How the Best Actress race is shaping up to be this season’s strongest acting category.

Heading into the awards season all the talk was about the men – and deservedly so. The lead actor race has shaped up to be a strong one and supporting actor is very strong.

Prior to the autumn festivals conventional wisdom had it that the lead actress category would be weak and I admit I was one of those who believed this. We were all ignorant of what was to come. Now that we’ve seen the contenders in action I have to say this is easily the season’s strongest acting category.

A glance at some of the critics group winners and the Golden Globe nominations – which because of the drama / musical or comedy split tends to cover almost the entire eligible field – reveals some huge talent out there.

You can really say hand on your heart that the category highlights some of the greatest actresses of the younger generation. Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain and Marion Cotillard are as good as it gets.

I can only think of Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts and Reese Witherspoon as deserving of mention in the same breath. Four of this lot are not around this season simply because of the production and releasing cycle, but they’ll be back. The prospect of Theron in the remake of Lady Vengeance, Winslet in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day and Witherspoon in Devil’s Knot is tantalising.

But let’s return to the current crop. Lawrence has never looked back since her big break in Winter’s Bone, when she earned widespread respect and an Oscar nomination. She proved she could open a movie in The Hunger Games and revealed great comic flair in Silver Linings Playbook.

Her character is the kind of vulnerable, volatile and wise character you fall in love with. The character’s name is Tiffany, which recalls Audrey Hepburn’s Oscar-nominated turn as Holly Golightly, the equally adorable free spirit in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

Lawrence’s stock has risen steadily as the season has progressed. She has earned top honours from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and other groups.

She is riding high as Hollywood’s It Girl. Silver Linings Playbook producer Donna Gigliotti told me recently, “[She] has got a level of emotional intelligence in terms of how she understands character… she inhabits the character so thoroughly.” On the face of it, Lawrence is the one to beat.

Cotillard is a dazzling talent who tasted Academy Award glory for La Vie En Rose in 2008. She is arguably the finest actress of her generation and delivers a courageous performance in Rust And Bone as an orca trainer who suffers a horrific injury. Will the Academy reward her twice in six years? They would earn no censure from me if they did.

Watts is the gifted trauma specialist who gives a mighty turn as a survivor of the Thailand tsunami in The Impossible. The Academy has not properly embraced the movie and while Watts must surely achieve major honours in her career at some stage, she is an underdog this year.

The biggest obstacle in Lawrence’s route to the Oscar is Jessica Chastain, a mesmerising performer who has earned fans through a prestigious (and prolific) body of work.

As the driven CIA analyst who pursues a hunch that leads to the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan, Chastain anchors Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty with a performance that summons fire and ice.

The outlier among the lead pack is Quevenzhané Wallis, who stunned everybody with her spirited performance as Hushpuppy in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. It is an absurdly assured delivery by the newcomer, who was six when she shot the movie in Louisiana. The Screen Actors Guild loves Wallis and because actors comprise such a large part of the Academy’s voting block, the youngster may well receive an Oscar nomination.

It seems a little premature to give Wallis the Big One and we don’t yet know if she will be remembered as merely a child prodigy or if she is destined to stick around. Time will tell. Meanwhile we’ll get to see her next in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave.

There are others in the mix this year of course. Helen Mirren, an Oscar winner for The Queen, is terrific in Hitchcock as Alfred Hitchcock’s wife and oft-uncredited collaborator Alma Reville, while Maggie Smith is regal as ever in Quartet.

But at the end of the day I reckon it will come down to Lawrence or Chastain. Zero Dark Thirty is so good and both the movie and Chastain have already won several critics groups’ prizes. Academy members have been lapping it up and it feels very much like a story for our times that voters will not want to overlook.