Nominations hail filmmaking's go-to guys

Matt Damon
Thesp’s got game in “Invictus”

WHY HE’LL WIN: As one of Hollywood’s more versatile above-the-line actors, Damon brings immersive verisimilitude to nearly every role, and his South African rugby team captain is no exception, a portrait of internalized pressure and outward leadership that helps lift “Invictus” above most sports movies. Sometimes the Academy likes giving stars their acting props for supporting turns (Clooney, Nicholson), and Damon could find himself a similar beneficiary.

MAYBE NOT: Pic doesn’t have the oomph of other Academy-nominated films (no best picture nod, for one thing). Plus, Damon’s avoidance of rah-rah sports-pic overacting makes this a less flashy turn than usual for a nominated performance.

CRITIC’S QUOTE: “Most of Damon’s screen time is spent in training or on the field, and it’s meant as highest praise to say that, if he weren’t a recognizable film star, you’d never think he were anything other than a South African rugby player,” says Variety’s Todd McCarthy.

Woody Harrelson
“The Messenger” player delivers

WHY HE’LL WIN: Harrelson, long an underrated thesp, works a delicate juggling act of boisterous charm, quiet intelligence and tamped-down hurt to play a bereavement-notification specialist, Army Capt. Tony Stone. And the film’s well-explored milieu of disciplined men encountering the undisciplined feelings of grieving loved ones has a resonance that Harrelson’s performance embodies superbly.

MAYBE NOT: With “The Messenger” as the war-related movie in the shadow of that other Iraq-themed film, “The Hurt Locker,” voters could feel battle fatigue.

CRITIC’S QUOTE: “Mr. Harrelson, using his natural affability as a mask for his character’s pain and insecurity, has never been better,” says A.O. Scott of the New York Times.

Christopher Plummer
“The Last Station” role gives vet his first Oscar nom

WHY HE’LL WIN: Without flinching, the 80-year-old Plummer tackles a great artist in Leo Tolstoy and finds the flesh, blood, mind, heart and contradictions in the role, rather than playing the “greatness.” Still one of the world’s most accomplished actors, recognizing this master of stage and screen after decades of galvanizing performances may be hard for voters to resist.

MAYBE NOT: With period films, real-figure roles and death scenes comes a certain predictability in terms of Oscar acceptance, which may point voters elsewhere. “The Last Station” also suffers from a certain lack of momentum this Oscar season.

CRITIC’S QUOTE: “In ‘The Last Station,’ Christopher Plummer, at the crest of a long career, gives an impassioned portrait of the artist as an old man — Leo Tolstoy in his 80s, imposing, stentorian, and almost alarmingly active,” says David Denby, the New Yorker.

Stanley Tucci
Chillingly killer perf in “The Lovely Bones”

WHY HE’LL WIN: Given the unforgiving role of a man who violates and murders a young girl, Tucci eschews psycho signposts and grippingly, intelligently shows how such a secretive killer could hide in plain sight. Plus, voters might admire Tucci’s long-standing rep as a reliably forceful screen presence, and want to honor the best part of a mostly unloved film.

MAYBE NOT: Since many found “The Lovely Bones” wanting, Tucci has an uphill battle to win recognition. Add the fact that he’s playing such an ultimately loathsome and all-too-tactilely creepy human might work against him as well.

CRITIC’S QUOTE: “Tucci plays the killer not with a madman’s sneers and cackles but with a quiet malevolence; he’s never more ice-shivery than when he’s pretending to be normal,” says Richard Corliss, Time.

Christoph Waltz
“Inglourious Basterds” villain has racked up numerous kudos alreadh

WHY HE’LL WIN: From the moment he first appeared onscreen in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” as the outwardly calm, inwardly calculating Nazi Col. Hans Landa, it was clear where the film’s center of gravity lay, and Waltz controlled the atmosphere like a seasoned maestro. Plus, he’s won every award under the sun (Cannes, Golden Globe, SAG, L.A. and New York critics) on the way to Oscar night.

MAYBE NOT: All those front-running prize wins sometimes spell an upset. Or perhaps the notion of a role written so obviously to dominate a film — and which arguably could have been under consideration as a lead — might send Academy voters to a more truly supporting turn.

CRITIC’S QUOTE: “He creates a character unlike any Nazi — indeed, anyone at all — I’ve seen in a movie: evil, sardonic, ironic, mannered, absurd,” says Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.

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