The nominees for best actress: Emmanuelle Riva, Jennifer Lawrence, Quvenzhane Wallis, Jessica Chastain and Naomi Watts.
An old woman slipping inexorably towards death, a young widow using sex to cover up her grief, a young girl living hand to mouth on the bayou, a CIA agent who comes to realise that her entire adult life has been consumed by the hunt for a man she wants dead, and a holidaymaker whose life is turned upside down by the Boxing Day tsunami: if the leading men were united by a search for redemption, it seems the Academy favours its women in grieving mode. Still, nothing attracts Oscar votes like a good sob, so who among this year's contenders has the form to carry away the statuette?
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
The 85-year-old French actress plays a former music teacher whose descent from bourgeois Parisian composure to physical and mental collapse is at the heart of Michael Haneke's austere yet moving film. She conveys "a lot of unspoken emotional nuances and is up to the physical challenge of playing a stroke victim," says Jake Wilson, but ultimately "her personality is subordinated to the film's stern design".
Ed Gibbs is more impressed, lauding an "astonishing performance" from the oldest best actress nominee in Oscar history. "Justice should dictate that Riva, who turns 86 on Oscar night, should win."
Philippa Hawker is a fan too, describing Riva's turn as "a restrained but disturbing portrayal, a vision of dignified assurance gradually dissolving under the pressure of illness into something distressing and bleak".
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Lawrence impressed as Katniss in The Hunger Games but Craig Mathieson thinks her turn as Tiffany Maxwell, the young widow who has slept with everyone in her office (male and female) before joining Bradley Cooper's Pat on his mission to win back his wife, "is actually one of the 22-year-old's weakest performances to date". Mathieson finds "the drowning depth of grief and wilful self-destructiveness" of the character quite mechanically rendered.
Sandra Hall suggests Lawrence has to "negotiate a wide emotional range" and turns in an entertaining performance in David O. Russell's comedy-cum-family drama that is "ebullient, cutting and full of seesawing mood changes".
Jake Wilson is impressed, too, praising Lawrence's turn as "a smart, intriguing performance that avoids making mental instability seem adorable". However, he adds, "she's really a supporting player – this is Bradley Cooper's movie – and arguably too young for the role".
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
In his review, Paul Byrnes raved about Benh Zeitlin's "beautiful, moving and memorable film" and loved the "poetic narration" from nine-year-old newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis, whom he described as "this brave little girl, with wild frizzy hair and determined eyes".
Jake Wilson, though, is far less impressed, noting that "though Wallis is obviously a precocious talent, that doesn't make her incessant, cutesy voiceover any easier to bear".
Ed Gibbs thinks it was "a truly mesmerising turn from the youngest ever best actress nominee (six at the time of filming, now aged nine), and Philippa Hawker says "her performance anchors the film: she is a haunting, solid and grave presence throughout".
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Like Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison in the TV series Homeland, Jessica Chastain plays a hard-edged obsessive CIA agent whose life revolves entirely around work, and whose work revolves entirely around chasing terrorists. In the case of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, it's just one terrorist: Osama bin Laden.
Craig Mathieson thinks Chastain is extraordinary as Maya. "The mechanics of the War on Terror – the obsession with kill lists, the ocean of intelligence, the desire to martyr yourself – are all embodied within this fearsome, fascinating portrayal. People complain that Maya has no life. That's the sad, inescapable point."
Sandra Hall feels what makes Chastain's performance stand out is the "degree of difficulty" involved in not just traversing a "wide emotional range" but in the fact that "much of it is done without words".
Chastain's performance is, in Jake Wilson view, "easily the standout of the five nominees. She is playing a character who has repressed part of her humanity, but she makes you watch all the more closely for the flickers of emotion."
Paul Byrnes, meanwhile, sees in this "small, pale, determined slip of a girl" someone who "becomes a feminist heroine", but Ed Gibbs is less convinced, describing it as a "typically assured performance" that "lacks the emotional punch her other screen roles have offered".
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
As Maria Bennett, a woman on holiday with her husband and three young sons in Thailand when the Boxing Day tsunami strikes, Naomi Watts has garnered plenty of praise but is still considered an outsider for the award.
"Wags may well point to the title of Juan Antonio Bayona's tsunami drama when assessing Watts' chances on Oscar night," says Ed Gibbs, even though she delivers "a brutally heartfelt turn".
Jake Wilson is less convinced, suggesting her performance represents nothing more than "one of those cases where a performer is praised simply for embodying noble, primal emotions – suffering, motherly love".
The critics: Jake Wilson and Philippa Hawker review films for The Age, Sandra Hall and Paul Byrnes for The Sydney Morning Herald, and Craig Mathieson and Ed Gibbs for The Sunday Age and The Sun-Herald.