By Nicole Sperling
Updated November 18, 2014 at 09:20 PM EST
Credit: Merrick Morton; Albert Watson/A.M.P.A.S.;Jojo Whilden; Liam Daniel

Thank goodness for Reese ­Witherspoon.

Despite a recent surge in strong roles for women (e.g., Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Jennifer ­Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook), Hollywood really dropped the ball when it came to showcasing interesting roles for actresses in 2014. If it weren’t for Witherspoon’s newfound strength as a producer, two of this year’s likely ­nominees wouldn’t exist—and the Best Actress race would look even more dire than it currently does.

Witherspoon herself is one of the primary contenders, of course, for her portrayal of a novice hiker looking for redemption in the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (which the actress produced). But she also optioned and developed the box office hit Gone Girl, which should land a nomination for Rosamund Pike, playing the iciest (and scariest) wife in modern ­cinema. Neither of them is the front­runner, however. That position belongs to Julianne Moore. Not only does Moore deliver an unflinching performance as a 50-year-old woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in the low-budget Still Alice, the four-time nominee has never gone home with the statuette. She’s long overdue for a podium walk.

Rounding out the top four is British actress Felicity Jones, who should ­garner a spot for her stalwart performance as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything. And the final nod? Frequent nominee Amy Adams (Big Eyes) or ­frequent winner Hilary Swank (The Homesman) could nab it, but neither film seems to be connecting well enough with reviewers which could put a damper on their prospects. They will also have to contend with previous Oscar winner Marion Cotillard in the Dardenne Bros. film Two Days, One Night, which has been submitted as Belgium’s official foreign language entry.

Also grappling for a slot are a few Oscar-race newcomers: Mia Wasikowska for her one-woman walkabout in Tracks, the pre-Cheryl-Strayed story of Robyn Davidson, who treked some 1,700 miles across the Australian outback with her dog and four camels; Shailene Woodley for her cancer-stricken-teen role in surprise box-office hit The Fault in Our Stars, and Jennifer Aniston for her embodiment of a woman battling chronic pain and a broken heart in the indie flick Cake, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and will nab a qualifying run in theaters at the end of the year.

Each of these per­formances is worthy of closer attention. The shame lies in the fact that there aren’t more of them.