James Franco, quirks and all, has got to be reckoned the breakthrough American actor of the year. He played Allen Ginsberg in "Howl" with conviction and panache -- my only criticism was that he mimicked Ginsberg's incantatory recital style too perfectly. (It worked better at rallies or in coffee shops.)

Franco brewed up a mixture of spirituality, passion and confusion without any fuss or preening. And I think he topped that accomplishment in "127 Hours." He imbued the role of trapped canyoneer Aron Ralston with a questing post-hippy sensibility.

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His unpredictable performance created moments of strong absurdist humor in the midst of queasy suspense, and made audiences forget -- for minutes at a time -- that they were just waiting to see him cut off his forearm. His offbeat intelligence was as keen as his knife was dull. Franco even got his American Sweetheart seal of approval this year: he played Julia Roberts's lover, albeit in the soporific "Eat Pray Love."

Will he and Anne Hathaway be stellar Oscar cohosts? Well, Franco showed his comic chops in the mediocre "Date Night" and the excruciating "Pineapple Express," and Hathaway has had some piquant moments on "Saturday Night Live."

Hathaway deserves a Purple Heart, not an Oscar, for "Love and Other Drugs." (She showed how well she can act for a great director with Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married.') But James Franco -- drag magazine covers, "General Hospital," and all -- has been Academy all the way. At the very least this cohosting gig should keep him in the forefront of the voters' minds. Colin Firth may win the best actor Oscar for "The King's Speech" (which I haven't seen, and look forward to), but Franco has earned a shot at the prize.

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