Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
It's actually rather remarkable to think that this is Close's first nomination since 1988's Dangerous Liasions, after she practically dominated the '80s in nominations (she never won, however). This film was a passion project of hers, yet she turns in a performance that is rather baffling on the surface: she's extremely blank, eliciting very little emotion and often seeming like a corpse freshly reanimated. However, I think she's doing some very intelligent work: Nobbs is supposed to be standoffish and, well, invisible, a woman who disguises herself as a man but hasn't truly embraced her identity (though, in the 19th century, did any such identity really exist yet? Was there a place in society for someone like her?). Its not as great as most of her other nominated performances, nor would I have given her a nomination, but it's still fine work in a somewhat misunderstood film.
Viola Davis, The Help
If you're following my Oscars of the Aughts project (side note: 2005 begins this summer), then you know how much I loved Davis in Doubt, enough to give her the Supporting Actress Oscar for eight minutes of screentime. So she could elevate a movie with a single scene; it shouldn't have been such a surprise that she could elevate The Help into something that distinguished it from similarly-themed films. Davis' Aibileen is the heart and soul of the film, and she imbues her with such pain and such fierce parental instincts that its impossible to take your eyes off her. Its impossible to imagine anyone else handling this role as well as she does. As she says to the child she takes care of in the film, "You is smart...you is kind...you is important." In Davis' case, she should add "phenomenal" and "Oscar-winner" to the list.
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The problem with starring in an American remake of a foreign film - or a remake in general - is that there are going to be inevitable comparisons of the different actors' performances. And Mara, upon the film's release, earned some somewhat negative comparisons to Noomi Rapace's take on Lisbeth Salandar in the Swedish films. This, to me, is unfair, because the two films are taking different perspectives on the source material, and each actress brought something different to the table. Mara, who practically stole The Social Network with her two scenes as Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend Erica, plays Lisbeth as a vulnerable girl who's trying her hardest to make it out of a system that's hellbent on destroying her. She's brilliant, she's antisocial, but she's not without humanity; she just needs a kindred spirit like Mikel Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to be with her. Its a fascinating performance, and it establishes Mara as an actress to keep an eye on in the future. She's unlikely to win this year, but I wouldn't bet against her coming back one day.
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Her nomination was pretty much inevitable from the moment she signed on to play former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the staunch conservative who both captivated and was later reviled by her people and her party. But that didn't mean that Streep would be slacking off: she gives the expected terrific performance, mimicking Thatcher's vocal tics and mannerisms while still finding layers of the character for us to feel sympathy for (no easy task considering). It's not her best work, but it's good enough to elevate the otherwise-wildly-uneven film out of mediocrity. She still could win her third career Oscar for this role, but I'm guessing they might wait another year or two for her to really deliver something astounding.
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Like Streep, Williams was pretty much assured a nomination from the moment she decided to play Marilyn Monroe. And she does a fine job at giving an impression of the famed star, nailing both the voice and the mannerisms (the hip swivel) perfectly. But the problem with playing Monroe is that you can only really give an impression; Monroe was playing herself her entire life, and its really difficult to say what she was really thinking or doing at any given moment. So it's not surprising that even an actress of Williams' caliber would be reduced to just, really, going through the motions. She could pull off a surprising upset, but I highly doubt this is the role that will win her her first Oscar.
My personal ballot:
1. Viola Davis, The Help
2. Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
3. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
4. Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
5. Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Predicted winner: Viola Davis
Spoiler: Meryl Streep
Dark Horse: Michelle Williams