Last week, this column took a two-part break from Oscar-related dish to profile 13 deserving underdog actresses from this year's batch of films.
The group included some who have definite (but long) shots like Tilda Swinton ("We Need To Talk About Kevin") and Melissa McCarthy ("Bridesmaids) to a few that sadly have no chance whatsoever, like Manjinder Virk in "The Arbor" and Juliette Binoche in "Certified Copy." This second part works in a similar vein, except this time it takes a look at the boys' club.
There's definitely a few good men locked into both male acting categories this year, including powerhouses like George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Leonardo diCaprio (check out an updated weekly prediction chart here). The supporting category has more wiggle room; it's the same wiggle room that brought performances from tiny films like "Winter's Bone" (John Hawkes) and "The Messenger" (Woody Harrelson) into the mix. So perhaps one or two of the following will indeed end up in the running.
Commenters should once again keep in mind that the list purposely does not include work that looks like a good bet for a nomination and that it only includes films currently scheduled for release during the 2011 eligibility period. With that said, here are 13 underdog actors for your consideration.
Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, The Trip
Comedy rarely fares well with the Academy and this largely improvised British comedy in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictionalized versions of themselves should prove no different. Which is too bad, as Coogan and Brydon are on top of their game here, spending much of "The Trip" trying to one-up each other with dueling impersonations of Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Woody Allen (notably, all Oscar winners) as they stop at some of the best restaurants and inns in the north of England.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50
With remarkable charm and affect, Joseph Gordon-Levitt rises to the considerable challenge of "50/50," a film that blends comedy and drama to tell an accessible tale of a young man dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Gordon-Levitt carries the film and continues to prove himself one of the best in a new generation of American actors (check out "Mysterious Skin," "The Lookout" and "Brick," if you need further proof). An Oscar nomination is clearly a likelihood in the 30 year-old's future, but unfortunately some very tough competition seems to suggest it won't be for "50/50." Watch out for next year's "Lincoln," where he plays the son of Daniel Day-Lewis's Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's Oscar wet dream of a biopic.
Ryan Gosling, Drive and Tom Hardy, Warrior
While at one point odds were looking quite reasonable for these two stunningly handsome men of the moment, box office receipts for both Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" and Gavin O'Connor's "Warrior" were rather dismal and they have seemed to drop out of the conversation. Which is a shame in both regards.
Gosling -- who arguably just missed out on nominations for "Lars and the Real Girl" and "Blue Valentine" -- is quite undernominated, considering the career he's established. And he had a fantastic year with three diverse performances in "The Ides of March," "Crazy Stupid Love" and especially "Drive." His best bet is actually for "Ides," though its his gritty work as a getaway driver in "Drive" is likely to be the one we remember far into his career.
Hardy, meanwhile, also had a fantastic year (and oddly enough, broke out thanks to another Nicolas Winding Refn film, "Bronson"). His very different and much smaller role in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is something of an underdog itself in the supporting category, but it's his work as a martial arts tournament competition in "Warrior" that is Hardy's crowning achievement of 2011. But he may have to wait until 2012 (perhaps with John Hillcoat's "The Wettest County in the World") to get his first Academy recognition.
Bruce Greenwood, Meek's Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt's quietly ambitious western is unlikely to be part of any sort of Oscar talk. But if it were, Bruce Greenwood would be part of that conversation (as would Michelle Williams, though she seems pretty locked in for "My Week With Marilyn" at this point). As frontier guide Stephen Meek, Greenwood lends significant presence as he leads a wagon train on an ill-fated journey through the Oregon desert. After 25 years of impressive character work, it would be nice to show Greenwood the gold.
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Hunter McCracken, The Tree of Life
The first of three performances by men under 20 on this list, newcomer Hunter McCracken is part of a considerable trend this year that could continue with Jeremy Irvine ("War Horse") and Thomas Horn ("Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"): Young actors who carry some of the year's most ambitious films. In "The Tree of Life," McCracken is the film's lead protagonist and gives a powerful performance that easily stands along Brad Pitt's and Jessica Chastain's. His more-famous co-stars probably have a better shot at an Oscar nod (though its quite possible none of them will make the cut), but McCracken deserves just as much attention.
Ewan McGregor, Beginners
Mike Mills' "Beginners" has been gaining Oscar buzz since last year's Toronto Film Festival, though almost exclusively for a supporting performance by Christopher Plummer. While Plummer deserves the accolades, it overshadows yet another underrated performance from Ewan McGregor, who has never been nominated for an Oscar. Coming off great work in Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," McGregor is in nearly every scene of "Beginners" as the son of Plummer's character and gives a soulful, endearing performance that is in large part the reason the film works so well.
Ezra Miller, We Need To Talk About Kevin
While "We Need To Talk About Kevin" is largely acclaimed as a showcase for the talents of Tilda Swinton (who was on the female counterpart to this list last week), people should definitely not forget to talk about Ezra. As the film's titular sociopathic teenager, Miller pulls off a frightening, nuanced performance necessary for Lynne Ramsay's film to succeed. It also builds on a series of roles ("Afterschool," "City Island") that have made Miller someone to watch. Whether Oscar starts talking about him or not, any casting director looking for young talent certainly should.
Peter Mullan, Tyrannosaur
Another actor whose female co-star was noted last week (here, Olivia Colman), Peter Mullan gives a startling performance in Paddy Considine's directorial debut "Tyrannosaur." Mullan's performance as a raging alcoholic and isolated widower is one that, with the right promotion, could genuinely be an awards player (though its distributor Strand is quite wee compared to those releasing Mullan's competitors). It's a career highlight for the veteran Scottish actor, whose credits include "Trainspotting," "The Magdalene Sisters," "Neds" and Spielberg's upcoming "War Horse."
Craig Roberts, Submarine
Speaking of films involving Paddy Considine (and teenaged actors), Craig Roberts made a fantastic feature debut in Richard Ayoade's "Submarine," the little-seen British coming-of-age comedy that won rave reviews but few box office dollars. Roberts plays Oliver Tate, a 15-year-old in 1986 determined to both lose his virginity and keep his parents' marriage afloat (which is being challenged by a character played by Considine). It's a heartfelt, subtle and occasionally hilarious performance that at least deserves a few breakthrough performance mentions when critics give their awards.
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Perhaps the person with the most legitimate chance at a nomination on this list, Michael Shannon should really be a lock for his tremendous work in Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter." His performance as a mentally unstable family man trying to cope with his fading emotional health has had people talking since its Sundance debut. But it seems this year has been too kind to roles for lead actors, and Shannon's category is packed with hefty contenders who include George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Leonardo diCaprio. Add in Jean Dujardin ("The Artist"), Michael Fassbender ("Shame"), Woody Harrelson ("Rampart") and the never-nominated Gary Oldman ("Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy")and that's already seven serious contenders. Which may leave Shannon to take shelter with a Independent Spirit Award nomination instead.
Christoph Waltz, Carnage
Roman Polanski's "Carnage" -- an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's award-winning play -- has met with generally mixed responses, but most are in agreement regarding its standout cast member: Going head to head with two fellow Oscar winners and one fellow nominee, Christoph Waltz nails the role of WASPy BlackBerry addict Alan Cowan (a role that won Jeff Daniels a Tony nomination in 2009). Finding a consistent tone in his performance that some of his co-stars seem to occasionally struggle with, Waltz gives "Carnage" some of its best moments and biggest laughs.