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The race for Best Actor

With the 88th Academy Awards this Sunday night, it’s time to take a judicious look at one of the most prestigious categories and determine who honestly deserves to win.

Sometimes it seems like the award is about “most acting” rather than “best acting,” so a critical eye is necessary to sift through the showboating and find the real nuggets of brilliance. This year’s pool for best actor was extremely impressive. Several excellent performances were not nominated, but alas, there are only five slots.

Before I get into the actual nominees, I’d like to state that Michael B. Jordan and Johnny Depp deserved to make it into the clubhouse for their work in “Creed” and “Black Mass,” respectively. (Tom Hanks has also been criminally underrated as the perfect everyman in “Bridge of Spies,” but again, this is an extremely tight race.)

As a young fighter trying to live up to his absent father’s legacy, Jordan displays incredible emotional range. His stoic persona is fiercely countered by line deliveries full of hurt, and he perfectly plays off co-star Sylvester Stallone’s easygoing charm. (And this all has to do with quality, not diversity for diversity’s sake.)

Likewise, Depp’s portrayal of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger is phenomenal, every word he says dripping with malice, and even a passing glance makes your skin crawl. This was a tricky choice, because Depp ran the risk of making Bulger a two-dimensional caricature of “very bad man” who could never actually exist. Depp pulled it off masterfully, however.

These two performances could certainly replace what I consider to be the lesser candidates: Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl” and Bryan Cranston in “Trumbo.”

Redmayne portrays real-life artist Einar Wegener, who undergoes a controversial sex change during the 1800s. It is a complex subject with many layers and intricacies, but Redmayne turns Wegener into a caricature of bashful grins, hushed whispers and goo-goo eyes. He tries to make transgendered issues as cut-and-dry as possible, ignoring all the doubts and grief they may entail.

Bryan Cranston’s turn as 1950s screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was certainly entertaining and engaging, with jaw-clenched utterances and a tone of arrogance. Cranston portrays Trumbo—who fought against the Hollywood blacklist—as a shrewd and cantankerous family man, but the performance is ultimately too cartoonish to take home the gold.

As stranded astronaut Mark Watney in “The Martian,” Matt Damon delivers a deceptively nuanced performance. This man could have been a two-dimensional figure, simply trying to survive, but Damon instills Watney with an enthusiasm that gives the entire film its kick.

Damon displays the complexity of his character in a very modest fashion—in one line, Damon can combine intelligence, easy-going humor, physical pain and real fear. This performance is so likable and nonchalant that some might not notice how good it actually is.

On the other hand, you’re supposed to notice every aspect of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in “The Revenant”: from speaking the Pawnee language, to eating a live fish and raw bison liver, to swimming in freezing waters, to sealing a neck wound with fire. Not to mention the emotional heft of it all.

Leo is undoubtedly committed to the role of Hugh Glass on every level, but it’s grand to the point of grandstanding—you can almost hear him hissing, “Give me an Oscar” as he crawls through the snow. That doesn’t negate the fact that this is a great performance, though, and if he wins for this role, it will be well earned.

But does he deserve it this year?

There is another actor who truly drove his movie from beginning to end: Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs.” Fassbender is the motor of the film. He’s in every single scene, amassing far more screen time than any of his fellow nominees.

This fully illustrates just how much the movie hinges on his presence and energy. He utterly disappears into the titular role, perfectly capturing the roguish charm that drew so many to Jobs and the arrogant chill that pushed most others away. He manages to spout Sorkin’s machine-gun dialogue with ease, much like a genius trying showing off his superior wit.

Fassbender rockets not just from scene to scene, but from decade to decade. For all his fanfare, he also reveals subtle changes as he gradually faces his own shortcomings in quiet scenes. Through moments big and small, Fassbender’s performance is the most intense and complex among these nominees, becoming more than the sum of its parts.

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