[cardoza_wp_poll id=1] By most estimations, Jennifer Lawrence has the Oscar race for Best Actress sewn up. The one-two punch of her work in Silver Linings Playbook, currently receiving very good reviews, and the $400 million she generated for the Hunger Games franchise, gives her the edge heading into the race. But there are a few competing factors at play. The first, Jessica Chastain is about to hit with Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Chastain carries the film. Unlike Lawrence, she isn’t “the girlfriend” but is the CIA agent obsessed with the capture of Osama Bin Laden. Imagine that, after all is said and done a woman gets to take credit for that? It is arguably among the best characters of the year. But, as far as we know, no one has seen Zero Dark Thirty. Strangely, Steve Pond just put Zero Dark Thirty in his number one spot on Gurus of Gold to win. If that’s so, Chastain’s chances to win just shot up. Meanwhile, there is the powerful, most moving performance by the young Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. If there is a role she can be compared to most it’s Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon and she did win the Oscar in supporting for work in that film. Sometimes a heartbreaker like that is undeniable. Can Lawrence top a performance that is as surprising and moving as Wallis’? Sony has two strong Best Actress contenders competing – and both seem likely to be nominated as well – Marion Cotillard for her stellar work in Rust & Bone and Emannuelle Riva for her work in Amour. Knowing how Hollywood works, Cotillard would have the edge, being that is so Je ne sais quoi. But many are calling Riva’s performance the best performance of the year as she slipped from her mortal coil before her husband’s eyes in Amour, a downer of a film but a truthful story about the pains of loss, the bonds of love and what it means to really say “in sickness and in health.” And then there is Keira Knightley, ravishing and cold as ice in Anna Karenina. Is it Knightley’s best work to date? It very well might be. Her Karenina is a much more complex one that we’re used to. She dips into longing, desire and ultimately madness. Since we’ve been watching her from her teens years one we’ve been afforded the opportunity to see Knightley evolve as an actress. To evolve one must take risks, and that is what she’d one here. The film itself is a risk – Joe Wright saved on production costs making what would ordinarily be a sweeping epic (and an easier sell for Oscar) into a tightly closed theater-like setting. That makes it an unexpectedly edgy art piece. Can Knightley push through and if so, whom does she bump? Helen Mirren is a last minute entry for her work in Hitchcock. If she went supporting she’d have a much better chance but you can’t put Mirren in Supporting for a role like that. And then there’s Naomi Watts in The Impossible – a Tsunami survivor searching for her husband and son. You can see how shit gets real as we close in on the end of the year. Gone are the hopes of fringe dwellers who have the slimmest of chances to get in. With only five slots the reasons why some get in and others don’t have to do with things we’d all rather not admit to – like looks and popularity. The bigger the star, the better the chance for a nomination.