Nominees: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor; Frank Langella Frost/Nixon; Sean Penn, Milk; Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Prediction: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
The movie's plot a has-been fighter risks his life to be the Lord of the Ring one last time is trivial compared with Rourke's real-life comeback after nearly two decades of abusing his body, his reputation and his gift for crazy-sensitive emoting. By voting for him, Academy members can validate Hollywood's favorite myth: that behind the most crushing defeat, redemption awaits. Plus, they get to hear a back-from-the-dead acceptance speech. Not since Jesus.
Preference: Sean Penn, Milk
The longtime suspicion of this critic has been that Penn isn't a great movie actor, just Hollywood's idea of one. That is, the seriousness he pours into every role often parades his commitment while obscuring the character he's ostensibly playing. Yet in Milk Penn tamps down the surly-genius side of his persona and slips inside the skin of Harvey Milk, locating not just the driving messianism of this pioneering gay activist but his gentleness, wit and weakness for a messy love life. Penn could win this category if the movie community is still heated over the passing of Proposition 8.
Robbed: Ben Kingsley, Elegy
Unlike Rourke's and Penn's characters, the English professor that Kingsley plays isn't on a trajectory toward a noble demise. Every day is a little death for this man, who is so afraid of intimacy that he beds every woman who's attracted to him. In a rare romantic lead for this quadruple nominee (one Oscar win: Gandhi), Sir Ben lends his Mensa machismo and minute emotional calibrations to this Lothario who learns to love.