By Lanford Beard
Updated November 10, 2012 at 10:05 PM EST
Credit: Francois Duhamel
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For your consideration: Javier Bardem for Best Supporting Actor, Skyfall.

Silva, the latest Bond film’s sexually ambiguous cyberterrorist, would be a punchline in any other actor’s hands. Instead, Bardem brings an improbable blend of over-the-top flamboyance and restrained calculation to his character. It’s the sort of cinematic tour de force that we’ve seen before not only from Bardem himself (in his Oscar-winning 2007 role as No Country for Old Men‘samoral assassin Anton Chigurh), but also in a select few actors who have managed to take commercial villainy all the way to Hollywood’s biggest night.

For starters, it seems no small coincidence that Silva’s incarceration visually evokes the aesthetics of The Silence of the Lambs‘ Hannibal Lecter. Nearly 20 years after Anthony Hopkins took home gold for that role, Bardem infuses Silva with a similar psychosexual nuance, particularly in his skin-crawlingly playful introductory scene. Quid pro quo, Academy.

Amid this subtlety, Bardem also unleashes the same brand of cartoonish sadism that netted Christoph Waltz a statuette as Col. Hans Landa in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. There is no doubt that Silva delights in toying with his quarry, a fact that stands out all the more when played next to — and sometimes in the same scene as — reminders of the abject darkness driving his vengeance quest. Threading this needle is no small feat, and Bardem nailed it. Bingo!

Silva also bears a striking resemblance to Heath Ledger’s Joker from 2008’s The Dark Knight — and I’m not just talking about their shockingly dyed mops. EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum deemed Silva “one of the most complexly unhinged villains in Bond history.” I’d be willing to take that characterization beyond the Bond universe and argue that, thanks to Bardem, Silva can compete with any of cinema’s most vile villains. The elaborate game of cat and mouse he plays not only with Daniel Craig’s Bond but also with mentor and mother figure M (Judi Dench) is a delicate dance, and it elevates him well past the current standard of Bond villains.

Unlike Quantum of Solace‘s nebulously nefarious water thief Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) or Casino Royale‘s blood-weeping poker face Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), Silva is indispensable not just to Skyfall but also to Bond himself. He’s a fun-house mirror reflection of our hero who forces Bond to rejoin the living to save M — and, in doing so, process his ambivalent feelings toward her, feelings that are writ large by Silva’s vendetta. What Bardem brings to the table is an investment in the character down to his very cells much like Ledger’s value-added performance in The Dark Knight. To paraphrase the Joker, this franchise deserved a better class of criminal. And Bardem has given it.

Despite how Bardem has built on these winning precedents, EW’s Oscar expert Anthony Breznican confirms the actor’s name is not in the mix for 2013. Yet. Then again, Bond rarely gets Oscar love. Case in point, over 22 films and 50 years, the franchise has received a total of seven nominations — all relegated either to technical categories or for theme songs (related note to Academy voters: Adele!). Whittling down the odds even more, Bond’s seven nods have produced only two wins — for sound effects in 1964’s Goldfinger and for Thunderball‘s visual effects the next year. (It’s worth noting that both of those films ranked in the top 5 of EW’s comprehensive Bond ranker.)

More to the point, though, not one of Bond’s 10 installments since 1982 has received Academy recognition. And can you blame them given the options? From the Cold War camp of the Timothy Dalton years to the Pierce Bronson-era nosedive into absurd gadgetry (really with the invisible car?!), those films were awards season nonstarters. Though my colleague Darren Franich implores you to reconsider Die Another Day, I’m going to have to respectfully agree with Oscar on this one — as well as on the decision not to acknowledge that cacophonous monstrosity Jack White and Alicia Key threw together for Quantum of Solace.

Still, Skyfall is without a doubt one of the most thrilling films in Bond history. It presents a real opportunity to reinvigorate the franchise, fortify its critical legitimacy, and set the world’s most famous super spy up for another 50 years. Much of that credit goes to Sam Mendes’ elegant direction and the screenwriting trio of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan. With all due respect to Craig, the smartest decision Mendes and his team made was to zoom out from Bond and pivot Skyfall on Silva. This shift gave Bond a chance to breathe, opened up an unexpected window into the series’ soul, and most importantly gave us all the chance to watch a master class from Bardem. In this sequel-dominated moment in film history, it’s unexpected, exceptional, and exhilarating to find this caliber performance in a legitimate blockbuster.

So, when Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 10, it’s admittedly unlikely that the man behind Silva will see his name next to fellow previous winners Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Tommy Lee Jones. But if any actor has a shot at bringing Bond to the Dolby Theatre, it will and should be Bardem.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article listed Django Unchained‘s Christoph Waltz as a contender for Best Supporting Actor; it was recently announced that Waltz will compete for Actor in a Leading Role.

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