Earlier this week, I saw “Amour” for the second time, far removed from the hustle and fatigue of Cannes. My thoughts on the film settled on a return visit (and they'll be gathered soon in an overdue review), but this was one of them: if Emmanuelle Riva doesn't get a Best Actress nomination for her work here, the Academy's entire acting branch may as well turn in their cards. 

It's not just that her performance as a refined, intelligent music teacher descending rapidly into undignified, inarticulate dementia after a sudden stroke is a marvel of thespian technique as well as emotional intuition. It's that it's the kind of showcase performance, with its self-evident degree of difficulty and devastating audience connection, that most Academy voters wouldn't hesitate to recognize if it came from within their ranks: if “Amour” were an equivalently acclaimed US indie and a revered veteran like, say, Gena Rowlands were in Riva's place, I'd wager the Best Actress race might already be over. 

Yet ask many an awards pundit about Riva's chances, and they'll tell you the 85 year-old star will be lucky just to get the nomination – a feat, incidentally, that would make her the oldest lead acting nominee in Academy history. Subtitles remain a tricky barrier to any Oscar campaign, and Riva is in no position to do the extensive industry gladhanding generally required to surmount it. 

Marion Cotillard, for one, pulled off that trick in 2007 with “La Vie en Rose.” One would like to believe that her remarkable performance as Edith Piaf, in a far ropier and less critically endorsed film than “Amour,” spoke for itself -- but the actress, then widely unknown in the States, didn't spend three months turning up at every Hollywood party, benefit and ribbon-cutting opportunity for her own health. She'll be taking the same tack this year, of course, with “Rust and Bone”: another committed, courageous performance in a hard-sell French feature that'll hopefully benefit from the level of transatlantic celebrity she's attained in the last five years. 

Riva's team, on the other hand, will mostly be depending on acting branch members to watch their “Amour” screeners. If they do, they'll be suitably dazzled. But what if they think the film sounds too much of a downer? What if they don't remember Riva's name from “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” over a half-century ago, and aren't curious to see the actress in the twilight of her career? However many critics' groups stump up for her, it'd be all too easy for many voters to overlook Riva – and indeed her younger compatriot – and gravitate instead to the more familiar comforts of Helen Mirren in “Hitchcock” or Judi Dench in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” 

As such, in many ways, Best Actress strikes me as the most interestingly loaded – and most fragile – of the major Oscar categories this year. The choices it presents allow the Academy to demonstrate, however inadvertently, how adventurous or conservative a body they really are. 

The potential exists for it to be one of the most rewardingly unconventional slates in memory, and not just because nominating both Frenchwomen would mark the first time since 1976 that more than one foreign-language performance has cracked a single acting field. Nominating eight-year-old discovery Quvenzhane Wallis for her ferociously unschooled turn in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” wouldn't just make pleasingly symmetrical history – she'd be the category's all-time youngest nominee to Riva's oldest – but it'd represent an bold stylistic leap for the category as well. 

That Jennifer Lawrence, currently the bookies' favorite to win for “Silver Linings Playbook,” seems to occupy the aesthetic middle ground in the race says more about her unorthodox competition than her fast, frisky turn in David O. Russell's left-of-center romcom. She may be a white-hot movie star riding a popular festival hit, but it's the kind of lickety-split, lightly soured comic turn that rarely gets to lead the Oscar race, not least because the actress blithely disguises the difficulty of its construction. Watching it, I kept thinking it was a role Barbara Stanwyck might have played in a 1940s incarnation of the film – and we all know how many statuettes she won. 

Even with Jessica Chastain's reportedly strong work in “Zero Dark Thirty” still an unknown quantity, these are exciting performers and performances to be talking about at the top of any acting race. Yet talk persists across the blogosphere, as it does on an almost annual basis, of Best Actress being a “weak” category – a kneejerk complaint I really can't square with this year. 

That the majority of year-end, Oscar-targeted prestige titles are male-focused means, in most years, that the search for leading female contenders must extend to independent, foreign and sometimes even genre fare. If anything, this kind of deeper consideration should strengthen a category rather than the opposite: a weaker category, if you ask me, is one where the top contenders are idly creamed off from the year's baitiest juggernauts. That's a luxury Best Actress is rarely afforded, and whatever that says about the retrograde gender politics of Big Hollywood, it shouldn't be a slight on the smaller vehicles and performances that benefit from this blind spot. 

That said, the Best Actress category is precisely as weak as the voters allow it to be, and some years they're more vigilant than others. For every year they take advantage of the field's flexibility to recognize truly special work from less obvious sources, there's another when they settle for padding out the category with inessential work from familiar names. For every Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves” there's an Angelina Jolie in “Changeling,” and not for lack of better options. 

Two years ago, voters looked to the independent sphere and compiled a banner Best Actress slate of rich, surprising, tonally varied work in equally vital films: Natalie Portman may have cruised to a win for “Black Swan,” but it was a field that deserved to be more competitive. Last year, however, the voters backslid, forgoing risky, high-wire work from Tilda Swinton, Charlize Theron and further outliers like Olivia Colman for a field in which, excepting a faintly hip, semi-surprise nod for Rooney Mara in a frosty David Fincher thriller, only one nominee's performance (that'd be runner-up Viola Davis) stood with her best. 

It's hard to guess, at this stage, which way the Academy will swing. They might decide they're not in the mood for reading subtitles this year, or follow SAG's lead of denying young Wallis the keys to the kingdom. We already know they're unlikely to consider, or even see, such worthy contenders as Michelle Williams in “Take This Waltz,” Melissa Leo in “Francine,” Linda Cardellini in "Return," Rachel Weisz in “The Deep Blue Sea” – or even Anna Kendrick, so instrumental to the fizzy fun of “Pitch Perfect.” 

Should all of this come to pass, there is no shortage of respectable dramatic work in sure-to-be-campaigned prestige fare that voters could more easily reach for: Naomi Watts in “The Impossible,” for example, or Keira Knightley in “Anna Karenina.” Such perfectly commendable performances would nonetheless sell the category short if nominated at the expense of a Riva, a Cotillard or even a Wallis – nominations for any or all of whom could prove to the mainstream how much more resourcefully it could use its female talent. If that makes for a "weak" Best Actress year, ladies, it definitely ain't easy being independent.

Check out my updated predictions HERE and, as always, see how Kris Tapley, Greg Ellwood and I collectively think the season will turn out at THE CONTENDERS.