Adele Exarchopolous - "Blue Is The Warmest Color"
It would be so easy for "Blue Is The Warmest Color" to be overshadowed by the endless chatter around it—the Spielberg-endorsed Palme D'Or win, the explicit sex scenes, the feuding between its directors and stars. That it can stand away from those elements is a testament to the extraordinary performances from its two leads, and in particular from newcomer Adele Exarchopolous, as protagonist Adele. Exarchopolous was only 18 when the film shot, with only a handful of performances behind her, so it's not surprising that she's enormously convincing as the younger version of Adele: hungry for life and love, searching out her place in the world, so full of longing that she might burst. Her chemistry with Lea Seydoux's Emma is immediate and palpable, to the extent that you wouldn't dream of questioning the loss she feels later when the relationship is done. It's in that latter section of the film that Exarchopolous really shines, though: skipping ahead several years to find the pair happy, settled but a little bored, the teenage actress is never less than entirely convincing as a twenty-something schoolteacher, the fulfillment of the promise that she held. Who she's grown up to be is very impressive, but you can see why she starts to stray. And when she does, and it all falls apart, she pulls off one of the most painfully recognizable pictures of heartbreak we've seen in a long time, just about holding it together at work before collapsing on her own. Is it any wonder that Steven Spielberg's jury elected to give her and Seydoux their very own Palme D'Ors to go alongside the film's?
Julie Delpy - "Before Midnight"
It's almost impossible to pick a favorite from Richard Linklater's 'Before' trilogy as the films are so tied in with each other, each one growing in stature because of what came before, and retroactively, what comes after. But it's probably fair to say that the performances have only grown in power, with "Before Midnight" seeing both leads deliver iterations of Jesse and Celine that are richer and more complex than those that came before. We praised Ethan Hawke previously, but as ever, Julie Delpy is delivering work that's as good, if not better than her on-screen partner. Now over 40, Celine isn't quite living the fairy tale: she has her daughters with Jesse (Hawke), but he's still torn over being separated from his son by a previous marriage, and may have cheated on her. Furthermore, she's on the brink of betraying her ideals to take a job with the French government. Since "Before Sunset," Delpy made two couple-centered travelogues of her own, "2 Days In Paris" and "2 Days In New York," and though those films are quite different, comedies owing more to Woody Allen than to Linklater, you can feel their influence in Delpy's performance—there's a certain neuroticism to Celine that's set in with middle age that we haven't seen from her before, as well as a savage, sharp wit that's capable of truly wounding Jesse when she turns on him. Every time we see these characters, they become more and more fascinating—do the Academy really want to wait another nine years to honor Delpy?
Berenice Bejo - "The Past"
Given that recent winners have come from films like "Antichrist," "Melancholia" and "Beyond The Hills," it's not a huge surprise that the person who takes Best Actress at Cannes rarely figures into the Oscar race (Penelope Cruz for "Volver," in 1996, was the last time there was any crossover; before that, it was Brenda Blethyn in "Secrets & Lies" a decade earlier). But given that "The Past" is certainly less abrasive than the kind of thing you get from Lars Von Trier or Cristian Mungiu, we're a bit disappointed that Berenice Bejo hasn't gotten more traction than she has. The French actress was a delight in "The Artist" two years ago, but that barely even hinted at what she's capable of in Asghar Farhadi's enormously powerful and humane follow-up to "A Separation." Bejo plays Marie, who's seek a divorce from her Iranian ex (Ali Mosaffa), so she can marry her new love, dry-cleaning-business-owner Samir (Tahir Rahim), whose child she's having. Bejo subtly puts across how the guilt that the new couple share—for reasons we won't disclose here—has tested and eroded their relationship, which is put further to the test by the return of Mosaffa's character. But perhaps more impressively, she can lay claim to one of the most authentic portrayals of pregnancy ever seen on screen; fearful, lovelorn, glowing, and capable of losing control to her hormones more than once. It's a fairly remarkable achievement, and proof that Bejo is capable of far more than being the silent starlet that she made her name on.
Rosemarie DeWitt - "Touchy Feely"
Last year, there was some minor awards buzz for Rosemarie DeWitt's performance in Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister," with the actress earning a well-deserved Spirit Award nomination for the performance. "Touchy Feely" didn't prove nearly as popular with critics for some reason (it is, we suppose, far more idiosyncratic than its predecessor), but we think that it's one of the more undervalued movies of 2013, featuring a brace of very fine performances, including DeWitt in a much-deserved lead role. She plays Abby, a masseuse (the second on this list, curiously), who suddenly develops an aversion to human touch, which, as you might imagine is something of a problem, both for her practice, and for her relationship with bike-messenger boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). It's far from an easy character to pull off, but DeWitt is near-perfect in the way that she gradually feels more and more uneasy in her own skin, and there's something incredibly touching (excuse the pun) in the way that she sketches a hippyish free spirit who's suddenly turned in on herself. It's canny casting (the role was created with her in mind), because DeWitt's always carried an earthy sensuality to her performances, and so we're struck by the way that it suddenly vanishes from her. The actress has consistently been a boon to anything she appears in, but if her and Shelton continue along this way, surely the Academy will have to start to pay attention.