Just like with Oscar ballots I'm weighting these with #1 as my top choice and so on down the list. I have not yet seen Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed or Emayatzi Corinealdi in Middle of Nowhere.
1. Rachel Weisz - The Deep Blue Sea
Weisz reached a career peak in Terrence Davies adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea. It is a performance all the more powerful for its restraint. Her Hester is coming undone with romantic obsession but there are no hysterics, no tearful, screaming Oscar bait breakdowns. Just a woman drowning, bit by bit, one emotional injury at a time.
2. Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Even with great acting you can still find yourself thinking about it, objectively, as a performance. This is not the case with Riva. There is nothing extraneous on her performance, nothing added for effect. She simply is this poor suffering woman, visible even when her humanity is almost entirely obscured by her illness. Which is not to suggest a lack of craft, of course. It's simply craft on a level actors don't often reach.
3. Leslie Mann - This is 40
Judd Apatow takes a lot of grief over his weakness for indulging actors with extended improv and lengthy running times, but when he's got a star like Mann center stage it's easy to understand why he falls in love with every frame. She manages to be consistently real in an often painful portrait of a struggling marriage, while simultaneously snagging every potential laugh along the way. For an idea what an achievement that is just stop and think about how rarely it's done.
4. Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Just as director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal marhsal a mountain of details into a snapshot of the war on terror, Jessica Chastain builds one of 2012's most memorable characters through a subtle accumulation of small choices. The skill of her work is almost invisible until the film's final moments, when the burden of the meaning shifts onto its obsessive protagonist and she sums up an unfathomable amount of sacrifice with her numb emptiness in the face of "victory".
5. Melanie Lynskey - Hello, I Must Be Going
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook, Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone, Keira Knightley - Anna Karenina, Melissa Leo - Francine, Quvenzhané Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild