The nominee: Michael Shannon (Best Supporting Actor, Revolutionary Road)
How good is he? Shannon’s take on unfiltered outpatient John Givings is a movie-stealing turn that transcends the usual mentalist cliches for cold, clear humanity. He might see through the façade, but living in his world is no better…
What are the chances? Pretty good. Shannon takes a flatly written character and makes him full and rich and edgy. Didn’t go full retard, either – always good for Oscar hopes.
But - one word… Heath.
The nominee is: Melissa Leo (Best Actress, Frozen River)
How good is she? Incredibly good. As a small-town single mom out to better her childrens’ lives at any cost, she’s none more real and raw. She goes for a locked-in style – understated, wise and wary.
What are the chances? Middling. It’ll be tough to check the Winslet momentum and her nom has the token feel of Ryan Gosling’s recognition for a similarly human/humane performance in Half Nelson.
The nominee is: Milk (Best Picture)
How good is it? A middle-of-the-road biopic elevated by smart production design and two terrific performances – from Sean Penn and Josh Brolin.
What are the chances? Good. It might seem a little dour in the flash company of Slumdog and Button, but the liberal Academy might just swoon for the story of a liberal martyr. Anyone suspecting one movie to own the night needs to pay attention to the hints of lateral choices at the Oscar pre-awards luncheon.
The nominee is: Richard Jenkins (Best Actor, The Visitor)
How good is he? The Six Feet Under vet’s first lead role - as a widowed professor experiencing a reawakening - is, as writer-director Todd McCarthy says, “effortless – you don’t see the acting.”
What are the chances? Depends on whether the Academy are prepared to join hands for the Mickey Rourke comeback love-in. We hope they do but suspect they won’t (Rourke’s high-maintenance rep hasn’t banked much goodwill with the notoriously incestuous academy). Jenkins is totalfilm.com’s choice for surprise of the night.
The nominee is: Viola Davis (Doubt)
How good is she? While Amy Adams, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman fuss and fight about the possible abuse of an altar boy, Davis simmers as the boy’s conflicted mother. Her plain speaking is in refreshing contrast to the flailing theatrics of her co-stars.
What are the chances? In a year of showy, actorly nominations, Davis might just take it on simplicity alone – and the Supporting Actress category is the most open of the year.
The nominee is: In Bruges (Best Original Screenplay)
How good is it? A beautifully constructed tragi-comedy that draws smart – and sweary - new angles from the buddy-pic schtick. As two hitmen marooned in Belgium, Brendan Gleeson shines and Colin Farrel sparkles – all thanks to Martin McDonagh’s fiery and funny screenplay.
What are the chances? Pretty good. It’s exactly the kind of intimate, potty-mouthed, Euro, men-together comedy loved in the US (see Withnail & I) and its nearest rival – Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky – isn’t even an original screenplay (it’s semi-improvised).