Tomorrow's announcement of the 2006 Oscar nominations will likely feature a lot of the usual suspects: Reese Witherspoon, Russell Crowe, Joan Allen, William Hurt.
But there are plenty of other noteworthy performers whom the Academy Awards are unlikely to honor. Some range from little-known actors in acclaimed movies to bigger names working in genres that are often deemed unworthy of critical honors. Consider these alternate choices:
¢ Mickey Rourke, "Sin City." Punch-drunk actor Rourke gives his best-ever performance as the gorilla-bodied and hippo-faced Marv in the graphic comic book adaptation. Whenever his surly thug appears, "Sin City" kicks into a relentlessly high gear from which it never downshifts.
¢ Jennifer Carpenter, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." Linda Blair earned an Oscar nomination as the demonic young girl in "The Exorcist." Carpenter's work is even more subtle and subjective when rendering a character who could be suffering from fiendish possession or a medical affliction. And her voice isn't overdubbed by Mercedes McCambridge, either.
¢ Nicolas Cage, "Lord of War." Kooky Cage stars as Yuri Orlov, a Ukranian immigrant who finds success as an international gunrunner. Both charming and amoral, intense and indifferent, Cage supplies the kind of dominating performance that makes it difficult to envision anyone else in the part.
¢ Steve Carell, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Former "Daily Show" correspondent Carell finally gets a starring shot after years of memorable supporting turns in projects such as "Anchorman." The actor (and co-writer) takes full advantage by crafting a geeky yet likable adult whose lack of confidence has eroded his social skills. Plus, he suffered onscreen by actually getting his chest waxed.
¢ Michael Pena, "Crash." Don Cheadle and Matt Dillon are gaining well-deserved accolades for their roles in this examination of racism in Los Angeles. As the Mexican-American locksmith who is constantly being stereotyped as a criminal, Pena shares some phenomenally touching and genuine scenes.
¢ Peter Stormare, "Constantine." Stoic Swede Stormare ("Fargo") provides a fresh take on playing Satan in this supernatural action tale. His creepy spin is one of the unique performances of 2005, interpreting Lucifer as something of an effeminate drug kingpin.
¢ Jake Gyllenhaal, "Jarhead." While PC critics are raving about Gyllenhaal's merely adequate turn in "Brokeback Mountain," the young actor's best work of 2005 goes unnoticed. Portraying a Marine scout/sniper during the first Gulf War, he perfectly balances the frat-like bravado and utter cluelessness of young guys riding out their terms in the military.
¢ Bruno Ganz, "Downfall." As the remorseless central figure in this tale of Adolf Hitler's final days as World War II comes to a smothering end, veteran Swiss actor Bruno Ganz gives a performance that almost attains a documentary level of realism. Ranging from grandfatherly to psychopathic, Ganz admirably resists the temptation to overplay the historical figure.
¢ Leanne Rowe, "Oliver Twist." Roman Polanski's previous film, "The Pianist," earned Adrien Brody an Oscar. But the director's follow-up came and went with little fanfare. Newcomer Rowe shone, however, as Nancy, the strong-willed but compassionate hooker forced to keep brutish boyfriend Bill Sykes at bay.
¢ John Leguizamo, "Land of the Dead." As with feisty character actors Steve Buscemi or Paul Giamatti, casting comedian Leguizamo is a guaranteed way to energize a movie. He is particularly good as a disgruntled mercenary in George Romero's latest "Dead" epic. Hard to beat his final line. When being infected and presented with the choice of committing suicide or turning into a zombie, he chooses the latter because, "I always wanted to see how the other half lives."