The 88th annual Academy Award nominations were announced Thursday morning, and with it, all the pre-Oscars predictions can be thrown out the window, as eight nominees for best picture were solidified. From dystopian futures to investigative journalism, the best picture category is a versatile lineup, and all nominated films have their respective merits to win the award in 2016.
The Big Short
What it's about: The Big Short explores the housing bubble of the 2000s that led to the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The film has a deep and talented cast, featuring the likes of Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt — the four main characters who separately predict that the collapse is going to happen, which is, of course, an ethical dilemma because they're betting against a ton of citizens losing their livelihoods.
Why it could win: The Big Short works, in part, because it combines the humorous tone of director Adam McKay's previous films (Anchorman, Step Brothers) under a serious guise, and in the end, he wants you to feel frustrated. "In almost every scene, you can feel the director gesturing to the audience, asking, 'Can you believe this happened?'" David Sims wrote for the Atlantic. "With every scene, he's delighted and horrified to tell you, it absolutely did."
Bridge of Spies
What it's about: Based on the real-life story of American lawyer James B. Donovan, Bridge of Spies follows the titular character — played by Tom Hanks — as he negotiates the release of an American pilot in exchange for a Soviet spy during the height of the Cold War. Donovan faces a moral dilemma by representing the spy, and he feels obligated to properly defend him in court, as a lawyer should. Oh, and it's directed by some guy named Steven Spielberg.
Why it could win: Perhaps the best thing going for Bridge of Spies in the Oscars field is that it's a story that — while set in the '50s and '60s — has relevant, present-day themes that permeate throughout. "The question is whether we are any better at living up to our values today than we were then, or if we still need a standout like James Donovan to be our conscience," Gwyneth Kelly wrote for New Republic.
What it's about: Based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn follows a young Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) as she leaves her homeland to travel to the United States to pursue the American Dream. Though she is nervous in the new country at first, her worries dissipate when she meets an Italian man, Tony (Emory Cohen), and a passionate romance begins. However, when her Irish family is in need of her to return, she faces the challenge of choosing between her new home and her old one.
Why it could win: It's one of the best romance films in a while, and it accomplishes this by keeping the story and the stakes simple, rather than unnecessarily convoluting the plot and its main elements. "It's not easy to make a movie as beautiful as Brooklyn, where the stakes are low but the outcome really matters," Noel Murray wrote for the A.V. Club. "This is an old-fashioned entertainment, but one so masterfully crafted and heartfelt that it's hard not to love."
Mad Max: Fury Road
What it's about: Basically hell on Earth. Mad Max: Fury Road is set in the same dystopian desert future as the Mel Gibson classics, and it's led by the same director from the originals, George Miller. In this installment, Tom Hardy replaces Gibson for the titular role of Max, who helps Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and a group of women flee from the maniacal cult leader Immortan Joe, who needs them for procreating purposes.
Why it could win: Though the film is titled Mad Max, audiences are really drawn to the feminist badassery of Furiosa, who's driven in her mission to free the women from Immortan Joe's clutches. It would also be an understatement to just say the action in this film is incredible. For its roughly two-hour runtime, Fury Road essentially becomes an extended car chase, and yet in that simplicity, it works. Most of all, there are real stunts behind all the action. "When cars smash into each other, it's real," Todd VanDerWerff wrote for Vox. "When characters dip from tall poles mounted into the backs of vehicles into cars beside them to snatch up passengers, that's also real. When a guy hangs from the front of a giant vehicle, playing rock riffs on an electric guitar that belches flame, that's also real — and it's sadly not a job you can apply for."
What it's about: Another Oscar nominee based on a novel, The Martian, under legendary sci-fi director Ridley Scott, takes its name from the 2011 book by Andy Weir. In the film, an astronaut (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a storm sweeps him away from the rest of the crew, who then leave the planet. He survives and is left to live by his own means with limited supplies, and try to find a way to reach his colleagues for a rescue.
Why it could win: Unlike some of Scott's other well-known sci-fi films, such as Alien and its spinoff Prometheus, The Martian works because it doesn't take itself too seriously (heck, it's a Golden Globe-winning comedy). As a result, Damon's ineffable charm shines through, as he becomes a character the audience desperately wants to survive. "This resonant emotional chord isn't the product of a single, masterful scene, like Tom Hanks' silent dissolution at the end of Captain Phillips; instead, it's the accrued effect of a team of talented and committed professionals working in harmony toward a shared and noble end," Chris Klimek wrote for NPR.
What it's about: Fresh off of his 2015 best picture Academy Award win for Birdman, director Alejandro Iñárritu returns with The Revenant — a story that's far and away different from last year's Oscar-winning film. First off, it's a period piece, set in the 1800s, and it's partly based on true events. The Revenant explores the depths of one man's revenge (Leonardo DiCaprio) for the murder of his son, while being left for dead (courtesy of Tom Hardy).
Why it could win: The Revenant captures the same cinematographic beauty of Birdman, but in the vast expanse of nature, rather than New York City. The film is also brilliantly carried by DiCaprio's and Hardy's performances — despite little dialogue — in a film that was an apparent nightmare for the cast and crew to endure. Nonetheless, it successfully captures an emotional grittiness. "Words matter little in a movie that favors seeing and feeling above all else," Rene Rodriguez wrote for the Miami Herald. "It's a work of pure, furious sensation."
What it's about: The film adaption of Emma Donoghue's novel of the same name, Room focuses on the relationship between a mother (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who eventually escape the only room Jack has ever seen. From that escape, Jack begins to learn what the real world is like — a new, exciting adventure in and of itself.
Why it could win: Room deals with some dark undertones, but through it all, Larson's performance stands out as wholly inspiring, particularly with the depths she would go to give her son peace of mind. It's a performance that has her nominated for best actress, and one she certainly deserves. That hope, amidst despair, demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit and perseverance. "Room is astonishing: It transmutes a lurid, true-crime situation into a fairy tale in which fairy tales are a source of survival," David Edelstein wrote for New York magazine.
What it's about: Spotlight follows the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Boston Globe's "spotlight team" (in other words, an investigative unit at the paper) as they uncover the Catholic Church's child sex-abuse scandal. Led by a talented cast featuring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams, the team goes through a yearlong search for answers and discovers layers of corruption with every turn.
Why it could win: Spotlight is rooted in realism, which works to its advantage. It could have overly dramatized events, but instead, it focuses on the hard-hitting, day-to-day grind of a real investigative journalism unit. As a result, we see the depths of their passion to find the truth and cover the controversial story properly. Among journalism-related films, it's already considered a classic. "[Director] Tom McCarthy's movie doesn't turn its journalists into heroes," Ty Burr wrote for the Boston Globe. "It just lets them do their jobs, as tedious and critical as those are, with a realism that grips an audience almost in spite of itself."