Amy Adams, Penelope Cruz, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Marisa Tomei

Amy Adams, ‘Doubt’

Emerging from her timid shell when Sister Aloysius refuses to accept Father Flynn’s sensible excuse about perceived misconduct with a boy, Adams’ Sister Jane tries to defend Flynn’s progressive ideas to her superior. “You just don’t like him!” she asserts, the sternness of her words shaking her to the core. But the look in Adams’ eyes is all worry, a fear that reason and peace will lose in the face of Aloysius’ unbending certainty.

Penelope Cruz, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’

Reclining in a wrapped towel as she observes Javier Bardem making her bed, Cruz introduces us to her erratic, erotic Spanish artist as potentially unstable — she’s recovering from a suicide attempt — but also a keen tactician. She taunts her ex-husband that he’ll never stop looking for parts of her in new lovers. “You’re too damaged,” he defensively snaps back, to which she replies with web-spinning, carnal portent, “And you love that.”

Viola Davis, ‘Doubt’

In Davis’ powerful portrayal, the mother of the only black child at a white Catholic school becomes an unusual advocate for an indelicate relationship, her boy’s survival meaning everything and the boundaries between kindness and impropriety meaning little. “Do I ask the man why he’s good to my son?” Mrs. Miller tearily responds to Sister Aloysius’ evidence-free claims, her fragility near a breaking point. “No. I don’t care why.”

Taraji P. Henson, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’

Henson’s kindhearted minder of elderly men and women is initially repulsed by the wrinkled infant left on her back stairs, but when a doctor’s prognosis seems too fatalistic, she majestically stiffens into a fusion of resolve and love, and you know this unusual charge will be given all he needs. “No, this baby here’s a miracle, that’s for certain,” she declares, the mother in her emerging. “Just not the kind of miracle one hopes to see.”

Marisa Tomei, ‘The Wrestler’

For Tomei’s aging single-mom stripper Pam, there’s the customers’ waning interest, and the heartfelt attention of a loyal hanger-on. Hesitantly agreeing to join Mickey Rourke’s down-and-out wrestler for an off-work drink, some chitchat and a few ’80s-nostalgia laughs, she cuts short a romantic advance. “You said one beer,” he gently chides her. She downs her Rolling Rock in one gulp, then smiles. “One beer,” she says with a melancholic smile before leaving the bar.

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