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SAG Ballots Out Today

Today, the 2,100 randomly selected Screen Actors Guild nominating committee members are getting their ballots. They will then have a few weeks to see everything before jotting down their choices.

Votes for nominees may be cast online or via mailed paper ballot. Votes must be received by the Guild’s official teller, Integrity Voting Systems, by Monday, Dec. 13, 2010 at 5 p.m (PT). Nominations for the 17th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards will be announced at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 at 6 a.m. (PT)/9 a.m. (ET), telecast live on TNT and webcast live on and

The SAG members will likely rely on screeners and on their own memory from screenings they attended. Some films will play very well on screener, while others, not so much. The year’s best performances have somehow been about the power of two. Two co-stars coming together or pulling apart. If you look behind one great performance, in other words, you will see many supporting faces that help them get where they want to go.

So let’s talk about the year’s strongest performances so far and the supporting players who helped prop them up.

Natalie Portman in Black Swan. While it’s true that this is Natalie’s show, almost entirely, she needed something to play off to connect to the various emotions that flood over her. Barbara Hershey giving one of the scariest performances of the year as her mother is vital to prompting neurosis from Portman.

Mila Kunis provides the match that lights a fire that won’t be put out until the end of the film. Winona Ryder presents a whole new dimension to what she’s been capable of on screen throughout her career — she plays a self-pitying ex-prima ballerina here and also provides a motivating force for Portman. Finally, Vince Cassel as the all-seeing dance teacher, the thrusting male presence causing all of the females to flurry like nervous pigeons is great. Most likely to get a supporting nod: Barbara Hershey.

Colin Firth in the King’s Speech. We already know that his co-star, Geoffrey Rush, is as vital to the success of the film as Firth. He can hardly be called a supporting player because he is so much a co-lead. Our eyes seek him out any time he’s on screen because buried in there is the wisdom we need to understand this complex, evolving King before us. Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t have much to do as the Queen Consort (and future Queen Mother) but she makes the most of it. She will likely be swept up along with Rush because the film will be very popular with the Academy, even if her better performance was in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Bonham-Carter has always been better at playing crazy, despite the way Hollywood has always sought to cast her. Most Likely Supporting Nods: Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter.

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network. The Social Network has the one strong advantage of being both a performance-driven film as much as it is a director and writer-driven film. Key to the film’s success are the three central performances, however, namely Eisenberg — but he’s helped along greatly by the brilliant Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, and his equal, Justin Timberlake (one can’t believe one just wrote that sentence) as Sean Parker. Never has a film roared the current like this one does.

We feel the pulse of the past, present and future, for better or worse. But there are other performers worth noting here – Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins – one actor, two characters — tall, strapping WASP God, Hammer struts through the film like a peacock, never diminishing, never letting go. Even now, the Winklevoss twins won’t let go. Sorkin got that so right. But Rooney Mara as Erica, providing the film’s strongest female force – one with the ability to undo Mark Zuckerberg like no other – is also worth considering. Most likely supporting nods: Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake.

Inception – this is another brilliant array of acting as an ensemble, led by the versatile Leonardo DiCaprio (who may split his own vote with Shutter Island). But it is Marion Cotillard who really stands out in this. Though she and Michelle Williams from Shutter Island can sometimes seem like two halves of the same person, it is Cotillard who bursts forth in Inception and maintains her presence throughout the film. She is also more memorable now than she ever has been, upon subsequent viewings. She is the rattle snake hidden in the corner that you can’t see. She is the rainbow that appears out of nowhere – so breathtaking, so temporary. If anyone from Inception is nominated for acting it will have to be Cotillard.¬† Most likely supporting nod: Cotillard.

True Grit – This is going to be Jeff Bridges’ show and this is the part he was born to play. But in the supporting categories, one will probably be looking at Matt Damon specifically, but also Hailee Steinfeld, and perhaps Josh Brolin. True Grit remains one of the most anticipated films of the year, but knowing the Coens’ work as well as I do, the actors will nail it and it will be one of the year’s best, without a doubt.¬† Most likely supporting nods: Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon.

The Kids Are All Right – This film is mostly supported entirely by Annette Bening, in the performance of her career, Julianne Moore, coming in a close second, and Mark Ruffalo, who turns it yet another reliably great piece of work.¬† This is a true ensemble piece, which puts it right in SAG’s wheelhouse. You never really think you’re watching actors act in this. It just feels as organic as the backyard garden Moore builds for Ruffalo. The film springs from universal truth about family, and that is what makes it stands out. Most likely supporting nods: Moore and Ruffalo.

The Fighter – so far, it’s looking like the supporting players are getting more notice than the lead. But it’s always worth considering an actor who plays a boxer, isn’t it? And Mark Wahlberg has already been nominated, as the only one of a great ensemble to make the cut with The Departed. The film is filled with strong supporting players – specifically, Christian Bale who delivers his best in a career full of great performances. Bale is an actor’s actor – and most likely will not be forgotten by the SAG. Amy Adams and Melissa Leo are also under consideration.¬† Most likely supporting nominations: Bale, Adams, Leo.

Get Low – This is Duvall’s show all the way. But he’s helped along by two of the year’s best supporting turns. Sissy Spacek’s performance here is, along with Marion Cotillard, my favorite female supporting portrayal of the year. Spacek is one of the best actors still working, untouched by plastic surgery, always finding something new to say with each character. Here, she plays a woman in love with a man who was always in love with another. Her sadness, her aching, her longing, and the pride she has to hold it all together was unforgettable, truly. Another funny and memorable turn here was by Bill Murray. He didn’t have as deep a journey as either Duvall or Spacek, but he is compelling nonetheless. All three of these actors will likely be noticed by SAG, especially since the Get Low screener is making the rounds in a big way.¬† Most likely supporting nods: Spacek and Murray.

The Town – an ensemble work if there ever was one. It is held up by two very good performances in Jeremy Renner and Ben Affleck, but Rebecca Hall, Blake Lively, Jon Hamm are also really great. What a coup for SAG to nominate THIS film in its ensemble because it will bring the stars to the red carpet, won’t it just. Who doesn’t want to see Jon Hamm and Blake Lively? But even still, an ensemble nod here would be well deserved. One thing it has going for it is that it simply stars so many actors. One of them might be connected to hundreds of others. That kind of thing can really make a difference. Although, no one really knows who will be chosen as the nominating committee.¬† Most likely to be nominated (and it would be well deserved): Jeremy Renner

Winter’s Bone – No actress has announced her presence with authority like Jennifer Lawrence did this year, proving she has the resolve, and the “true grit” to play the part of a teen on the brink of destruction. She plays Ree as a hero, someone who succeeded at staying clean from drugs and surviving while those around her fell pray to the temptations meth offered this poverty-stricken, rural region. Ree is one of the many female heroes we were treated to this year. But the film is full of so many great supporting cast members. The two who stand out most are John Hawkes and Dale Dickey. How smart of director Debra Granik to cast these authentic-looking and sounding actors. Their unique faces among the usual array of perfection was a breath of fresh air. No makeup, the cold tugging at their skin, crazy-eyed – without them, Ree’s spectrum would not be completely understood.¬† Most likely supporting nods — a long shot for both, but John Hawkes probably.

Another Year – we are still up in the air on how the brilliant work by this adept ensemble will play out. Will Lesley Manville go supporting or lead? If she’s supporting, is Ruth Sheen lead? And what of Jim Broadbent? As is usual with Mike Leigh films but this film specifically, there isn’t a weak link in the ensemble to be found. A smart voting body would recognize the work done here as being some of the best ensemble work of the year. When you think about an ensemble you think about how the actors work off of one another, how generous they are, how easily they relate and respond. You simply won’t find another that works like a well-oiled machined the way Another Year does. Most likely supporting nods: Lesley Manville (unless she’s lead), Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen.

Hereafter – unfortunately, this film isn’t being buzzed at the moment, but a few critics’ awards might put it firmly in the race. If so, voters would be wise to turn their attention to Matt Damon, who will have yet another great, underrated year for playing two complex and very different characters. First, his portrayal as the psychic in Hereafter is so moving and understated, but second, his work in True Grit is said to be a complete scene-stealer all the way. So, here is a hat tip for Damon who consistently does good work and yet very rarely gets recognized for it. How great was he in The Departed?¬† Hereafter also features the lovely and talented Cecile DeFrance. But if there is anyone who seems ripe for a nod for this it’s Damon.

Rabbit Hole – this is a film that has two strong leading contenders in Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. It is also tailor-made for the SAG, it being based on a successful play and all. While Kidman is getting much attention, it’s been said that Eckhart’s great work has been all too often overlooked. Best Actor is always a tight nut to crack but the SAG could be the voting body that thrusts Eckhart into the race in a big way.¬† Dianne Wiest is the most likely supporting actor up for consideration, and right now we’re all wondering not whether Wiest will be nominated, but just how many nominations is Rabbit Hole going to get. Picture? Director? Screenplay?¬† Most likely supporting nod: Dianne Wiest.

I Am Love – Tilda Swinton sweeps us up in this lush melodrama in much the same way Julianne Moore carried us aloft in a similar Sirk homage, Far From Heaven. Films that delve into dizzying romantic intrigue are often maligned because it’s so easy to tip past over-ripe into but Swinton understands when to pluck and peel a plum role like this at its tastiest mellow moment. Roger Ebert — who rightly said Swinton should have been nominated for Julia last season, is again carrying the torch for her to be recognized this year: “Few actresses can embody urgent sexual desire so well as Swinton. For this role, she learned to speak Italian with a Russian accent, as Tilda Swinton would, but her performance is nothing as trivial as a feat of learning.”

Made in Dagenham -this is another ensemble if there ever was one. It seems, like Rabbit Hole, tailor-made for the SAG – an ensemble nod seeming almost more likely than anything else. But much has been made of the roles played by Miranda Richardson, specifically, but also Rosamund Pike. Sally Hawkins is up for lead. Most likely to be nominated: Miranda Richardson.

The Way Back – a tough sit, no doubt, and one that will have a hard time being seen all the way through by voting members. But if they do manage to make it through the film, they will find a spectacular supporting turn by Ed Harris, and perhaps another by Saoirse Ronan. These two play off of each other beautifully, as another surrogate father/daughter duo (True Grit and Winter’s Bone being two others). And Harris’ popularity within the industry gives him a leg up. Most likely supporting nod: Harris.

Barney’s Version – We never get tired of seeing Paul Giamatti play grumbling schlubs because his repertoire of lovable soreheads mix so many fascinating key changes and off-beat tempos, variations on the theme of G-Minor for Cello and Grouse. THR says “Giamatti excels at playing difficult curmudgeons, but in Barney’s Version, he also possesses a stubborn vulnerability that’s indispensable to the film’s palpable poignancy.”

Biutiful – Javier Bardem’s smoldering performance lifted the spirit of his character above the bleak weight of circumstances laid on his shoulder’s in Alejandro Gonz√°lez I√±√°rritu’s Biutiful. THR says Bardem “delivers a knockout performance as a hero whose last days are detailed with Joycean elan, filled with ambiguity, contradictions and lyricism.”

The Ghost Writer – this film features many memorable supporting turns, by Pierce Brosnan specifically. But the one who really stands out is Olivia Williams because she must play so many things at once. She is the perfect Hitchcockian female – at turns cold and sexual, vulnerable and mean. Williams is a character we can’t take our eyes off of because we just don’t know what she is going to do next. One of the year’s best, that will unfortunately be ignored. Most likely supporting nod: Olivia Williams.

It Takes Two – Leading Roles Only

Fair Game – this is one of the twosome films, with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn delivering powerhouse performances each by each. Watts is particularly compelling as the crumbling Valerie Plame, who holds on to whatever she can as her career is exposed and her life turned upside down. Penn will be put in the supporting category for what really is a lead. With his sloppy paunch, his greasy mane of hair, his kind eyes, his caring for their children, his fierce political beliefs – the likes of which haven’t been seen since Frank Capra took a stab at it, Penn’s is one of the most memorable portrayals of the year – this, despite the double whammy of his own leftist leanings, coupled with the film’s liberal bent. That hurts the film, unfortunately. But I hope SAG doesn’t forget him, or Watts either for that matter.

Blue Valentine – if any group out there will appreciate the work of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, they are it. Williams and Gosling lived these parts for many years – first, being approached by writer/director Derek Cianfrance and being too young at the time to play the characters, then waiting for the time to be right, and finally, in true cin√©ma v√©rit√© style, living as the characters for many months. They had to do two separate periods of time – the beginning of the relationship, and the end of the relationship as they struggle to hold things together (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, as it’s already been written about extensively. It is the kind of acting actors specifically recognize as that which takes the craft to the extreme. We don’t see this kind of devotion to character often.

127 Hours – James Franco gives nothing less than one of the best lead performances of the year. It isn’t just that he’s so likable throughout, essential if the whole film is your face, basically. But it was his ability to connect to the material, to find the place inside of him that is like Aron Ralston. The last shot in the film confirms this: Franco got it so, so right. But he wouldn’t be such a strong contender if it was only about getting it right – it is the darker moments in the thing that makes this performance. The scene where he must break, then sever his arm is so real that audiences seem to be unable to separate reality from fiction. It is, to me, in his sadder moments of longing for the things he almost had and may never have that moved me the most. It is easy recognizing someone who has done this kind of work on a role.

In the final analysis, the best ensembles — in the strict definitions of the word– of the year I would say are:

The Social Network
True Grit
Another Year
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The Town
Made in Dagenham

That doesn’t mean they are necessarily the best films of the year or Best Picture frontrunners — although two, maybe three of them are. But they are great examples of actors working together, giving and taking as needed.