And the leading gentlemen are...
Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
This film may be an old tune, but Bridges somehow finds new notes to play. Bad Blake's story never quite feels unique, but that is due in no part to Bridges, whose performance is rife with subtlety and specificity. The eyes are so expressive, even as Bad buries the most shameful parts of himself.
Michael Fassbender in Hunger
This was more than an unbelievable physical transformation. What a task Fassbender was handed. To communicate the greater ideas of an important film with very little dialogue. And when he does speak at length (the long conversation with the priest), it's motivated, believable and reactive. He reduces Bobby Sands to a sheer force of politically charged human rage and yet it somehow manages to not be one note. Bravo.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer
Selling Tom Hansen is a difficult chore and not one that every actor would have been capable of. Imagine the same role played by Josh Hartnett or Topher Grace. Levitt knows Hansen inside and out. The peculiarities in the courtship of Summer never seem contextually peculiar. And I love the raw physicality of the karaoke scene. I can't wait to see what he does next.
Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker
Sergeant James is a challenge. Why? Because Renner is asked to make interesting a character who seldom communicates the internal and whose external goal remains stagnant throughout: to disarm. There are layers, but Renner is careful not to reveal his hand all at once. Consider for a moment the infamous shower scene. Look how James enters and bee-lines for the shower, never hesitating, never mulling. Everything is gut and impulse. Renner's performance is so studied, he never lets you catch James overthinking unti his haunting ending monologue.
Sam Rockwell in Moon
He essentially only has himself and Kevin Spacey's voice to play off of, but he does so superbly. He is usually so sardonic and this side of just too clever. However, Rockwell truly impresses me for the first time here in a performance that includes those elements melded with genuine, heartbreaking emotion.
This was such a hard list to make. The year was replete with impressive lead performances. There are three finalists, first of whom is Colin Firth in A Single Man who fights valiantly against the current that is Tom Ford's direction. Viggo Mortensen in The Road and Ben Foster in The Messenger are pretty evenly matched in my estimation and would have been worthy entries in any given year. They are two actors who continue to surprise and impress me.
Sharlto Copley in District 9 was very compelling, making sure to play up the human emotion of the transformation. George Clooney is great in Up in the Air and continues to expand his repertoire of impressive Oscar-nominated turns. Michael Stuhlbarg is fabulous in A Serious Man. I loved Ben Whishaw in Bright Star but even he knows that film belongs to Abbie. And finally, there's Nicholas Cage whose performance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a thing of specific creation that I will never forget. What a great year for the men.