Warren Schmidt is the anti-Jack – the epitome of uncool – which makes Jack Nicholson’s performance as the retired insurance agent in “About Schmidt” all the more remarkable. Trading in his trademark sheepish grin and stylish sunglasses for a pathetic frown, a cardigan and a comb-over, Jack truly looked old for the first time in his career.

Jason Pesick
<p>Jack Nicholson</p>
<p>Courtesy New Line</p>

Nicholson toys with the audience’s expectations and preconceived notions throughout “About Schmidt.” Moviegoers have come to expect a Jack who is quick-witted and forceful – one who can tell an unaccommodating waitress to hold the chicken salad by saying “I want you to hold it between your knees.”

In “Schmidt,” however, we see a Jack who has retired from an empty job and lives with his simple wife in the Midwest – a man who finds joy in Hummel figurines and urinates sitting down. And that’s what makes his performance work so well: Warren Schmidt runs counter to everything that Jack has come to represent.

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the 65-year-old Nicholson will pick up his record-breaking third Best Actor Oscar (he has won previously for 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and 1997’s “As Good as It Gets”). Joining Nicholson in the category are previous winners Michael Caine (Best Supporting Actor for “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “The Cider House Rules”), Nicolas Cage (Best Actor, “Leaving Las Vegas”) and Daniel Day-Lewis (Best Actor, “My Left Foot”). First-time nominee Adrien Brody is the only Oscar-less actor in the category.

Nicholson’s stiffest competition comes from actor-turned-cobbler-turned-actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who returned from a five-year hiatus to play William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, a mid-19th century gang leader in the Five Points area of New York, in Martin Scorsese’s epic “Gangs of New York.”

Day-Lewis plays Bill the Butcher with a fierceness that alternates between demented humor and downright cruelty. One moment he’s tapping his glass eye with the tip of a knife or coolly flinging blades at a woman during a knife-throwing exhibition while quipping “Whoopsy-daisy” with a goofy smirk on his face, and the next he’s murdering a rival politician with a meat cleaver. Through his sheer dynamism and zeal, Day-Lewis creates a timeless movie villain and proves that he hasn’t lost his step during his break from acting.

Similar to Nicholson, Nicolas Cage takes a break from his usual cool dude action hero persona for his roles in “Adaptation,” playing twin screenwriters Charlie and Donald Kaufman. The film itself, written by the real-life Charlie and his fictitious brother Donald, shows Charlie’s struggle to adapt Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief.”

Cage shows a remarkable ability to morph between the Kaufman brothers: As Charlie, he plays a stressed artist trying to turn out a masterpiece on par with his “Being John Malkovich” script; he’s nervous, awkward, overweight and balding. As Donald, he plays a Hollywood dufus who idolizes screenwriting guru Robert McKee; he is dimwitted but energetic.

Twenty-nine-year-old Adrien Brody picked up his first nomination for his role as Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist.” Set during World War II in Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto, “The Pianist” shows the horrors endured by half a million Jews under German occupation.

Brody turns in a quiet, unaffected performance as Szpilman. He avoids portraying Szpilman as some kind of

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