Following a 3-part Best Picture rundown and a Best Actor roundup, I continue my occasional series highlighting Oscar contenders in various categories by turning to perhaps the most competitive one of all in a very competitive year:

2010 is one of those years when you almost wish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences could have created 10 slots for Best Actress, just as they did for Best Picture. Usually it’s hard to even fill the Best Actress ballot with five legitimate contenders because of the normal sorry state of strong roles for women, particularly in studio films. But this year there’s clearly something in the water and some performances which, in another year might have actually won, likely will not even end up with a nomination this time around. That’s how fierce this competition is. One key reason could be that some of the top contenders like Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, and Tilda Swinton also took the reins of their projects and moonlighted as producers in order to shepherd difficult material that might never have made it to the screen otherwise. Here’s the alphabetical lineup of hopefuls and their Oscar chances as we head into Thanksgiving:

ANNETTE BENING in THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (Focus Features) – Bening is a previous three-time nominee who has lost on two of those occasions  to Hilary Swank who is also back in contention this year but hey, no pressure.  Bening is a well-respected  thesp and Academy insider who reps her fellow actors on the Board of Governors and serves as Secretary. The only thing that matters though is performance on the screen and she knocks it out of the park with a wise and knowing turn as a successful doctor going through a bad patch in her relationship with longtime partner Julianne Moore. OSCAR CHANCE: Blooming. It has seemed like it might finally be Bening’s year ever since the picture opened in early July and Focus is determined to campaign heartily for her. Only problem is she must compete with co-star Julianne Moore , also way overdue (see below).

HALLE BERRY in FRANKIE & ALICE (Freestyle Releasing) – As a woman with multiple personality disorder, Berry pulls out all the stops in the kind of role that screams Oscar! Oscar!  On top of that she co-produced this passion project and has doggedly stuck with it even if its less-than-commercial nature made it a tough sell to distributors. Now after toying with getting into the race with this same film last year, Berry feels the time is ripe for a December stealth entry  ala Jeff Bridges last season in Crazy Heart. And we all know what happened there. OSCAR CHANCE: There are precious few possibilities for anyone of color in this year’ s contest and Berry is out working it hard for her indie surprise but she’s already got one gold statuette and this film may just be too small  to gain much of a following among her fellow actors this year.

ANNE HATHAWAY in LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (20th Century Fox) – One of just a small handful of major studio contenders in the category , Hathaway  goes for her second nomination in three years (Rachel Getting Married) and  gets to be funny, sexy and poignant as a young woman with early-onset Parkinsons disease involved in a complicated new romance with Jake Gyllenhaal. OSCAR CHANCE: Comedy rarely carries the day here  but Hathaway has a couple of killer dramatic scenes too.  She’s well liked but so far the buzz level on her Academy chances is pretty quiet. If she gets out there in a big way she may be able to climb into the game. Her SNL stint last Saturday raised her profile but considering the killer competition  she needs to move fast. Strong reviews this week and the inevitable babe factor male voters seem to  consider in this category could help.

SALLY HAWKINS in MADE IN DAGENHAM (Sony Pictures Classics) – Although she won a Comedy or Musical Golden Globe for Happy Go Lucky she was overlooked for even an Oscar nomination two years ago.  With this enormously likeable and determined factory worker who leads the fight for equal pay in late-60’s England she could get points for coming back with another winning performance so soon. OSCAR CHANCE: Sally is a bit far down the pack this year and hasn’t had a whole lot of time to campaign since she is also appearing in a Broadway play now in the thick of the season.  A terrific actress but this probably isn’t her Academy year either.

NICOLE KIDMAN in RABBIT HOLE (Lionsgate) – No one in this group has consistently taken more career risks with chancy material than Kidman, but her touching work her as a mother trying to cope with the loss of her 4 year old son is the best work she has ever done on screen and that includes her Oscar winning The Hours. With Lionsgate acquiring the film in Toronto, the only question that remains is how deep can they campaign this after others have gotten a head start. OSCAR CHANCE: Although she won just 8 years ago, stars like Fonda  , Field , Foster and Swank all won second Oscars in this category in even less a time span. This year’s comeback Kid-man, don’t count her out of pulling an upset.

DIANE LANE in SECRETARIAT (Walt Disney Studios) – Lane is another Hollywood stalwart, well-liked and dependable much like Sandra Bullock last year.  Playing older than she is and working opposite a gorgeous thoroughbred you can just feel her Oscar time is coming. OSCAR CHANCE: But probably not this year even though the movie, after a slow start out of the gate, has been a steady performer among older adult audiences who seem to embrace it and her. Then again isn’t that the exact same demo to be found at the Academy?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE in WINTER’S BONE (Roadside Attractions) – Newcomer Lawrence is the one to watch in this race.  Here authentic  determination as an Ozark mountain girl trying to track down her father  won critical raves and the small indie became a specialty hit. OSCAR CHANCE: A likely slew of critics awards wins would cement her chances for a nomination even if actors branch members weren’t already talking about her , and they are. Chances for a win are much slimmer but Roadside is proving already to be a savvy campaigner and she could be a contender all the way to the Kodak.

LESLEY MANVILLE in ANOTHER YEAR (Sony Pictures Classics) – As a lonely and needy friend  in Mike Leigh’s intense look at a year in the life of ….. Manville makes a vivid impression alternately having us laughing or feeling great empathy. A Leigh vet , this is her time to shine. OSCAR CHANCE: Despite some bloggers trying to bump her down into supporting that would only confuse the situation and kill her chances. This is a lead role and she stands a good shot at getting rewarded in this category, at least with a nomination although a handful of votes could determine if she’s in or out. It’s that close. The fact that she didn’t take Best Actress in Cannes for the same role is disturbing.

JULIANNE MOORE in THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (Focus Features) – Moore was the first one attached to Lisa Cholodenko’s  moving and funny comedy and stuck with the project through thick and thin until it finally got made years later. She’s on equal footing with co-star Annette Bening (see above) in every way and it would seem impossible to pick one over the other. OSCAR CHANCE: The problem is there don’t appear to be two slots available in this tough category and a pair of lead actresses from the same film haven’t been nominated since 1991’s Thelma And Louise.  Even though Moore’s overdue too and her four previous noms trump Benings’ three,  the latter is the one with all the traction. However fellow actors may be loathe to split this pair up, just like in the movie itself.

CAREY MULLIGAN in NEVER LET ME GO (Fox Searchlight Pictures) – This haunting film died a horrible death at the boxoffice but Mulligan once again proved her worth as a major new star and further proved last year’s An Education was not just beginners luck. OSCAR CHANCE: The movie’s premature demise pretty much seals her fate and the distributor probably won’t be too jazzed to pour money in here when they already have other more promising contenders like Hilary Swank and particularly Natalie Portman.

GWYNETH PALTROW in COUNTRY STRONG (Screen Gems) – A strong dramatic performance coupled with the opportunity to sing a boatload of country songs gives past winner Paltrow a nice platform to impress Academy and Golden Globe voters. OSCAR CHANCE: Paltrow would need Golden Globe attention to make a dent and the HFPA has just classified this country musical as a drama  thus taking it out of the less populated comedy/musical category and killing Gwyneth’s  chances. There’s still hope for a Best Song nod so maybe Gwynnie will make it to the stage of the Kodak anyway – as a performer.

NATALIE PORTMAN in BLACK SWAN (Fox Searchlight Pictures) – Many are already predicting the race is over and the Oscar is Portman’s  even before the film opens and officially plays for Academy members. One voting wag who’s seen it said, ‘Portman will win every award in sight for this including the Heisman Trophy’.  As a mentally disturbed prima ballerina this is Diva to the Dark Side and Portman dazzles every pirouette of the way in the kind of transformative role that melts voters. OSCAR CHANCE: It’s Portman’s to lose — to Bening. And in that case a too-close-to-call split vote could open the door for a  spoiler to appear out of this pack you are currently prerusing and take it all.

NOOMI RAPACE in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Music Box Films) – The Swedish sensation has three of these Lizbeth Salander films out in one year for a rare foreign language success story. It’s now being remade for American consumption but none of that takes away from Noomi’s  own international breakthrough and now Hollywood has come calling with big movie roles. OSCAR CHANCE: But it’s not likely Oscar will come calling as foreign language film acting nominations are still quite rare despite wins for Cotillard and Begnini in the recent past.

HILARY SWANK in CONVICTION (Fox Searchlight Pictures) – After stumbling with  Amelia last year Swank came back in a role that fit her like a glove and she delivers as Betty Anne Waters, a woman who studied for 18 years in order to become a lawyer and spring her wrongly convicted brother from prison. OSCAR CHANCE: She’s two for two  and the Academy does seem to love her in things like Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby. Clearly in Conviction she’s back in that mode but the film needs more buzz  and she doesn’t seem to have the same mojo she did in previous Oscar battles.

TILDA SWINTON in I AM LOVE (Magnolia ) – Swinton is a Scottish actress  playing the entire role in Italian with a Russian accent.  This is catnip for the actors branch who already love this actor, witness her 2007 Michael Clayton supporting win. She spent 11 years producing and bringing this to the screen. Actors like labors of love. OSCAR CHANCE: If Magnolia were to really come up to the plate with some serious campaign bucks this could have a real shot at a surprise nomination. It’s the stuff actors dream of and lest we forget, they are doing the voting here.

NAOMI WATTS in FAIR GAME (Summit Entertainment) – Until it premiered in Cannes in May this one sounded like a Best Actress winner – at least on paper. Two time nominee Watts plays embattled  and outed CIA agent, Valerie Plame but Sean Penn as her husband stole the reviews. Plame turned out to be a little too passive of a character on screen. OSCAR CHANCE: Stand in line.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS in BLUE VALENTINE (The Weinstein Co) – As a young mother whose marriage is in freefall, Williams – and co-star Ryan Gosling- burn up the screen in a raw, sliced-of-life drama. It’s the kind of material actors kill for and she kills in it. OSCAR CHANCE: Good, if the NC-17 rating controversy doesn’t overshadow the work and if more conservative actors branch members can get through it. A previous nomination for Brokeback Mountain helped her break into the club but due to the intense Actress competition this year Gosling may actually have the better shot of prevailing than Williams.