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Best Actress: Dark Horses From Down Under

December 5, 2012

Rachel Weisz’s surprise victory for The Deep Blue Sea with the New York Film Critics Circle—beating perceived front-runners Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)—signals that the Best Actress race at this year’s Oscars is wide open. And that may leave room for a pair of late-breaking contenders with Australian roots: The Impossible‘s Naomi Watts and The Girl‘s Abbie Cornish.

Watts (who was born in the U.K. but moved Down Under as a teenager) has been nominated once before, for her searing work as a grieving mother in the 2003 Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu-Guillermo Arriaga collaboration 21 Grams. (She deserved nods for David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises as well.) This time she teams with a Spanish writing-directing combo, Juan Antonio Bayona and Sergio G. Sanchez, for another account of a mom-in-distress: Maria, who barely survives the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and is separated—with only her oldest son (the remarkable Tom Holland) as companion—from her husband (Ewan McGregor, who’s got an outside shot at a Best Supporting Actor nomination) and two younger boys. It’s a gripping true story anchored by Watts’ gut-wrenching, vanity-free performance.

The Girl, on the other hand, deals with smaller-scale devastation, but Cornish’s work as a struggling single mom who reluctantly becomes a “coyote” for illegal immigrants crossing the border into Texas is mighty impressive. She establishes a powerful connection with amateur actress Maritza Santiago Hernandez as a Mexican orphan who ends up in her care, and her sensitive depiction of a working-class woman driven to break the law recalls Melissa Leo’s breakthrough in Frozen River. It’s a huge step up from the mindless Limitless and Madonna’s royal stinker W.E.

UnknownIt remains to be seen if Academy voters will smile upon Watts and Cornish. The Girl will be released for a one-week qualifying run on Dec. 14, and The Impossible will get a limited roll-out one week later. They’ll have to compete for slots against not just Chastain, Lawrence and Weisz, but actresses as diverse as Helen Mirren (Hitchcock), Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), Emayatzy Corinealdi (Middle of Nowhere) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Cornish and Watts may be longshots, but Oscar nominations for these Girls aren’t Impossible.

Who do you think will make the Best Actress cut? Post a comment!

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