Femmes buoy pics with moving portrayals

photos/_storypics/nine_cruz_185.jpg” vspace=”3″ hspace=”3″ align=”left”>Penelope Cruz
Fiery perf heats up “Nine”

WHY SHE’LL WIN: The heat Cruz generates as Daniel Day-Lewis’ mistress practically melts the screen, and her sultry number “A Call From the Vatican” is one of the pic’s standout moments. Her fiery Golden Globe-nominated performance further cements Cruz’s staying power, proving that not only is she the Madrid-born darling of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, but a major American movie star.

MAYBE NOT: She won in the supporting category last year and for a much meatier role in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” “Nine” slumped at the box office and fielded mixed-at-best reviews; it may be difficult for Cruz to overcome those obstacles and focus on the one brief shining moment that will sway Academy voters away from the more substantial screen time of the other nominated actresses in far better films.

CRITIC’s QUOTE: “Cruz does wonders as the mistress, sizzling in a rope dance (‘Who’s afraid to kiss your toes, I’m not’) and going on to break your heart when Guido breaks hers,” says Peter Travers in Rolling Stone.

Vera Farmiga
Clooney co-pilot soars in “Up in the Air”

WHY SHE’LL WIN: In one of the most favorably received films of the year, she’s the one who — miracle of all miracles — made a romantic out of George Clooney’s onscreen misanthrope. It’s a classy, smart-girl part with a lot of leg and snappy banter, one that fills a large swatch of screen time and is pure old-school Hollywood charm.

MAYBE NOT: Farmiga failed to win the Golden Globe, and this is also her first Oscar nomination. Though her performance is pitch-perfect, voters may want to see what she does next before bestowing the honor upon her.

CRITIC’s QUOTE: “As Alex, a fast-moving businesswoman, Ms. Farmiga bats around the double-entendres effortlessly and brings out real warmth and palpable vulnerability in her co-star. … It says something about the dearth of strong female stars in American cinema that he hasn’t been this well matched with a woman since Jennifer Lopez in the 1998 caper film ‘Out of Sight,'” says Manohla Dargis, The New York Times.

Maggie Gyllenhaal
Thesp opens “Crazy Heart” to Bridges’ bad boy

WHY SHE’LL WIN: Since her breakout role as a sadomasochistic cutter in “Secretary,” Gyllenhaal has become one of those gifted, go-to actresses who has become both an indie queen and studio fixture. In “Crazy Heart,” she employs her sweet looks and doe-eyed stare as bait for Jeff Bridges’ boozed-up, bad-boy, washed-up country singer, but, more importantly, Gyllenhaal knows how to use her emotional vulnerability to even greater effect.

MAYBE NOT: Gyllenhaal failed to fetch a Globe nomination for her work here, and some have questioned the validity of the relationship between Gyllenhaal’s Jean and Bad Blake (though that shouldn’t be a strike against the actress). Also, with Bridges drawing so much attention to the film, he may be using up all the kudos space the film has to offer.

CRITIC’s QUOTE: “‘Crazy Heart’ also brings on Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean, a small-town reporter and single mom with a weakness for sexy screw-ups. … Jean is damaged but still able to shine in the dimming glow of her new lover’s star wattage; in her tenderness, Bad sees reprieve,” says Ty Burr, the Boston Globe.

Anna Kendrick
Sidekick steals scenes in “Up in the Air”

WHY SHE’LL WIN: Among other kudos, Kendrick earned Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA award noms for her role as Natalie Keener, Clooney’s snappy protege-sidekick. With her Cornell degree and practical outlook on love, Natalie smacks sense into Clooney’s rootless Ryan Bingham with the force of a heavyweight contender.

MAYBE NOT: She’s competing against “Air” co-star Farmiga and there is always the possibility the two could split the vote, which might ultimately lead to the award going to neither.

CRITIC’s QUOTE: “Kendrick, memorable in Jeff Blitz’s ‘Rocket Science,’ is the film’s secret weapon, and her tightly wound character is a comic triumph,” says Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times.

Mo’Nique
“Precious” mother not afraid to offer evil side

WHY SHE’LL WIN: One scene says it all: Mo’Nique, in the role of Precious’ wicked, spiteful and abusive mother, bounces around in a floral-print leotard to disco music moments after forcing her daughter to perform sexual acts on her. Mo’Nique turned in a powder-keg performance where she not only tackled the tough role, but also crushed it in her teeth. She deservedly won the Golden Globe and practically every other supporting actress trophy, and has Oscar in her sights.

MAYBE NOT: Mo’Nique is the only nom whose character is so damaged, she’ll likely never know a happy ending. If the Academy isn’t in the mood to deal with such a grim downer, it could look instead toward the more breezy performances of Kendrick and Farmiga.

CRITIC’sL QUOTE: “The comedienne and actress Mo’Nique is stunningly effective as the heroine’s monstrous mother, Mary, who makes a mockery of maternal instincts and comes undone in a ghastly confrontation that goes a long way toward explaining her monstrosity,” says Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal.

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