Every year, great actors sabotage their own chances for an Oscar nomination — and in rarer cases, for an Oscar win (damnit, Julianne Moore) — by delivering stellar performances in multiple films, thus splitting their votes and coming up empty-handed. This year, everyone's talking about Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Jessica Chastain, three young actors who shined in no less than 11 award-worthy films. These hard-working and talented stars, who for the most part deserve the attention, have unfortunately overshadowed Benedict Cumberbatch, 35, perhaps best known for playing Detective Holmes on TV's Sherlock.

In addition to the magnetism and intrigue he has brought to Holmes, Cumberbatch has had a great year on film — a fact that has not escaped the notice of J.J. Abrams, who recently cast the Brit in Star Trek 2. "Honestly, he’s just an incredible actor," Abrams said at a press conference. "If you’ve seen his work in Sherlock, he’s just got incredible skills. He’s an amazing stage actor. He did amazing work (on stage) in Frankenstein. He’s brilliant. You try to cast people who are great. We got lucky."

Cumberbatch's most notable success in film this year occurred in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a film that has not been met with much warmth in the United States. Perhaps a lack of familiarity with the John Le Carre novel upon which the film is based, combined with a labyrinthine plot, left most American viewers of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy wildly perplexed (myself included), but that ought not to distract from the quality of the acting, which was superb. Gary Oldman, in the lead role of George Smiley, has been the subject of a fair share of buzz for his understated performance, but that makes Cumberbatch's lack of attention all the more puzzling. As Smiley's right-hand man Peter Guillam in the film, Cumberbatch dazzles like Swarovski crystal held to the light, while suggesting, in minute flashes, an edge of insidious sharpness.

Notice the way Cumberbatch describes Guilliam's character in our exclusive interview with him and compare it to the thoughtless dribble most actors his age use to describe their work. "So it’s interesting Guillam on the front of it is very at ease with who he is, his visual look is very sort of dandified. He’s got a great blond bob, and fantastic Citroën DS car, and these fantastic beautiful clothes," he said. "It’s all going swimmingly, but that’s part of a personal armor that slowly, steadily gets stripped away."

There's also something about Cumberbatch not so easy to explain — a je ne sais quois missing from many Hollywood stars that fill out the year's roster of beefcakes and bad boys. It could be that he's not exactly cut out to be a hearthrob, replacing biceps and pouty lips with something more cerebral, more dignified. In Steven Spielberg's War Horse he is simply electrifying: the film, asleep with sentimentality for its first thirty or so minutes, bolts upright when Cumberbatch's naively-trained Major Stewart strides into the frame, and sags a little when he departs a brief interim later. No, it's not quite enough screen time to really earn him an Oscar nod — not among such lengthier supporting roles played brilliantly by Albert Brooks in Drive and Christopher Plummer in Beginners — but if there were an Academy Award for scene-stealing, Cumberbatch would be 2011's most deserving.

—JUSTIN JANNISE

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