Every year it seems to be that there is one movie nominated in this category that I haven't seen, so I always feel weird saying "[she] should win!" I really thought Sally Hawkins was going to get nominated for Made in Dagenham just to throw a wrench into the works for me, but I've seen them all this year, thankfully.
It seems to be that there is always the most separation between the top one or two roles and the bottom three or four. It's almost certainly because there are not as many strong female lead roles, but is exacerbated by the nomination process not really going too far from home. What about Paprika Steen in Applause? Or Tilda Swinton in I Am Love? Or Yun Jeong-hie in Poetry? They were all really great too, Oscar.
Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right”
Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole”
Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter's Bone”
Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”
Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine”
Annette Bening: It's hard to single her performance out in The Kids Are All Right because it's essentially an ensemble. Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska are just as important to the film, though as the head of the household she does take on an emotionally dominant role, and because of that she has more acting to do. It's a fine performance in a fine film, but it doesn't stand out as a singular effort to me.
Nicole Kidman: This is the very definition of a singular effort because there is almost nothing to the rest of the film. It rides 100% on Kidman's performance as an overly grief stricken mother. It's an admirable stab at something special, but the rest of the film is so thoroughly commonplace that it's hard to thing to elevate through one character.
Jennifer Lawrence: This was a star making role, no doubt about it. It's exciting to see a role like this because, as I've said before, I originally had no interest in seeing Winter's Bone. The entire film didn't rest on her shoulders -- there were other good performances, and Debra Granik's crafted a well made, tense thriller -- but it was elevated by Lawrence as the smart, tough-as-gravel Ree. It's a performance that is all guts and emotion and deserves to be seen rather than analyzed, honestly.
Natalie Portman: This will probably be the role that defines her career, and she didn't short change herself in there. She hasn't put herself out on a limb like this... ever. Possibly in Closer, but that was not hung as directly on her performance. She remolded her image as an actor as well as her body with this role -- which she will probably win for -- but it comes with a lot of disappointment that she's followed it up with No Strings Attached, The Other Woman and Your Highness (which, no, I haven't seen, but am disappointed by in advance).
Michelle Williams: Though I didn't like the film all that much, I did like Michelle Williams quite a bit in it. She is really the glue that held this film together for me. Gosling's character was so immensely unlikable and unsympathetic by the end (though, yes, charming at the beginning) that it required Williams to lift this film up on her shoulders and carry it like Atlas. She made it possible by her vulnerability, opening up some very raw nerves for us (the film was originally supposed to star Heath Ledger in Gosling's part before his death).