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Here are six Oscar-worthy performances from 1999

Mark Harris picks the best actors from a season of beautifully understated films

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Here are six Oscar-worthy performances from 1999

The Oscar race has begun not with a bang, but with a whisper. Critics’ groups in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston have started handing out their prizes, and there’s good news: For the first time in several years, there’s absolutely no front-runner in most major categories (forget everything you heard about ”American Beauty” having it all locked up), Even better news: This is not a year in which critics are confusing acting with OVERacting. What’s in? Hushed intensity, understatement, and doing more with less. What’s out? Scenery chewing, long weepy scenes, and Al Pacino yelling ”HOO-ahh!!”

With that in mind, here’s a quick guide to a few of last year’s finest (and quietest) performances. Use it as a movie or video shopping list, and you won’t be disappointed.

(1) Russell Crowe in ”The Insider.” The L.A. Critics Association and the National Board of Review have both handed Crowe their Best Actor awards; if you want to know why, just check out his work as the agonized tobacco-company whistleblower in Michael Mann’s fine film (which hasn’t yet gotten the audience it deserves, so GO). In ”The Insider,” Pacino gets all the blustery, ”YOU’RE out of order!” scenes and does them well, but it’s Crowe’s implosive intensity as a man who feels his life, his family, and his safety slipping through his fingers that rivets you. If you remember him as the violent, volatile antihero of ”L.A. Confidential,” his performance seems all the richer (and his knack for choosing good movies is beginning to seem uncanny).

(2) Hilary Swank in ”Boys Don’t Cry.” The front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar after sweeping the L.A., New York, and Boston critics, Swank, whose most distinguished work before ”Boys” was a recurring role on ”Beverly Hills, 90210,” has yet to be discovered by most of the country because ”Boys,” in which she plays an ill-fated young woman desperate to become a young man, has grossed less than $3 million. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing the year’s most remarkable performance, a heart-wrenching expression of pent-up desire that’s completely free of gimmicks or flamboyance. Almost as good: ChloĆ« Sevigny as her gentle, would-be girlfriend, who’s almost desperate NOT to know the truth about the man she thinks she loves.

(3) Richard Farnsworth in ”The Straight Story.” Farnsworth beat Crowe for the New York critics’ Best Actor prize; he’s well into his 70s and, amazingly, hasn’t picked up a single bad acting habit along the way. David Lynch’s slice of apple-pie Americana gives him a chance to shine as an old codger sloooooowly driving a tractor across 300 miles of farmland to visit his sick brother; even if you find the movie a little sentimental, there’s no way you won’t fall in love with its star’s gentle, heartfelt, unhammy work.

(4) Julianne Moore in ”The End of the Affair.” One day soon, Moore is going to win an Oscar, and she’s going to do it the hard way, since her performances are unfailingly restrained, thoughtful, and uncompromised. That’s never been more true than in her work opposite Ralph Fiennes in the year’s best, most adult romance. All of Moore’s work as a lover who makes a one-of-a-kind sacrifice for her man is in what she doesn’t say — in what she can’t say. Don’t miss it.

(5) Matt Damon in ”The Talented Mr. Ripley.” ”Ripley” is a movie bursting with great performances — Jude Law’s seductively arrogant golden boy, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s pompously puffy preppy, even a tiny, luminous turn as a runaway heiress by Cate Blanchett (looking more than ever like she’s got the stuff that greats are made of). But Damon tops them all as the reticent, charmingly nervous big dreamer with a heart of darkness. Gone is the swagger of ”Good Will Hunting” and the healthy gleam of ”Saving Private Ryan”; in ”Ripley,” Damon tiptoes softly into areas that most other actors would crush underfoot, and does his best work ever.

(6) Haley Joel Osment in ”The Sixth Sense.” If you don’t know by now… well, what are you waiting for, an engraved invitation? Go already, and listen closely: He does more with a whisper than most grown-ups can do with a shout.