Ghost World had a huge effect on my fifteen-year-old self; my choice for best of the year in this category would be Steve Buscemi for his absolutely lovely and funny work. I was absolutely heartbroken when he was omitted from this lineup. Sadly, this was the beginning of a three-year run of unforgivable snubs for indie guys in this category.
I'd also cite Tony Shalhoub's scene-stealing lawyer in The Man Who Wasn't There as worthy of mention as well.
In the context of Buscemi's snub, I really hated Jon Voight's nomination. He appeared in Ali for, what, all of ten minutes? His performance consisted of pretty much an affected accent underneath a major makeup job. I'm young enough that I couldn't really tell you whether or not Voight "captured" the real Howard Cosell, but I don't really care either. A pointless nomination.
I went into Training Day based on the Best Actor buzz for Denzel Washington, and while watching it I thought, hey, Ethan Hawke is pretty good too -- the gun in the bathroom scene, especially, was memorable, but so's the scene in which Washington forces him to smoke. Hawke effectively portrays his character's gradual disillusionment with his boss's tactics in a performance that's a nice complement to Washington's showboating. All of that said...until Hawke showed up at SAG, I didn't even remotely consider him as even a possibility for a nomination, mostly because, DUH! Not supporting! Looking back, Hawke's nod was in some ways the beginning of our current anything-goes era of almost annual category fraud. A solid performance, but not enough a standout for me to reject the category fraud and pick him over the other three guys, all of whom I like.
Ian McKellen brings great wit and humanity to the role of Gandalf in Rings -- I think he's splendid, and would have been perfectly happy to see him win, especially after his Gods and Monster's loss. I think McKellen is one of the reasons Rings is such an emotionally affecting epic, because the actor grounds the fantasy in something very real -- the scene when it appears his character dies has such poignancy because McKellen has made such a warm and wise impression throughout the earlier portion of the film. And yet, I'm not bothered that he lost, mainly for the Alec Guinness/Star Wars reason -- the film and the character aren't first and foremost an acting showcase.
I think Jim Broadbent was nominated for the right film and in the right category. Certainly he was fun in Moulin Rouge, but I prefer his Iris performance, which operated at a far more human level. I love the "You wrote novels...wonderful novels" scene, when you can just see his heart breaking over the fact that his wife can't remember even her most fundamental accomplishments anymore. And on the lead/supporting debate, I think he COULD have been promoted as a lead...but he was gone from ALL of the flashback Winslet/Bonneville scenes (not an insignificant part of the movie), and a number of the contemporary sequences were more solidly focused on Dench. Using Mister Tee's logic, would I vote for him for Best Actor (in a bountiful year for the category), or would I think the part weren't large enough when stacked up against the competition? Probably the latter. Oh...and I think he and Bonneville both do a SPLENDID job of making their performances feel like the same character at different ages, not an easy thing to do. His semi-surprising win on Oscar night made for a perfectly pleasing moment.
But I'm going to go with Ben Kingsley. It's rare that Mister Tee and I land on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum around here, but I guess on Sir Ben we'll just have to disagree. I think he's a very fine actor, and I find his Sexy Beast work just electric, a blast of volcanic energy that blazes on-screen. It's rare for a screen villain role to be so lacking in humor -- usually these types of characters are played with some wit and playfulness -- but Kingsley's intense coldness brought its own form of amusement to the proceedings. The actor is so focused, his character so perpetually irritated, that scenes like Don Logan getting kicked off the plane after refusing to put out his cigarette come off as darkly humorous regardless. I guess I don't see just a lot of loud yelling here -- to me, this is a case of an actor committing intensely to his role and completely owning his movie. On the whole, I was fairly mixed on Sexy Beast as a movie, but Kingsley was a real standout and gets my vote.