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Actors peak just in time for the Oscars

Paul Giamatti, Mark Ruffalo, Ethan Hawke among those to watch

Despite the Motion Picture Academy’s lamentable ability to ignore promising actors early in their careers, the voters sometimes get it right.

Leonardo DiCaprio earned his first and only Oscar nomination for one of his earliest and lowest-grossing movies, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Javier Bardem was nominated for “Before Night Falls,” and River Phoenix was singled out for “Running on Empty” — both for movies that were less than box-office record-breakers.

These are, alas, exceptions. Actors can work for decades before they get noticed; they can even do their career-best work without entering the Academy ranks. Ask Russell Crowe, Jeremy Irons and Chris Cooper, all Oscar winners whose finest work was done long before the Academy noticed their consistent excellence.

Nevertheless, we can hope that this year will be different, and the Academy voters will recognize at least some of the talent that has made 2004 such an exceptional year for actors, many of them young, most of them relatively unknown, some of them not truly tested until this year.

Here’s a roundup of 10 performances for your consideration:

Eric Bana,    Most of the reviews praised Brian Cox and Peter O’Toole (who were excellent) and trashed Brad Pitt (who wasn’t bad), but who put the “hero” into this heroic battle epic? Bana’s Hector, vulnerable, betrayed but formidable in battle, prevented the movie from developing a hole in its center. If you saw this versatile Australian in “Chopper” or even the ill-fated “The Hulk,” you knew he had it in him, but “Troy” was Bana’s breakthrough.

Thomas Haden Church,    If you don’t watch a lot of television, you may spend the first half of this brilliant buddy movie wondering who Church is, how he’s able to hold his own with longtime character actor Paul Giamatti, and whether he’s just playing himself. He’s that convincing as a loutish, rather desperate middle-aged actor, but he’s also something of a chameleon. Best-known for a continuing role in the early-1990s series, “Wings,” he’s also the writer-director of an indie road movie (“Rolling Kansas”) that played the Sundance Film Festival.

Ryan (Chris Evans) races against time after he receives a call on his cellular phone from a woman who says she's been kidnapped in New Line Cinemas "Cellular." (AP Photo/Richard Foreman) Richard Foreman / NEW LINE PRODUCTIONS, WIREIMAGE

Colin Farrell,    Soon to be seen in the title role in Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” the busiest young Irish actor in the business has worked with several prominent directors, making a solid impression in both Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” and Joel Schumaker’s “Tigerland.” While his Alexander the Great may well be a knockout, Farrell did his most accomplished work to date as the charismatic bisexual, Bobby Morrow, in “A Home at the End of the World,” which lasted about a week in art houses last summer.

Paul Giamatti,    Giamatti gave a marvelous performance as comic-book creator Harvey Pekar in last year’s “American Splendor,” but the Academy voters thought the movie was worth recognizing only for its script. He’s even better in “Sideways,” playing a depressed, recently divorced novelist who hooks up with a clearly smitten waitress. If he starts picking up prizes and nominations this time, it will also be a tribute to more than a decade of memorable character-actor work, including “Saving Private Ryan” and especially “Man on the Moon,” in which he played Andy Kaufman’s crazed alter ego, Bob Zmuda/Tony Clifton.

Topher Grace,  “P.S.”  One of the few young film actors who seems comfortable with speeches and lengthy dialogue exchanges, Grace gets a chance to demonstrate it in this curious drama about an unhappy divorcee who wonders if he’s the reincarnation of her high-school sweetheart. Grace honed his skills on television’s “That ’70s Show,” then made a big-screen impression as a seductive drug addict in “Traffic” and the heroine’s neglected boyfriend in “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!” But his role in “P.S.” is the first one that seems to have been written with his special talents in mind.

Danny Huston,  “Silver City.”  Son of John Huston and half-brother to Anjelica Huston and screenwriter Tony Huston, this 42-year-old actor continues the family’s tradition of quality. In John Sayles’ political detective story, he doesn’t get the showiest role (Chris Cooper and Daryl Hannah vie for that prize), but it’s his compromised, uncertain investigator who gradually emerges as the hero. Previously better-known as the director of the offbeat comedy-drama, “Mr. North” (1988), Huston does a lovely job of portraying a character who is never the loser he sometimes appears to be.

Mark Ruffalo,  “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”  Ruffalo gives his first truly adult performance as a college professor who can’t keep his hands off his best friend’s wife. Could it have been only four years ago that his work in “You Can Count on Me” was earning comparisons with James Dean’s tormented teenagers? Unlike Dean, who earned two posthumous Oscar nominations, Ruffalo was passed over by the Academy (is it easier to recognize young talent after it’s gone?). It will be harder to ignore him this time, though his movie faded quickly after a late-summer opening.

Peter Sarsgaard,    Although he’s long been a fixture in independent films (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Garden State”), Sarsgaard didn’t really connect with critics or the public until he played The New Republic’s troubled editor, Chuck Lane, in last year’s “Shattered Glass.” His sleepy-eyed sensuality is used to strongest effect in “Kinsey,” in which he plays the bisexual lover of both Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his wife Clara. In some ways it’s the key role in the film, which might collapse without Sarsgaard’s disarmingly honest approach to a character who sees himself as normal and harmless.