It's an annual (if not always accurate) complaint: the Best Actress category is so much weaker than its male counterpart. Even when that does seem to be the case, however, that statement doesn't paint the full picture. Every year, there's an abundance of rich, challenging female lead performances to be found -- just not always in the kind of film Academy members are generally willing to consider. Blame them to some extent, but also blame Hollywood for ensuring that so many gifted actresses have to look to the indie and arthouse fringes for opportunities to shine.

Earlier this year, pundits suggested that the Best Actress field was looking even thinner than usual. As we crawl closer to awards season, picking up festival discoveries and critical favorites along the way, it's looking increasingly competitive -- with only one name, I'd venture, assured a spot on the ballot. Thanks to the trend described in the above paragraph, it's a varied an unusual field, with frontrunners ranging from a red-hot Hollywood ingenue to an 8-year-old amateur to not one, but two, marvelous French-language Cannes sensations. Check out the gallery below as we weigh up their individual pros and cons. You can also keep up with the ups and downs of this race at In Contention's Best Actress Contenders page.