Oscar Predictions: Where Do We Stand on Best Actress?

Meet our new awards expert Joe Reid — keep up with his column for the predictions, news and opinions you’ll need to sound well-informed at parties for the entire awards season.

"This year's Best Actress field is weak."

It feels like we hear this every other year when it comes to the Best Actress race, along with the usual sighs about how there are really just no good roles for women out there. And while it's true that the world could always use more good roles for women out there, this idea that we all just have to toss our hands up come Oscar time because there are no worthy women is silly. The sentence needs to be extended some. "This year's Best Actress field is weak within Oscar's prized genres." There. That's better. But it's not like the Oscars are honor-bound to only look among the Best Picture frontrunners for nominatable performances. Just last week, when I was looking at the possibilities for Indie Spirit nominations, I found the Actress categories overflowing with strong competitors. Emayatzi Corinealdi ("Middle of Nowhere"), Elle Fanning ("Ginger & Rosa"), Melanie Lynskey ("Hello I Must Be Going"), Greta Gerwig ("Damsels in Distress"), Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt ("Your Sister's Sister"), Kirsten Dunst ("Bachelorette"), Hani Furstenberg ("The Loneliest Planet"), Melissa Leo ("Francine"). You can't call that a weak field.

The problem is, the perception of an Oscar race that includes the names "Riva," "Chastain," and "Quvenzhane" seems less robust than one with names like "Denzel," "Jackman," and "Day-Lewis." The Best Actor contenders are coming from a pool of expected contenders. The Best Actress hopefuls require looking beyond the A-List, but the performance quality is no less staggering. I've isolated the ten actresses who I think stand the best chance at a nomination on January 10th. I think it's a field every bit as strong as the Best Actor top 10. Let's dig in.

Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"

Current Position: The frontrunner. The ascendant movie star making the leap from teenage stoicism to something more grown-up.

Credits: Lawrence's Tiffany is a likeable character and a huge burst of energy whenever she's onscreen. She slays a very wordy monologue -- in front of Robert DeNiro, no less -- that is a huge applause moment and could easily be her Oscar clip. She's showing growth as an actress by playing a sexually frank woman, and range by playing someone so different from her two most known roles, in "Winter's Bone" and "The Hunger Games."

Demerits: While the role is justifiably considered a lead, Tiffany isn't as much at the center of the story as Bradley Cooper's Pat is. Lawrence is a young woman with a bright future ahead of her, so there's no urgency to reward her now. The film, and her role, is predominantly comedic, and Oscar is far more likely to skew dramatic.

Historical Precedent: Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line." Witherspoon was also a co-lead in a movie that was more about her male counterpart than it was about her, yet she stole scenes anyway. She also capitalized on her star power, relative to the other women in her category.

In or Out? She's in. She's the frontrunner. She's got more competition than Witherspoon did in 2005, but if we're talking about chances at a nomination? She's a sure thing.

Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"

Current Position: Stalking Horse. Riding the momentum of a late-breaking critical favorite.

Credits: The stellar reviews for "Zero Dark Thirty" make Chastain a very respectable choice. Her youth, beauty, and the fact that she has starred in about twenty movies in the past year makes her a hot pick for Star of Tomorrow. Her character, Maya, is the centerpiece character of a thrilling ensemble piece that never sacrifices hard truths to arrive at those thrills. Much like President Obama, Chastain can campaign on the fact that she got Bin Laden.

Demerits: Besides one or two stray tears, Maya isn't really put through the emotional wringer. Chastain's performance is true to her character, but Oscar voters often respond to highly emotional journeys. As with Lawrence, it doesn't look like she's going anywhere for a while, so there's no real urgency to get her Oscar'd up now.

Historical Precedent: Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth." Both actresses are poised to be the Serious Actress of Choice for a long time. Both stood tall as women in a sea of decision-making men. Both are looking to chase down a frontrunner who has made a bigger impression with mainstream audiences.

In or Out? She's in. A critics' award or two, combined with a captivating speech at the Golden Globes (where Lawrence will be placed in the Musical/Comedy category) could be enough to push her to the front.

Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"

Current Position: Dignified also-ran, ready to stick a leg out and trip one of those pretty young things the second nobody's looking.

Credits: Flawless reviews, first and foremost. That Riva can engender such critical warmth for a film by the critically respected but decidedly un-cuddly Michael Haneke is an achievement in and of itself. In a category full of decidedly young nominees, she could stand out.

Demerits: She's not famous in America. She's not going to make "good TV." All the usual bummer truths about how fame and youth make you more likely to win these awards. Though from a more forgiving angle, it's not that Riva is "too old to win," it's that she hasn't been able to build up as much oscreen familiarity with voters who would then want to reward her. Sometimes it's just as simple as that.

Historical Precedent: In terms of the nature of the role she's playing, I'd say she's Julie Christie in "Away From Her." In terms of her unfamiliarity with the voters, she's Fernanda Montenegro in "Central Station."

In or Out? Her reviews are too good to keep her away from a nomination. For a win, she's gotta hope that Lawrence and Chastain split the vote.

Quvenzhane Wallis, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Current Position: Unimpeachable scamp asking to stay up past her bedtime and knowing she's way too cute to be refused.

Credits: It's impossible to watch "Beasts" and not be won over by Hushpuppy. She's cute, she's strong, she cries like she's got a vise grip on your heart, and she makes you want to give her the entire world, much less a little golden statue.

Demerits: I believe it was Grantland's Mark Harris who made the case over the summer that a child as young as six years old can't be credited with making the acting choices that an adult makes. It's a common complaint about awarding child actors (and not one without merit, to me eye), though it seldom seems to slow Academy members down much.

Historical Precedent: Keisha Castle-Hughes is the most recent and obvious comparison. She was 13 when she got her nomination for "Whale Rider." Wallis would be nine.

In or Out? I say she's in. It's an irresistible story. That said, the overall popularity of "Beasts" as an awards contender waxes and wanes, and if it is just decidedly not the Academy's cup of tea, it could get the cold shoulder in all categories.

Naomi Watts, "The Impossible"

Current Position: The last contender out of the gate, looking to linger in voters' minds longer than most.

Credits: "The Impossible" is supposed to be a hugely emotional story, and Watts's endearing struggle could easily get voters on her side. They've liked her before, though that was before her career took a decidedly cold turn.

Demerits: That whole thing about her career taking a cold turn. It's not like she ever hit rock-bottom the way, say, Helen Hunt did, but that also means there's no comeback narrative for her to hold onto. The film itself is probably not going to show up in many other categories, so Naomi's going to have to go it alone.

Historical Precedent: Angelina Jolie's nomination for "The Changeling" came nine years after her brush with Oscar, though Watts doesn't have nearly the fame to leverage like Angelina did. She's closer to her pal Nicole Kidman, who went eight years between nominations for "The Hours" and "Rabbit Hole." Of course, both Jolie and Kidman were Oscar winners, while Watts is merely a nominee. Let's say she's the Debra Winger in "Shadowlands" (1993) of this year's contenders and call it a day.

In or Out? It's a wild battle for that fifth slot, and the chance that "The Impossible" picks up a lot of steam once people actually start seeing it means she's got some upside to her. In for now.

Marion Cotillard, "Rust and Bone"

Current Position: Hoping the Academy has room in their hearts for more than one French-language nominee.

Credits: Cotillard is a former ingénue winner who has yet to pick up a follow-up nomination. The Academy looooves to toss out follow-up nominations. Makes their original choices seem that much more historically sound. She apparently suffers greatly in "Rust and Bone," and beautiful suffering has been a key component to many a successful Oscar campaign.

Demerits: The film is stranger than most movies Oscar tends to embrace. Also that thing about more than one French-language nominee is probably not just a joke.

Historical Precedent: Penelope Cruz (three nominations, one win for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") proves that Oscar voters can have a favored actress in any language.

In or Out? I say she's out, but barely.

Helen Mirren, "Hitchcock"

Current Position: Trying to look dignified while sputtering down the lane in an old jalopy.

Credits: She's Helen Mirren. That's all the credit she needs.

Demerits: "Hitchcock," while not wholly unredeemable, landed with a bit of a thud, and while Mirren does a fine job, it's not like she rises so far above what doesn't work that voters will consider her a miracle worker.

Historical Precedent: Michelle Williams in "My Week with Marilyn," a similarly received film based on a Hollywood legend that nevertheless saw its star welcomed back by an Academy that clearly favors her.

In or Out? Out, and trending downward.

Rachel Weisz, "The Deep Blue Sea"

Current Position: Suddenly standing RIGHT BEHIND YOU.

Credits: An unexpected triumph with the New York Film Critics had most pundits sniffing that it won't mean much in the grand scheme of things. But with the category so wobbly down in that fifth position, can a former Oscar winner be entirely discounted?

Demerits: Hardly anybody saw Terrence Davies's melodrama, and among those who did, it's not the warmest film.

Historical Precedent: Javier Bardem was a former winner starring in a bummer of a movie that nobody saw, too. And yet that surprise Best Actor nomination for "Biutiful" in 2010 came just the same.

In or Out? She's still got a ways to go, but this is a gettable nomination if her people work for it.

Keira Knightley, "Anna Karenina"

Current Position: Not quite under the train yet, but ...

Credits: She's wonderful in the film, and she's been taking chances more and more with her roles, despite the fact that there are likely far less challenging ways for her to collect a paycheck.

Demerits: Joe Wright's film was daring, and thus far, despite fervent critical support in certain circles, it doesn't look like it's garnered a broad enough appeal to be a contender outside of the design categories.

Historical Precedent: Glenn Close had the advantage of authorship on "Albert Nobbs," but that was another chancy movie that didn't land as well as Close might have hoped, but she was still able to find a nomination.

In or Out? Sadly out, but if nothing else, the noble "failure" (it's not AT ALL a failure, but it'll be perceived as one) of "Anna" will likely earn Keira some "she's owed" momentum in the coming years.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, "Smashed"

Current Position: Sitting off to the side, cool enough to barely register that there's a race happening at all.

Credits: Stellar reviews, a vague "next big thing in about two years" vibe, and an Indie Spirit nomination.

Demerits: Paltry box-office. The definite sense that even if she WILL be the next big thing, she's not yet; the fact that she desperately needs the critics organizations to boost her cause and yet they don't seem likely to do so.

Historical Precedent: Winstead is currently Rooney Mara without the benefit of a mainstream smash like "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" behind her. She'd like to be Catalina Sandino Moreno in "Maria Full of Grace."

In or Out? Out, unfortunately. Too bad, too. If it was as weak a year as people are saying it is, she might have a better shot.