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Amy Adams (The Fighter)
The princess in Enchanted, the cutie in Junebug and the nun in Doubt executes a major about-face. Adams brings sexiness, humor and blunt truth to Charlene, the hip-swinging, f-bomb-throwing bartender who prods boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), the man she loves, to break from his family without seeing her as part of the problem.
Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech)
As the compassionate wife of the stammering King (Colin Firth), Bonham Carter creates miracles with every subtle look and gesture. This nuanced performance is miles away from the villainous, giant-headed Red Queen she plays in Alice in Wonderland for real-life partner Tim Burton, and reminds us of the actress's understated brilliance in A Room With a View, Wings of the Dove and Conversations With Other Woman. She's dark horse, this one.
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Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Playing mom to Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and seven volatile daughters in The Fighter, Leo rivals nature as a force and delivers a spectacular, career high performance. That's saying something when you consider Leo's award-caliber work in Frozen River, 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and TV's Treme and Homicide: Life On the Street. Word's out that the acclaimed character actress hurt her chances of winning by paying for her own Oscar ads that show she's still a babe at 50. WTF? It's the performance that counts and Leo nails hers.
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Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
As Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old dynamo from Arkansas who hires Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn to bring in the varmint who gunned down her daddy, Steinfeld is a new star worth shouting about. She's Huck Finn as a teen diva. My only problem with her winning is that she isn't supporting anyone in this Coen brothers western. She's giving a performance that belongs in the Best Actress category.
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Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)
I'm guessing not many Academy voters saw David Michôd's low-budget Aussie crime drama that lacked the benefit of a massive ad campaign. But if they and you do see it, there's no ignoring the way Weaver sets the screen ablaze as Smurf, the bottle-blond mom from hell who has her three sons do her murderous bidding.
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Favorite: Melissa Leo. She's the best. End of story.
Spoiler (only if Leo's ad campaign causes a backlash): The hot money is on Steinfeld, but I'd go with Bonham Carter who is part of the movie (The King's Speech) the Academy loves best and whose performance lingers in the mind as part of the film's DNA.
Switcheroo: Sorry Hailee Steinfeld, you're in the wrong category — move over to Best Actress. And come on down, Olivia Williams as the political wife in The Ghost Writer. How does brilliance like this go unnoticed? Which nominee would you trade for one of the snubbed?