Vanessa Redgrave sparkled in 'Letters to Juliet'

I love awards season, though deep down I don’t believe “best” is really applicable to any creative endeavor. (Who’s “best,” Mozart, Verdi or Beethoven? Rembrandt, Picasso, Matisse? They’re all pretty darn good.)

Even given the elusive nature of “best,” there were some surprises when Oscar noms were unveiled Tuesday. But for me one of the biggest annual shocks is the great film work that doesn’t stir awards talk.

For example, Vanessa Redgrave in Summit’s “Letters to Juliet.”

“Letters” is a nice little film about a spunky American (Amanda Seyfried) who helps a Brit (Redgrave) find the Italian lover she abandoned 50 years ago, a man named Lorenzo Bartolini. They find dozens of men with the same name, and drive around meeting all of them (for some reason, they don’t ever phone ahead, but never mind). With each potential matchup, Redgrave mixes radiant excitement with fragile disappointment, but somehow makes each encounter unique. And 75 minutes into the film, they find the right Lorenzo (Franco Nero), and in just a few wordless seconds, Redgrave registers 50 years of longing and loss transforming into joy.

How does she do that? Acting!

A well-written role does half of an actor’s job. The real test comes if an actor can make a slight role seem like a great one, which is why her work in “Juliet” is so impressive.

Certainly Redgrave has had some great film roles. She earned the first of six Oscar noms with 1966′s “Morgan” but in 1968 proved she was in a class by herself, with Universal’s Karel Reisz-directed “Isadora” and Sidney Lumet’s version of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” (The latter can be downloaded at wbshop.com, but “Isadora” is frustratingly unavailable and just waiting to be rediscovered).

And she’s done memorable work onstage — “Orpheus Descending” was one of the most astounding performances I’ve ever seen — and on TV, including “Playing for Time” (1980), “Second Serve” (1986) and “If These Walls Could Talk 2″ (2000). And with just a few minutes of screen time in “Venus” (2006) and “Atonement” (2007), she proves she’s gotten even better with age.

Is Redgrave the greatest actor alive? As I said, I don’t believe in superlatives. But let’s put it this way: If there’s anyone better, I haven’t seen them.

But she is obviously not alone in great-but-unheralded 2010 work. Leonardo DiCaprio created two characters that had some similarities but were quite distinct (and powerful) in “Inception” and “Shutter Island.” Like Redgrave, George Clooney in “The American” was an example of maximum impact with minimum dialogue. Jim Carrey was remarkable in a difficult role in “I Love You, Phillip Morris.” And there should be a special category for actors who can make a big impression with only a few scenes, such as “Morris’s” Antoni Corone and Griff Furst.

Also worth noting from 2010: Guy Pearce in “The King’s Speech”; Dale Dickey as Thump’s scary wife in “Winter’s Bone”; Khalid Abdalla as the U.S.’s wary Iraqi ally in “Green Zone”; and Dustin Hoffman in “Barney’s Version.” Did any of them stir awards talk? Not much.

Obviously, there was notable work beyond acting. That includes “Let Me In” for its writing and direction (Matt Reeves), cinematography (Greig Fraser) and music (Michael Giacchino). And Reeves was just one of the writer-directors worth recognizing. That list also includes David Michod, “Animal Kingdom” (which also includes Guy Pearce); J Blakeson, “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”; and Todd Solondz, “Life During Wartime.”

And let’s not forget Marie-Helene Sulmoni’s production design for “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky,” with costumes by Chattoune and Fab. (You think it’s easy to design everyday wear and homes for Coco Chanel?!).

A pair of Universal period pics featured noteworthy production design and cinematography: “Robin Hood” (Arthur Max and John Mathieson, respectively); and “The Wolfman” (Rick Heinrichs and Shelly Johnson). Both also offered striking elements that don’t fit into any Oscar categories, such as their great closing credits.

And worth mentioning were the opening credits on “Letters to Juliet.” Which brings us back to where we started.

So you tell me: Was any of this work the year’s “best”?

Yes. No. Maybe. But it was certainly worth remembering.

Want to comment or suggest a topic? Email timothy.gray@variety.com

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