Despite the ongoing controversy concerning all the deserving film work that was snubbed by this year’s Academy Awards and the lack of diversity, this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees may be among the most solid in recent memory. From historical epics to more intimate character-driven tales, the films nominated for the top prize are among the most satisfying stories to hit the big screen in 2015, and combined, they provide an incredible summation of the year in film. Here is our definitive ranking of the Best Picture nominees for this year’s Oscars, ranked by how much we feel it’s deserving of claiming the statuette.
Saoirse Ronan may have wowed audiences before with her performances in films like Atonement and Hanna, but as 1950s Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey in director John Crowley’s romantic drama, Ronan anchors a coming-of-age story about a woman caught between two worlds. The film’s classic storytelling and charming supporting cast — including Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson and Julie Walters — keep the more familiar elements of the story from weighing down the broader sense of Eilis’s self-discovery. While the film is elegantly executed and brilliantly acted by Ronan, however, it lacks the freshness that would give it the edge over its competition.
7. Bridge of Spies
Stop us if you’ve heard this one: Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks join forces for a wartime drama that centers on one man’s freedom and explores the fact that every life matters. Sure, the director/actor team may have tread superficially similar ground with Saving Private Ryan, but while that 1998 classic features intense battle sequences capturing the brutality of war, this film is more concerned with the complex morality behind the justice system, as Hanks’ James B. Donovan defends an alleged Communist spy during the Cold War. Bridge of Spies may not be as visceral an experience as that other Spielberg/Hanks film, but it is more thought-provoking and thoroughly rewarding in its own right.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road
Much has been said about how 70-year-old filmmaker George Miller shocked the world with what he was able to achieve in this sequel/reboot of his decades-old Mad Max franchise. After all, the action is so over-the-top and visually imaginative that it easily trumps most action films to come along over the last several years in terms of pure spectacle. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron emotionally anchor the chaos as the irate Max and Imperator Furiosa, with the latter securely among the most memorable characters to hit the screen last year. Still, though we are rooting for Miller to snag his first Best Director Oscar for his technical achievement, the film’s simplistic narrative prevent us from placing it higher on our list.
5. The Big Short
Based on Michael Lewis’s best-selling book about the 2007-2010 financial crisis, it’s no surprise that the topic was adapted into an Oscar-caliber film. The economic collapse was among the most historically significant events in recent years, but few expected the filmmaker behind its big-screen counterpart to be Adam McKay of Anchorman and Step Brothers fame. Yet, a Will Ferrell-less McKay steered this wickedly satirical look at the events in question to energetic life onscreen. Boosted by a stellar ensemble cast led by Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale, the film both educates and entertains viewers with an offbeat perspective that is underscored by an overwhelming sense of melancholy with regards to the perverse financial world.
4. The Revenant
At last year’s Academy Awards, Alejandro G. Iñárritu rode the wave of praise for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) all the way to Best Picture and Best Director victories. Many are predicting he may repeat that feat with this semi-biographical survival story about frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his quest for vengeance. Beautifully shot by two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, the film features one stunning set piece after another, and while it’s light on plot, the outstanding visual palette and performances by DiCaprio and co-star Tom Hardy make it among the most immersive films of last year. DiCaprio is heavily expected to finally land that elusive Oscar, but we’ll see just how well the film fares beyond the Best Actor category.
3. The Martian
After Prometheus, The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings elicited a collective meh from moviegoers, some were beginning to lose hope in director Ridley Scott’s ability to deliver a memorable cinematic experience. Thankfully, this adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel about an astronaut mistakenly left behind on Mars sees Scott return to top form. With Damon at his charismatic best, The Martian spins a smart, playful yarn that keeps audiences riveted throughout. Its optimistic view on science and the power of the human mind is infectious. By the time the credits roll, the film emerges as one of the most surprising and inspiring films of the year. Now, if only we could get Scott the Best Director Oscar he so richly deserves…
Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room tells a harrowing story of a young woman and her son, as they spend their days living in a single mysterious room. With its sharp focus and intimate narrative, its both unexpected and rapturous that director Lenny Abrahamson was able to translate Donoghue’s tale into such a poignant film. Brie Larson may have turned heads with memorable turns in Hollywood blockbusters (21 Jump Street) and indie fare (Short Term 12) alike, but her performance here is on another level entirely, earning her one well-deserved award after another. Likewise, young Jacob Tremblay — who plays her son — delivers one of the best child actor performances of all time (yes, we went there) as the heart of the story. Though Room may at times be hard to watch, the film depicts such an unforgettable journey that audiences aren’t likely to ever be able to entirely shake it off.
In our minds, the Best Picture Oscar is best awarded to a film that represents the best of what cinema can bring. A compelling story? Check. A gifted cast in equally compelling roles? Check again. A distinct vision that entertains and makes a resonant point about the world in which we live? Check please. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight — which chronicles the Boston Globe investigation that exposed the systemic child sex abuse by Catholic priests — fits all the criteria necessary to be deserving of Oscar’s top prize. The film tackles journalism in a detailed way that few films ever have and so tightly draws audiences in that most will walk out of the theater both triumphantly championing the work done by the Globe’s “Spotlight” team and exhaustively shaking their heads at our corrupt, often morally backwards, society. It’s a riveting film designed to stir up discussion, and the Academy would be wise to acknowledge McCarthy and his team during the final minutes of this year’s Oscar telecast.
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