Received wisdom says that most years, including this one, the Best Actress field of contenders for the Oscars is "weaker" than their male counterparts, with a fairly limited group of possibilities who are plausible nominees. To which we can only say: horseshit. Every year, but this one in particular, we watch scores of fine female performances be overlooked because they're in small indie movies or because they were overshadowed in reviews by male co-stars or because they're not Meryl Streep.
Over the last few weeks, we've suggested some out-of-the-box possibilities for voters in the various acting categories (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Actor), but it was so much more difficult to pare down our list for Best Actress, which makes it so much more baffling that Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench have been the preordained five for months. Once you take a look at the list below, you should agree that there's room for some surprises in the category, and you can make the case for your own favorites in the comments section.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus - "Enough Said"
Though she's a giant star on TV, (most recently killing it with Emmy-winning effect on "Veep"), Julia Louis-Dreyfus has never really broken through in the movies. She's had some notable roles, most notably in a pair of Woody Allen films, "Hannah And Her Sisters" and "Deconstructing Harry," but in general has stuck to the small-screen, with her last live-action appearance coming in the second Allen picture in 1997 (she lent her voice to "A Bug's Life" the year after, and "Planes" earlier this year). But if Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said" proves anything, it's that Louis-Dreyfus deserves to be on the big screen far, far more often. As Eva, the divorced masseuse who strikes up a new friendship with poet Marianne (Catherine Keener) and a new romance with charmingly schlubby TV archivist Albert (James Gandolfini), only to discover that the new people in her life used to be married, Louis-Dreyfus certainly brings the skills that she's honed over two decades of sitcoms: her dazzling comic timing is more in effect than ever. But there's a weight and verisimilitude to the turn that reflects both her more textured turn on "Veep," and the humanism of director Holofcener's earlier work, which means that the character never becomes too broad. Louis-Dreyfus finds real pain in her somewhat awkward, but loving relationship with her college-bound daughter (Eve Hewson), and real joy in her coupling with Gandolfini, the two sharing more chemistry than screen couples half their age did. Awards talk for the film has focused on Gandolfini, but even if she's not recognized beyond the Golden Globes, we hope it's given Louis-Dreyfus more of a taste for the movies from here on out.
Greta Gerwig - "Frances Ha"
There have been many great performances in movies this year, but Greta Gerwig's in Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha" is slightly different—more so than any of her potential rivals, she is the movie. As excellent as the work is of likely nominees like Sandra Bullock in "Gravity" or Emma Thompson in "Saving Mr Banks," you could swap them out for Angelina Jolie or Meryl Streep (as was the original plan for the two films, respectively), and the movies still work. But a "Frances Ha" without Greta Gerwig is unthinkable, providing the defining showcase for one of the great lights of independent cinema of the last decade or so. Co-written with director Noah Baumbach, the film's tailored neatly to Gerwig's persona, to the extent that many will underrate what she's doing. Because it isn't simply a question of capturing herself, but creating one of the more compelling characters of the year, a young woman who's deeply likable, but is clearly very much a work-in-progress, sometimes self-defeating or even self-destructive. For all of her upbeat energy, Gerwig can effortlessly show, in the third act, how life is getting Frances down, which makes her eventual low-key triumphs—her own apartment, fulfilling creative work, a steady desk job—all the more moving as a result. It's simply a gorgeous piece of work, and it's a crying shame that it'll be overlooked by the Academy (even the Indie Spirit Awards ignored her turn).
Brie Larson - "Short Term 12"
I mean, Jesus. Honestly. What's the point of even holding an awards ceremony in the year 2013 if you're not going to recognize one of the standout performances of the last twelve months? It's not to say that Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep et al aren't deserving, but the slim likelihood of recognition for Brie Larson's thunderbolt of a performance in indie sleeper "Short Term 12" is the sort of thing that makes us want to tune out every ceremony between now and the end of February. Larson's been an actress of clear promise for a little while now, with striking turns in the likes of "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," "Rampart" and "21 Jump Street," but they barely hinted at the kind of range and depth that the 24-year-old actress demonstrates in Destin Daniel Cretton's film, as Grace, the supervisor of a foster-care facility with her own troubled history in the system. Seemingly playing older than her years, there's something deeply selfless and maternal about Grace, but with actual motherhood fast approaching, and a reminder of her own childhood popping up in the face of fiery abuse victim Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), the solid, responsible sense of composure falls away to reveal the fiery, fragile person underneath. Larson has to turn on a dime to pull off the many different facets of the character, and does so without the strain even nearly starting to show. The film has its issues—a screenplay that sometimes feels like it's been screenwriting-manualed to death—but among an impeccable cast, it's Larson that truly lifts it up.