The Supporting Actress category is strong at the top with Anne Hathaway ("Les Miserables") vying with Amy Adams ("The Master") and Sally Field ("Lincoln"). Then the category turns to quicksand, with a lot of options, a few blue-ribbon British stalwarts, and some standout performances in little-seen movies.
Anne Hathaway ("Les Miserables"): Hathaway can sing, and sing with her heart. Even though many people have yet to see the movie, she owns the trailer with a song that I can't wash out of my hair -- or my mind. Those brown teeth. The choppy hair. The weight loss. If that weren't enough, add her tremendous Catwoman in "The Dark Knight Rises" and her suffering through James Franco's tweets live, on camera, as an Academy host. She's the front-runner.
Amy Adams ("The Master"): America's sweetheart is living a less "Enchanted" life as the wife of a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and rival of his alcoholic disciple (Joaquin Phoenix). Adams does pregnant and steely and takes no lip in a carefully calibrated performance.
Sally Field ("Lincoln"): As Mrs. Lincoln, Field has a somewhat thankless role as the nagger in chief, a savvy political operator who battles with the 13th Amendment for her craggy husband's attention. This is a brassy, overwrought performance in a hoop skirt the size of Rhode Island by a beloved actress unafraid to reveal her wrinkles and cussedness.
Helen Hunt ("The Sessions"): In a role that's closer to lead than supporting, Hunt plays the sexual surrogate in "The Sessions," which was originally called "The Surrogate." Her character bares all to show John Hawkes's severely handicapped writer what it's like to lose one's virginity.
Maggie Smith ("The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"): The beloved battle ax Ms. Smith goes from cranky old prejudiced coot to accomplished bookkeeper to an Indian charmer in this British comedy jam-packed with English performers. Needless to say, Smith -- the dame of "Downton Abbey" -- acts her way to the top of the movie's experienced heap.
Jacki Weaver ("Silver Linings Playbook"): Weaver is a grace note in an ensemble cast, working with Robert DeNiro, who plays her husband to give a real sense of a long-term marriage that's still filled with love tempered by acceptance. While it's a small role, she's still riding the bump for her nomination as a hard-as-nails matriarch in "Animal Kingdom."
Judi Dench ("Skyfall"): Here's sacrilege for you. Why doesn't Dame Dench stay in the BBC ghetto and go for lead with "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"? Because her M, den mother of MI6 with a particularly naughty 007 (Daniel Craig) and rogue agent (Javier Bardem), has a more intriguing story arc and a crucial part in the only blockbuster with a chance to crack best picture. And, c'mon, it's Dench -- of course her performance is unequaled.
Olivia Williams ("Hyde Park on Hudson"): As Eleanor Roosevelt, the English beauty Williams gives the idolized yet much-maligned first lady a good dose of flesh and blood and Yankee spirit. She acts as part of the harem surrounding President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as the mother of his children, his conscience, and the picture of restraint in coping with his serial dalliances both close to home and under the aristocratic noses of the king and queen of England.
Frances McDormand ("Moonrise Kingdom"): McDormand is off to her next project with no interest in the dog-and-pony show of awards. Her performance is her gift, and in Wes Anderson's best received live-action comedy, she plays the mother of the missing girl who's having an affair with the law officer (Bruce Willis) charged with finding her. The "Fargo" actress is terrific at creating characters that are simultaneously eccentric and grounded -- and here's another case in point.
Kerry Washington ("Django Unchained"): Washington is overdue for recognition. As virtually the only woman in the cast of Quentin Tarantino's far-out Western, she stands a chance of coming along with a sweep -- although our guess is that she's not the beneficiary of Tarantino's rat-a-tat dialog.