The Academy Award nominations have been announced, and those up for an award are in for an old-fashioned slugfest. The nods are divided pretty event between frontrunners American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave in the Best Picture category, fracturing the other awards into unpredictable clusters. Furthermore, there are a load of fresh faces in several of this year’s nomination brackets, ensuring a minimum of overly-political "he’s due" awards.

Today we feature Best Supporting Actor. This is a thornier pack than last year, when all the nominees were previous winners, limiting the amount of actual competition between participants (Christoph Waltz ultimately won). This year there are no previous winners, three first-time nominees, and two second-time honorees. What’s more, it can be argued that each of the members of this particular nominated class are working in the shadow of a bigger standout leading man. Usually there’s a big supporting cut-up, or a scenery-chewing ham who upstages everyone. Here, at last, we have five legit Supporting Actor performances. The nominees…

Captain Phillips
DARK HORSES: Barkhad Abdi and Bradley Cooper
Every year, a little-known actor emerges from relative obscurity to join the other nominees, and everyone politely smiles and pats themselves on the back for not honoring some old warhorse giving the same acclaimed performance a billion times over. It’s rarely about how good he is, and in Barkhad Abdi’s case, it feels overly political: honoring his work has been one of the defensive strategies employed by fans of Captain Phillips who bat back accusations of the film’s simplistic racial dynamics.

Abdi’s great, of course, a palpable menace who reveals himself as psychologically complex and principled in the film’s quieter moments. But, like everything in Paul Greengrass’ thriller, it’s about context. Greengrass’ docu-style shooting method reduces everything to "process," whether it’s a chase, a brawl, or a negotiation. It’s a credit to Greengrass’ intelligence (and/or commercial interests) that the not-nominated Tom Hanks is so good in the title role, but it’s a credit to the studios for getting Abdi out there, making his name known while promoting the film, because his character certainly feels less concrete and more elemental than his opposition.

Bradley Cooper is a surprise honoree, given that he wasn’t receiving awards attention from other voting bodies. Generally, you’re not going to receive a lot of Oscar heat if you were better in another recent Oscar-nominated role, and yet here’s Cooper, a year after his Leading Actor nod in Silver Linings Playbook, offering some alpha male comic relief to David O. Russell’s manic crime caper. His attention in this category likely has to do with the Academy’s love of the film more than an appreciation of the work. Also, consider it a silent vote to bring back perms.

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