The Competition For 2016's Best Actress Is Fierce

Thanks to the number of precursor awards ceremonies, the Oscars are often a foregone conclusion before the ballots are even cast each year. This is a mixed blessing: it's a good thing if you need reliable predictions to help you win your annual office Oscar pool… but it's a bad thing if you tune in to the Academy Awards ceremony hoping for the occasional upset or even a shocking come-from-behind victory or two. Thankfully, this year's Best Actress race seems poised for some surprises along the way, with 12 acclaimed performances from respected female actors vying for those five coveted slots.

Of course, there is plenty of time for the Best Actress category to become a foregone conclusion between now and February, if the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild and the other precursor awards bodies start nominating the same five women over and over. But for now, it certainly seems like the category is going to be an exciting free-for-all thanks to a mix of movies that have already premiered to raves at film festivals around the world and highly-anticipated projects that nobody has seen yet.

At the end of the day, fewer than half of these deserving actors will hear their names called on nomination day. But chances are fairly good that the five names that are called will come from this list of 12 terrific performances, presented in alphabetical order:

1. Amy Adams, Arrival

Adams has been nominated five times since 2005, four in the Supporting category (Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter, The Master) and once in Lead (American Hustle), and has yet to win a trophy. With the "overdue" narrative playing in her favor, could she land a sixth nomination for playing a linguist tasked with interpreting an alien language in this film from director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners), which earned rave reviews when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival? Then again, the film is sci-fi, a genre the Academy doesn't traditionally reward. Then again, there are exceptions to every rule. (See Gravity's Sandra Bullock for the most recent example.)

2. Amy Adams, Nocturnal Animals

Even though there are 12 performances on this list, there are actually only 11 female actors, since Adams is pulling double duty this year with this literary adaptation directed by fashion designer Tom Ford. It's only Ford's second film after 2009's A Single Man — but that film earned its star, Colin Firth, an Oscar nom, so can Nocturnal Animals do the same for Adams, playing a gallery owner who receives an ominous and violent manuscript from her ex-husband? Sadly, Academy rules dictate an actor can only be nominated once per category per year… so hopefully Adams doesn't cancel herself out here.

3. Annette Bening, 20th Century Women

Speaking of the "overdue" narrative, Bening has been nominated four times (most recently for 2010's The Kids Are All Right) and, like Adams, is also still trophy-less. That could change thanks to this drama from director Mike Mills, who previously directed Christopher Plummer to his first Oscar win in 2011's Beginners. Bening, who stars here as a single mother in 1970s California, has been getting plenty of awards buzz despite the fact that the film won't even premiere until the New York Film Festival next month.

4. Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane

Chastain made her Oscar debut in 2011, appearing in two Best Picture nominees that year (The Help, The Tree Of Life) and earning a Supporting Actress nom for the former. She followed that up with a Lead Actress nom the next year for Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty. If examinations of race relations and the War on Terror were enough to land her on the roster, then Miss Sloane and its topical tackling of gun legislation should do the trick nicely as well. Oh, and it's directed by John Madden, the filmmaker who ushered Shakespeare In Love to a shocking upset over Saving Private Ryan almost two decades ago.

5. Viola Davis, Fences

Both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis won Tony Awards for their roles in the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson's classic play… and there's no reason to believe they won't be at least nominated for Oscars for playing the same characters in the upcoming film adaptation, which Washington himself directed. Davis has been nominated twice before, and it was widely considered an upset when Meryl Streep took home the trophy for The Iron Lady over Davis' performance in The Help five years ago. Academy voters could make up for that mistake now by giving the How To Get Away With Murder star an Oscar to go with her Emmy and her Tony. (Then she'll be only one Grammy away from an EGOT!)

6. Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures

Well before she took the world by storm as Cookie Lyon, the recent Emmy nominee, she earned an Oscar nod for her supporting performance as Brad Pitt's foster mother in the 2008 fantasy The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. Now Henson is seeking to distinguish herself again with yet another wildly different performance, this time as real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson who, along with colleagues played by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, helped put the first man in orbit.

7. Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct) is back with his first film in 10 years, a revenge thriller starring French actor Huppert as a woman determined to find and punish the man who sexually assaulted her in her own home, which drew glowing reviews when it premiered at Cannes. Nominations for performers in foreign language films are definitely the exception rather than the rule, but Marion Cotillard has managed it twice recently — two years ago for Two Days, One Night and in 2007 with her Best Actress-winning role in La Vie en rose — potentially paving the way for a nod for Huppert.

8. Jennifer Lawrence, Passengers

If you haven't heard much awards buzz about JLaw's upcoming performance, that's because no one has seen it yet. Despite the fact that Passengers is helmed by a recent Best Director nominee (The Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum) from a script that landed on the esteemed Black List, pundits have been cautious about overselling the film given that it's a futuristic outer space sci-fi thriller. But Lawrence has earned four Oscar nominations in the past six years, so if Passengers is a smash hit with audiences and critics alike, don't be surprised to see her build steam in the Best Actress race.

9. Ruth Negga, Loving

This film about the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which abolished laws prohibiting interracial marriages, received a standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes earlier this year. Much of the praise has been heaped at the feet of its leading actor, Ruth Negga, who portrays the real-life Mildred Loving. Despite becoming something of a staple on the small screen thanks to roles on Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Preacher, Negga undoubtedly remains the most unfamiliar name on this list — a hurdle she'll have to overcome in the face of such heavy competition if she hopes to land on the ballot next spring.

10. Natalie Portman, Jackie

The latest entry in the Best Actress race is also one of the strongest. Having just received an American distributor after playing at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, it was previously unclear if it would screen in the United States in time to qualify for this year's Oscars. Now that we know it will, Portman — who won Best Actress for 2010's Black Swan — is a surefire bet for one of the five slots this year, since critics have been raving about her performance as First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the week following her husband's assassination.

11. Emma Stone, La La Land

In this crowded category, Stone, who previously earned a nomination for her performance in 2014's Best Picture winner Birdman, is the closest thing there is to a lock. In fact, she may very well be the one to beat for the prize itself. La La Land, an original musical from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, recently picked up the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival — a coveted prize that has gone to an eventual Best Picture nominee eight out of the last nine years, including Best Picture winners 12 Years A Slave, The King's Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire. (It also went to Room last year, which eventually landed its young star, Brie Larson, a Best Actress trophy.) Stone herself also won the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival, where La La Land premiered last month, becoming the first American to win that award since Far From Heaven's Julianne Moore in 2002.

12. Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Of course, one should never count out La Streep — especially when she's starring in a biopic, that most Oscar-friendly of genres. The last time she earned a nomination for playing a real person, she took home her third Academy Award (for 2011's The Iron Lady). Will she do it again for playing this real-life talentless opera singer? Streep is the most-nominated performer in Oscar history, and a nod for Florence Foster Jenkins would be her landmark 20th, so it might be impossible for voters to resist at least giving her the nomination.

What a refreshingly diverse group of contenders, am I right? The incredible ladies above are black, white, American, French, young, old, and starring in everything from biopics to musicals to revenge thrillers to sci-fi epics. Which of them will manage to nab one of the five slots on the ballot this year? We'll find out when the nominations are announced in January of next year!

Images: Fox Searchlight Pictures; A24; Paramount Pictures; Columbia Pictures