Oscar 2009: Gates Wide Open–Women

In expanding the Best Picture category to include ten instead of five films, the Oscars have opened the gates widely, really widely. Inevitably, there will be several unexpected contenders in the top category.
But first let me say something about the female contenders for 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 a year in recent memory, in which the 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, may be the eldest nominee! If my reading is valid, and it's only November 1, most 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: Gabby Sidique in "Precious," 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 "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.
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 comedies as "The Devil Wears Prada" and indies like "Sunshine Cleaning," in which she co-starred with Amy Adams.
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 year, including Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson.
I am seeing the film at its first screening next week and will report shortly after the event.
Best Actress (contenders in alphabetical order)
Emily Blunt, Young Victoria
Brenda Blethyn, London River
Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Helen Mirren, Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabby Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Siora Ronan, The Lovely Bone
Audrey Tautou, Coco Before Chanel