'Moneyball' vs. 'Tree of Life': Which Role Will Get Brad Pitt an Oscar?

He's extraordinary in both films, but Moneyball may be the one to land him the Academy Award

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Sony Pictures / Fox Searchlight

Brad Pitt is a great actor. It's easy to forget that fact amid the endless tabloid obsession over his non-relationship with Jennifer Aniston, his ever-expanding brood with Angelina Jolie, and his hunk-for-life status. But few ordinary gossip magnets could have credibly delivered the two vastly different performances Pitt has offered in 2011. The hardscrabble '50s Texas dad of The Tree of Life and the magnanimous Billy Beane of Moneyball don't have much in common beyond the overarching sense that they are stark personalities with emotions that run deep—and that they're both among the most memorable characters on screen so far this year.

The Tree of Life and Moneyball have both racked up rave reviews, and Pitt's performances in each have been singled out for praise. What's more, Pitt is a two-time Oscar nominee without a little gold man on his shelf. As awards season amps up, speculation has naturally centered on whether this could be Pitt's year and, if so, which of his 2011 performances is more deserving of the statue.

Of course, attempting to compare two distinct works side by side is a dicey proposition, especially considering that each film's releasing studio (Fox Searchlight for Tree and Sony Pictures for Moneyball) will make its own decision on how to market Pitt to the Academy. But Oscar precedent shows that when there are two awards-worthy performances given by the same actor in the same year, it's usually best to concentrate on one. So Pitt's hopes rest on a focused, targeted campaign for the performance that's most likely to resonate with voters, a notoriously old-fashioned bunch.

In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's spiritual ode to existence, Pitt plays the archetypal tough Texas father. On the surface, the no-nonsense Mr. O'Brien—his hair cropped to a tight crew cut—is a taskmaster who dominates his family, demanding adherence to a a code of domestic rules and rituals. He makes his presence felt; unafraid to get physical with his sons or his wife (Jessica Chastain), O'Brien preaches ferocity and a steel will as the best way to get ahead in the world.

Given the part's obtuse nature and the philosophical bent of the production, Pitt could very well have stopped there. He might not have gotten much help from Malick, given that Sean Penn complained to Le Figaro in August that the filmmaker never explained what Penn's character (the older version of Jack, one of the O'Brien sons) was supposed to be doing in his scenes.

Yet each of Pitt's stern moments is underlined with vulnerability, and the effect is a nuanced picture of a man who can't quite confront his own inner emotional turmoil. O'Brien's inability to get his entrepreneurial business going forms a deep-rooted sense of emasculation that shows itself in Pitt's subtle expressions of anxiety and regret, as well as a few outpourings of terse rage.

Pitt's scenes with the top-notch actors playing his three sons are rife with a sense of longing—for an emotional connection that's not there, for the mutual respect that's inherent in a meaningful father-son bond, for the opportunity to say what must be said. These complicated moments, rather than Malick's digressions into the ancient past or the vast cosmos, form the core of the production.

It's award-worthy work, to be sure, and in another year (and in a film by a more accessible director), it might have been enough to get Pitt his Oscar. The safer bet in 2011, though, is Moneyball.

Bennett Miller's adaption of the Michael Lewis book about revolutionary Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane opened last weekend to the sort of acclaim reserved for surefire awards candidates, with more than one outlet comparing it to The Social Network.

The film could be nitpicked for a few factual omissions (whither top starters Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito?), and a strong case could be made that Beane's imprint on baseball has been overstated. The picture, however, isn't a dramatization of sports history but the portrait of a man thinking his way out of a professional and personal abyss.

And the best testament to the quality of Pitt's work is the ease with which he imposes an extraordinary range of feelings onto scenes of Beane merely sitting and thinking. There are few activities less inherently cinematic, but it is in these moments that the actor gives us a full measure of the man.

Whether he's seen in close-up, adrift in thought while driving his truck, or in a long shot where he stands in an empty stadium and contemplates the uncertainty of a trying offseason, Pitt transforms talk of statistics, playoffs, and walks into grand human drama. We might not understand VORP or WHIP or the trading deadline, but we understand pressure, loneliness, the intense challenge that comes with being saddled with great responsibility while also trying to innovate.

Pitt seamlessly blends those moments of deep concern with projections of confidence. Beane struts through Oakland's offices, boasts to the franchise's ownership of his plan to fix the squad, sternly addresses the team, and matter-of-factly informs players that they've been traded or released.

Beane's public persona is equal parts boss and salesman, and he sets the course for the organization while hawking its viability to his underlings, especially Jonah Hill's Peter Brandt. Pitt nails the preternatural ease of a born leader, so smoothly imparting Beane's vision that you'd be crazy not to buy in.

The film is driven by that blend of movie-star charm and serious-actor chops, the seamless intermingling of Beane's disparate inner and outer worlds. And that's what will likely bring Pitt back to the Kodak Theatre on February 26.