That said, most of those contenders are going to be vying for just two open slots, since two - and probably three - of the Academy's five openings for nominees have been nailed down since July. Some of the remaining actresses will have to settle for Golden Globe nominations, where the separation of dramas from musicals and comedies means there are 10 spots instead of 5. Every year, there are complaints that Hollywood, which seems to have eyes only for young male moviegoers, just doesn't offer enough substantive roles for women to make the Best Actress Oscar competition into a real race. This year, however, there are nearly two dozen actresses who are solid contenders for year-end consideration.
That said, most of those contenders are going to be vying for just two open slots, since two - and probably three - of the Academy's five openings for nominees have been nailed down since July. Some of the remaining actresses will have to settle for Golden Globe nominations, where the separation of dramas from musicals and comedies means there are 10 spots instead of 5.
The Locks: Gabourey Sidibe (pictured, above right) is riding the year's biggest buzz as the star of festival favorite 'Precious.' Critics have praised the bubbly 26-year-old's performance as a downtrodden, abused teen as the acting transformation of the year. Another lock, in another festival-favorite performance as a teenage girl, is Carey Mulligan, who astonishes with her precocity and poise in 'An Education.'
The probable third lock is a record-breaking 16th career nomination for Meryl Streep - but for which role? As good as she's reputed to be in the December romantic comedy 'It's Complicated,' her performance as real-life foodie icon Julia Child in 'Julie & Julia' probably has the edge, as it pulls off the trickier feat of bringing surprising new life to a famous person audiences thought they already knew.
The Hopefuls: In yet another much-buzzed-about teenage girl performance, there's Saoirse Ronan in 'The Lovely Bones,' as the murdered girl watching over her bereaved family. The movie's literary pedigree (from Alice Sebold's best-selling novel), the presence of an A-list director (Peter Jackson), and Ronan's own Oscar history (she was nominated in a supporting role for 'Atonement') are all advantages. (Disadvantage: She's the only teen played by an actual teen, and the Academy has never given this prize to a kid.)
Other Oscar royalty with strong chances this year include Penélope Cruz (pictured, left), though she just won a trophy for last year's 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona.' She's back with Oscar-fave director Pedro Almodóvar in 'Broken Embraces,' though it's a less showy part than the one Almodóvar wrote for her in 'Volver.' She may also siphon votes away from herself with her performance in the musical 'Nine.' Of course, 'Nine' is full of beautiful, international, Oscar-winning actresses (including Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren), but the one who has the best shot at a Best Actress prize is Marion Cotillard, who plays the protagonist's long-suffering wife. Another recent winner, Helen Mirren, could return to the podium for playing Leo Tolstoy's wife in 'The Last Station,' in which her character passionately defends the Russian novelist's legacy. Hilary Swank also has a shot for the biopic 'Amelia.' The part was certainly tailor-made for her, though the film didn't do so well with critics or audiences; besides, she's won twice in the last decade, so maybe Oscar will want to spread the wealth.
The Long Shots: Sandra Bullock's feisty, twangy, do-gooder role in 'The Blind Side' (pictured, right) has some critics comparing her performance to Julia Roberts' Oscar-winning turn in 'Erin Brockovich,' but the movie's treacly piety and lack of dramatic conflict mean Bullock has a better shot in the Globes race. Aussie siren Abbie Cornish earned praise as Fanny Brawne, the object of poet John Keats' affection in Jane Campion's biopic 'Bright Star,' but that film's momentum seems to have stalled.
Too Soon to Tell: One should never count out Natalie Portman, but there's not much buzz yet for her performance as an apparent war widow in 'Brothers' (pictured, left). Brenda Blethyn has been getting raves as a mother searching for her missing daughter in the wake of the London subway bombings in 'London River,' but not enough people stateside have seen the movie yet for it to generate any buzz. Same with Bryce Dallas Howard's turn as an heiress in 1950s Memphis in late-breaking Oscar hopeful 'The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond,' based on an unproduced Tennessee Williams screenplay.
Other actresses who may have a shot if buzz develops for their movies once they open: Robin Wright Penn, as a troubled trophy wife in 'The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,' and Emily Blunt, as the passionate, not yet prim and starchy queen in the biopic 'The Young Victoria.'
Globe hopefuls: The extra five slots for music and comedy performances at the Golden Globes mean that there's hope for Globe nods for Amy Adams in 'Julie & Julia' (otherwise, she'd be shut out in favor of Streep's performance in the film), Zooey Deschanel in hip romantic comedy '(500) Days of Summer,' Katherine Heigl in unhip romantic comedy 'The Ugly Truth,' and Ellen Page as a beauty-pageant-contestant-turned-roller-derby-queen in 'Whip It.' Bullock also has a shot here for her brazen comic turn in 'The Proposal.'
Don't Forget: These dark horse performances may be too obscure for the Academy, so let's remind them about Audrey Tautou in 'Coco Before Chanel' (as the budding young fashion icon), Catalina Saavedra in 'The Maid' (as a Chilean housekeeper who's a world-class passive-aggressive), and Michelle Monaghan, stretching from her usual arm-candy roles to play a tough semi driver in 'Trucker.'