While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as a collective, isn't entirely incapable of surprises, it's gotten pretty easy for pundits to figure out what movies, performances, and other cinematic achievements will get shortlisted by this august body. Go back and look at people's predictions for this year, and you'll find most of them were – yawn – correct.
So while Annette Bening, Colin Firth, and Natalie Portman have spent the last several weeks weighing offers from designers who want their duds seen on the red carpet, here's an alphabetical list of some accomplished actors who, despite having done extraordinary work in 2010, will spend Oscar Night watching other people make speeches.
Jim Carrey in I Love You Phillip Morris: While this comedy was plagued with distribution issues that had nothing to do with its quality, it's a shame that more people weren't able to take in Carrey's noteworthy turn as a con artist who pulls scams and engineers jailbreaks, all in the name of love. It's the first time Carrey has successfully melded the manic comic energy that made him famous with the lovesick humanity he brought to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Truman Show.
Kieran Culkin in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: In a movie full of whiz-bang visual treats and otherworldly plot twists, Culkin's wonderfully dry portrayal of Scott's gay roommate Wallace provided lots of laughs as well as some welcome understatement. Firing off one deadpan bon mot after another – while also providing the lead character with guidance and assistance – Wallace was a delectably hilarious creation, and while the Academy recognizes comic performances in the supporting categories from time to time, this is not a movie that was on their radar.
Armie Hammer Jr. in The Social Network: The movie that's topping the most critics lists – and thus the one that everyone else is looking to take down – The Social Network is now reaping lots of Oscar noms, from David Fincher's directing to Aaron Sorkin's script to the lead performance by Jesse Eisenberg. Lost in the shuffle, besides an obvious snub of supporting player Andrew Garfield, is Hammer's dazzling turn as the Winklevi, arrogant Harvard preppies Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. And no, I didn't realize until the end of the movie that he was playing both of them, but that's not the only reason his performance is so spectacular. He creates a vivid brand of entitled young millionaire – the fact that he does it twice, always making it clear which one is which, makes his accomplishment that much more impressive.
Isabelle Huppert in White Material: In this fascinating look at the waning days of French colonialism in Africa, screen goddess Huppert makes us completely feel for her character – even though we know she's on the wrong side of history, and that her worldview is completely delusional. It's easy for actors to put us on their side when we agree with the politics of the person they're playing, but making us care about Huppert's doomed campaign to save her farm calls for some deft artistry. Even if Oscar voters had seen the film, they'd probably leave the screening feeling unclean about the actress' achievement.
Kim Hye-ja in Mother: Kim created one of the all-time great disturbing screen mommies in this Korean whodunit, as a woman so fanatically devoted to her mentally-challenged son that she will doggedly investigate the murder he's accused of committing – and even become a killer herself to protect her child. Under a seemingly innocent and innocuous façade, this is one steely, ruthless, manipulative mama. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association honored TV actress Kim for her singularly riveting turn, but the movie didn't make a big enough splash in the US for the Academy to notice.
Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right: Annette Bening has the showier of the film's two lesbian-mom roles, but Moore's work is just as impressive. It's hard to play a directionless adult without just coming off as a pampered twit, but Moore makes Jules feel believably adrift – she's spent nearly two decades raising children, and the impending spectre of empty nest syndrome puts the many chinks in her relationship into vivid relief. She and Bening play off each other perfectly, bringing the film's humor and its melancholy to the forefront.
Amanda Peet in Please Give: It's anyone's guess whether this actress just needed the right role or the right director, but there's no question that Peet has never been this good in a movie before now. Playing a dissatisfied aesthetician who enters into a misguided affair with married furniture dealer Oliver Platt, Peet takes what could have been a two-dimensional bitch and gives her both wit and gravitas. In one of the year's best films, surrounded by an extraordinary cast, she comes into her own as a screen presence.
Rosamund Pike in Made in Dagenham: Every so often, we get a performer who can sweep in for just a scene or two and completely captivate the audience, and Pike is one of those rare artists. While Dagenham is ostensibly about female employees going on strike, I left the movie thinking about Pike, playing a woman whose education is going to waste as the wife of an auto executive. As she did in last year's An Education, Pike takes her few minutes of screen time and completely immerses us into the character, and we miss her when she goes. Some director needs to give her a meaty lead role, and soon.
Tilda Swinton in I Am Love: Putting aside the accomplishment of a British actress performing an entire role in Russian-accented Italian, Swinton (or SWINTON, as they call her over at gofugyourself.com) does a great deal of heavy lifting in this sensual and operatic love story. So much of her character's infatuation with her son's best friend (a chef) has to be conveyed through her reactions, whether she's smelling wild herbs or savoring each bite of a scampi dish he has prepared for her. Everything the movie is about is in her performance, and she brings it all to life in the most evocative way possible. This was my single favorite piece of acting all year, but it's not going to get her to the Kodak Theater, sadly.
Kerry Washington in Night Catches Us: One of the most underappreciated actresses working in film today, Washington subtly captures the human side of a violent political movement in this period piece about the demise of the Black Panther Party. She stars as a lawyer and radical-left-leaning sympathizer who finds herself torn between her revolutionary past and the encroaching demands of the Me Decade, quietly forced to make tough decisions about taking care of herself and her daughter without completely losing her political ideals. This isn't a movie that announces what it's about, but the messages and the conflicts are clearly spelled out on Washington's face.