1. She has the most challenging role As an elderly woman whose health dramatically declines after a sudden stroke in "Amour," Emmanuelle Riva was charged with true high-difficulty acting rarely seen on the screen. She was required to display her music teacher character in a vibrant and talkative state, and then transform herself into a near vegetative condition. The physical challenges associated with a task like this can't be downplayed. The actress had to virtually relinquish all of control of her body, and eliminate any "monitoring" which might suggest self-awareness to the audience. Was there ever a moment when you doubted what you were seeing? Many people found the film somewhat difficult to watch, but that's largely due to how convincing the acting was. Riva has been this year's critical darling, winning honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics, the National Society of Film Critics, the Boston Society of Film Critics and numerous other groups. While such awards don't always translate to Oscar, bet that the Academy will surely recognize Riva's monumental achievement.
2. Support is soft for the category's perceived frontrunners Most pundits are currently predicting a win by either Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook" or Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty." The pundits are wrong. Sure, "Silver Linings" is a wonderful film which the Academy obviously adores. And Lawrence has a terrific chemistry with Bradley Cooper and manages to hold her own with Robert De Niro. But is this really an Oscar-caliber performance? Couldn't a number of other actresses have played the part just as well? At 22, the "Winter's Bone" and "Hunger Games" star has a lifetime of great performances ahead of her. Voters will feel content waiting to reward her down the road. The same goes for the slightly older Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty." A Juilliard-trained talent who now seems to appear in every film, she's certainly solid in "Zero." However, it's an understated performance which displays only a fraction of her great thespian range. She's going to have much richer roles in the future which will earn her Oscar recognition. As for Naomi Watts in "The Impossible," she's a widely respected actress and seemingly overdue. If she had a little more screen time and wasn't the only nomination for her film, she might have a chance. She's bound to eventually win, but it's going to be next to impossible this year. Even voters weary of voting for Riva will eventually do so for lack of a better choice.
3. Her age isn't an issue Much has been made of the perception that the Academy always goes for the "babe" in the female acting categories. Some would argue that that explains the victories by Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" over Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right," Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line" over Felicity Huffman in "Transamerica," Charlize Theron in "Monster" over Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give," and Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball" over Sissy Spacek in "In the Bedroom." I would argue that those outcomes had to more to do with the nature of the roles than the attractiveness of the stars. Portman, Witherspoon, Theron and Berry were all given more dramatic parts than their rivals. If the younger actress always prevails, then how did Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady" win over Michelle Williams in "My Week with Marilyn" just last year? Why didn't Penelope Cruz in "Volver" pull off an upset over Helen Mirren in "The Queen" for the 2006 lead actress trophy? And how in the world did the category's oldest winner, Jessica Tandy in "Driving Miss Daisy," defeat the drop dead gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Fabulous Baker Boys" 23 years ago? Riva will in fact turn 86 on Oscar Sunday. After she wins, perhaps the pundits will finally 86 the tired "babe theory" altogether.
4. The Academy is filled with Francophiles There's a long history of recognizing French films and actors at the Academy Awards. The classic "Grand Illusion" was the first foreign language film nominated for Best Picture following its US release in 1938. While very much in English and shot in Hollywood, "An American in Paris" pulled off a shocking win for Best Picture of 1951. French talents like Isabelle Adjani, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu have all been nominated for Oscars. Claudette Colbert (French-born), Simone Signoret, Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard and Jean Dujardin have even won. If Dujardin presents this year's Best Actress award as expected, he'll likely be delighted to read his compatriot Riva's name. (Watch for him to exclaim "Mon amour!" after opening the envelope.) Why such Academy admiration for the French? Maybe it's like dining at an upscale French restaurant or ordering a fancy French wine. In fact, you might even compare this year's Best Actress contest to a dessert menu. You have Jennifer Lawrence as apple pie, Jessica Chastain as red velvet cake, Naomi Watts as coconut tart and Quvenzhane Wallis as bread pudding. Then there's Emmanuelle Riva as creme brulee. It's not the obvious selection and it may not even be the tastiest. But somehow it's just the finest -- reflective of the diner's sophistication and high class. Expect the Academy to say "oui" to Riva's sublime creation.
5. Because I said so Don't believe me? Consider my track record. Five years ago, I boldly declared (in writing) that Marion Cotillard would win for "La Vie en Rose," while every expert seemed to be picking Julie Christie in "Away from Her." After "The Social Network" swept the critics' awards and Golden Globes two years ago and seemed unstoppable, I presented five reasons why "The King's Speech" could still win Best Picture. Last year I gave five arguments why both Jean Dujardin and Meryl Streep would take the top acting prizes - even going on television guaranteeing the Iron Lady's victory. In early December, I suggested that "Silver Linings Playbook" might become the first film since 1981's "Reds" to earn Oscar nominations in all four acting categories. Am I always right about everything? Of course not. But have I gotten my fellow pundits nervous about this year? I certainly hope so.