Who's up for the Best Actor Oscar
When the New York Times calls your performance one of the best of the last 50 years, you can call the tailor for that tuxedo fitting. That's typical of the raves Sean Penn received for his gut-wrenching work as the Boston father whose teenage daughter is murdered in ''Mystic River.'' One of Penn's strongest competitors is none other than himself, since he's equally impressive as ''21 Grams''' ill college professor, though it appears that ''River'' will run past the latter film this Oscar season.
While Penn, despite three previous nominations, has never won an Oscar, Ben Kingsley is shooting for his second Best Actor trophy (after ''Gandhi'') with his demanding role as an Iranian patriarch chasing the American dream in ''House of Sand and Fog.'' And after watching heaps of Oscar talk amount to nothing five years ago, ''Rushmore'' snubbee Bill Murray should finally hear his name called for the first time thanks to his career-best performance as ''Lost in Translation'''s faded movie star.
What does Murray's near-assured nomination mean for his comedic colleagues? It's hard to imagine the Academy honoring multiple laugh riots, though three in particular are reasonable long shots. Johnny Depp's singularly sly Capt. Jack Sparrow helped ''Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl'' become one of the top-grossing films of the year. Jack Nicholson, who has more nominations -- 12 -- than any other living actor except for Meryl Streep, might see his sensitive work in ''Something's Gotta Give'' overshadowed by costar Diane Keaton, although the front-row-center Oscar favorite should never be counted out. And if critics had their way, ''American Splendor'' lead Paul Giamatti would be chewing his nails on Oscar night, but his chances for a nomination are hurt by the show-stealing appearance of his alter ego, Harvey Pekar.
Other indie contenders include ''The Station Agent'''s delightfully deadpan Peter Dinklage and ''Dirty Pretty Things''' curious doctor, Chiwetel Ejiofor -- but given this year's shorter voting period, some viewers might not reach that far down in the cassette pile. And if ''In America'' gains momentum, immigrant dad Paddy Considine could benefit, although it's his female family members who really shine.
That leaves ''Cold Mountain'' protagonist Jude Law, who stands to earn his second nomination (after ''The Talented Mr. Ripley,'' also directed by ''Mountain'''s Anthony Minghella) for his non-showy turn. And in the battle of the epic-adventure stars, ''The Last Samurai'''s sword fighter Tom Cruise, looking for his fourth nomination, may lose to his more critically praised rival, Russell Crowe -- also looking for his fourth nomination -- who steered ''Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World'' with confidence and humor.