Approaching the end of November we are on our way towards critics' groups, guilds and professional celebrity schmoozers announcing their awards. Each category is likely to have three favorites translating into Oscar locks. Another four or five will compete for the remaining slots. And a couple will find a nod or victory tucked away amongst the regulars in the hopes that someone is paying attention that they are still in the race. The lists of good and even great films and performances each year though extends further than five. It extends further than ten. Though that is often the ceiling of whom you hear about as the road to Oscar takes shape. Therefore in this series of pieces, may I suggest some very worthy alternatives. Not saying they are always better or that they would even make my final ballot, but wouldn't it be nice to see one or more emerge as an underdog or find a mention or two amongst the precursors?

We shall begin with Best Supporting Actor. If we are to make our early list of favorites to emerge, the likely ones appear to be Geoffrey Rush ('The King's Speech'), Mark Ruffalo ('The Kids are All Right') and who may just be the frontrunner, Christian Bale ('The Fighter').

The rest of the unranked field may consist of Vincent Cassel ('Black Swan'), Matt Damon ('True Grit'), Michael Douglas ('Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'), Andrew Garfield ('The Social Network'), Bill Murray ('Get Low'), Jeremy Renner ('The Town'), and Sam Rockwell ('Conviction').

Here are five names to give a second look to:

Ben Kingsley ('Shutter Island') - The four-time Oscar nominee had his best role in years and had to walk a very interesting tightrope as the mysterious Dr. Cawley. Head psychiatrist at the ominous titular institution, he had to be a calm influence on DiCaprio's investigator and the audience who know better than to trust guys played by Kingsley. When all is revealed there is much to know about Cawley's careful decisions and facial gestures throughout the story with Kingsley playing him as much of a father figure as well as a man protecting his reputation. After what seemed like years of one bad villain role after another and weird choices for someone carrying the title of "Sir" ('Thunderbirds', 'Bloodrayne', 'A Sound of Thunder'), this was a return to substance and Sir Ben took charge of it.

John Hawkes ('Winter's Bone') - Hawkes is best known to audiences playing the straight sidekick to bigger casts from 'The Perfect Storm' to HBO's 'Deadwood' and 'Eastbound and Down'. While always welcome on the big or small screen and was terrific as the romantic lead in 'Me and You and Everyone We Know'. But we have never seen this nimbly, socially awkward kinda guy go full tough guy. Not only did he do that in Debra Granik's great "hillbilly noir", but he was downright frightening. And he was supposed to be one of the good guys. Hawkes was the feared uncle; the relative we want no contact with. Unless we were in trouble. He holds our attention every time he appears on screen and perfectly complimented the strength of Jennifer Lawrence's breakout performance. It was a true supporting performance and definitely one of the year's best.

Nigel Lindsay ('Four Lions')
- Generally the rule is to ignore the words of terrorists. Especially when they claim responsibility via videotape for something they didn't have the nuts to do themselves. But every time Nigel Lindsay's converted British Muslim opened his mouth to explain his motives to bomb the world, it was absolute gold. He was the "invisible Jihadi" who believed "Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic" who may have done more for depopulating the terrorist ranks than a billion airport employees. Homeland Security should send officers to screenings of 'Four Lions'. Anyone taking Lindsay's Barry seriously in the theater and not laughing - arrest them on sight.

Edward Norton ('Stone') - Almost nobody went to see John Curran's 'Stone'. Those who did probably didn't know what to make of it. Is it a blackmail thriller, a drama about prison reform or a Southern religious parable? I, myself, even referred to it as more "interesting" than "good." But for what it attempts and especially its three main performances, it is worth a peek. Particularly for Edward Norton doing arguably his best work since 2002's '25th Hour'. Some may think his turn as radically opposing twin brothers in the little seen 'Leaves of Grass' was better, but his titular prisoner here was a better reminder of the kind of work by Norton that endeared us to him during the 'Primal Fear' / 'Fight Club' / 'American History X' days. At first a spitfire of arrogance, Norton's Stone slowly sheds that skin to become a man aware that he must jettison the voices of reason and comfort around him and take refuge in books that may also be, unaware to him, a con as well. Because the film also jettisons his character for a good portion of the second act, his potential misdirection becomes less clearly calculated and we lose the strength of his arc. Ironically, that is the film's fault though, not Norton's.

Michael Shannon ('The Runaways') - Whether you found the biopic of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie to be a fun portrait of rock 'n' roll or just another derivative retelling of the same ol' story, you must agree that Shannon's performance of manager Kim Fowley stole the show. Even more rock 'n' roll than his jailbait-ish prodigies was a firestorm of passion, ideas and nutball behavior. Those following him right now as the straight-arrow fed on HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire' owe it to themselves to see the film just to watch Shannon make his Oscar-nominated crazy in 'Revolutionary Road' seem like a spokesman for Ritalin.

These five performances and more are good enough for award recognition and we're just getting warmed up with three more acting categories, screenplays and some films to remember for Best Picture now that there is plenty of room.

categories Oscars, Awards