycoon has everything Oscar loves: passion, precision and an underlying madness. The fanatical commitment Day-Lewis brings to his process is another plus. Also, honoring him is like giving a posthumous acting award to John Huston, whose voice and attitude DDL channels as Daniel Plainview.
Corliss Pick: Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
Knowing as well as we do that he has star quality, Depp takes roles that both underline and subvert it. That's how much a movie modernist he is. His Sweeney Todd is as elaborate a mask as his Jack Sparrow in the Pirates movies. But this one goes deeper: beneath the cruelty and into the dark places of lovelorn pain. He sings good too.
Robbed: Ulrich Mühe, The Lives of Others
As the East German agent spying on politically active artists, Mühe personifies the government yes-man who is humanized when he learns to say no. Mühe, who himself was spied on in the '80s, gives a performance of subtlety and power. It's a shame he wasn't recognized by the Academy, and a greater pity he won't notice the slight. He died last July, at 54, of stomach cancer.
Other nominees include George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah) and Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises).