As I’ve intonated in other posts and podcasts, this past year’s movies haven’t inspired true greatness as in other Best Picture years (and I’ll delve into that in more detail in a few days). But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some stellar performances, evident in the 2011 Best Actor crop.

Here’s a breakdown:

Demian Bichir – A Better LifeNominated for: Bichir turns in a tortured performance as the gardener Carlos, an illegal Mexican immigrant trying to give his teenage son “A Better Life” in Los Angeles.

Award-Worthy: Although a well-known actor in his native Mexico, this is Bichir first Oscar nomination. He is best known to American audiences for playing the drug lord who falls for Mary Louise Parker in the Showtime series Weeds.

Interesting Fact: For one of the memorable scenes in A Better Life, Bichir had to scale a tall palm tree without the aid of machinery. “In any group of gardeners, there’s one guy who does that,” Bichir told EW. “He has to be the most fit, he has to be fearless and he has to believe in God. Because you’re really risking your life.”

The Consensus: Bichir may not take home the Oscar this time, but all the attention may put him on the map for future bigger roles – or maybe more big-screen villains (see Jean Dujardin).
 

George Clooney – The DescendantsNominated for: In The Descendants, Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian native who has been a somewhat distant husband and father. But when his wife is put into a coma after a serious boating accident, his life unravels; especially once he discovers she was cheating on him.

Award-Worthy: This is Clooney’s seventh Oscar nomination. He shares an Adapted Screenplay nod this year for The Ides of March, and won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Syriana in 2005. He’s received two previous Best Actor noms for the 2007’s Michael Clayton and 2009’s Up in the Air, as well as nods for Director and Original Screenplay for Good Night, and Good Luck.

Interesting Fact: Although The Descendants is the first time Clooney worked with director Alexander Payne, the actor tried to be in Payne’s film Sideways, but was turned down for being too big a star. The part went to Thomas Haden Church, who scored an Oscar nod for it.

The Consensus: Clooney may be in a close race with The Artist’s Jean Dujardin, but I’m still siding with George to take the award. He moves out his comfort zone ever so slightly in The Descendants, playing awkward and outraged all in one look — and hands us one of his most complex characters to date. Yes, in Syriana, Clooney went against his usual type, earning him his first Oscar, but as Matt King, an older, wiser, more nuanced Clooney has emerged.
 

Jean Dujardin – The ArtistNominated for: The Artist spotlights Dujardin as the wildly popular and charismatic silent film star George Valentin – a star generous to those hungry actors looking for a break. Yet, when Valentin suddenly finds himself on the outs as “talkies” take over at the Cineplex, he spirals into depression, only to be saved by a lady in white.

Award-Worthy: This is Dujardin’s first Oscar nomination, despite receiving accolades in his native France.

Interesting Fact: Although he starred in a silent film, Dujardin still had to speak his lines – in whatever language he wanted. He told EW, “Sometimes I acted in English, sometimes French. And sometimes, I was just speaking complete gibberish.”

The Consensus: Dujardin is gaining all the buzz right now with his turn as Valentin. I mean, what a face! Having to carry the entire film with his wonderful expressions, undulating eyebrows and gorgeous smile, Jean should be given his due. Although I’m not betting on him, he has a strong shot at taking the gold. Check out this hilarious FunnyorDie spoof of where his career might go from here:

Jean Dujardin’s Villain Auditions from Jean Dujardin

 
 

Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyNominated for: In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Oldman stars as John le Carré’s protagonist, British spy George Smiley, who, during the height of the Cold War, is pulled out of semi-retirement to ferret out a Russian mole in the MI6.

Award-Worthy: As hard as this is to believe, this is Oldman’s first Oscar nomination.

Interesting Fact: Oldman was surprised to find out Tinker, Tailor director Tomas Alfredson specifically wanted him for the role of Smiley. Gary said to EW, “It was an almost supernatural event because nowadays you are always one of five actors on the list.”

The Consensus: Look, the fact Oldman made the list after so many great performances is a feat in of itself. Unfortunately, he won’t win this time (that’ll most likely be later, for some more insignificant role) but finally, this underrated actor is getting some Oscar love.
 

Brad PittNominated for: Pitt plays Moneyball’s former Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who tried putting together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to draft his players.

Award-Worthy: This is Pitt’s third Oscar nomination. He made the Best Actor list for his turn in the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and scored a Best Supporting Actor nod for 1995’s 12 Monkeys.

Interesting Fact: Brad admitted to EW, “I’m a big sports fan, but not necessarily baseball,” but said he liked the idea of Moneyball because, “These guys were questioning from ground zero the way we do things and tearing that apart and starting from scratch — and then going up against a system that became quite antagonistic to that questioning. I’m a sucker for an underdog story.”

The Consensus: Pitt consistently hands in good performances in almost everything he does, but, like his good pal George Clooney, there’s something more mature about his turn as Beane in Moneyball. There’s a cockiness and ease, but underneath a determination to make this unorthodox plan work. Pitt should be on the Oscar list again – and maybe next time he’ll win.
 

Road to the Oscars Series

January 27: Best Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 31: Best Animated Short – Savanna New

February 1: Best Documentary Short – Christa Youngpeter

February 2: Best Documentary – Dantzler Smith

February 3: Best Foreign Language Film – Steve Neumann

February 4: Best Visual Effects – Michael Benedict

February 5: Best Sound Editing – Michael Benedict

February 6: Best Sound Mixing – Joseph Doherty

February 7: Best Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 8: Best Costume Design – Jax Russo

February 9: Best Art Direction – Scott Youngbauer

February 10: Best Film Editing – Michael Benedict

February 11: Best Cinematography – Scott Youngbauer

February 12: Best Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 13: Best Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 14: Best Animated Feature Film – Steve Neumann

February 15: Best Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Best Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Best Supporting Actor – Joseph Doherty

February 18: Best Supporting Actress – Angela Stern

February 20: Best Actress – Andrew Payne

February 21: Best Actor – Kit Bowen

February 22: Best Director – Andrew Payne

February 23: Best Picture – Kit Bowen