By Daniel J. Hoag

The 83rd Academy Awards are here, and though this race is all but over, you can still take a look at the Haiku Review’s Oscar Spotlight focusing on the category of Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Javier Bardem is no stranger to Oscar: this is his third nomination, and he won Best Supporting Actor a few years back for his memorable performance as the psychopathic Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.  And if going to a dark place for that role weren’t enough, Bardem practically drowns in bleakness for his role in Biutiful, a nominee for Best Foreign Film.  Bardem plays Uxbal, a single father from Barcelona who is dying a painful death from cancer, unable to trust the futures of his children to his emotionally unstable, alcoholic ex-wife.  As if that weren’t miserable enough, he’s surrounded by the hard knock lives of illegal immigrants he traffics in (for money), many of whom suffer poverty, slave wages, sweatshop working conditions, deportation, and gruesome death.  And he kinda sees dead people.  Through it all Bardem wears sorrow and hopelessness like an old sweater, frayed and sagging from age.  But as bleak and distubing as the movie is around him, Bardem’s performance is, indeed, beautiful–no matter how you spell it.

Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Having just taken home the trophy for his performance as a washed-up, alcoholic country-western singer in Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges finds himself nominated for the big prize once again, but for playing a different kind of Western star.  As Rooster Cogburn (a role that earned John Wayne his only Oscar), Bridges gets to embody another washed-up alcoholic, but one with a higher body count and an itchier trigger finger.  Hired by a young girl to capture the wanted criminal who murdered her father, Cogburn gets to shoot first and crack-wise later, and Bridges brings a surly, thick-blooded charm to the part.  For all its action, True Grit is actually quite a funny movie, a that’s due in large part to Bridge’s bullseye acting job.

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network 
Jesse Eisenberg has turned in great performances before, from Zombieland to Roger Dodger, but as Facebook founding Internet titan Mark Zuckerberg, he finally gets the recognition he deserves.  Eisenberg puts that quiet, nerdy charm to good use, and even manages to bring out a devilish side as well.  His Zuckerberg is a layered portrayal of a genius without humility, but Eisenberg gets us to see his humanity and even root for him at times.  In a year without Colin Firth, Eisenberg would be taking home the gold.  But this year, he’ll just have to settle for stardom.

Colin Firth, The King’s Speech 
What can be said about Colin Firth’s performance in The King’s Speech that hasn’t already been said.  With a quiet humor and ease of charm, Firth turned Speech from what could have been a stodgy period piece into the crowd-pleasing feel-good movie of the year.  As King George VI, a monarch who needed to lead his country into World War II but was badly afflicted with a speech impediment (and at times a lack of confidence), Firth gives the performance of a lifetime.  Playing a character with a stammer is the kind of Oscar-bait material that easily wins awards, but Firth manages to surpass the gimmicky aspect of the role and bring out such a well-rounded and downright loveable individual, that you can’t help but hold your breath every time he needs to speak to more than a handful of people.  At the Oscars, you can count on Firth getting to make another royal speech.

James Franco, 127 Hours
Hollywood’s resident jack-of-all-trades still finds time to give great performances in between his writing, his degree collection, and the other creative outlets in which he’s keen to experiment.  In 127 Hours, Franco shines as Aron Ralston, the real-life outdoorsman whose arm was crushed under a bolder for five days in the middle of nowhere before he had to cut it off to survive.  Thanks to some terrific direction by Danny Boyle and Franco’s stellar acting, the movie is an exhilarating, uplifitng story of survival and the importance of social connectivity.  Watching Ralston self-amputate is gruesome, but Franco’s hilarious, head-trippy interview with himself is probably the most memorable scene in the movie.  We can’t wait to see what Franco can do next.

Who deserves to win?  There no doubt that frontrunner Colin Firth will be making the Oscar speech tonight, and that suits the Haiku Review just fine.