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By Vernor Rodgers
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When it comes to the 2012 Academy Awards nominations. One might say that silence is golden. Three performances have been named among the select few in which the actors say no words. Well, that should be qualified. One of the actors does say two words at the end: "My pleasure."

Where else but in acting can two performers who, at the age when a lot of us are dead, retired or sitting idly in a nursing home, are earning Academy Award nominations. A moment to salute two old pros -- Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow, both up for Oscars this year and both due to turn 83.

Two obscure and foreign entries nudge their way into the Best Animated Film category, beating out some more commercial efforts such as "Rio," Cars 2," "Happy Feet 2" and "Gnomeo and Juliette." And as has happened on the average of every other year the last three decades, Meryl Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award.

This appears to be a two-man race. Jean Dujardin, well known in France but a stranger to these parts, has emerged as a favorite to win the Oscar here in the unique "The Artist," a throwback to an earlier era of movies with its silent and black-and-white presentation. The plot is not new -- a man who has achieved massive success takes a big fall and is soon broken and forgotten, but eventually gets a shot to recoup what he once had. Dujardin's George Valentin, a superstar of the silent film era, stubbornly refuses to adapt to the progress of the industry, specifically its transition to talkies. With no sound to offer spoken dialogue, and sparse use of subtitles, "The Artist" must rely on Dujardin's physical skills and expressions to convey the man's joy and despair.

Jean Dujardin's IMDb Bio

 "The Artist" Official Trailer

Right up there with Dujardin as a favorite is George Clooney for "The Descendants."  Clooney portrays a middle-age man so obsessed with his work that it takes a tragedy for him to realize he has almost lost his family. The death of his wife leaves him stumbling along, not only in dealing with his mourning, but learning his wife had an affair while also trying to connect with his two daughters with whom he is estranged. Clooney is sweet, exasperating, bumbling yet wise in a multi-textured performance.

George Clooney's IMDb Bio

"The Descendants" Official Trailer

A surprise nominee, and not likely to win, is Damian Bichir in "A Better Life," a small film that was in theaters for about a minute and a half. Bichir, playing a man of Mexican extraction dealing with social and financial obstacles in trying to make a decent living for himself and promising future for his son, was tabbed in front of others receiving pre-Oscar buzz like Michael Fassbinder -- who if he had been nominated would have been a rarity of a male star honored for a role in which he goes Full Monty on camera -- and Ryan Gosling, who was getting accolades for his work in "Driver" and "The Ides of March."

Damian Bichir's IMDb Bio

"A Better Life" Official Trailer

Gary Oldman, surprisingly a first-time nominee, breaks away from his famous over-the-top performances with his role as George Smiley in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," a man drummed out of British intelligence but brought back to root out a supposed mole within the intelligence community. A nice departure for Oldman, but too laid back to upend Dujardin and Clooney.

Gary Oldman's IMDb Bio

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" Official Trailer

Finally, Brad Pitt, a three-time nominee, is up for an Oscar for his portrayal of Billy Beane in "Moneyball." Beane, a former baseball player who washed out of the Major Leagues, becomes the general manager of the Oakland A's and bucks long-standing traditions by using statistical analysis rather than observations to judge talent of players. Despite his unorthodox procedures in assessing players, he attains some success. Pitt is charming in the role, but like Oldman's, it is a steady performance lacking many magic moments.

Brad Pitt's IMDb Bio

"Moneyball" Official Trailer

A tough category to call, with three performances that could well be honored. Meryl Streep, earning a record 17th nomination, has generated much support for her dead-on performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."

Meryl Streep's IMDb Bio

"The Iron Lady" Official Trailer

But offering tough competition is Viola Davis, who is a two-time nominee -- interestingly, her first nomination three years ago for "Doubt" was because of her scene opposite Streep, also a nominee in that movie -- for "The Help." Davis, winner of a Screen Actors Guild statuette, offers a touching performance that the Academy likes to honor, that of a person dealing with racial prejudice. As a woman who is so vital in the households of well-to-do Southern families, she has to endure indignities, and when she gets a chance to tell her story, she bravely seizes the opportunity.

Viola Davis' IMDb Bio

"The Help" Official Trailer

Another front-runner in this category is Glenn Close, who receives her sixth nomination for playing the title character in "Albert Nobbs," a woman who disguises herself as a man as a mean of coping with life. Cross-gendering roles get Academy attention. Just ask Oscar winner Linda Hunt, who played a man in "The Year of Living Dangerously" and John Lithgow, playing a former pro football player turned female in "The World According to Garp."

Glenn Close's IMDb Bio

"Albert Nobbs" Official Trailer

Michelle Williams picks up her third nomination, and her second in a row, for her turn as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn." Williams offers a Marilyn who for all her success is very insecure and often overwhelmed, even baffled by the fame and fortune she has gained.

Michelle Williams' IMDb Bio

"My Week with Marilyn" Official Trailer

My pick for the Oscar in this category would go to Rooney Mara for her spooky, sexy work in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." One of the most unique women shown on film, Mara nails Lisbeth Salander, the punk-Goth-computer-hacker, researcher extraordinaire -- unconventional and a survivor.

Rooney Mara's IMDb Bio

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" Official Trailer

This appears to be Christopher Plummer's year. Not only has he put together a lengthy career, he is finally being recognized for his work. As the aging man who after years of being a husband and father finally accepts his homosexuality in "Beginners," he elevates a rather bland film and has earned his second nomination -- he was tabbed two years ago for "The Last Station" -- and likely will bring home the Oscar.

Christopher Plummer's IMDb Bio

"Beginners" Official Trailer

A possible upset could be Kenneth Branagh for "My Week with Marilyn." Previously nominated in 1989 for "Henry V," Branagh is wonderful as master actor Laurence Olivier, at first nearly giddy at the prospect of directing and co-starring with Marilyn Monroe in a movie, only to be driven nearly mad by the woman's disruptive  work habits  butting against his discipline and perfectionism.

Kenneth Branagh's IMDb Bio

"My Week with Marilyn" Official Trailer

Two other old pros, Nick Nolte for "Warrior" and Max von Sydow for "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," are up for Oscars, neither having ever won before. Nolte does yet another take on a man who failed as a father, but when given a chance to coach his son who is about to enter a mixed martial arts tournament, has a shot, at which he stumbles, in redeeming himself. Meanwhile, Max von Sydow is one of the three actors up for an Oscar this year because unlike the title of the movie he is in, he is not loud. In fact, he is silent, playing a man who voluntarily has stopped speaking, mainly due to shame at the failures in his life, but gets renewal when he helps a boy whose father was killed in the World Trade Center on 9-11 when the child tries to find the secret behind a key he finds in his later father's closet.

Nick Nolte's IMDb Bio

"Warrior" Official Trailer

Max von Sydow's IMDb Bio

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," Official Trailer

Jonah Hill, known mostly for his comedy roles -- in fact he was in one of the year's worst in "The Babysitter" -- makes geek hood respectable with his role in "Moneyball." A numbers freak who shakes up the tradition of baseball scouting by doing intense studies of obscure statistics, Hill's character finds an ally in Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, and becomes an unlikely decision maker in the organization.

Jonah Hill's IMDb Bio

"Moneyball" Official Trailer

Another tough category to call. It would be nice to see Melissa McCarthy win for her work as Kristen Wiig's hefty but candid and wise friend in "Bridesmaids." But alas, comedic roles rarely win Oscars if they are not directed by Woody Allen.

Melissa McCarthy's IMDb Bio

"Bridesmaids" Official Trailer

First-time nominee Octavia Spencer is a favorite to win here, playing a fellow maid in "The Help" who is at first reluctant then a rallying person in telling the story of these hard-working, dedicated and underappreciated women. She may even beat out co-star Jessica Chastain, nominated for portraying a Southern woman whose prejudice is so entrenched in her culture.

Octavia Spencer's IMDb Bio

Jessica Chastain's IMDb Bio

"The Help" Official Trailer

Other strong contenders are Janet McTeer, also playing a woman disguised as a man opposite Close in "Albert Nobbs," and Berenice Bejo for "The Artist," playing Peppy Miller, who gets a break in the movie world thanks to Valentin but never forgets what she owes him and grabs the opportunity to help him when he is down and out. The third of the nominated silent performances, Bejo's character does not fall into the stereotypical portrait of person who loses his or her humanity after achieving stardom. It is refreshing that the relationship between Valentin and Miller does not fall in to the sexual-intimate trappings.

Janet McTeer's IMDb Bio

"Albert Nobbs" Official Trailer

Bérénice Bejo's IMDb Bio

"The Artist" Official Trailer

Aside from the two little-known films mentioned above, "A Cat in Paris" and "Chico & Rita," other nominees here include "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Puss in Boots" and the likely winner "Rango," whose creatures adapt well to a Western-themed storyline.

"A Cat in Paris" Official Trailer

"Chico & Rita" Official Trailer

"Kung Fu Panda 2" Official Trailer

"Puss in Boots" Official Trailer

"Rango" Official Trailer

The Academy is allowed to nominate up to 10 movies in the category, but this year went with nine. Per usual, half can be dismissed as top contenders: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," Tree of Life" and "War Horse." These films all had their strengths but are going up against movies with even more strengths.

"The Help" is the kind of movie Oscar likes to embrace -- about the injustices of racial prejudice and the triumphs of the downtrodden who never lost their dignity.

"The Help" Official Trailer

"Hugo" could gain some support because it is such a departure for director Martin Scorsese, known more for his gritty and violent movies about organized crime and life on the mean streets. "Hugo" is a visually exciting and heart-warming story of two children of different circumstances joining together and via their curiosity and tenacity help renews the career of a long forgotten filmmaker pioneer -- played by Ben Kingsley.

"Hugo" Official Trailer

The two favored movies are "The Descendants," a story of a family that had already splintered and is in danger of blowing apart unless one man can function outside his comfort zone and establish a relationship with his daughters following the death -- and revelation of infidelity -- of his wife. It is an acting clinic here, led by Clooney with lots of support by a cast of veterans and rising talent. But for the sheer outrageousness of its offerings, "The Artist" may net the big prize. This movie, with a plot line that has been told before of the spectacular fall of a person atop the world, provides today's movie audiences with a viewing experience our grandparents enjoyed -- a silent movie, in black and white. We may scoff at movies that have no spoken dialogue, but these films represented crowning technical achievements of their day.

"The Descendants" Official Trailer

"The Artist" Official Trailer

And in closing, it would be wonderful if a little Jack Russell Terrier named Uggie won an Oscar, portraying Valentin's faithful companion. The dog almost upstaged what could be an Academy Award-winning performance.

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