The summer movie season is officially over, which means that now is the time of year when would-be Oscar pundits start breaking out the charts and querying those Magic 8 balls for the chance to say "I told you so!" come spring. But while it's a bit soon to peg the true contenders in most categories, this year's best actress race is off to a particularly hot start with young ingénues and respected A-list veterans alike earning buzz. So who's really in the running to nab those coveted Oscar slots this early in the game? Even in September, the possibilities are many.
Could Annette Bening face-off against (and lose to) Hilary Swank for the third time in Academy Awards history? Will Bening campaign against herself with two spots in the category -- or go up against her Kids Are All Right on-screen wife, Julianne Moore? Can a bravura multilingual performance nab Tilda Swinton another statuette for I Am Love? Or will a 20-year-old future X-Men mutant steal the spotlight from them all?
It's already a race based on films released this year so far alone, but what of the unproven Oscar bait movies and performances we have yet to see? Only time will tell if certain fall prestige pics will gain the critical traction necessary to float an awards campaign (word out of this month's Toronto and Venice film festivals should help separate the wheat from the chaff). But that uncertainty is part of the fun of Oscar prognosticating; grab your notepads and play along with us at home as we take our early season stab at predicting the 2011 best actress nominees.
THE TOP FIVE CONTENDERS
Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right, Mother and Child)
Word has it that Bening will get campaigns for each of her two 2010 releases, Rodrigo Garcia's weeper Mother and Child and Lisa Cholodenko's familial dramedy The Kids Are All Right. Both performances are strong and, coincidentally, both make use of Bening's knack for emotional distance (no one makes acerbity sympathetic and watchable like she does). However, if Bening does indeed get two best actress nods she'll be going up against herself, potentially splitting the vote -- and if her KAAR co-star Julianne Moore also gets a best actress nod, they run the risk of splitting the vote yet another way between them. If Bening gets a solo nomination, she has a much clearer chance of dominating the category.
Tilda Swinton (I Am Love)
Critics loved it, art house audiences warmed to it (despite the fact that it's in Italian and Russian), and it's carried on the shoulders of 2007 Oscar winner Tilda Swinton, who also collaborated with director Luca Guadagnino in conceiving it. I Am Love is Swinton's picture, the kind of impressive work that critics and Academy members notice and reward because to do otherwise would seem wrong. Unless the race heats up so much Swinton's edged out of a spot, expect her to earn a no-brainer nomination.
Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone)
At the tender age of 20 Jennifer Lawrence has carved out a spot for herself as the young critical darling with her central turn in Debra Granik's Sundance Jury Prize winner, Winter's Bone. Even with a modestly solid $5.4 million theatrical showing, the Ozarks-set meth drama-thriller is one of the indie success stories of the year and an October DVD release should bring it back into the collective consciousness after opening earlier in the year in June. The question is, will Lawrence have enough staying power to withstand the influx of other young, better-known Oscar-poised competitors with films opening in the fall?
Hilary Swank (Conviction)
Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank is gunning for number three with Conviction, the Tony Goldwyn-directed drama about a woman who goes to law school ... and is a single mother ... who's unemployed ... and is doing it all to prove her brother's innocence and overturn his death row conviction. Yes folks, it's another "based on a true story" pic aiming straight for voters' hearts with the kind of inspirational-heartwarming tale that Oscar loves. However, the October release could just as easily turn out to be the second coming of Amelia, Swank's 2009 Oscar vehicle that crashed and burned with critics. Expect pundits to keep a close eye on Conviction on its Toronto debut this month, which will indicate whether or not Swank will be taking up a slot in the best actress race.
Lesley Manville (Another Year)
Mike Leigh's Cannes-pleasing character drama doesn't debut until late December, slotted into the final week of the year for Oscar consideration, but buzz from the Croisette has Oscar watchers abuzz about Lesley Manville's turn as a tragicomic figure in the lives of two aging Londoners. Critical word is strong enough that Manville will likely get BAFTA notice, which could spur momentum for a stateside Oscar campaign.
OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINEES (AND A FEW LONG SHOTS)
Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right) It's not her strongest work, and co-star Bening is already a shoo-in for a nomination, but Moore does get that juicy "marriage is hard" speech that resonates and leaves an impression.
Naomi Watts (Fair Game)
Mixed reviews for Doug Liman's Palme d'Or submission hurt Watts' chances, but her lead turn in this Valerie Plame tale is just the kind of role that garners Academy attention.
Carey Mulligan (Never Let Me Go)
Mark Romanek's adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is poised for an Oscar run in multiple categories, but Mulligan, who earned a best actress nod last year for An Education, is in the best position to nab an acting nod -- even over co-star Keira Knightley, who scored her previous Oscar nomination in 2005's Pride and Prejudice, Mulligan's feature film debut.
Marion Cotillard (Inception)
Cotillard turned in one of the most striking, magnetic female performances of the year as Mal in Chris Nolan's Inception, yet she's not tracking well in the best actress race. Blame it on the film's genre trappings or on Inception backlash -- just don't count her out completely.
Anne Hathaway (Love and Other Drugs)
Early word has it that Hathaway is stellar in Ed Zwick's November pharmaceutical comedy-drama, but critics haven't yet laid eyes on the pic. Also, Hathaway's screen time might push her more toward the less populated supporting actress category.
Robin Wright (The Conspirator)
On paper, Wright's character is good, old-fashioned Oscar bait; she plays Mary Surratt, the lone woman convicted in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who in real life claimed innocence through her conviction and execution. The only hitch here: the Robert Redford-directed period piece doesn't yet have a release date, though that may change after it debuts in Toronto.
AND KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR
Helen Mirren (The Tempest, The Debt), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Diane Lane (Secretariat), and Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), as their films debut in the next few months and move them up/down/off the best actress prognostication charts.
Jen Yamato writes weekly for Film.com. Tweet her your early Oscar predictions.