It seems a safe bet to say that Colin Firth will be this year’s Oscar winner for his fantastic work in The King’s Speech, but his fans have been in love with him since he created the definitive Mr. Darcy in the TV miniseries Pride & Prejudice (1995).
A close runner-up surely will be James Franco for his harrowing portrayal of a man pushed to extreme means of survival in 127 Hours; a TV production marked his leading-man emergence, as well, playing one of the most iconic Hollywood figures in James Dean (2001).
Javier Bardem was nominated for his Biutiful gangster, following up a previous Oscar nom for Before Night Falls (2000)—in which he played real-life Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas.
Jesse Eisenberg was nominated for his antisocial computer nerd who invents The Social Network; we’ve liked him since his performance as a messed-up teen in The Squid and the Whale (2005).
Natalie Portman is a front-runner, and has already won a Golden Globe for her performance in Black Swan. But anyone who saw her as a precocious 13-year-old (the actress was barely a year or two older) in Beautiful Girls (1996)—in which her character describes herself, plausibly, as “an old soul”—knew she was a talent to be reckoned with even then.
Annette Bening is also a favorite for her role in The Kids Are All Right, which combines humor and pathos; she had that kooky humor down pat already in The Grifters (1990).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Jeremy Renner got some love for his performance as a hotheaded bank robber in The Town, following up 2010’s nomination for The Hurt Locker; we first noticed him as the notorious serial killer in Dahmer (2002).
The Kids Are All Right nominee Mark Ruffalo has been working in television and movies for 20 years, but first became a critical darling in 2000 for his role in You Can Count On Me as the ne’er-do-well brother of Oscar nominee Laura Linney.
And surprise nominee John Hawkes first emerged from background roles in Miranda July’s 2005 Sundance hit Me And You And Everyone We Know.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams’ work in The Fighter earned her an Oscar nod; she first made a splash with her Oscar-nominated role in Junebug (2005) as a small-town girl curious about the world outside her little realm.
Adams’ Fighter castmate Melissa Leo is also a contender, and she’s been on our radar since the mid-1990s TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets.
Helena Bonham Carter is a nominee for her performance as the English queen in The King’s Speech; we’ve been watching her since her Ophelia to Mel Gibson’s Danish prince in Hamlet (1990).
Make your own DVD film festival before this year’s Oscars, and you can say you knew the winners way back when.