Two pieces of important information have come to light recently that may impact the Best Actress race: Anne Hathaway will be campaigned for lead as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises and Jessica Chastain will also go lead for Zero Dark Thirty. Whether either of them will break through in a crowded race is a different story. Much will likely depend on the nominations at the Globes, then the SAGs and the Critics Choice Awards. By then, a consensus will have emerged. Those early awards are great for pruning the crowd. Once the nominees are named, voters get to sit on judgement about whether those are deserving nominations or not, whether there are more deserving names that got left off the list, and how each nominations or win would make them feel.

Most of the best actress performances this year function as supporting female characters, even when they’re leads. There are a few that don’t, especially if they were made in other countries. Go to the Cannes Film Festival if you want to see movies about women as people rather than women as mattresses, eye-candy or ego-propper-uppers. In these films a woman’s internal life and character arc are important on their own, and don’t depend on the male’s story arc. Movies like Beyond the Hills (Romania’s foreign language entry), or Rust and Bone, or Amour present audiences with a whole different spectrum of life than we’ve become conditioned to see over here. In most of the movies popular at the box office and in the Oscar race, women are mothers, girlfriends, wives, lovers. It is different on TV. Look at Carrie on Homeland or Olivia on Law and Order SVU. The pressure to make bank isn’t as urgent on TV or in films made on a smaller scale in other countries. This scarcity of strong leading women on the big screen is uniquely American. That’s the free market for you. Leave it up to the suits in the corporate suite and it’s all white male all the time.

Harsh? It is. But we don’t fuck around here at Awards Daily. Now let’s look at our slate of Best Actress contenders, starting with the frontrunners. All we mean by frontrunners, of course, are those actresses currently being predicted to land in the top five. Have a look at Gold Derby’s list. 

These appear to be the top five:

Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Keira Knightley – Anna Karenina
Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Marion Cotillard – Rust & Bone
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour

And indeed, these are all remarkable performances with their own character arcs. Lawrence is currently in the lead not just because she is great in the part, but because Best Actress, like Best Actor, Director and Screenplay are all tied in with Best Picture most of the time, though surely not always. But if you are tied to a strong Best Picture contender your job is always going to be easier to slide into those categories than it would be otherwise, unless the performance on its own is exceptional, like Charlize Theron in Monster, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, etc. Of these five contenders, Silver Linings Playbook is the one sure bet for Best Picture. Right after that is Beasts of the Southern Wild. The other three are still long shots. But that doesn’t mean Lawrence has it in the bag. She’s close to having it in the bag. She doesn’t appear to have much competition for the win. Marion Cotillard is probably the one that would give her the most heat if the Oscars were held today.

There are so many unknowns in the race right now, however. Some of the big question marks that remain would be Helen Mirren in Hitchcock, Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, how well Silver Linings Playbook does with critics, box office and the Academy, who gets a surprise nomination at the Globes.

Other names currently in the conversation would be:

Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Naomi Watts – The Impossible
Helen Mirren – Hitchcock
Meryl Streep – Hope Springs
Anne Hathaway – Dark Knight Rises
Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha
Elle Fanning – Ginger and Rosa
Leslie Mann – This is 40
Emayatzy Corinealdi – Middle of Nowhere
Elizabeth Winstead – Smashed

I want to talk a bit about the performances I’ve personally seen that I’ve found to be the most moving. A good writer and director can make all the difference when it comes to a performance. There has to be a healthy amount of risk involved. To win an Oscar, an actress usually has to step outside her comfort zone a little bit — even when that translates into wearing a shorter skirt, a lower-cut top, and high heels — like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. Oscar likes his leading ladies to be on the sexually loose side, with a heart of gold to boot. Sex, in America, is an Oscar contender’s best friend when the voting demographic is over 50-something straight white males. Pitch a tent in their pants and they’ll vote for you. (thanks Mel S)

Of course, that might mean scrubbing off the makeup and showing up pretty and clean on the red carpet, like Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren and Marion Cotillard had to do. Kate Winslet sort of had the whole thing in the bag when she starred in a movie about Nazis whilst getting naked and having lots of sex. To that end, we have three very strong contenders — in the lead is Jennifer Lawrence, whose character not only has a mild sex addiction, not only chases relentlessly after Bradley Cooper, but also spends much of the movie in a tight danskin top bouncing up and down joyfully. That’s not to take away from her performance which is very very good. Her character is deeply wounded, grappling with mental illness and really just wants someone to love her. Lawrence brings so much to the character that wanting to see her happy is much of the reason the film succeeds. She is also queen of the box office in 2012, having brought the Hunger Games to $400 million. That is no easy feat. Sandra Bullock brought in $200 million and that was considered unheard of. $400 million? Thus, Lawrence has many factors going for her this year, including her performance.

Second in the running would be Marion Cotillard, who spends much of Rust and Bone mostly naked. Her character spends the whole film wanting to get laid. But since she’s lost most of her legs that’s makes it difficult to attract a mate. Hers is brilliant work, but there is also just enough sex to keep her in the forefront. She also happens to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, which never hurts, especially with that much talent. What is so memorable about Rust and Bone is that the filmmaker isn’t uncomfortable telling both stories, of the man and of the woman. If it were an American film, Cotillard’s part would likely be shaved way down, to only be a support to the male figure. But here, she must find her own strength, her own reason to go on living, her own worth beyond her beauty. It’s her best work since La Vie en Rose but having already won an Oscar makes it a little more difficult to win again.

Third would be Keira Knightly, who continues her sexploration after really going for it last year with A Dangerous Method. Had it not been for the contortions of her face in that early scene, she would have been a shoo-in. But in Anna Karenina she is a container of pent up sexual frustration that can not resist a lover — that lover — even if it ends up ruining her life. Knightley delivers a complicated Anna Karenina. She’s not easy to pin down, seems stormy on the inside, but the driving force is lust. To make it an Oscar winning performance she also needs a deeply tragic flaw — her flaw here is that she’s consumed by passion outside her marriage and she has a son. The film is not easy on her, sort of blames her for everything, which might be a boner-killer. On the other hand, has Knightley ever delivered such a fully realized performance before?

The other two, Quvenzhané Wallis and Emannuelle Riva must enter the Oscar race without the sex card. But that’s okay because these are two of the best performances of the year, period. Both of them are better than everyone else yet neither has a good chance of winning. Riva, because she’s a foreign film actress, and because she’s in a movie that is a hard sit. She, like Naomi Watts in The Impossible, takes herself to the depths of humanity, the edge of death, and that is never fun, particularly to a boomer crowd getting near to the end themselves. Downer movies are often hard to reward because a vote is often a feelgood expression of support. I would have a hard time not saying Riva deserved to win the whole thing. But the other part of me that wants to reward the one I “like” best would have a hard time doing that. I suspect that will be the dilemma of many a voter.

Wallis is a revelation in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Director Benh Zeitlin has said that when he met her she was like one of those child prodigies who can play Mozart at the age of 5. Somehow she was able to find Hush Puppy. It is dazzling work from someone so young. There is never a moment in the film where you don’t believe her. She moves easily between reality and fantasy, nails the scene where Hush Puppy finally meets her mother, handles the crying scenes like a pro, and has the ability to read the beautiful lines of dialogue by Luci Alibar and Zeitlin with the kind of feeling and maturity of a much older actress. Though I won’t be surprised if she isn’t nominated, given her age — just five years old when they started shooting. She also isn’t eligible for a SAG award because the film wasn’t union, which makes her chances even more slim. But that is no reason not to count hers among the best performances this year.

I remain thoroughly moved by Meryl Streep’s extraordinary work in Hope Springs. Both she and Tommy Lee Jones take it deep. Streep finally won last year, though, which might mean she is ignored this year to let other actresses have a shot. But if we’re strictly talking about acting here, Streep’s is one of the standouts of the year. She plays a wife whose husband has turned away from her. It is the opposite of Amour. Streep and Jones must find a way to connect with each other again. What should be an average work is elevated because of the two of them. Does that mean anything? Streep will be nominated at the Globes for Comedy. That might give her a bit of a boost.

Beyond those, though, Helen Mirren is probably wonderful in Hitchcock. Judi Dench is supposed to be equally good in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Maggie Smith is rumored to be exceptional as always in Quartet. One of the year’s breakthroughs ought to be Emayatzy Corinealdi. A few journalists have picked up on her work in Middle of Nowhere but there aren’t yet enough of them and other actresses have more buzz at the moment. I will soon be seeing Leslie Mann in This is 40, Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.

Currently predicted five:

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Keira Knightley – Anna Karenina
Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Marion Cotillard – Rust & Bone
Anne Hathaway – The Dark Knight Rises
Dark horses: Emanuelle Riva, Jessica Chastain (still an unknown)