I had a hunch I'd stand alone this year, and so far at least, my hunch has proved correct.
I remember hearing an interesting opinion back in '03: that had Cold Mountain been a better movie, Zellweger might not have triumphed so easily. I wouldn't argue this outcome with any certainty -- it very well could have made her an even more prohibitive favorite. But the argument -- that had the romance really sold, Zellweger's performance would have been seen more as a sideshow waltzing in from another movie, rather than the source of energy onscreen -- is compelling. I actually think Cold Mountain is a better movie than its reputation would suggest, but Zellweger was, at best, merely amusing, and at worst, supremely annoying.
Pieces of April is the kind of ugly-looking, bland movie that makes you almost despise the whole low budget film movement entirely. But Clarkson was characteristically good in it, both funny (in the "discarding the leftovers" scene) and heartfelt (looking at herself in the mirror in the roadside bathroom). But I, too, liked her much more in The Station Agent (not to mention plenty of other movies), so I think it's a pity her only nod to date is for this. I look forward to enthusiastically voting for her sometime down the road.
I think the other three nominees are all excellent, and would have been happy to pick any of them.
At the time, my sixteen year-old self was really affected by Thirteen, because I thought it fairly honestly tapped into a lot of my own experiences from high school. Of course, I've downgraded my opinion of the film since then, but I still think Hunter is pretty terrific in it. Melanie is the type of mom who isn't sure when she's supposed to act like mother, big sister, or best friend to her daughter. And Hunter's performance, as the loving mom who begins to feel like her own imperfections are partly to blame for her child's behavior, is heartfelt and richly detailed. It's also unlike most of the characters she's played before, without being such an obvious against-type stretch. I'd likely have rooted for more than just one of her Best Actress bids, so this time I'll vote elsewhere, but this is still one of Hunter's best pieces of work.
On Oscar night, I was rooting for Aghdashloo to upset, for her enormously moving work in House of Sand and Fog, a movie I like quite a bit more than most people. As early as her first scene, you begin to sense Nadi's backstory -- years upon years of subservience to her husband, yet a dignified subservience that stems from her great love for her family and her hope for a better life outside the country that betrayed them. Her scene with Jennifer Connelly ("They will kill us...they will shoot my children") is a wrenching moment, one of many she has as the film proceeds toward its inevitable tragic finale. Aghdashloo was a great discovery for me this year (and I also thought she was delicious in a very different role on 24.)
But one of the reasons I was rooting for Aghdashloo's upset was because I knew Marcia Gay Harden had ZERO chance of winning. I'd actually wondered, after seeing Mystic River, if she might have become more of a win contender if she hadn't triumphed so recently. (Given her Globe/SAG snubbing, probably not...although she didn't get those nominations when she DID win either.) Her semi-surprising appearance on the Oscar list -- right after the equally pleasing and uncertain Aghdashloo nod -- made this category one of the happiest for me that nomination morning. And I think she's sensational in Mystic River. Her flighty, nervous, distrustful wife was a fascinating portrait of a woman whose struggle to deal with tragedy causes her to do some wrong things for all the right reasons. I know some felt she was over the top, but for me, she delivered a performance that was both technically rich and emotionally resonant. (The expression on her face in the parade sequence provides the film with a great final emotional punch.) And after not voting for her wonderful work in Pollock, I'm even more happy to cast, apparently, the sole vote for Marcia Gay Harden here.