The Next 5
Hilary Swank ("The Homesman")
Hilary Swank's career is, quite frankly, a puzzling one. After she won her first Oscar, for "Boys Don't Cry," Swank let her star fade a little for the five following years after a series of misses like "The Affair Of The Necklace" and "The Core," only to return and win a second Oscar for "Million Dollar Baby." The decade or so since has again proved mostly disappointing, with a couple of Oscar possibilities falling short ("Amelia" and "Conviction"), but this year brings her most serious proposition for a while: she's co-starring with Tommy Lee Jones in the actor/director's eagerly-awaited big-screen follow-up to his excellent directorial debut "The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada." The pair play a mismatched duo who team up to escort three insane woman from Nebraska to Iowa, and among a strong cast of actresses that includes Hailee Steinfeld, Miranda Otto and Meryl Streep, Swank has the female lead. This doesn't have a U.S. distributor yet, and 'Burials' didn't tick too many awards boxes, but this could be a dark horse to keep an eye on.
Cate Blanchett/Rooney Mara ("Carol")
It's taken a little while for Todd Haynes' work to become awards-friendly, but the filmmaker has actually become reasonably reliable recently—his last two theatrical features, "Far From Heaven" and "I'm Not There," earned nods for Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett, and his most recent work, HBO miniseries "Mildred Pierce," scored a record-breaking 21 Emmy nominations, and prizes for actors Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce. So the news that he's returning to the big-screen, and reteaming with Blanchett for this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's "Carol," certainly makes it one to watch out for. Blanchett's always worth paying attention to, but co-star Rooney Mara is becoming as consistently excellent as Blanchett, and might be the one to watch out for this film. That's assuming: 1) it hits theaters this year (production only just started) and 2) Mara isn't dropped to supporting in an eventual campaign. But however it shakes out, it's not unthinkable that it'll figure in somewhere.
Nicole Kidman ("Grace Of Monaco"/"Queen Of The Desert")
Given her track record, if Nicole Kidman has a movie out, she's going to be in the awards conversation, and the actress has two films on the way that feel like solid possibilities. First up is Cannes opener "Grace Of Monaco," in which Kidman plays Grace Kelly in a Weinstein Company-distributed film directed by Olivier Dahan, whose "La Vie En Rose" won Best Actress for Marion Cotillard. You see why it's a possibility? In fact, one of the few reasons we didn't put it in the top 5 is that the film was yanked from last year's awards season amid rumors of clashes between Weinstein and Dahan, and will be rolling out in much of the rest of the world not long after Cannes (it opens in Europe in late May/early June, though has no U.S. date yet), suggesting it may not be getting the kind of push we initially assumed. But even if that doesn't work out, Kidman has a possible back up: she just wrapped on Werner Herzog's "Queen of The Desert," about explorer Gertrude Bell. Obviously Herzog has never been a major force with the Oscars, but this sounds more suitable for awards recognition than most of his output. The major stumbling block might at this point be that, without a U.S. distributor, it'll need to find one who then have enough time to put together a campaign. Don't discount the possibility, though.
Berenice Bejo ("The Search")
Berenice Bejo scorching, Cannes-winning turn in "The Past"—unfairly overlooked by the Academy this year—proved she was more than just a silent starlet. But Bejo has another chance—she's working with husband and "The Artist" director Michel Hazavanicius, on his remake of Fred Zinnemann's "The Search," in which she plays an NGO employee who helps a young Chechen boy search for his mother. It sounds like potentially tear-jerking fare, and Bejo certainly has the chops for it. It may be that she fits into the supporting category rather than leading again, and it's also feasible that the film turns out to be Hazavancius' equivalent to Roberto Benigni's "Pinocchio." But if Bejo gets Cannes buzz again (the film's rumored to premiere there), the English-language nature of the film makes it more likely than "The Past" to land her a second nomination.
Carey Mulligan ("Suffragette")
We feel like "Suffragette" had been rather under the radar as an awards possibility, and then Meryl Streep signed on. But it's not Streep that's likely to be leading the awards run on this—her part is essentially a cameo—instead, it's Carey Mulligan who has the lead role, as a young woman who becomes involved in the fight to get women the vote in England. Mulligan's done so much good work since breaking through in "An Education" that it's almost surprising that she's still only been nominated for that film, but given the subject matter, this seems to give her best chance at a repeat (though Thomas Vinterberg's "Far From The Madding Crowd" is also a possibility, though it's tougher material). It doesn't yet have an American distributor, but it's already set for a U.K. release in early January, so definitely keep this on your list of potentials.
Honorable Mentions: There's plenty more where that came from, of course. With three nominations in four years, Jennifer Lawrence has practically moved into the Dolby Theater, so it's certainly worth considering almost anything she does (probably not "X-Men: Days Of Future Past," though). Coming up, Lawrence has a reteam with Bradley Cooper on Susanne Bier's period drama "Serena," which would feel like a major contender, except word on the street has been a bit dicey on the long-delayed project (which shot before "American Hustle"). Don't disregard it, but don't bet the farm on it yet either. Another film that's had difficult buzz is "Jane Got A Gun," but if it works, Natalie Portman could get another nod for it.
One definite possibility is Helen Mirren in "The Hundred Foot Journey"—Lasse Hallstrom isn't quite the force he used to be with the Oscars, but with Mirren, and the story of an Indian family opening a restaurant in France, it could be a surprise, and Mirren's certainly one to keep an eye on. Marion Cotillard, as Michael Fassbender's Lady Macbeth, is also possible, but as we've said previously, it's a long, long time since anyone was nominated for an Oscar for playing a Shakespeare character. Other to keep an eye include Anne Hathaway in "Interstellar"; Tina Fey in "This Is Where I Leave You" and Emma Stone in Cameron Crowe's latest, while Emily Blunt in "Into The Woods" and Naomi Watts in "While We're Young" are also valid options if they go for lead, rather than supporting.