Pete Hammond

Although not offering nearly the same level of intense competition as the lead actor race this year, the race for best lead actress is shaping up as one of the more intriguing matchups in recent years, with a wide divide in age, experience, and roles. Although 17-time nominee Meryl Streep finally won her third Oscar last year for The Iron Lady (her first win in 29 years), it is not likely she will four-peat, despite widespread praise for her role as a wife looking to put sexual pizazz back into her longrunning marriage in Hope Springs. She isn’t even letting the studio campaign the performance, which should at least let somebody else out there have a shot, considering Streep is bound to be back in serious contention next year with the much-awaited August: Osage County. So this year there is a large group of Oscar virgins from ages 8 to 85 competing for one of those five coveted slots, but Streep aside, they will have to face an imposing trio of British Dames and past winners Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, not to mention Oscar’s French crush Marion Cotillard, and an overdue Australian dynamo named Naomi Watts, among others. Here’s the lineup from the top 10 to those looking for a way into the mix.

Jennifer Lawrence, The Silver Linings Playbook
As a young woman coming out of her own personal hell and trying to live life again, 22-year-old Lawrence proves her first best actress Oscar nom two years ago for Winter’s Bone was no fluke. Her scenes opposite costar Bradley Cooper are priceless, and she effortlessly navigates the tricky waters from flat-out comedy to heart-wrenching drama. It probably doesn’t hurt that she also starred in one of the year’s biggest hits, The Hunger Games, to cement her frontrunner status here.

Related: OSCARS: Handicapping Lead Actor Race

Marion Cotillard, Rust And Bone
The great French star, a winner recently for her earth-shattering turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose is back and equally fine as an orca whale trainer who loses both her legs in a tragic accident and finds new purpose and love she never knew. Her La Vie en Rose win probably makes a second Oscar so soon less likely, and the film might not be as widely seen as other contenders, but she’s a knockout in the role.

Helen Mirren, Hitchcock
Mirren won in 2006 for playing Queen Elizabeth, and now she is back in contention for another real-life role, the lesser-known Alma Hitchcock, wife and partner of Alfred who was the brains and the force behind the genius. The film is more of a love story between the pair during the making of Psycho, and Mirren once again shows great dignity and has the money scene where she gets to tell off her husband and elicit the audience’s sympathy.

Related: ‘Hitchcock’ Opens AFI Fest, Starts Oscar Talk

Naomi Watts, The Impossible
As an extreme accident victim whose family is separated during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Watts has her most physical and, perhaps, most demanding role. Speaking mostly through her eyes, Watts is extraordinary and could land her second best actress nom after first making the grade with 21 Grams.

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
This great actress, now 85 years old, first came to fame more than 50 years ago in the classic Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), but now, at a point when most actors are long retired or forgotten, she has perhaps her greatest role as a stroke victim whose rapidly declining health takes a great toll on her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Much like Watts, Riva says so much by saying so little, and it’s heartbreaking — and difficult — to watch. If nominated she would be the oldest ever in this category.

Related: OSCARS: Studio-by-Studio Look At This Year’s Hopefuls

Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
As the pint-sized powerhouse named Hushpuppy, first-time actress Wallis won praise and stole hearts in this magical festival sensation, the story of a 6-year-old dealing with a fading father and challenging weather conditions threatening her life on the bayou. Wallis is Riva’s opposite: she would be the youngest ever nominated, and the thin ranks of true contenders means she has a real shot to make it happen. An Indie Spirit nomination, and possible win, is assured.

Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
Tackling one of the great roles in all of literature, Knightley brings just the right amount of moral ambiguity and suffering to Tolstoy’s heroine. Performing in the shadow of Greta Garbo’s unique and unforgettable portrayal, but helped by director Joe Wright’s imaginative and fluid staging, Knightley matches her Oscar-nominated turn in Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, looks sensational, and makes the role her own. Mixed reaction to the overall film could hurt her chances in the end.

Maggie Smith, Quartet
Two-time winner Maggie Smith shines in a sterling ensemble of veteran actors who bring Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut to shimmering life. Playing an aging opera diva who moves into a home for retired stars, Smith still knows how to deliver a brittle, caustic line with the best of them and still make us care. She stands a good chance of getting back into the Oscar game after bagging her second Downton Abbey Emmy in September.

Related: ‘The Impossible’ Exclusive Featurette – Video

Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Not to be outdone by her Marigold costar Maggie Smith, Dench dominates a true ensemble and who’s who of British senior stars as a lonely widow finding renewed life on a trip to India that turns into a challenge for all when they check into the rundown Marigold Hotel. Add to that her strongest turn yet in the Bond film, Skyfall, and Dench is having a very good year. She should, at the very least, merit a Golden Globe comedy nom for this.

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Although a late-breaking entry in this year’s race — and the most secretive movie of the lot — Chastain appears to have a very good chance to repeat her career roll and nab a second consecutive Oscar nomination (after her supporting nom for The Help last year) for her role as a tough CIA operative. Chastain calls her part awesome, but will Academy members agree?

Also in the Mix…

Elle Fanning, Ginger & Rosa
Sporting a British accent and attitude, the teen star got top reviews on the fest circuit but has an uphill climb for Oscar recognition—although she is one to watch in the future.

Meryl Streep, Hope Springs
As usual Streep knocks it out of the park, but even she says enough is enough. Still, she’s Streep, so never say never.

Leslie Mann, This Is 40
Mann is simply terrific in this semi-autobiographical movie from her husband, Judd Apatow. Could be a sleeper contender if the movie catches on. This is her best work yet.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed
It never hurts to play an alcoholic, and Winstead delivers a major performance with surprising subtlety as a teacher with a constant hangover and troubled relationship. The film might be too small and forgotten by the time ballots are filled out.

Laura Linney, Hyde Park on Hudson
Bill Murray’s spot-on portrayal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is what seems to be drawing the attention to this movie, although Linney was entirely fine and wonderfully subtle as the distant cousin who has a most unusual relationship with the president. She’s likely to get overlooked for a performance that does not get that one ballbreaking scene that makes voters take notice.

Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Many found Terence Davies’ adaptation of the Terence Rattigan story pretentious, but all agree it was a raw and riveting turn by Weisz that made it worth watching. It would require a big campaign just to remind people this spring release came out this year.

Amy Adams, Trouble With The Curve
Eastwood was Eastwood and might have hurt himself with that chair, but Adams was the heart and soul of this estranged father-daughter relationship set in the world of baseball scouting. Her best chance this year lies with The Master in supporting since Curve didn’t quite hit a home run in its September release.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.