Anthony Hopkins - Perhaps the most gifted and versatile actor alive gives perhaps his dullest performance. Overplaying the cantankerous bluster of John Quincy Adams, Hopkins gets saddled with the manipulative monologue at the end of "Amistad," in which any hopes the movie had for being thoughtful or intelligent are quelled. Speaking before the Supreme Court as Adams defending slaves from the now-famous Amistad mutiny, Hopkins verges on self-parody.
Burt Reynolds - Portraying a director of pornographic films, Jack Horner, in "Boogie Nights" gives new meaning to the word comeback. Reynolds does not enjoy the role nearly as much as he should have; if he could have used a bit more blithe demeanor for the movie's sunny start, his grousing seems perfectly matched for the bleak, brilliant middle section. By the time his stars, nationally endowed for the arts, return for the ending's tonic homecoming, Reynolds appears in full command.
Robin Williams - Blatantly disregarded as merely a comic genius - a lucky few claim such a title - Williams also happens to be a very fine dramatic actor. His dynamism is on ample display in "Good Will Hunting" in which he takes a hackneyed role of humanistic psychiatrist and transforms it into resonant portrait of modern psychological confusion. The wisdom and warmth of the character are external, but it's the internal work Williams does that makes his portrayal so commanding.
Will Win - Williams; The Academy owes him after neglecting his magnificent performances in "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Dead Poets Society."
Should Win - Williams.
Jack Nicholson - Playing himself yet again, the ever-snarky star relishes Melvin Udall's basic distrust of mankind. Nicholson growls, grunts and grins greatly, but his work here seems not only rote, but somewhat regressive. He shows not nearly the same striking skill he employed in his great '70s work. Like "As Good As It Gets" itself, he appeals to, without entirely engaging, the viewer.
Matt Damon - Like Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces," Will Hunting rejects his prodigious talents for blue-collar cleverness. Carousing with his Boston chums, Will treats his aptitude for analytical, mathematical logic as an affliction. Consider Damon's portrayal the antidote. He suggests a more mature and emotionally candid actor than Nicholson (then and now.) His sensitivity and subtlety lend "Good Will Hunting" its artful ambiguity.
Peter Fonda - After vaulting to legendary status with Nicholson in the cult film "Easy Rider," Peter spent a life in relative obscurity, at least when you consider his family name. His surprising and superb portrayal of the title character in "Ulee's Gold" is haunting in part because it so resembles the work of his father, Henry. But the sting belongs mostly to Peter himself, who mines much nuance out of the role of a reticent beekeeper.
Robert Duvall - Fire and brimstone unite in Duvall's portrayal of Southern Baptist Preacher Sonny, "The Apostle." Possessed either by God or the Devil, Duvall acts like Robert Johnson played the guitar, full of soul and Southern sass. Duvall gives you religion - his character eats, sleeps, drinks, hits, dreams The Bible. Duvall is a biblical force in an otherwise unassuming - yet great - film.
Dustin Hoffman - Delivering his most skilled performance since "Rain Man" and his most comically energetic since "Tootsie," Hoffman does a wicked impersonation of Hollywood producer Robert Evans; the most delicious inside joke in "Wag the Dog," a movie full of them. Hoffman exudes smarm and smugness with the practiced verve of a car salesman.
Will Win - Fonda; The Academy loves nothing so much as a comeback, and Fonda does quiet, dignified work.
Should Win - Duvall; More mesmerizing than any performance I can remember, Duvall sings hymns to noise. But it's the silent moments of his performance that earn merit.