Finally had a chance to see Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" tonight and it lived up to the growing hype its received since screening here in the states over the past few weeks.  Word wasn't so positive after the film premiered at Cannes, but there has been quite a turnabout since.

Clearly Tarantino's best work since the first half of "Kill Bill" (unless you insist on judging that epic whole), "Basterds" may wear out its welcome a bit, but it features some truly great performances.

First off, how nice is it to see Diane Kruger actually enjoying herself on screen instead of her painful work in the "National Treasure" franchise and "Troy"?  Her portrayal of fictional German screen star Bridget von Hammersmark is almost a revelation if you didn't realize her European resume has been turning heads for the past decade. Let's hope this puts her back on the radar of A-list directors in the states.

Another international actor who should get some more U.S. attention after "Basterds" is Daniel Bruhl.  Moviegoers may recognize him from his small role in "The Bourne Ultimatum," but it's his charming turn as Fredrick Zoller, a Nazi war hero who tries to seduce Soshanna Dreyfus (a fine Melanie Laurent) that should boost his profile in the English-making movie world.  Bruhl is certainly no stranger to the industry after his breakthrough role in 2003's "Good Bye Lenin!" but "Basterds" shows he may be ready to make a bigger step outside of continental Europe.

While truly an ensemble piece, one of the more disappointing turns is by superstar Brad Pitt.  It's not that Pitt doesn't immerse himself in the role of the brash and morally rigid Lt. Aldo Raine, but his performance just seems a tad off at times.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.  In theory, casting Pitt must have seemed spot on to Tarantino (and certainly didn't hurt on the studio side), but as much as he tries to cover it up, Pitt's pretty boy looks still make it hard to take him seriously as a hardcore Nazi-killing soldier.

The true star of "Basterds," however, isn't Brad Pitt. Instead, audiences will walk away discussing Christoph Waltz, who won the best actor award at Cannes for his charismatic work as SS officer Col. Hans Landa.  Waltz has had a long career mostly in German television, but it's stunning to realize an actor of his talents has been kept hidden from the rest of the world for so long (or better yet, just not given the proper outlet). Tarantino's script clearly was a guide, but he expertly creates a three-dimensional character out of what would be a stock bad guy in any other B-movie.  His Landa is cunning, manipulative, entertaining, but above all more believable than any of the other cartoonish Nazis in the picture.  At this date it's hard to imagine Waltz not getting nominated in the best supporting actor category and taking home the equivalent award from at least one or two critics group by the end of the year.  Moreover, Waltz should have a lot of offers coming his way for U.S. and U.K. productions.  He's probably being offered every villain role under the sun, but here's hoping he continues to work with A-list directors like Tarantino.  Waltz is one actor whose fanbase is going to really grow among cinefiles after "Basterds" hits theaters.

Other actors who shine are Michael Fassbender, Til Schweiger and, yes, Mike Meyers in a very entertaining cameo (and not a moment too soon after "Love Guru").

"Basterds" is an intriguing awards season candidate overall.  Before the 10 nominee expansion this year, it would have easily been a long shot to get nominated for the top slot.  However, based on the upcoming slate of questionable candidates and the seemingly strong critical support it will receive from major critics (and eventually critics groups) its actually not out of the question now (no doubt to Harvey Weinstein's delight).  And if it does as well at the box office as industry tracking indicates it might quickly turn into a legitimate candidate (not to win mind you).  However, if there is a massive drop off in the picture's second weekend don't take Oscar talk that seriously, for Best Picture at least .  Voters are going to have to really love this movie for it to gain enough support to break through.

For some intriguing interviews with the "Basterds" cast including Waltz, Kruger and Laurent, click here.

"Inglourious Basterds" opens nationwide this Friday.