As is always the case, the Best Actress race has fewer contenders than Best Actor. That's more to do with good roles than good performances, but there have been some standouts this year with three (Mulligan, Streep, Sidibe) considered locks for nominations (*seen).
EMILY BLUNT – THE YOUNG VICTORIA*
After some scene-stealing supports, notably in The Devil Wears Prada, Blunt finally gets a lead role. The story of the young Queen's courtship and marriage is very watchable but not particularly inspired, much like Keira Knightley's The Duchess last year.
SANDRA BULLOCK – THE BLIND SIDE
Believe it or not the star best known for her rom-coms is considered a serious chance at a nom for The Blind Side, in which she plays a crusading mother of an adopted black child who excels at grid iron. Good box office for this feel good film doesn't hurt either.
ABBIE CORNISH – BRIGHT STAR*
As Fanny Brawne, the muse of poet John Keats, Cornish has the lion's share of screen time in Jane Campion's beautifully shot drama. While I wouldn't go as far as The New York Times, which compared her to Kate Winslet, this is certainly a career-defining role.
MARION COTILLARD – NINE*
While there is a bevy of beauties in this musical, early buzz says the French actress makes the biggest impression. Having won Best Actress just two years ago is of course a double-edged sword: she is fresh in the voters' minds but two from two may be too much too soon.
HELEN MIRREN – THE LAST STATION
Three years after winning for her portrayal of QEII, Mirren is back playing another historical figure of sorts, the wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer, who is somehow going Support?).
MICHELLE MONAGHAN – TRUCKER
A very limited release in the US won't help Monaghan's chances but raves by the likes of Roger Ebert can't hurt. Monaghan plays a truck driver forced to reconnect with her estranged son. This year's Frozen River, perhaps?
CAREY MULLIGAN – AN EDUCATION*
I'll admit it, I am firmly in the Mulligan camp. I love An Education and that is mostly for this young Brit's wonderful performance. There's no histrionics or emoting, but Mulligan gets every nuance of her character's coming-of-age just right.
SAOIRSE RONAN – THE LOVELY BONES*
Freakishly good in Atonement (2007) for which she was a Supporting Actress nominee, here Ronan plays the main character, Susie Salmon, raped and murdered on the way home from school, who then proceeds to watch over her family from Heaven. Everybody loves a Saint, right?
GABOUREY SIDIBE – PRECIOUS*
While co-star Mo'Nique has the showier role as her abusive mother, the film wouldn't work without Sidibe's quiet, contained performance as Precious. Online clips also reveal that, despite the physicality, Sidibe is far removed from the role she plays.
MERYL STREEP – JULIE AND JULIA*
What can you say about Meryl that hasn't been said a thousand times before? This is a fun role but not lightweight like Mamma Mia! Streep becomes Julia Child: not just mimicry, she makes her real. Nomination #16 could earn Streep her 3rd Oscar, her first in 27 years!