Best Lead Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty - After becoming the queen of ubiquity in 2011, it was only fitting that Chastain would limit herself to essentially one fantastic performance in 2012. And it could very well top anything she's done previously. As Maya, the hard-nosed, tunnel-visioned CIA operative who orchestrated the takedown of bin Laden, what she lacks in flat-out character background development, she more than makes up for in a restrained, fleshed out turn as a woman of some mystery. We don't know anything about Maya's upbringing, personal life or future, but scene after scene proves that less is more - she's full of character with a simple framed face shot - we don't need an hours-long biography to understand her.
Ann Dowd, Compliance - One of the many annual unsung performances, Dowd managed a few critical notices but couldn't quite muster up the Oscar nod. And it's a real shame - the character actress's turn as Sandra, a needy and gullible fast food store manager who learns the levels of depravity she's willing to reach, is a revelation. It takes a character actress to truly understand what it means to make the most of each scene. And placing her front and center provides a big payoff. We're both disturbed and understanding of this woman - her transgressions are unnerving, yet she sells them in a completely believable fashion.
Rachael Harris, Natural Selection - Often relegated to goofy background roles or providing comic relief on cable countdown shows, Harris has eked out a mini-career as someone you probably recognize but could never name. And with the indie comedy Natural Selection, she, like Dowd, is placed front and center to great effect. As a barren Christian woman who seeks out her husband's potential long-lost biological son, she's at times endearing and heartbreaking and at others frustratingly human. She injects her signature comedy throughout the sometimes serious film, but its her instinct and ability to evoke an audience feeling makes her one of the best of the year. A completely ignored gem, to be sure.
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook - Too much too soon for the young starlet? A Best Actress Oscar can often be a curse for a young twentysomething. Yet, with a killer instinct, a great attitude and a commanding screen presence, Lawrence shows off her intense star power in Silver Linings. Her interplay with older co-star Bradley Cooper is totally believable, and her self-assured performance, most notably going toe-to-toe with heavyweight Robert de Niro is an incredible feat for a virtually untested actress. Her uneven character makes for a sometimes harrowing but mostly intriguing task, and she more than delivers on David O. Russell's oftentimes promise of bringing out great performances in his films.
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild - Sneaking her way into this audition despite her age turned out to be the best decision Wallis will probably ever make. The then-five-year-old understandably wowed her future director to land the lead of Hushpuppy, a girl who "lived with her daddy in the Bathtub." And the result is a stellar youth performance - hell, it's stellar by adult standards, and the voters in the Academy obviously agreed, dubbing her one of the five best of the year. And I tend to agree - she's completely lived-in, with nary a spot of green in sight, despite her incredibly young age. Her interplay with her equally inexperienced co-stars marks what could be an illustrious few years for the young actress.
Best Lead Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln - Call me a band wagoner, but it can't be helped. One of the best in the biz certainly turned in one of the best of the year as Honest Abe. Injecting his own unique interpretation into the canonized character, Day-Lewis proves that not every real-life portrayal has been completely done - not even the arguably most iconic person in American history. From his killer monologues and perfected carriage, to his back-and-forths with screen wife Sally Field and a host of noted actors playing advisors, Spielberg's latest star commands the screen without ever leaving a scene free of chill-inducing moments.
John Hawkes, The Sessions - As a long-time fan of the Minnesota native, it was no surprise that I enjoyed the one-time character actor's continued ascent into leading man status. As a real-life man seeking out a sex surrogate to experience the act for the first time, Hawkes is relegated to his back for the entirety of the movie. But his physical limitations never hinder the performance - his take on the witty gentleman at the film's center is kindly, realistic and nicely played. He's not a total treacly saint - and when playing someone in an iron lung for a Hollywood film, that's no easy feat.
Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower - As the leading star of an adaptation of my all-time favorite book, the former Percy Jackson star had big shoes to fill. And much to my surprise, he more than excelled in the spot. Playing wallflower Charlie, Lerman's doe-eyed stares and introverted line deliveries suggest his adulthood may produce some impressive work if given the right circumstances. Outplaying his accomplished adult co-stars proves that transcending age even in a film geared toward young people is a feasible task.
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master - Boasting one of the most committed performances in recent memory, Phoenix proves that often times a little bit of real-life kook can make for an incredible and fascinating actor (for more, see the unending genius of Melissa Leo). As disturbed Freddy, Phoenix goes all out in his portrayal of a frantic, desperate and confused soul. And playing against straight man Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Phoenix's gutsy performance sticks with you and provides a whopping amount of awardworthy clips. Not to mention the physicality of the role, from every tic and tremor to every devilish grin and spasm.
Sam Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths - As someone who admittedly didn't warm up to Sam Rockwell initially (until his slam-dunk performance in 2010's Conviction proved me wrong), I didn't expect to come out of what became one of the best comedies of the year thinking he'd be best in show. Yet, combining his bombastic personality and intense acting chops, he gave one of the best comedic performances of the year. As Billy, a dementedly gleeful best bud to co-star screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), he steals every scene with psychopathic delight, giving us full-on hilarity while making us feel just a little bad about it knowing the root of his personality. See: comedy can be a challenging genre, despite what critics may say!