January 07, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Best Actress 2005: Oscar’s likely contenders

It could be the rematch of the century. On Oscar night 2000, American Beauty star and Best Actress front-runner Annette Bening lost the trophy to Hilary Swank, who came out of nowhere with a harrowing performance as a young woman trying to pass herself off as a man in Boys Don’t Cry. This year, Bening has received kudos for playing thrillingly close to home as an actress of a certain age in Being Julia. And again, out of nowhere, comes Swank, who flexes new muscles with her transformative, powerhouse turn as a scrappy, headstrong boxer in Million Dollar Baby. While these two actresses could be the ones to beat, there are two others who could easily challenge them for the title. British character actress Imelda Staunton, who has won the most critics’ awards so far, portrays the gentle title character in Vera Drake with easy grace and quiet stoicism. And then there’s Kate Winslet, a three-time nominee whose quirky, radiant performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind convinced women everywhere to temporarily consider experimenting with hair color.

For most of the year, it seemed like there wouldn’t be enough strong female performances to fill five nomination slots, and look — we’ve just listed four strong possibilities. There are even a few more: 2000 winner Julia Roberts could charm voters again with her not-so-charming role as an alluring photographer with a shocking sweet tooth in Closer. If physical prowess counts, it could work in favor of two actresses: Golden Globe nominee Uma Thurman, who slashed and diced her way through Kill Bill — Vol. 2, and China’s dancer-turned-martial artist Ziyi Zhang, whose warrior character in House of Flying Daggers possesses enough beauty to obsess two dashing men — and enough fighting power to destroy them both. If The Phantom of the Opera captivates enough fans, then Academy voters might find themselves singing Emmy Rossum’s tune, but she may seem too new on the Academy scene to earn a nomination. Laura Dern was a bit of a revelation this year with her devastating performance as a neglected wife in the little-seen We Don’t Live Here Anymore. Sigourney Weaver, who’s been nominated three times, could earn a fourth for Imaginary Heroes, in a proud role that may too closely resemble the dissatisfied suburban housewife she played in 1997’s The Ice Storm. And if she can outshine the other strong female performances in Ray, then Kerry Washington, who plays Ray Charles’ long-suffering wife — a minister’s daughter with a saint’s capacity for forgiveness — could receive Oscar’s blessing.

But as far as we’re concerned, the best bet for the fifth nomination is Catalina Sandino Moreno, whose freshness and credibility in the role of a teenage drug mule gives Maria Full of Grace its unforgettable glow.

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