Richard Jenkins, Frank Langella, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Mickey Rourke

Richard Jenkins, ‘The Visitor’

With a soft-voiced honesty that feels like he’s scooping out his insides, college professor Walter Vale reveals to Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) over a romantic dinner why he can suddenly devote all his time to help her illegal-alien son’s plight. “I pretend that I’m busy, that I’m working, that I’m writing,” he admits, Jenkins’s blue eyes turning into pools of vulnerability and shame. “I’m not doing anything.”

Frank Langella, ‘Frost/Nixon’

On the night before a high-stakes TV interview turns to the contentious issue of Watergate, an introspective yet combative ex-president Nixon drunk-dials his on-camera adversary, David Frost. But what comes out in Langella’s fierce, proud portrayal is a confessional to a perceived comrade in outsiderdom, of deep-seated anger at a lifetime of slights. “Isn’t that why we’re here now?” Nixon moodily suggests. “Looking for a way back into the sun?”

Sean Penn, ‘Milk’

In the wake of a dispiriting gay rights loss in Florida, angry crowds in San Francisco threaten to grow unruly until Penn’s aspiring politician Harvey Milk grabs a microphone and helps turn a mob into a movement. “Anita Bryant brought us together!” he proclaims with grit, fire and — thanks to Penn’s exquisite understanding of the ebullient compassion that made Milk a national hero — a beaming, life-affirming smile.

Brad Pitt, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’

As age and youth course through his body on separate trajectories, Pitt brings cautious gravity to the middle-aged Button as he visits a frenetic Daisy (Cate Blanchett) backstage at a Broadway show. But her sexualized spiritedness still feels out of synch to his old-fashioned, suit-and-tie romanticism, and suddenly a hopeful lover becomes something akin to a misunderstood guardian. “I’m happy for you,” he says regretfully, paternalistically, as she runs off with a new man.

Mickey Rourke, ‘The Wrestler’

In a scene that has the added weight of a long-missing movie star’s where-have-I-been testimony, the titular character — forced into post-heart bypass retirement — tries to patch things up with the daughter he left behind. “I used to try to pretend that you didn’t exist, but I can’t,” he chokes out, while Rourke’s misshapen mug softens like magic into something raw and recognizable, an actor’s instrument all over again.

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