The must-see performances before the 2011 Oscars

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush carry "The King's Speech," as both performances are bettered by the other.

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush carry "The King's Speech," as both performances are bettered by the other.

The 83rd Academy Awards are this Sunday evening and in the running for the night’s top awards are some of the best performances of the year. The acting categories are particularly strong this year, and if you want to be prepared to make predictions in your office Oscar pool, there are some performances you need to see before the ceremony. Here’s a quick guide:


Hailee Steinfeld makes her feature film debut as Mattie Ross, the stern, but vulnerable girl out to avenge her father's death in "True Grit."

Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”

If you haven’t seen the Coen brothers’ melancholy and truly entertaining Western (nominated for 10 Oscars), you are probably asking yourself, “Who is Hailee Steinfeld?” Don’t feel bad, until about two months ago, nobody else knew the young actress either. The film’s casting directors auditioned 15,000 different girls to find the perfect mix of confidence and naiveté before finally choosing 13-year old Steinfeld to play lead character Mattie Ross.

How she ended up in the Supporting Actress category is a matter of Oscar politics, but this previously unknown actress more than holds her own with veteran Oscar nominees Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Even though she is saddled with mouthfuls of Biblical dialogue and a very specific late 19th century cadence, her pluckiness and petulant nature never seems forced.


Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”

She’s been nominated once before (2004’s “Closer”), but Portman has never been as emotionally (and physically) tortured as she is in Darren Aronofsky’s go-for-broke horror flick. Besides training five hours a day, six days a week to play a ballerina obsessed with perfection, Portman had to access some pretty dark places. Her insecurity manifests itself in all kinds of nightmarish ways, and Portman’s journey is ours. Being both the victim and the tormentor is tricky, and Portman’s mental breakdown, despite all its over-the-top genre trappings, is scary, cathartic, believable, and ultimately heartbreaking.


The Associated Press

Natalie Portman dedicated herself to her role both physically and mentally, making her character's eventual breakdown all the more tragic.

Christian Bale, “The Fighter”

Speaking of over the top, Bale proves that method acting can be not just transformative, but also gloriously fun to watch in David O. Russell’s riveting family drama with boxing as the backdrop. In a Spin magazine interview from 1996, Bale said "An actor should never be larger than the film he's in," but he steals the movie as the crack-addicted former pro boxer intent on reliving his glory days. If you stuck around to see the real Dicky Ecklund in the closing credits, however, you saw that British Bale might have even underplayed his hyperactive, Boston-accented subject. It’s one of the reasons he’ll be going home with an Oscar Sunday night.


Jesse Eisenberg's turn as Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" brought a darkness and anger to the Facebook founder.

Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”

Eisenberg may be known for playing introverted outcasts, but Aaron Sorkin’s version of Mark Zuckerberg is a multi-layered monster in jeans and a hoodie. Fueled by bitterness and exclusion, he takes his obsession with social strata to a new level and creates the most important website of our time. Eisenberg not only spits out mouthfuls of the best-written dialogue in years like it was nothing, he deftly characterizes the fears and hopes of an entire generation.


Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush carry "The King's Speech," as both performances are bettered by the other.

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”

This Best Picture frontrunner hinges completely on Firth’s performance as King George VI, the monarch with a debilitating stammer who led his country into World War II through a series of radio broadcasts. The King’s inner struggle is powerful stuff and the stammer produces huge amounts of frustration behind the actor’s eyes, but it’s the relationship with Rush’s unorthodox speech therapist that forms the heart and soul of the film. British royalty was not allowed to develop the kind of friendship and trust that is portrayed in “The King’s Speech,” but without it, the psychological trauma that led to the King’s condition could never have been tackled. In other words, without Firth and Rush, the movie doesn’t work.


verity 11 years, 11 months ago

The only one I've seen is "Black Swan." I thought the movie was not believable---too many of the characters just were not believable. I was surprised that Mila Kunis was in it---she always seemed like such a lightweight actor and in this movie she didn't seem to be a serious enough dancer to even be in a national troupe let alone second to the lead. I found Portman to be so unlikable in the movie (as were most of the other characters) that in the end I really didn't care much what happened to her. She had the same distressed look on her face the whole time, never smiled or did anything to make one empathize with her.

Also didn't think it was much of a thriller and my standards are pretty low on that. Just a few kind of gross scenes.

I do credit Portman with the work she did to prepare for the movie. She was very creditable as a dancer. I think the fault lay with the director, not with her.

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