The outsiders

These actors might be long shots, but their performances were too good to be overlooked.

Christian Bale
"Harsh Times" (MGM)
Role: Jim Davis, an ex-Army Ranger whose experiences in the Middle East -- and a job that falls through with the Los Angeles Police Department -- turn him into a sociopathic time bomb
Pivotal moment: "I am a soldier of the apocalypse," Jim declares, eyes glazing over, when his buddies ask him about his new job with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. One beautiful day, on a beautiful Mexican lakefront surrounded by his friends, beer and the woman who loves him, Jim thinks only of carnage in South America. Any hope we had for him is gone.
Why he is Oscar worthy: Jenny Craig missed a golden opportunity not signing "Mr. Weight Loss" (see 2004's "The Machinist" and MGM's upcoming "Rescue Dawn") to an endorsement deal. But even though he's willing to alter himself physically for a role, Bale is really "Mr. Intensity." Some of the scariest stuff in "Harsh Times" involves Jim's swing from pot-smoking, beer-drinking, homie-shooting psychotic to military yes man when he interviews for his new job with the Feds. Bale gives us a guy who can keep it together (to a point) but would much rather not.

Sasha Baron Cohen
"Borat" (Fox)
Role: Journalist Borat Sagdiyev, who travels to America from his native Kazakhstan
Pivotal moment: The nude wrestling bout between Borat and his producer, of course
Why he is Oscar worthy: Besides being perhaps the funniest human in current circulation, Baron Cohen is among the bravest of entertainers. Considering the cringe factor inherent in most of his routines (as either Borat, Bruno or Ali G), what can it be like to actually invent and perform such inanity? The fact that "Borat" has produced such a windfall (it cost $18 million and has thus far made nearly $125 million domestically) won't hurt Baron Cohen's chances for awards recognition. But he also is an original -- which won't, historically, help those chances either. As The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt wrote, "This year, you are not going to find a more appalling, tasteless, grotesque, politically incorrect or slanderous film than 'Borat.'" What's not to like?

Laura Dern
"Inland Empire" (518 Media)
Role: Nikki, the actress, and Sue, the character who takes over Nikki's life via a haunted script
Pivotal moment: Nikki's metamorphosis from trophy wife/actress to desperate, haunted street person has numerous gradations, but when Dern finally turns into Nikki's version of Mr. Hyde -- talking about eye-gouging a rapist, being attacked by a madman with a crowbar and living in a circus -- the transformation is hair-raising, spine-tingling and blood-curdling. Dern's genial self has been banished to director David Lynch's land of limbo.
Why she is Oscar worthy: "Inland Empire" is a tour de force for Dern, who injects Lynch's Grand Guignol world of absurdist horror-comedy with an emotional reality that often saves it from itself -- which is probably why Lynch has worked with her for 20 years in such delicate dances as 1986's "Blue Velvet" and 1990's "Wild at Heart." Dern, underrated despite her astonishing work in such films as 1991's "Rambling Rose," 1996's "Citizen Ruth" and 2004's "We Don't Live Anymore," is due some major-league recognition.

Matt Dillon
"Factotum" (IFC Films)
Role: Henry Chinaski, the alter ego of poet/novelist Charles Bukowski, a character who works to write and lives to drink
Pivotal moment: When Henry interviews for yet another menial job and displays all the inner workings of the chronically unemployable and unreliable male who somehow seems trustworthy. Henry lets it all hang out because he can't do otherwise.
Why he is Oscar worthy: The perennially underrated Dillon appeared in two features this year -- "Factotum" and Universal's "You, Me and Dupree." One doesn't absolve him of the other, but "Factotum" shows his considerable range as an actor (which earned him a supporting actor Oscar nomination for last year's "Crash"). In "Factotum," directed by Norwegian Bent Hamer, Dillon gives a complete, fully realized, fully internalized portrayal of an unconventional but thoroughly principled man, and the way Dillon disappears inside of him is virtual alchemy. He jackhammers through the surface crustiness of Henry's life -- the drinking, job losses and happenstance sex -- exposing the artist in Henry and the one inside himself.

Aaron Eckhart
"Thank You for Smoking" (Fox Searchlight)
Role: Nick Naylor, the charismatic spokes-man for Big Tobacco, whose job is to say, "Light up!" at a time when the public sees cigarette smoke as the exhaust fumes of Satan
Pivotal moment: When his young son asks advice for a school paper on "Why America Has the Best Government," Nick answers, "Because of our endless appeals system." Then, realizing the kid needs actual help, he asserts that there's no wrong way to answer the questions: "Write about America's amazing ability to make a profit by breaking down trading tariffs and bringing American jobs to Third World countries. Or how good we are at executing felons. ... You see, Joey, that's the beauty of argument. Because if you argue correctly, you're never wrong."
Why he is Oscar worthy: Eckhart's Naylor is charming, likable, decent and dangerous because he's not deluding himself that he's doing something right. He's reconciled himself to the idea of making a very good living doing something wrong. When you meet the devil, he might look like Eckhart.

Shareeka Epps
"Half Nelson" (ThinkFilm)
Role: Drey, a 13-year-old student and friend to coke-addicted history teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling)
Pivotal moment: When she confronts a bicycle thief on a street near her home and performs a verbal emasculation. It isn't so much Drey's toughness that's special -- it's her subsequent amazement that she has such power. That, and Epps' ability to illuminate Drey's eventual epiphany about her favorite instructor
Why she is Oscar worthy: Gosling, rightfully, has been lauded for his performance, but if he is the violin for director Ryan Fleck, Epps is the bow. Her work is precise and economical, internalized and ripe with volatility. Her character is Dunne's conscience, and the way Drey quietly assesses her teacher's self-destructive misbehavior mutely delivers the film's devastating verdict: Whatever he does to himself can be forgiven but not the way he confirms Drey's doubts about men, authority and the world at large.

Ashley Judd
"Come Early Morning" (Roadside Attractions)
Role: Lucy Fowler, a hard-working, hard-drinking Southerner with a chip on her shoulder and a lot of notches on her belt
Pivotal moment: Early on, after Lucy has spent the night with a man she met in a bar, she makes a terse exit from his room, pays the motel bill and ends the one-night stand on a note of anger, revealing a complex character who's nursing a great deal of hurt.
Why she is Oscar worthy: Judd hasn't given such a nuanced performance since 1993's "Ruby in Paradise," and she makes Lucy thoroughly convincing and adorable, despite her flaws and a character whose development is direct and true. This is probably partly due to Judd's comfort portraying a Southerner but also because she's willing to play against her image and get her hands dirty as a woman who might have seen her best years go by and didn't do a lot to make them better.

Kazunari Ninomiya
"Letters From Iwo Jima" (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Role: Saigo, a baker-turned-soldier and member of the defending Japanese contingent on Iwo Jima who is least invested in the cause of Imperial Japan, the concept of feudal honor or dying for the emperor
Pivotal moment: When Saigo's platoon gets stranded in a cave without water, food or sufficient ammunition and his fellow soldiers begin committing ritual suicide, Saigo's reaction is manifold: horror at the carnage, fear of death, indecision and the hope that he can wait them all out and leave the cave quietly. Ninomiya lets it all read out across Saigo's face and makes the circumstances of a World War II Japanese soldier everybody's nightmare.
Why he is Oscar worthy: Ninomiya has to personify a Japan that was changing even while it was engaged in a war that -- especially in the case of Iwo Jima -- became a suicidal enterprise. Saigo was drafted; he is not a professional warrior, he is not sold on the idea of glorified death. But he wants to help his country, and his innate humanity dictates that he do whatever he can to help his fellow soldiers. Ninomiya makes a difficult character likable, believable and the very human linchpin of Clint Eastwood's parable about the fall and rise of an honor-bound society.

Catherine O'Hara
"For Your Consideration" (Warner Independent Pictures)
Role: Journeyman actress Marilyn Hack, whose work in "Home for Purim" is talked about as being Oscar-worthy before shooting even stops
Pivotal moment: "It's no big deal. It's nothing! Forget it!" Upon hearing -- and then spreading -- the awards rumors, O'Hara's Marilyn proves herself a perfectly balanced mix of humility, desperation and raw appetite.
Why she is Oscar worthy: There are two kinds of people in this world: lumpen Neanderthals and those who think O'Hara is a goddess. Never mind all the great work she's done over the years (from "Second City TV" to her roles in numerous Christopher Guest films). O'Hara's turn as Marilyn speaks volumes about Hollywood, the seductive power of awards and the lot of working actors. She also is something of a comedy classic -- and O'Hara makes the character poignant and affecting.

Julie Walters
"Driving Lessons" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Role: Evie Walton, a retired actress whose freewheeling ways inspire a teenager (played by Rupert Grint) suffering under his mother's thumb
Pivotal moment: When she's asked to give a reading at a seminar, Evie's confidence cracks, and she shows up drunk. The resulting meltdown is poignant, blunt and ultimately a bit terrifying.
Why she is Oscar worthy: Walters is an institution in the U.K. and probably best known stateside for playing Grint's mother, Molly Weasley, in Warner Bros. Pictures' "Harry Potter" movies. But she's an actress of considerable versatility and has to be in order to play Evie -- a character who remains lovable despite being self-absorbed and cultivating eccentricity. Walters pulls it all off with aplomb.