And, assuming the list of winners won't end up being as effed up as the list of nominees, a comic book villain will trounce the competition. The nominees:
Josh Brolin, Milk
As the brooding and ineffectual Dan White, Brolin acts as a nice counterpoint to Sean Penn's charismatic hero Harvey Milk. The past couple of years have been good to Brolin, who played a major role in last year's Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men and starred as now former (thank God) President Bush in W. He's the only nominee who has posed any kind of threat to Heath Ledger's award domination, picking up the Best Supporting Actor prize from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle (the only two awards Ledger didn't collect).
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
As uber-Method actor Kirk Lazarus, Downey is merciless as he skewers the very foundation of "serious" acting. In another year, this performance might have been overlooked but coming on the heels of Iron Man's big success, and in light The Soloist (the Oscar bait that would have seen him pushed as Best Actor) being pushed back, Downey managed to secure himself a much deserved slot. Downey's been nominated once before, as Best Actor for 1992's Chaplin, and if things stay on course, I'm sure he'll be nominated again in the years to come.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
In Doubt Hoffman has a tricky role, playing as he does a man who might be a pedophile and whom the audience must believe could be guilty just as easily as he could be innocent. Hoffman is a great actor and while I thought he was fine here, I didn't think there was anything particularly noteworthy about this performance. It's a shame that the Academy couldn't get it up for Happy-Go-Lucky as Eddie Marsan would have been more deserving of the spot. Hoffman is the only nominee in the bunch who already has an Oscar (for 2005's Capote) and was nominated last year for Charlie Wilson's War (and should have been nominated for either The Savages or Before The Devil Knows You're Dead).
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
He's gonna win. You know it, I know it, and hopefully the Academy's almost complete rejection of The Dark Knight doesn't prevent them from recognizing that his is the most worthy performance. In Ledger's hands, The Joker becomes more than just a cartoon villain and is easily one of the most compelling characters of 2008. Nearly everyone agrees, of course, as Ledger has won just about every award leading up to the Oscars.
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
The surprise of the bunch, given how Revolutionary Road found itself almost entirely ignored throughout awards season. By all accounts, Shannon renders a great performance (I can't confirm that, as I have yet to see the film) as a mentally disturbed suburbanite. The general lack of affection for the film doesn't bode well for his chances, but this is likely one of those cases where the nomination itself is the reward.