2010 Oscar Buzz: Which Actors Wowed Us?

PHOTO Natalie Portman in Darren Aronofsys "Black Swan."
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Along with family togetherness and holiday cheer, December brings a special bounty for film aficionados: movies with the sort of pedigree that may propel them to Oscar glory.

Who are the early contenders?

As always, the cinematic mix includes a motley group of characters and stories. But when these movies are superbly crafted and winningly acted, they can push audience's emotional buttons, change career trajectories, and impel Oscar voters to award the prized statuettes. James Franco and Anne Hathaway will co-host the 83rd Academy Awards telecast on February 27. In the meantime, here are some front runners:

Best Actress

Natalie Portman.

Natalie Portman: For MaryAnn Johanson, a movie critic and founder of the long-running www.flickfilosopher.com, Portman leads the list for her turn as the psychologically fragile ballerina in "Black Swan," the tour de force directed by Darren Aronofsky.

Sally Hawkins also has a good shot for her portrayal of a British factory worker who leads a strike for equal wages. "Hawkins' character undergoes a powerful transformation, which also evokes Sally Fields' Oscar-winning performance in 'Norma Rae,'" said Johanson, adding that her Golden Globe-winning performance in "Happy Go Lucky" makes Hawkins far from an unknown quantity.

Lesley Manville is another favorite for her role in "Another Year." "Manville's character is unhappily single – she's self-delusional, desperate lonely and clingy – but puts on a brave front," said Johanson. "It's a heartbreaking performance."

Nicole Kidman is also on Johanson's radar for playing the Oscar-bait grieving-mother role in "Rabbit Hole."

Michelle Williams plays a young wife whose marriage is disintegrating in "Blue Valentine."

Noomi Rapace may also have a shot for her work playing the facially grommeted punk hacker Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish movie "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." (Rapace also starred in the two subsequent films in the series.)

"You don't often see female characters like the one played by Rapace, who was a startling screen presence," said Johanson. "She made a huge impression on movie goers and probably on Academy members as well."

However, said Johanson, the fact that "Dragon Tattoo" contained subtitles may prove to be its undoing. "Academy voters often disregard foreign movies outside the 'foreign film' category," she said.

Best Actor

Colin Firth, who stars in "The King's Speech," is at the top of Johanson's men's list. Firth plays England's King George VI, who, trying to overcome the stammer he has had since childhood, becomes the student of a speech consultant with unorthodox methods.

"Firth's performance is amazing and even suspenseful, since we never know from one sentence to the next whether he'll even get his words out, and we feel mortified for him," said Johanson. "Firth's work illuminates a powerful story of human perseverance."

James Franco, who portrays outdoorsman Aron Ralston in "127 Hours," also ranked high with Johanson. Ralston frees his arm, which is trapped by a boulder, by amputating it.

"Franco's role, which is essential a one-man show, is about taking a big journey, and it's a marathon performance," said Johanson. "He carries the film."

Jeff Bridges also has a good chance at a nomination for his turn as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn – a role made famous by John Wayne – in "True Grit," in which a young girl hires Bridges to track her father's killer.

Jeff Bridges.

Other contenders include Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg – both as a hero and a villain – in "The Social Network," and Paul Giamatti, in "Barney's Version," who plays a television producer revisiting his past over several decades.

There's also Mark Wahlberg, as welterweight Micky Ward in the biopic "The Fighter," and Jim Broadbent in "Another Year." Johanson also cited Russell Crowe for his "very believable performance" in "The Next Three Days."

Best Picture

Johanson's best bets are two movies about not giving up – "The King's Speech" and "127 Hours."

Also on her list are "Black Swan," for its depiction of the ballet world in a totally unique way, and "The Social Network" for its "very of-the-moment way of peeling back the mystique about the Facebook phenomenon, a technology we use all the time."

Johanson also likes Oscar-nomination chances for "True Grit," "Made in Dagenham" and "Another Year," directed by Mike Leigh, who's an Academy favorite. "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "Toy Story 3" may also have a shot.

With so many possibilities, why are so many people, year after year, disappointed with the Oscar results?

"What's unfortunate is that winning an Oscar is not always about the performance or the work," said Johanson. "What often determines who gets the statue is voters' deciding to make up for slights years earlier. Instead of giving the award to the right actor back then, they often wait for that actor's next role, and give them the Oscar belatedly."

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