The first three critics’ groups to announce their winners propelled two leading ladies to the front of the Best Actress queue. Both the New York and Los Angeles committees named In the Bedroom’s five-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner), SISSY SPACEK. The National Board of Review, meanwhile, cited Monster’s Ball star HALLE BERRY, who has already won a Golden Globe, a SAG award, and an Emmy (all for her 1999 TV movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge) but is gunning for her first Oscar nod.

Three-time Oscar nominee (and supporting-actress victor for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love) JUDI DENCH also seems a likely choice for her performance as feisty novelist and Alzheimer’s patient Iris Murdoch in Iris. As for the recently prolific NICOLE KIDMAN, the question was never whether she’d score a nomination, but rather for which film. (Academy rules dictate that unlike directors, actors and actresses may receive only one mention per category.) Strong reviews for her subtle work in The Others initially indicated that her best chances would stem from that thriller. But a late surge for Moulin Rouge has now given the musical the edge. A pair of Globe nods for Kidman in the drama and musical/comedy categories only help to muddy the race.

The Deep End’s TILDA SWINTON earned a Globe nod as well as honors from Boston film critics, but the performance might be too quiet for the Academy. Likewise, comedic faves AUDREY TAUTOU (Amelie), RENEE ZELLWEGER (Bridget Jones’s Diary), THORA BIRCH (Ghost World), and REESE WITHERSPOON (Legally Blonde) will all likely suffer because of their films’ relative lightness. STOCKARD CHANNING earned an AFI nomination for playing a corporate nightmare in The Business of Strangers, but voters might ignore her little-seen indie.

The real wild card here is Mulholland Drive breakout NAOMI WATTS. When her essentially dual performance received some of the best critical notices of the year, her handlers began constructing a supporting-actress campaign on her behalf. But after she earned several runner-up citations and an AFI nod — all for lead actress — her push has now been switched to this category. Will it be too late? Judging by her landslide Best Actress victory from the National Society of Film Critics, it doesn’t look like it.

For your consideration


For your consideration

In the movies, acting grief usually means overacting grief. But in the devastating French import Under the Sand (if you missed it, catch up with it on video), CHARLOTTE RAMPLING brought stunning restraint and perfect pitch to her portrayal of a middle-aged woman shattered by sudden widowhood. This was mesmerizing, unimprovable work by an actress at the height of her gifts.