And the great leading men are...
Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole
A great partner for Nicole Kidman's powerhouse. Eckhart's Howie drips with genuine emotion and not just during the loud notes of the performance. His portrayal of a civil, reasonable man crippled by grief may read as effortless, but his presence is so steady, reliable and subtle. He's never been better.
Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network
From my review: "[Eisenberg] plays [Zuckerberg] with a consistent, even tone of equal parts coldness, obliviousness and befuddlement at how off-putting people find him to be." And apparently, even I was being reductive. The awkward social graces are just one part of the performance, which is layered with distinct character details and real vulnerability that seeps through the facade. In many ways, the year's most difficult performance.
James Franco in 127 Hours
Completely disappears into Boyle's version of Aron Ralston and resists the film's impulse to lionize a real human being who may not be that likable. Franco smartly plays Raltson's charm and charisma as both an asset and a liability for the character and keeps interest in this one man show.
Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine
One of his generation's best actors working at the top of his form, not simply relying on what is actually very impressive aging work on his character. Every word uttered, every nuance, every gesture seems birthed from deep, internal motivation that's more than it seems and so different than his previous (and still impressive) work.
Tahar Rahim in A Prophet
Rahim serves as a great anchor for a film that often meanders. Malik's transformation builds gradually and you never see any easy or convenient switches. A tricky, well-played and fascinating turn by one to watch.
Colin Firth and Jeff Bridges turn in impressive turns in The King's Speech and True Grit, respectively that, were it a weaker year for leading male performances, they'd sure to make the list. While accomplished, there is something rather external and obvious about both turns that doesn't match the five honored performances. But good work all around.
Sean Penn dials it back and makes Joe Wilson a human being rather than a political mouthpiece in Fair Game. I was amazed by his restraint. Justin Long's ever reliable charisma doesn't exactly save Going the Distance, but it does the film so many favors and he's well-matched with Barrymore.