These ladies coulda been contenders:
Lesley Manville - Another Year
In a very crowded year for Best Actress, Another Year’s National Board of Review winner, Lesley Manville was the victim either of being too unknown and British, or of category confusion. Her producers decided to push her for Best Actress, which would have been great if it had worked out (see Nicole Kidman in The Hours / Kate Winslett in The Reader), but unfortunately left her in the same place where Laura Linney's divorcing, literary Brooklyn-ite in The Squid and the Whale went to miss out on the Oscar race. If they had pushed her for as a Supporting Actress right from the outset (see Natalie Portman / Clive Owen in Closer), she would likely have been a frontrunner, and could / should have won the Oscar that went to Melissa Leo for lack of a stronger contender.
Noomi Rapace - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(Who Played with Fire & Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest)
Noomi Rapace was 2010's breakthrough sensation as massively abused, bisexual punk hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Two rushed (and inferior) sequels upped her profile, but probably not her credibility. She is excellent in all three films, though; her return from the ‘dead’ in The Girl Who Played with Fire is arguably the most startlingly powerful moment, while her eventual trial in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is rousing stuff, but I loved the guarded, unexpected emotions of her reluctant romantic interlude with Mikael Blomkvist in the first installment the most.
Anette Bening got all the praise and awards for The Kids Are All Right, but endless movie-goers hailed the greatness of Julianne Moore as loopy, free-spirited mother Jules. Fans were quick to declare Moore’s performance one of her best (which is saying a lot) & raged all season long that she was so uniformly ignored, despite being as vital as Bening to the film's success. There were some last minute hopes that she would be a surprise 5th nominee, but no luck.
Pre-release, big waves erupted on the web declaring Anne Hathaway 2010's Best Actress Oscar winner for her charming / moving / sexy performance as a spirited artist struggling with early-onset Parkinsons disease in romantic comedy / drama, Love and Other Drugs. Predictably, this was a bit premature, but she did manage nominations from the Washington DC Film Critics, the Independent Spirit Awards & the Golden Globes, and she did get to host the Oscars.
Carey Mulligan - Never Let Me Go
Carey Mulligan was last year’s breakout sensation in An Education, and backed up the hype this year with her mesmerising performance in Mark Romanek’s heartbreaking adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary sci-fi fable, Never Let Me Go. Mulligan owns the film, keeping Kathy's inner world quietly shimmering on the surface. Critics were not abundantly kind to the film, although most seemed to agree that they loved Mulligan. Apparently not enough. With her classy mix of wit & vulnerability & some smart projects in development, though, future nominations are assured.
Hilary Swank - Conviction
Having stolen 2 Oscars from Anette Bening, I was really, really hoping Hilary Swank would not be in the running to do it again this year (she wasn't, but Natalie Portman was). But she did manage to come close, earning herself a Screen Actors Guild Best Actress nomination for fact-based drama Conviction. It's hard to argue with the appeal of true-life working class heroine Betty Anne Waters who put herself through law school so that she could have her brother acquitted of murder. The film was discarded as bland and uneventful, while Sam Rockwell stole all the best reviews, but Swank had her moment in the race. Could've been another Sandra Bullock situation.
Naomi Watts - Fair Game
& Mother and Child
Naomi Watts was an early favourite at Cannes for her subtle performance as real life mother / wife / exposed government spy, Valerie Palmer. Totally off the radar when the film was commercially released, though. She was also brilliant in Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child, but Anette Bening would have stolen the nominations for that one if she hadn't stolen them for Kids Are All Right. Once again, Watts is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses.
Tilda Swinton - I Am Love
Lastly, the incomparable Tilda Swinton channelled her inner diva and turned in another astounding performance as a wealthy matriarch risking everything for a chance at true love in Luca Guadagnino’s Italian melodrama, I Am Love.
Not a contender: Juliette Binoche - Certified Copy
Juliette Binoche won Best Actress at Cannes for this talky, philosophical French drama. Binoche provides the charm, emotion & human complexity that elevates the film from discursive essay to engaging character piece. An obscure film and performance, though, she was unlikely to end up anywhere near the Oscar 5 except in an very slow year for actresses.
Dale Dickey in Winter’s Bone
Barbara Hershey / Mila Kunis / Winona Ryder in Black Swan
Marion Cotillard in Inception
Olivia Williams in Ghost Writer
Miranda Richardson in Made in Dagenham
Not really contenders, but should have been:
Amanda Peet / Rebecca Hall / Ann Guilbert in Please Give
Sissy Spacek in Get Low