The Visitor - A somber story of a widowed college professor (Richard Jenkins) who comes back to his part-time NYC apartment to find an immigrant couple living there. Jenkins befriends the couple, at which point the narrative branches out to both love story and post 9-11 "war on terrorism" tale.
I really liked The Visitor, in part because writer/director Tom McCarthy didn't deal with the aforementioned issues in a cheesy, formulaic or flashy way. I cared about these characters like I knew them. Richard Jenkins is great in this film; you see his transformation from sort-of-depression to a full embrace of life and the city he had all but abandoned. His Oscar nomination for Best Actor is much deserved; it's too bad he has no chance of winning. Also, co-star Haaz Sleiman is wonderful as Tarek, the Syria-born drummer who squatted in the apartment and changed Jenkins' life. This guy has the goods (charisma, talent and hotness!) to become a star.
Moving on to a Best Actor nominee who does have a shot at victory: Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. I'll skip a description of the film, at this point everyone who follows movies knows what it's about and why there's buzz. I liked the film, but I wasn't knocked out by it (pun intended). It has a documentary feel, but the handheld camera constantly shooting behind Rourke's head was annoying after a while. Also, if you are adverse to watching violence on screen, steel yourself before seeing this film.
As the titular role, Rourke carries the film valiantly. He runs the gamut of emotions: pride, pain, shame, love, (figurative) impotence. What makes this a great performance is that Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson isn't a dialogue-driven character. Robinson's story is told in Rourke's battered face and eyes.
However--and I'm a longtime Mickey Rourke fan...of his acting, not the rest of it--you have to ask how much of a stretch this really was for him. Rourke the (close to) washed-up actor vs. Robinson the washed-up wrestler. Rourke's face is as beaten up from ill-advised boxing and drug abuse as Robinson's body is from drug abuse and wrestling. Both men have alienated nearly everyone who ever cared about them (and at least Robinson had his wrestling "family," which was an unexpectedly sweet aspect of the film). So what was the challenge? This film is as close as Rourke can get to playing himself without playing himself.
In a year in which Sean Penn and Frank Langella (as well as Heath Ledger in supporting) are being honored for iconic performances that are complete flipsides of what you would expect from them, why is Mickey Rourke getting all of this love for basically looking at himself in the mirror? Weirdly, as good as he is, I found him more heartbreaking in Sin City (his last "comeback" movie).
As a final point, if Rourke upsets Sean Penn for the Oscar, considering how much of a total fuck-up he was in Hollywood, then someone will have to explain to me how Eddie Murphy lost two years ago for Dreamgirls!