Now that we've done some early predicting for this year's Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, let's move on to some of the other big categories. First up: Best Actress. In a year that has been disproportionately in favor of big performances from the guys, this category is anyone's game at this point. That said, let's look at the five performances we think will get Oscar's attention come January.
The Little Lady: At all of 22, Jennifer Lawrence is likely to soon receive her second nomination of her short career. Previously up for the dark, serious Winter's Bone, this time around she's all but a shoo-in for her sparky, buoyant work in David O. Russell's smarter-than-its-genre crowd-pleaser Silver Linings Playbook. Hers perhaps isn't the most intense of roles — she's a romantic comedy foil with, yes, a few psychological issues of her own — but she plays it so charmingly that everyone's falling all over themselves to put her into the Oscar race. The really crazy thing is that she could actually win.
The Littler Lady: Like Keisha Castle-Hughes before her, Beasts of the Southern Wild star Quvenzhané Wallis will likely be recognized for being a child who somehow understood the dreamy but organic world of a movie all about nature and beautiful things. Castle-Hughes was about twelve when all of her Whale Rider Oscar mania happened, whereas Wallis, now a fourth grader, was only five years old when she was cast. The Academy loves this kind of a story, and has been known to actually give the award to kids in the past. But that's usually for Best Supporting Actress. Still, Wallis has been a favorite since she was first glimpsed at Sundance last January, and a Best Actress roster without her tricky name on it would be surprising.
The Pretty Pouter: Though she failed to earn an Academy nomination for her last effort with director Joe Wright, Atonement, Keira Knightley will, we suspect, pick up a nod for Anna Karenina. Mostly because the Academy loves a pretty British lady looking sad and elegant, but also because she's front-and-center in her latest film, whereas Atonement was more of an ensemble picture. With Helen Mirren's chances looking dimmer and dimmer as Hitchcock gets panned left and right, we think Knightley will be the UK's leading lady representative at the big show. We could be totally misreading the signs — Mirren has gotten way better reviews than the rest of her cast, after all — but something about Anna Karenina's period sheen, especially Knightley's numerous lovely costumes, makes us think she'll stick in voters' minds a little longer than Mirren.
The Oldie But the Goodie: At a strikingly confident 85 years old, French actress and poet Emmanuelle Riva goes for broke in Michael Haneke's astounding and difficult Amour, 53 years after making her first splash in Hiroshima mon amour. Hers is one of those performances that people call brave, and it is the rare case when that description actually feels accurate. Riva had to face down the fact of her own mortality to viscerally play an elderly Parisian woman wasting away after a stroke, and in doing so created the most horrifyingly convincing depiction of such a thing that we've perhaps ever seen. Some prognosticators are listing her as a long-shot because Amour might end up as little-seen as it is now — and because of its grueling subject matter — but we just can't see the Academy ignoring such fine and ferocious work, from an octogenarian no less.
The Sufferer: As has been noted, Naomi Watts does pretty well with the woman-in-peril/woman-in-pain thing, and Juan Antonia Bayona's Boxing Day tsunami drama The Impossible seems to give her ample opportunity to do just that. This last slot is an absolute toss up — it could also go to Marion Cotillard for Rust & Bone or Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty or possibly, possibly Mary Elizabeth Winstead for the well-reviewed Smashed — but we see the edge going to Watts. It's a bigger, splashier (hyuk hyuk) movie than some of her competition's fare, and the Academy has been itching to give her an award since she first burst onto the scene in Mulholland Drive. Which isn't to say that she'll win if she's nominated, but there's a chance. We haven't heard much about The Impossible yet, critics-wise, so Watts's odds could change dramatically in the next couple of weeks.