While there were a few notable snubs in this field (Andrew Garfield’s brooding turn in The Social Network and Niels Arestrup’s bone-chilling prisoner in A Prophet come to mind), this year’s crop of Best Supporting Oscar nominees are a strong sampling of the best in this field. Were it not for one actor’s certain dominance in this category, this might make for one of the most compelling awards to watch for on Sunday night. Christian Bale leads off a strong pack of nominees, highlighting a diverse array of films and actors for this year’s Best Supporting Actor award.

Christian Bale, The Fighter – Forget for a minute that he dropped over 50 pounds to play the infamous Dicky Eklund, and forget the months of starvation and mental anquish needed to get the part physically right. Bale’s gaudy portrait of the crack-addicted brother up and coming boxing star Micky Ward, But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this role that Bale all but crashes into: A broken hearted brother, a maligned ex-con and a notorious loser who just can’t seem to get his stride back, Bale fuses all the labels Dicky’s been saddled with all his life into one flawless, historic character portrait. A solid performance and a sure lock for this year’s Best Supporting Actor statue.

Jeremy Renner, The Town – Or, as I like to call it, “The Winner if Christian Bale Hadn’t Taken That Part in The Fighter”. Renner’s performance jumps out at the viewer from the moment he saunters onto screen. He’s terrifying and mesmerizing, mostly owing to Renner’s acute ability to impart every character he plays with so many layers it takes at least two or three viewings to notice all the subtle ticks and affects he brings to this role. No, he won’t win this year, but he will someday, if his agent keeps him in meaty parts he can sink these teeth into, instead of the typical action/thriller schlock emerging stars like him typically get dumped in.

Geoffrey Rush The King’s Speech For every film on this list that is showy or loud, there’s always one that stands out in it’s seeming un-showiness. He’s not a drug addict kicking and screaming his way through a crowd of cops, he’s not a cold-blooded villain or a disengenous louse. He’s a refined, arist, who in many ways, has a bigger battle to fight than all the other characters on this list. Methodical, patient, yet emphatically passionate, Rush brings his trademark brand of cocky, dry wit to the role. Perhaps you remember this infamous exchange, when Rush, as Logue, derides the King’s former therapists:

“They’re idiots.”
“They’ve all been knighted.”
“Makes it official then.”

Only Rush with his smarmy glare and luggish charm could deliver that line with such perfectly droll glee. While he’s more of a long shot to beat Bale for this, it should be noted that more than a few critics have dubbed this the best performance in the category for this year.

John Hawkes Winter’s Bone Yes, the janitor from Buffy The Vampire Slayer is an Oscar nominee! As the menacing, but surprisingly loyal Uncle Teardrop, Hawkes is more terrifying than any demon from the Hell Mouth. Playing foil to Jennifer Lawrence’s unflinchingly driven Ree, Hawkes meanders the moral wasteland of the film, shifting from murderous drug dealer to furious protector, with little more than a subtle facial tick. (And, yes, yes, stop emailing me, I know how awesome he is as Dustin Powers in Eastbound and Down.) It’s a great feeling as a film critic or true movie afficiando so see the likes of a John Hawkes break out of the unknown in such a bold, glorious way. Riding a tidal wave of critical affection and the darling of pop-culture geeks? Remind anyone else of Kevin Spacey’s post-Glengarry Glen Ross days? Hawkes is unlikely to walk away with his first Oscar here, but like Spacey, he’s primed to build a huge career off of this buzz, and the giddy admiration true fans have for his downright inspired character creations.

Mark Ruffalo The Kids Are Alright Ruffalo always seems to be the actor who’s the best thing about a terrible movie, and when he’s in a great movie, he’s even better. As the sperm donor father of Joni and Laster, Ruffalo provides a huge shot of adrenalin to an otherwise darker, more sluggish script. While this might be Ruffalo’s  best role ever (perhaps aside from his breakout performance in You Can Count On Me), it’s not his year to win, or even place or show.

Road to the Oscars Series:

January 27: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 29: Animated Short – Savanna New

January 31: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 1: Documentary Feature – Rebecca Rose

February 3: Foreign Language Film – Savanna New

February 4: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 7: Visual Effects – Ani Khashadoorian

February 9: Sound Mixing – Dennis Callahan

February 10: Sound Editing – Sasha Mitchell

February 11: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 12: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 13: Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 14: Costume – Jax Russo

February 15: Art Direction – Steve Neumann

February 16: Film Editing – Hannah Depew

February 17: Cinematography – William Paul Jones

February 18: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 19: Adapted Screenplay – Sasha Mitchell

February 20: Supporting Actress – Kacy Boccumini

February 21: Supporting Actor – Rebecca Rose

February 22: Actress – Rebecca Rose

February 23: Actor – Kit Bowen

February 24: Director – Adam Spunberg

February 25: Picture – Kit Bowen

February 27: The Academy Awards