Matt Damon – “Invictus”
Damon bulked up impressively and mastered the Afrikaans accent to portray South African rugby star Francois Pienaar and delivered some impassioned speeches. But his finest work was more subtle: In a scene following Pienaar’s first meeting with Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), he’s asked by his racist father about South Africa’s new president. Francois delicately balances his positive impressions of Mandela with a desire not to offend or upend his family’s preconceptions.
Woody Harrelson – “The Messenger”
Harrelson’s struggling alcoholic Capt. Tony Stone adheres to dry protocol when advising civilians they’ve lost family members to the Iraq War. Yet his crass, womanizing facade disintegrates late in the film when partner-in-tragedy Will (Ben Foster) relates an anecdote of casual devastation during wartime. Will leaves the room and, crushed by the weight of his assignment, Stone wrestles with his emotions until he can fight them no more, and breaks down, bawling.
Christopher Plummer – “The Last Station”
Though “The Last Station” centers around Plummer’s character, Russian novelist-philosopher Leo Tolstoy, it focuses most on those who influenced and manipulated him, including wife Sofya (lead actress nominee Helen Mirren). At a key moment, they argue vociferously about whether his estate should benefit his family or his countrymen. Fearing she’s losing the argument, she threatens to kill herself, and he drolly and angrily responds, “You don’t need a husband, you need a Greek chorus.”
Stanley Tucci – “The Lovely Bones”
Tucci generally plays sharp-witted characters, but for “The Lovely Bones,” he transformed himself into a Paul Giamattiesque sad sack who’s also a serial killer — a role he first thought about turning down. In the film’s key scene, Harvey’s gasping, seething efforts to cajole 14-year-old Susie (Saoirse Ronan) into what he posits as a cool teen hangout, albeit with aging board games and kitschy figurines, reveals him as pathetic, touchingly out of touch and consummately creepy.
Christoph Waltz – “Inglourious Basterds”
announced his intentions to walk away with Quentin Tarantino’s audacious World War II epic early on in the film. In a tense, protracted scene, his Col. Hans Landa empathetically yet ruthlessly interrogated a French farmer about some Jews on the lam and, after learning their whereabouts, casually orders their massacre. Waltz deftly melds Landa’s seemingly contradictory qualities — keen intellectual rigor and sadism — into a fascinating whole.