Best Actor: Is Jean Dujardin locked or is it really a three-horse race?

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Today we cover Best Actor for the Oscars. Let’s get right to the point.

And the nominees are:
Demián Bichir, “A Better Life”
George Clooney, “The Descendants”
Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
Gary Oldman, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”

Who will win? When critics were handing out their prizes earlier in the awards season, it felt like there were three actors fighting for frontrunner status – Clooney, Dujardin, and Pitt. The unexpected acclaim for “Moneyball,” both from critics and audiences, combined with Brad Pitt’s magnificent year, in terms of reaching new heights as an actor, caused many Oscar pundits to believe it would be his year. But then “The Descendants” opened, and its warm reception shifted the attention to Clooney. On top of that, the vigorous campaign the Weinstein Company launched on behalf of “The Artist” placed Dujardin in the spotlight, overshadowing Pitt even more. Pitt’s momentum resurfaced when he won three of the five major critic awards (Boston, New York, and NSFC), but it died down again when the precursors rolled in. Where does everything stand then? Clooney has a Golden Globe (Drama) and the Critics’ Choice Award. Dujardin also has a Golden Globe (Musical/Comedy), the BAFTA and the Screen Actors Guild Award. Pitt only has those critic prizes, which are already fading from voters’ memories. If Dujardin were a Hollywood star, he’d be locked in for the win, given the admiration for his work, his charisma, and the plethora of awards he’s earned. But Clooney is a star, and he also has the appeal, the acclaimed performance and only one precursor less than Dujardin. Even so, I say that the Old-Hollywood nature of “The Artist” reminding old Academy voters — and there are a lots of them — of a golden era in cinema will propel Dujardin to a win.

Possible spoiler: If the Academy is very evenly split between Dujardin and Clooney, the final tally could make room for a Pitt-upset (a similar thing happened in 2002). His performance is just as hailed as those of Clooney and Dujardin, and the Academy really got on board with “Moneyball” (it earned six nods). The actors branch is the biggest section within the Academy by a large margin, and judging by the nominations they loved “Moneyball” (so much so that they gave Jonah Hill a nomination whereas they snubbed Shailene Woodley from “The Descendants”). Could that mean anything?

Who should win? The admiration for Clooney’s performance is baffling in many ways, mostly because his turn in “The Descendants” has been dubbed career-best work when he’s delivered better work in other films. I know his character calls for a quiet performance, but quiet doesn’t mean boring, and Clooney just feels dull throughout the movie. Moreover, the climactic scene with his wife at the end felt cheap and forced, which only lowers his effect. Much more respectable is Oldman, who approaches his role with serious conviction and produces admirable work; but he’s delivered far superior work before, and there were even worthier performances in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” that demanded more attention and amazed with less screen time. I admired Bichir’s stoicism and gravity in “A Better Life.” His decision to underplay key scenes, where other actors would have resorted to safer, louder techniques, only says more about his talent. But the film proved too timid on many occasions, cutting from scenes where Bichir could really have flourished if the camera kept rolling. Ranking much higher are Dujardin and Pitt. Dujardin proves delightful to watch in “The Artist.” It’s funny and spirited work, and he oscillates between emotions with gifted effortlessness. And Pitt gives the most heart-wrenching portrait of unflagging devotion in years, exuding layer after layer of character detail. He nails every aspect of Billy Beane: the idiosyncratic and superstitious approach to the field, his authority and confidence in big moments, the hidden weariness under his composure, the tenderness with his daughter in contrast to the dry relationship with his players. It’s terrific work in a terrific movie. I give Pitt the edge over Dujardin, but they’re both equally deserving.

Who got snubbed? It was a cluttered field this year. Leonardo Dicaprio scored nominations from the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards. Almost always, actors who score these nominations are also invited by the Academy. Michael Shannon put up quite a fight in the beginning, showing up in various critics’ lists for his performance in “Take Shelter.” And what does Michael Fassbender have to do to earn an Oscar nomination? For four years in a row he’s been delivering impressive work: He’s a haunting presence throughout “Hunger,” perfectly dependable as a suave British spy in “Inglourious Basterds,” booming with intensity and seductiveness in last year’s “Fish Tank” and charged with eroticism and emotional-baggage in this year’s “Shame.” Most likely, his film’s explicit sexual content proved too much for the older-skewing Academy. Nonetheless, the lack of an Oscar nod doesn’t make his performance any less deserving than it is. Even more recognizable to the Academy, Ryan Gosling couldn’t get any foothold in this race for his stunning body of work, even with last year’s snub still stinging more than a year later. His trio of performances not only serves as a deserving showboating-vehicle for his talent, but also evince Gosling’s tremendous range. Other great performances that really didn’t stand a chance included Joel Edgerton for “Warrior,” Ewan McGregor for “Beginners,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt for “50/50,” Peyman Moaadi for “A Separation,” and Andy Serkis for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

My ballot: Brad Pitt, “Moneyball;” Michael Fassbender, “Shame;” Ryan Gosling, “Drive;” Joel Edgerton, “Warrior;” and Jean Dujardin, “The Artist.”

Do you think Clooney’s being Clooney in “The Descendants?” Do you think Dujardin is safe? Comment.