Actors are Oscar-nominated for their entire performances. But sometimes all it takes is that one unforgettable scene to secure victory. Think John Wayne as one-eyed drunken lawman Rooster Cogburn, yelling from atop his horse before a shootout, "Fill your hand, you sonuvabitch!" in True Grit. Each of the five nominees up for a best-actor Academy Award on Sunday has his own magic moment on-screen. USA TODAY's Susan Wloszczyna provides a close-up of their trophy-worthy scenes.
Bradley Cooper as Pat Solatano in Silver Linings Playbook
The role: Just released from a mental-health facility after being diagnosed as bipolar, Pat fights to keep his moods in check while still obsessing about his cheating wife, Nikki. His plan to get himself in shape to win her back - despite a restraining order that prevents him from contacting her - is interrupted by Tiffany, a young widow with an attitude as heavy as her eyeliner. Looking to impress his wife with his recovery, Pat agrees to Tiffany's suggestion that she and Pat compete in a dance competition - but only if she gives a letter to Nikki in return.
The moment: Cooper impresses with at least two scarily realistic and loud breakdowns, one over his frustration with the unhappy ending of the novel A Farewell to Arms, the other when he isn't able to find his old wedding tape. But it is at the end of the film during the dance contest, when a calm Pat has finally gained some focus and knows what he wants, that the actor truly earns his nomination. Not only does he pull off a wonderfully awkward routine with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), but his character's long-awaited reunion with an awed Nikki is warm and gracious, especially when he whispers something in her ear that leaves her smiling wistfully.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln
The role: Weary, woeful, witty and wily, this is a 16th president worn down by the ongoing Civil War but one who will not compromise his principles as he pushes to abolish slavery once and for all. He is at his best dealing with common folk and knows when to let others handle the dirtier business of politics. Haunted by personal tragedy, Lincoln also struggles to bring peace to his domestic situation.
The moment: Day-Lewis excels at humanizing such a towering legend, especially when he spins one of Lincoln's folksy yarns - such as the story about Revolutionary War patriot Ethan Allen using an English lord's "water closet" and finding a portrait of George Washington inside. But the actor is at his most impressive when Lincoln is his most adamant. When members of his Cabinet waffle over whether passing the 13th Amendment is worth the effort, he raises his voice in frustration, "We're stepped out upon the world's stage now - now - with the fate of human dignity in our hands! Blood's been spilt to afford us this moment!" For added emphasis, he points at those who question him, shouting: "Now, now, NOW!"
Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables
The role: Poverty and social injustice are rampant in 19th-century France as Valjean, known as prisoner 24601, is finally freed after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. After struggling to find work, he breaks parole and assumes a new identity as a respected factory owner and mayor. Life grows more complicated, however, after Valjean takes in a young ward, Cosette, while Inspector Javert upholds his vow to hunt him down.
The moment: In 3½ minutes, Jackman delivers a master class in character transformation as he performs the soliloquy What Have I Done? during the musical's prologue. When a bishop provides shelter and shows Valjean forgiveness even though he steals from him, the embittered ex-con questions his choices. Jackman weeps, his voice sounding rough and raw, as he sings, "What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?" Suddenly, his vocals grow strong as he resolves to start anew: "Jean Valjean is nothing now. Another story must begin!"
Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master
The role: Freddie Quell is trouble incarnate, a barely evolved specimen of manhood who drifts through life after serving in the Navy during World War II. He indulges his every appetite, whether it involves drink, sex or violence. That is, until he stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd, a self-made cult leader who sees Freddie as the ultimate guinea pig to test his Scientology-style theories and adopts the traumatized young man into his family.
The moment: Phoenix's performance crackles with explosive unpredictability, never more so than when his character begins to suspect that his master is a sham in what is essentially a breakup scene. When law officials arrive to arrest Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on charges of wrongfully withdrawing funds and other counts, Freddie savagely beats the men. The pair are taken away and placed in adjoining cells. A handcuffed Freddie, enraged, repeatedly bashes his head into a top bunk bed and then smashes a toilet with his foot. When Dodd tries to calm him with sermonizing, Freddie grows angrier and accuses him of lying. They end up shouting profanities at each other through the bars, like screeching alpha males in a zoo.
Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker in Flight
The role: In the cockpit, Whip is an ace of a commercial pilot, full of studly swagger and smooth talk. But when he is proclaimed a hero after pulling off an impossible landing in a field that saves most of the passengers onboard, the unrepentant alcoholic must face the demons that have sent his personal life into a tailspin and put his job in jeopardy.
The moment: Washington nails the in-command Whip. But it's not until he exposes his character's dark side that his performance comes fully alive. The person who awakens in the hospital is in stark contrast to the one who just performed a miracle in the sky. Battered, beaten and shaky, he soon will encounter another scary proposition: facing charges that he was intoxicated when he flew the doomed plane. Before that, he is still taking it all in when a safety officer begins the process of interrogating him while a union rep, his old pal Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), stands guard. A single tear falls from Whip's unbandaged eye when he mentions his estranged son. The fact that the first person he calls is his drug dealer says more about his situation than any words.