EW Staff
December 22, 2006 AT 05:00 AM EST

Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy DREAMGIRLS

Having been booted off American Idol back in 2004 at age 22, Jennifer Hudson knows a thing or two about rejection. And having bounced back from that low point by nailing a key role in the movie musical Dreamgirls (take that, Simon Cowell!), she channels all the hurt, embarrassment, and anger that so many of Idol‘s losing contestants must feel into ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” a primal power-ballad cry of defiance that’s the centerpiece of her Oscar-buzz-generating performance. And speaking of comebacks, Eddie Murphy is equally dazzling as the downward-bound R&B singer James ”Thunder” Early, an amalgam of such soulful real-life stars as Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, and Smokey Robinson (with a little Elvis Presley-style hip-wriggling thrown in, too). Whether telling a shy, wide-eyed young female acolyte that R&B stands for ”rough and black” or capping a live TV performance/ nervous breakdown by dropping his pants, Murphy pushes past that James Brown parody he made famous on Saturday Night Live to render Jimmy Early a real — and truly tragic — character. — Steve Daly

Penélope Cruz VOLVER

Penélope Cruz, critics’ darling? That’s a phrase you probably never expected to hear this century. Maybe that’s because after winning over audiences with her turn in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 film All About My Mother, the Spanish actress popped up in one Hollywood dud after another (All the Pretty Horses, Vanilla Sky, Sahara). But now, thanks to Volver, her third collaboration with Almodóvar, no one is questioning Cruz’s chops. As Raimunda, a working-class single mom who has weathered more than her share of tragedy, she delivers the most mature performance of her career. Protecting her teenage daughter from a lecherous stepfather, squabbling with her sister over memories of their presumed-to-be-dead mother, or singing flamenco with tears in her eyes, Cruz is bold, vulnerable, joyous, devastated. She gives her luminous all in every scene and is now enjoying the accolades she deserves. — Missy Schwartz


Her face is her Stradivarius. A marvel of nuanced emotional precision, Kate Winslet is so sublimely in tune with her characters’ inner lives, her reactions often upstage her dialogue. Early on in Little Children, her desperate and disaffected housewife, Sarah, fumes behind a polite smile as she just barely tolerates the pack of Stepford moms seated next to her on a park bench. She’s the portrait of a self-loathing pariah — and the actress communicates all this without so much as a roll of the eyes. At the same time, she makes Little Children‘s difficult material eminently more watchable by infusing all of her scenes with witty warmth and humanity. She juggles comedy and tragedy, pathos and pratfalls, with quicksilver timing: The image of her sobbing into her steering wheel after seeing her lover (Patrick Wilson) with his drop-dead gorgeous wife (Jennifer Connelly) is painfully, hilariously real. — Christine Spines

Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND

Has there ever been a role better suited to Forest Whitaker than that of notorious Ugandan strongman Idi Amin? Alternately charming and crazed, the tyrant Whitaker portrays in The Last King of Scotland is the perfect summation of his celebrated quarter century in Hollywood. The gentle giant of Platoon, the sinister criminal in Panic Room, the scheming lawman of The Shield, even the clownish boor from Battlefield Earth — they’re all in there. And yet Whitaker is only half of what makes the film so memorable; without James McAvoy, it just wouldn’t work. After all, the Scottish newcomer provides the perfect foil in Nicholas Garrigan, Amin’s doctor/surrogate son/aide-de-camp, whose naïveté is slowly sliced away as his relationship with the paranoid dictator devolves. Together, the actors create something truly rare in a business so often characterized by ego: a bonding of opposites and equals founded on pure selflessness. — Joshua Rich


He doesn’t even get top billing; that goes to Julianne Moore. But it’s the 57-year-old London stage vet who walks off with David Hare’s Broadway drama. As a small-town doc with a checkered past, Bill Nighy — recently seen wearing an octopus in Pirates of the Caribbean 2 — is wounded but seductive, dangerous yet deliciously intriguing. Audiences come for Moore, but he leaves ’em wanting more. — Melissa Rose Bernardo


In June, Rufus Wainwright showcased his ambition — and moxie — with a two-night re-creation of Judy Garland’s historic 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. A duet with Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft was rousing, but the main event was Wainwright. Sitting on the stage’s edge, warbling ”Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” he offered a reminder of Garland’s heartbreaking legacy and her influence on Wainwright’s own beautifully lush pop. — Beth Johnson


Hero. Traitor. President. Psychopath. James Callis has to play all of these things and more in his portrayal of mad scientist Gaius Baltar on Sci Fi’s Battlestar Galactica. Baltar is a man who time and time again has undermined the human race to further his own agenda. But the genius of Callis’ performance is that his Baltar is not a villain but rather a weakling — a man who wants to do good but is too timid to make the difficult right decision instead of the easy wrong one. Blinded by love, greed, self-preservation, insanity, and — quite possibly — a computer chip, Baltar is by far the most complex TV bad guy in years. In a show known for providing no easy answers to hot-button topics, Callis has created a uniquely intricate and conflicted character. — Dalton Ross

Alec Baldwin 30 ROCK

From his 13 times hosting Saturday Night Live, we all knew Alec Baldwin could do comedy. But his brilliant clowning on NBC’s 30 Rock this season is earning him true grandmaster status. As Jack Donaghy, the intimidating network loon who lords over Tina Fey’s fictional sketch show, Baldwin turns his body into an impeccably suited block of granite, upright and buff. His stiff mien makes it even funnier when Jack, tickled by one of his own jokes, breaks into a goofball grin, or when he takes a large pratfall. Best of all, though, is the unpredictable way Baldwin delivers Jack’s lines: You never know whether he’s gonna go big or whisper-soft, fast or menacingly slow. In 1992, Baldwin gave just about the best cameo performance ever as business shark Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross. Jack Donaghy reminds us of that now — classic character — if Blake were high on caffeine and totally, ridiculously oblivious. — Gregory Kirschling

Martin Scorsese THE DEPARTED

”No one gives it to you,” Jack Nicholson’s kingpin sneers in The Departed. ”You have to take it.” He might as well be talking about Martin Scorsese and the Best Director Oscar, which the legendary filmmaker has never won. This year, Scorsese roared back to GoodFellas-like form with a deceptively simple gangster picture that rivals his best work and will almost certainly give him another shot at an Oscar. With The Departed, he took what could’ve been a straight popcorn movie and virtuosically turned it into something not only fast, brutal, and exciting but also rich, thoughtful, and wrenching. Only the greatest directors, you might argue, can make art films for the masses, and few have been more successful at it than Scorsese is here. — Gregory Kirschling

John Hodgman and Justin Long ”GET A MAC” ADS

Not since those two old coots kicked it on the sunporch for Bartles & Jaymes spots in the ’80s have we loved a pair of pitchmen as much as Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman (as the stodgy, malady-prone PC) and Accepted star Justin Long (all charm, creativity, and tech savvy as the Mac). Their goofy rapport in this series of Apple ads had us laying off the TiVo fast-forward, for once. — Leah Greenblatt


Johnny Depp was not only Pirates of the Caribbean 2‘s saving grace, he was its only grace. If that sentence incites you to write a furious letter about Orlando Bloom, then please, go finish your homework.

It would be too grand an understatement to say that Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow is a surprising character to find stumbling round a summer blockbuster. The truth is, he almost seems a stowaway. Captain Jack is a hilarious rogue — boozy, sexually ambiguous, eyelinered, rotten-toothed, and, if one critic is to be believed, ”probably very smelly.” Sparrow is fond of reminding people of his chosen occupation (”Pirate!”), but the truth is that you can’t trust him even to do the wrong thing.

Unlike the original Pirates, which was pure pleasure, Dead Man’s Chest began sinking 30 minutes after it set sail, but Depp was a joy nonetheless. His return made the sequel the biggest hit of 2006, and the unseaworthiness of the movie itself proved a nonissue for fans. When the ship finally went under, Captain Jack did what he did in his indelible entrance in the original: He walked onto land without so much as getting his feet wet. — Jeff Giles


If your first reaction when OK Go’s viral video for ”Here It Goes Again” hit your in-box was ”Okay who?” the second was almost certainly ”Okay, show me that again!” Millions watched these ragtag power-poppers navigate eight treadmills in a dorky yet enthralling choreographic explosion. Even more impressive? Their live re-creation at August’s VMAs. — Gilbert Cruz

Rinko Kikuchi BABEL

As Babel‘s Chieko, a deaf-mute suffering after her mother’s death, Rinko Kikuchi is as fearless as she is beautiful. The unusually demanding role called for complete emotional and physical nakedness — and sign language, which Kikuchi had to learn. Amazingly, the little-known Japanese actress’ portrayal manages to break through the film’s star-studded cacophony. — Hannah Tucker

Ryan Gosling HALF NELSON

Pretty much anyone can play high. The eyes roll back, the lower lip droops, the face floods with relief. And Ryan Gosling, as crack-addicted Brooklyn teacher Dan Dunne, definitely gets high in the moving and understated drama Half Nelson. But the revelations here are the smaller moments, like the way his cheek muscles go slack when his student (played with ease by newcomer Shareeka Epps), vulnerable herself to the world of drugs, asks what it’s like to get high. What can he say? Dan is a mess, but he’s not a liar, and Gosling honors the puzzle of a man he’s playing. It’s a wonderful thing to watch the 26-year-old, most famous for the mainstream romance The Notebook, return to these meaty parts in independent films. It’s almost scary to consider, but what if this fine young actor is just getting warmed up? — Karen Valby


The premise of Big Love was intriguing: a marital drama in which polygamist Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) juggles three wives. Sounded like a hoot. But what propelled the latest boundary-pushing HBO soap beyond its cute hook was the women themselves. Jeanne Tripplehorn, who gets softer and more beautiful with age, is steady and soothing as Barb. Chloë Sevigny is Nicki, a woman prone to pettiness and anger, lashing out at the world with her credit cards. Ginnifer Goodwin plays the ripe Margene, a young, often silly girl bucking the restraints of adulthood. Bill has a partner, a puzzle, and a plaything on his hands. And as soon as you think you have any of these women pegged, this marvelous trio of actresses surprise and delight you, revealing new nooks and crannies of their characters to explore. Really, it’s the wives’ world. Their husband just lives in it. —Karen Valby

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