What do we do with a best-actress race without Meryl Streep? After last year's win, she scratched with "Hope Springs." That leaves an open field, from the very young -- pretween Quvenzhane Wallis -- to the ingenues Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain to the grand dames Judi Dench and Emmanuelle Riva. Will Oscar go for sexy and screwed up, sexy and disabled, sexy and doomed -- or just plain tragically disabled? Here's the current crop of best-actress contenders.
Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook") -- Lawrence plays a manic widow on the verge of a nervous breakdown who exorcises her demons ballroom dancing. Not only does she look great in leotards, but also she's funny and fierce and has mad chemistry with Bradley Cooper's bipolar, brokenhearted cutie in David O. Russell's Oscar-bound dramedy. Add in her monster hit "The Hunger Games" (OK, I wish she'd get nominated for that!) and her previous Oscar nom for "Winter's Bone," and you get frontrunner.
Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty") -- Chastain leaps out of the supporting race into the softer best-actress category as the woman behind the elite team searching for Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's first film since "The Hurt Locker." Nominated last year for "The Help" and terrific in every movie she's been in, including this year's "Lawless," Chastain appears overdue for recognition.
Marion Cotillard ("Rust and Bone") -- Cotillard pulls off pure Oscar bait in this French-language drama. She plays a gorgeous, sexy, sulky woman who loses her lower legs to a killer whale and becomes a better woman for it through the sexual healing of a bare-knuckles fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts). The 2008 Oscar winner for "La Vie en Rose" and star of "The Dark Knight Rises" does damaged exquisitely. When Cotillard's killer-whale trainer returns to the site of her tragic accident, French Marineland, and reconnects with the beast that ate her legs, the unusual scene is strangely exhilarating.
Keira Knightley ("Anna Karenina") -- Knightley dons the hats, veils, and upholstery silks of one of literature's major heroines (played in the past by Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh). Working with her "Atonement" and "Pride and Prejudice" director, Joe Wright, Knightley leads a production that breathes fresh air into the tragedy of a virtuous wife and mother who falls into a spiral of passion with dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The British actress wears the costumes and jewels -- they do not wear her. She gives Anna a contemporary urgency, and after her overlooked turn in "A Dangerous Method," she has become a top contender for the 2013 best-actress Oscar.
Emmanuelle Riva ("Amour") -- Break out the handkerchiefs as Riva, 85, goes the full downward spiral from vital sparky senior to stroke victim to bedridden inarticulate silent and not-so-silent screamer. Michael Haneke ("The White Ribbon") makes aging an emotional horror story, and Riva is front and center, spitting and drooling as her shattered husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) watches, twists in the emotional wind, and occasionally recoils. It's strong stuff from a famed French actress with a lengthy career who starred in the classic "Hiroshima Mon Amour" in 1959.
Judi Dench ("The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel") -- Dench has a brilliant turn as a newly widowed Englishwoman who suddenly discovers that the husband she loved for decades wasn't exactly the man she thought he was -- and her life of economic security is over. She bravely sets out with the spirit of a Hobbit to belatedly explore the world by outsourcing her retirement to India, along with a pack of characters. Once there, she discovers her own curiosity -- and a very good solicitous man played by the lovely Bill Nighy. An irresistible love story at any age -- and a surprise hit -- scrubbed of sentimentality by Dame Dench.
Quvenzhane Wallis ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") -- "Nazie" Wallis's debut performance as a 6-year-old survivalist, folk hero, and wild child born on the bayou and desperate to save it from the apocalypse astonishes both lovers and critics of the indie fable. She is the passionate and self-possessed center of this winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. If recognized by the academy, Wallis would become the youngest best-actress nominee in history.
Naomi Watts ("The Impossible") -- Watts goes the route of the mother in peril in this intense disaster movie about a family of vacationers caught, and divided, by the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. In the central role, Watts struggles physically and emotionally in this wrenching story of survival and hope in the face of horrendous odds. It's been nine years since her last Oscar nomination, for "21 Grams," so Watts is overdue for academy love.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead ("Smashed") -- Winstead rises to a new level as a kindergarten teacher who reaches that postcollege tipping point when she realizes that she's not just hard-partying but, gasp, an alcoholic. That she reaches this awareness ahead of her equally "fun loving" husband (Aaron Paul) makes climbing the first rung of her 12 steps all the more difficult. The tall brunette star of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" imbues her teacher with an extraordinary ordinariness, quick to smile and slow to judge. Her performance is so contemporary, raw, and fresh that she deserves an Oscar nomination for her bravery as the girl next door who has to move on with her life or drown in booze.
Laura Linney ("Hyde Park on Hudson") -- As Margaret Suckley, a fifth cousin turned secret lover to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray), Linney plays a faded daisy. She shows every wrinkle in a face that would have been plainly pretty but has passed its marital sell-by date. Linney knows what she's doing, and she doesn't give this poor relation any more power than Suckley would have had when she entered FDR's inner sanctum. She is outmaneuvered at every point, and yet her love, her sense of a spinster's rebirth at an unexpected opportunity that takes her out of the musty cedar closet of her life and puts her in the center of the president's household -- all are real. Linney's performance is as precise and painstaking as needlepoint as she artfully stitches the private life of a virtually unknown woman in the shadow of a great man.