Natalie Portman, Black Swan – About the only thing that will be a surprise in this category will be what Portman, a fashionista fave, will opt to wear in the late stages of her adorable pregnancy. Other than that, this is pretty much a lock. And rightly so; Portman gave one of the most dedicated, mind-blowing performances in history, almost apocalyptic in its affect on her previous image. Put aside that she’s this year’s awards-show darling, the Reese Witherspoon/Sandra Bullock of 2011, her visionary performance as the pseudo-fairy-tale princess Nina Sayers driven mad by her own delusions is nothing like what any modern actress has even attempted in the last several years. She will win this, as she so rightly deserves to.

Annette Bening, The Kids Are Alright– Every time Annette Bening is nominated for this category, it seems she does her best work…in a year that somebody else is getting bigger and better buzz for their work. Bening manages to effortlessly standout from an already brilliant cast around her, imparting a deeply human element to a character who seems shrill and overtly serious, despite the intense happiness of those around her. It’s tough to play the buzzkill, but Bening never comes across as a villain. Her matriarchal portrait redefines the traditional cinematic “Mother” archetype, as she manages to be strong, vulnerable, witty and clueless all at once. She’s going to have to wait for another year to see if she can finally beat the Ingenue of the Month, but at least she can say she’s helping change the contraints of traditional femine roles in film. I’d rather have that on my mantle any day.

Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole – While Rabbit Hole wasn’t a terrible film, it came and went from screens without much fanfare, except for the fanfare around Kidman’s performance. It was refreshing to see a talented actress take a step back from such ornamental performances as “Australia” into darker fare such as this. We all know Kidman is deeply layered and technical brilliant actress (look no further than her work in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” for proof of this), and this nomination is well earned. They say that there are five stages of grief…Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance; Kidman’s character attempts to tackle what comes after. It’s a brave and not at all predictable performance, one that she will hopefully allow audiences to see more of her in.

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone– It’s hard to put into words the sheer subtle genius of this performance. Perhaps it’s the way that Lawrence doesn’t act. She doesn’t have any big showy crying scenes, and even at the film’s most terrifying climax, she’s the face of rigid determination. If anyone needs convincing as to why Lawrence deserves to be on this list with names like Bening and Kidman, watch the scene when she (as heroine Ree) meets with an Army recruiter. The sheer desperation of her situation manifests itself only in the glint of her eyes, as she tries to ration with his stoic and totally unsatisfactory solutions. It’s everything from the way she holds her hands, to the way she shuffles her feet, moves her hair that shows the vulnerability of a young 18-year-old trying carrying the weight of an corrupt and vile world, one who’s hypocrisy and cruelty’s know no bounds. There are so many easy ways for Ree to escape her burden, but none of them are the right one, and it’s Lawrence who translates this struggle for the audience.

Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine Much has been said about the intimate realness of Williams’ portrayal of a woman in a dying marriage, and all of it is true. Like Lawrence, she manages to give a quiet performance that’s utterly captivating. Williams is slowly building up strong credibility with solid performances in indie films (Wendy and Lucy, Brokeback Mountain). Even her choices in bigger films feel smart and challenging (Martin Scorese’s Shutter Island was a nice chance to showcase her range). If she keeps up her ability to pick and choose wisely, and deliver as she did with Blue Valentine, it’s not far fetched to imagine she’ll someday go from being a longshot to a true contender.

Road to the Oscars Series:

January 27: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 29: Animated Short – Savanna New

January 31: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 1: Documentary Feature – Rebecca Rose

February 3: Foreign Language Film – Savanna New

February 4: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 7: Visual Effects – Ani Khashadoorian

February 9: Sound Mixing – Dennis Callahan

February 10: Sound Editing – Sasha Mitchell

February 11: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 12: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 13: Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 14: Costume – Jax Russo

February 15: Art Direction – Steve Neumann

February 16: Film Editing – Hannah Depew

February 17: Cinematography – William Paul Jones

February 18: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 19: Adapted Screenplay – Sasha Mitchell

February 20: Supporting Actress – Kacy Boccumini

February 21: Supporting Actor – Rebecca Rose

February 22: Actress – Rebecca Rose

February 23: Actor – Kit Bowen

February 24: Director – Adam Spunberg

February 25: Picture – Kit Bowen

February 27: The Academy Awards