Oscar 2009: Better Year for Women than Men?

In expanding the Best Picture category to include ten films instead of five, the Oscars have opened the gates widely, really widely.  Inevitably, there will be several unexpected contenders in the top category. 

But now that the movie year is almost over, please let me say something about the contenders in the Best Actress and Supporting Actress leagues. We can label 2009 as the year in which "Women Came Back from the Cold." It's hard to recall another year in recent memory in which the mainstream Hollywood (and foreign) cinema has seen so many good, meaty, substantial roles for women, many of which in the lead category.
 
Moreover, unlike previous years, we may see a more juvenile Best Actress category, in which Meryl Streep, who just turned 60, and Helen Mirren, 64, may be the eldest nominees! If my reading is valid, half of the contenders will be new, fresh faces, that is, first-time nominees. (See list below).
 
More significantly, three of the frontrunners are very young women, some newcomers who have not acted before: Gabourey Sidique in "Precious," Saoirse Ronan in "The Lovely Bones," and Carey Mulligan in "An Education." 
 
I have not seen Nancy Meyers' "It's Complicated," but chances are that Streep will be nominated (for the 16th time!) for "Julie & Julia." It's a biopicture of the noted celeb Julia Child, and Streep is the best thing about the film, turning a grand, theatrical performance that the Actors Branch loves, not to mention her status as the most accomplished actress working today.
 
Truly exciting is the fact that "Precious," a black indie film, and one dominated by women, may garner at least half a dozen nominations. Premiering at the Sundance Film Fest (where it won three awards), and playing at Cannes, Toronto, and other festivals, Precious" may become an event or must-see film.
 
Though young, Saoirse Ronan has already been nominated in the supporting category for "Atonement." In the dreamlike meditation "Lovely Bones," she plays a girl who has been murdered and watches over her family–and her killer–from heaven, a difficult process during which she must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal. (See my review).
 
Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Alice Sebold, "Lovely Bones" benefits from Oscar pedigree: It's directed by Oscar-winner Peter Jackson ("Lord of the Rings" trilogy) from a screenplay by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and produced by Steven Spielberg.
 
Period films (or costume dramas) are quite prevalent this year, with such historical dramas as "Young Victoria," starring Emily Blunt, "Bright Star," featuring Abbie Cornish in a breakthrough performance as John Keats' companion, and Audrey Tautou in "Coco Before Chanel."
 
Emily Blunt is still best known for supporting roles in such mainstream comedies as "The Devil Wears Prada" and indies like "Sunshine Cleaning," in which she co-starred with Amy Adams.
 
Abbie Cornish is a revelation in "Bright Star," Jane Campion's chronicle of first love, rendering a dominant performance in a film that centers on her characters as much as on Keats. She, too, has paid her dues in supporting roles, such as "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" and others.
 
Having starred in the popular French film, "Amelie," which was Oscar-nominated in the foreign-language category, Tautou is a known quantity in Hollywood and internationally, especially after appearing opposite Tom Hanks in the blockbuster "Da Vinci Code."
 
God only knows how the Academy's Acting Branch will handle a movie like Rob Marshall's musical "Nine," a sure contender for Best Picture, which boasts the largest, most glamorous female cast in years, including Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson.
 
It cannot be a bad movie year if it's one in which the ever-likeable Sandra Bullock made a huge leap forward as a dramatic actress and physical comedienne, evident in two of the season's most enjoyable features: "The Proposal" and the "The Blind Side," both of which have crossed the $100 million mark at the box-office.  ("Blind Side," which opened a week ago, is still running very strong). 
 
Best Actress (contenders to watch, in alphabetical order)
 
Emily Blunt, Young Victoria
Brenda Blethyn, London River
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
Marion Cotillard, Nine
Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia or It's Complicated
Siora Ronan, The Lovely Bone
Audrey Tautou, Coco Before Chanel