Herrington and Akers on the Oscars (2011), Part 4: Lead Players

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The long Oscar endurance race that began on Monday is entering the home stretch. Today, with our penultimate installment, Flyer film writers Chris Herrington and Greg Akers are gazing at the lead Actress and Actor categories. Who will and should win and who got robbed? Read on.

Best Actress
Nominees: Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine).

CHRIS HERRINGTON: "Oscar buzz" tells us this is a two-person race between Bening and Portman, and given that hers is a more central and more showy performance in a somewhat more high-profile film, I'm saying the person that Will Win is Natalie Portman.

Should Win: Rabbit Hole is one of the few nominated films that I didn't manage to see, so I can't comment on Kidman. As for Bening, she's good but I thought Julianne Moore had both the more substantial role and better performance in The Kids Are All Right. And I think Portman is quite effective in Black Swan and won't complain when she wins. But for me this comes down to Lawrence and Williams. The former is perfect in Winter's Bone, but it feels like alchemy that may not be repeated. Michelle Williams — as we've seen in Brokeback Mountain and Wendy & Lucy — is the real deal. While her co-star in Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling, never lets you forget that he's acting, Williams never lets you catch her performing. Her naturalism is pure poetry.

Got Robbed:Williams gave one of my three favorite lead female performances of last year. The other two are, unsurprisingly, not on this slate of nominees. One is Hye-Ja Kim, a South Korean TV icon who apparently tweaks her persona as the disturbingly dedicated title character in Bong Joon-Ho's Mother. The other is Lesley Manville, a longtime regular in Mike Leigh's company of great actors who finally gets her spotlight in Another Year, where she is unnervingly good as a very difficult character.

On this we agree: Lesley Manville in Another Year was "robbed":

GREG AKERS: Some people love The Kids Are All Right, and I don't understand those people. I especially don't understand the ones who love Annette Bening in it. If I didn't already know it when I saw it, I wouldn't believe she'd be the actress getting notice and not Julianne Moore, who does a lot with a lot more to work with. (As you alluded to.) Bening essentially has one standout scene — at the dinner table. If she wins, it'll be because people like her (I do too) and want to recognize the cliched "body of work" (Bening should've won for American Beauty). This year's Best Actress is Natalie Portman's to lose, and she's not going to lose.

Should Win: And I agree with giving Natalie Portman a gold statue. She gives one of my favorite performances by an actress in the last couple years. Aside from the fact that she had to put as much preparation into the role as her character did (which is a lot), but she had to act out a range of emotions — naive, scared, fragile, vulnerable, angry, horny, confident, commanding — and she does so convincingly throughout. The scene where she becomes the black swan, in full eye-makeup regalia, is mesmerizing. She has a presence in that scene that I've never seen out of her during any other performance. I've been solidly invested in Portman since the days of Léon (The Professional), Heat, and Beautiful Girls. Black Swan is her best yet.

Got Robbed: Not to be boring, but I'll mimic the attention you give to Lesley Manville from Another Year. She's so excellent as Mary, the ever dour, relationship-challenged woman who keeps crashing the home of a happily married couple. It is great to watch Manville work her character. Also would've been happy with a nomination for Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right.

HERRINGTON: Noted Oscars historian that I am, I have to respond to your assertion that Annette Bening should have won Best Actress in 1999 for American Beauty. That was the year that Hilary Swank won for Boys Don't Cry, one of the times when the Academy Awards actually got something right. This calls for my new favorite hashtag, invented by New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul Wednesday in response to the Utah Jazz trading Deron Williams: #cmonson.

Best Actor
The Nominees: Javier Bardem (Biutiful), Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Colin Firth (The King's Speech), James Franco (127 Hours)

AKERS: This is another of the handful of locks come Oscar night, so I won't belabor the point. Will Win: Colin Firth.

Should Win: And I agree with the Academy in this category. Colin Firth is dynamite as the British royal with a speech impediment. (And if that sentence doesn't sound like it's describing an Oscar winner, you've never seen the show before.) He slips into the difficult King George VI role with apparent effortlessness — it somehow coming off very natural. Of the others: Bardem is pretty good in Biutiful, but lawd, the movie is a wet blanket. I like Bridges a lot — way better than his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart. He has a lot of fun with the Coens' dialogue. Eisenberg is fantastic as Facebook "founder" Mark Zuckerberg. Franco is really good, too, but unfortunately his director and screenwriter don't get out of the actor's way enough in letting him truly carry the movie like I think he could have.

Got Robbed: Leonardo DiCaprio should have gotten a lot more recognition for what he did in Inception. But I'll say George Clooney in The American got robbed the most. Like Franco in 127 Hours, Clooney is asked to essentially carry his movie. He does so in what is maybe his best film since Three Kings. Playing a professional assassin/gunmaker, Clooney doesn't ever talk much, but he commands the film like an elite quarterback, with looks and physical acting. Bravura.

One of the sure things: Colin Firth in The King's Speech:

HERRINGTON: Yep, you're right. Will Win: Colin Firth. The only other even viable option here is Jesse Eisenberg, whose character is not perceived as likable enough to really have a chance.

Should Win:I have no quarrel with Firth, really. It's a fine performance, much better than the movie it's in — or, rather, that performance pretty much is the movie. But in a not particularly overwhelming field, I'd choose Eisenberg.

Got Robbed: I think the best male performance of 2010 was given by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez as ’70s-era international terrorist Carlos "The Jackal" in French director Oliver Assayas' five-and-a-half hour, three-part biopic Carlos. This is one of the easiest calls on the board for me. To be honest, given that Carlos was initially produced or French television, I'm not sure about its Oscar eligibility. But that doesn't really matter. Ramirez could never be nominated, which just shows how little the Oscars really have to do with celebrating the best cinema. For an alternate pick that does exist within the Oscar-acknowledged universe, I'll rep for Paul Giamatti in Barney's Version.

AKERS: I can confirm that Edgar Ramirez and Carlos were ineligible for the Oscars since it first appeared on TV — French TV no less. The Oscars don't recognize things that don't happen in a prescribed pattern of regularity.

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