Here’s the skinny on this year’s eight Best Picture Oscar nominees, as well as eight other contenders we think are worth seeing before the 87th Academy Awards on Feb. 22.
Whether they’ve been recognized for a stellar performance, breathtaking cinematography, a soaring score, amazing costumes, or all around excellence, the below films (in alphabetical order) are the ones you shouldn't miss.
So, whet your popcorn appetites and get your watch-at-home Oscar ballots ready. (The show airs Sunday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. ET on ABC.)
1. American Sniper – 6 Nominations (Including Best Picture)
Basics: Directed by Clint Eastwood, and based on a true story, the film stars Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, nicknamed “Legend.” Credited with being "the most lethal sniper in U.S. history," Kyle saved thousands of fellow soldiers lives—but the film isn’t an ode to a hero. It explores the tolls (such as post traumatic stress syndrome) that his tours of duty took on the soldier’s personal life and family, including his patient wife Taya, played by Sienna Miller. The movie ends with an ironic twist of fate that we won’t spoil here, just in case you don’t already know the saga.
Bravos: Some were surprised when this film got no love from the Golden Globes, but it garnered six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor for Bradley Cooper, Best Adapted Screenplay and some technical nods for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.
Bonus: In its first 10 days of wide release, the film grossed $200 million at the box office and the cash registers are still ka-chinging.
2. Birdman – 9 Nominations (Including Best Picture)
Basics: It’s impossible to categorize this frenetic, surreal film, which is what makes it so refreshing. The fact that director Alejandro G. Iñárritu gives us the illusion that the movie is shot in one long take is only part of its fascination. Michael Keaton in somewhat of a “comeback” role, plays Riggan, a washed-up actor, haunted by the imaginary demon of his biggest role—a superhero named Birdman. Sound familiar? (Refresher: Keaton played Batman in the 1989 and 1992 films.) The meta-plot revolves around our protagonist trying to make a return as a Broadway director/actor. Be prepared for an ambiguous ending that has optimists and pessimists at odds.
Bravos: The movie ties for first place (with The Grand Budapest Hotel) for the most Oscar nominations garnered this year: Best Picture, Keaton for Best Actor, Edward Norton for Best Supporting Actor, Emma Stone for Best Supporting Actress, Iñárritu for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing. (If Keaton takes home the statue he can keep it next to the Golden Globe he just nabbed for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical and the SAG he won as part of Best Ensemble Cast.)
Bonus: In addition to Norton and Stone, the feature boasts an ace supporting cast including Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, and Andrea Riseborough. Keaton can be seen next in “Spotlight” with fellow Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo (See Foxcatcher).
3. Boyhood – 6 Nominations (Including Best Picture)
Basics: Director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, School of Rock, Before Sunrise) began shooting this coming of age story in 2002, following the fictional life of 6-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister, and his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke.) Linklater created film history when he reunited the cast off and on for over a decade to capture typical family scenes in real time, documenting Mason’s (and Coltrane’s) experiences from elementary school to college. A slice of life that at times feels like a documentary, it is sad, funny, and ultimately moving.
Bravos: The groundbreaking work netted six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Arquette for Best Supporting Actress, Hawke for Best Supporting Actor, and Linklater for Best Director, as well as Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. (It also won Globes for Best Drama and Best Director and a SAG for best Supporting actress.)
Bonus: The film only cost $4 million to make and has pulled in $25 million since hitting theaters last July. We first discovered the film a year ago in Sundance, at which time Linklater told us, “The lead character in this movie is really time. That’s going to carry it away. That’s the most powerful element.” Available on DVD and on demand.
4. Foxcatcher – 5 Nominations
Basics: Steve Carrell’s jaw dropping transformation into real life eccentric billionaire John du Pont is the main reason to see this movie. The former star of The Office is almost unrecognizable as the haughty, manipulative yet insecure mama’s boy whose quest in life, despite the withering disapproval of his prim and proper mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is to coach a wrestling team all the way to the Olympics. To that end he manipulates the wrestling Schultz brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) one by one to come work for him at his “Foxcatcher Farms” estate, as competitor and assistant coach. Du Pont’s ego and financial strings slowly dominate Mark’s vulnerability and Dave’s good nature until their would-be mentor finally spirals into a bleak, delusional reality.
Bravos: The depressing yet riveting true tale scored Oscar nominations for Carell for Best Actor, Ruffalo for Best Supporting Actor, Bennett Miller for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
Bonus: During filming, Carrell allegedly kept to himself as much as possible to stay in character as the odd, reclusive billionaire. Next up he has Freeheld a romantic comedy which reunites him with his Crazy Stupid Love co-star and fellow Oscar nominee Julianne Moore. (See Still Alice).
5. Gone Girl – 1 Nomination
Basics: Based on Gillian Flynn’s best selling, page-turner and directed by David Fincher, this film is like a multi-layered cake—one with a sickly sweet frosting of suburban contentment covering up a batter of boredom and familiarity. That inner malaise ultimately builds resentment, contempt, and possibly even murder. Ben Affleck plays suave, yet naive former writer-turned bar owner Nick Dunn who is accused of murdering his missing wife, Amy. Outwardly "Amazing Amy" is a blonde American sweetheart, but inside lurks a cold and calculating ice princess, played brilliantly by Brit actress Rosamund Pike. In addition to being an edge of your seat “who done it”—this fast paced story also takes a wry, satirical look at marriage and modern day media sensationalism.
Bravos: Pike earned her first Oscar nomination for her smooth portrayal of the calm and darkly twisted Amy.
Bonus: The suspense thriller which has raked in more than $367 million at the box office so far, was a game changer for Pike who is now at the top of directors' lists and has landed lead parts in upcoming films Return to Sender and The Mountain Between Us. Other highlights include Tyler Perry as Nick's slick defense attorney, Carrie Coon as his quip-cracking sister, Kim Dickens as a cynical lead detective, and Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s obsessive former boyfriend.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel – 9 Nominations (Including Best Picture)
Basics: Director Wes Anderson is at his finest with this retro romp about the fastidious proprietor of a fictional European hotel in the '30s, his unlikely friendship with the young innocent who serves as the hotel’s lobby boy, (Tony Revolori) and the madcap trouble they find themselves in. It’s got everything a classic caper should: bejeweled grand dames in elegant plumage, afternoon trysts, a priceless stolen painting, death, false accusations, and a jailbreak. It also highlights Anderson’s trademark ability to create his own worlds (remember Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums?) complete with surreal colors, erratic action, and quirky characters.
Bravos: The farce ties with Birdman for nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Hair and Makeup, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score. It also just won a Globe for Best Comedy or Musical. Of note: composer Alexandre Desplat is also nominated for his moving score for The Imitation Game.
Bonus: The well-known cast includes Edward Norton (see Birdman), Saorsie Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Jude Law, F Murray Abrams, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Lea Seydoux, and more. Out since March 2014, it’s already on demand and DVD, and so far its worldwide box office take has hit approximately $175 million, more than any of Andersons’s previous cult classics.
7. Ida – 2 Nominations
Basics: This moody black-and-white film set in the early '60s and about a young Polish orphan named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a quiet study of awakening. Before Anna takes her vows tobecome a nun, she meets her only relative: a promiscuous, hard-living aunt. The meeting unearths an old family secret involving the Nazi occupation several years earlier and inspires the worldly aunt and naïve niece to form an unlikely friendship and embark on a journey of discovery.
Bravos: Nominated for Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography, and indeed each frame feels worthy of an art gallery.
Bonus: Some don’t eschew its lack of joy and somber tone, others find fault with its politics, but The New Yorker called it a “a film masterpiece.” It has grossed more than $3.6 million at the North American box office, considered a hit for a foreign language film.
8. Into the Woods – 3 Nominations
Basics: This film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed Broadway musical, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), is a whimsical “Be careful what you wish for“ cautionary tale. It follows the lives of a humble baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who, cursed with childlessness by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep), embark on a quest for magical objects to reverse the spell. How they obtain those objects from an array of fairy tale characters—Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and Jack and the Beanstalk, is the crux of the story
Bravos: The fantasy racked up three Academy Award noms, including Streep for Best Supporting Actress, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design. And guess what? Meryl can sing!
Bonus: This is Streep’s 19th Academy Award nomination. She has three previous wins, so if she scores this time she will tie with Katharine Hepburn for actress with the most Oscars statuettes. Johnny Depp entertains in a cameo as the deliciously flamboyant Big Bad Wolf.
9. The Imitation Game – 8 Nominations (Including Best Picture)
Basics: Known for playing brilliant characters, (Sherlock Holmes, for one) Benedict Cumberbatch dazzles once again as an eccentric genius. This time he channels real-life British mathematician Alan Turing, credited with helping the Allies win WWII by cracking Nazi military codes, saving thousands of lives along the way. Tragically, his own government later arrested him on charges of “gross indecency” for being homosexual (illegal at that time), and forced him to undergo hormonal treatments which lead to his demise. He was pardoned posthumously, 62 years later.
Bravos: The true tale picked up an impressive eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Cumberbatch for Best Actor, Keira Knightley for Best Supporting Actress, and Morten Tyldum for Best Director as well as Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Bonus: Cumberbatch’s fans (aka “Cumberbabes”) will not be disappointed, and handsome Matthew Goode plays a cocky fellow code cracker who starts out hating the socially awkward Turing, but the two ultimately become friends. Knightly adds a dash of beauty and humor with her portrayal of Joan Clarke, Turing’s friend, co-worker and one-time fiancée.
10. The Judge – 1 Nomination
Basics: This film is all about the strong performances by its two Roberts (Duvall and Downey Jr.) in this sometimes overly sentimental, but highly entertaining film. As estranged father and son, the seasoned yet small town judge and city slicker and combative attorney can’t agree on anything. But when Downey Jr. comes home for his mother’s funeral, a major plot twist finds him staying longer than he expected, representing his father in a murder trial and their relationship becomes further tested. He also of course, reunites with an old high school flame, played by Vera Farmiga, which offers its own interesting twist.
Bravos: Duvall, 84, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Bonus: This is Duvall’s seventh Oscar nomination and if he brings home the gold statue this year, he can place it next to his Best Actor Oscar for Tender Mercies in 1984.
11. Selma – 2 Nominations (Including Best Picture)
Basics: Rather than creating a sweeping biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s entire life, director Ava DuVernay chose to focus on his historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to protest the lack of voting rights for African Americans in the south. Her spotlight on that period not only offers a look at the politics behind a movement, but also a glimpse into the human and sometimes conflicted private life and mind of the man and not just the legend.
Bravos: The film reaped Oscar noms for Best Picture and Best Song, “Glory” by John Legend and Common. Note: "Glory" just won the Golden Globe for Best Song.
Bonus: David Oyelowo is excellent as the charismatic preacher and while some are surprised that he was overlooked for an Oscar, audiences can look forward to another collaboration with Duvernay soon. The two are reportedly working on a Hurricane Katrina murder mystery. Another highlight: a cameo by co-producer Oprah Winfrey and the lovely Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King (who bears an uncanny resemblance to King’s real life widow).
12. Still Alice – 1 Nomination
Basics: As a beautiful and accomplished college linguistics professor who slowly loses her mind to early onset Alzheimer's, Julianne Moore’s raw and poignant performance brings home the terror and vulnerability that goes along with this cruel disease. Rather than milking it with overly dramatic fits, she reveals her fear and anguish via subtle nuances of pained looks and restrained movements accented by occasional moments of panic. We also witness the effects that losing someone you love piece by piece, has on her husband (Alec Baldwin) and grown daughters (Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart).
Bravos: Moore snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and she has already won the Golden Globe and a SAG for the heart wrenching performance.
Bonus: Moore has had four past Oscar nominations and never taken home the statue, but many believe this could be her year. The film is credited with bringing more awareness to the fore about this devastating illness in a realistic yet empathetic way.
13. The Theory of Everything – 5 Nominations (including Best Picture)
Basics: Eddie Redmayne nails both the mannerisms and the charm of the brilliant, wheelchair bound physicist Stephen Hawking who was paralyzed by ALS in this romantic and inspirational tale of defying the odds. Based on the autobiography by Hawking’s wife, Jane (Felicity Jones) this sweeping, beautifully filmed saga spans their lives from fresh faced, hopeful college students through the highs and lows of marriage, the trials and tribulations of disease, the challenges of raising children, and the sadness of falling out of love.
Bravos: The moving film’s five Oscar nominations include Best Picture, Redmayne for Best Actor, Jones for Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. (Redmayne also racked up a Globe and a SAG earlier this year.)
Bonus: The 73-year old Hawking, who is still alive, has praised the performance by Redmayne who spent time with ALS patients and a choreographer, studying ballet for one, to learn how to mimic the movement of those with the disease.
14. Two Days, One Night – 1 Nomination
Basics: Sandra, a desperate, working class mother, played by a glammed down Marion Cotillard, who, about to be fired from her job at a solar panel factory, has one weekend to convince her co-workers to let her keep it. With the extra challenge of knowing that a vote for her means they will lose their bonuses, she visits them one by one to plead her case. The film is also an exploration of what Cotillard learns during each of her pride-swallowing encounters and how she grows in the process.
Bravos: Cotillard earned a Best Actress nomination for her heartfelt and realistic performance.
Bonus: If she wins, this would be Oscar number two for Cotillard, who first came to the attention of American audiences back in 2008 when she won a best actress statuette for portraying Edith Pilaf in La Vie En Rose. Next up, she plays Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender in the title role of the classic Macbeth.
15. Whiplash – 5 Nominations (Including Best Picture)
Basics: This fast paced study of a dysfunctional instructor-student relationship and the quest for greatness is one wild ride, vibrating with every beat of Miles Teller’s drums. Teller shines as promising young percussionist Andrew Nieman, determined to become a jazz legend. But J.K. Simmons commands the screen as Terence Fletcher, the tyrannical teacher who intimidates, humiliates, and abuses his star student in an effort to steer him clear of mediocrity or even of doing merely a “good job” (two words he hisses as if they’re an insult). Teller ultimately triumphs in their psychological tug-of-war, (behold his out-of-body, ten minute drum solo) but not without plenty of sweat, tears and yes—even blood, lost along the way.
Bravos: The movie scored five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Simmons, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Plus, Simmons just picked up a Globe and SAG for his performance.
Bonus: It’s no surprise that the story is based on writer director’s Damien Chazelle’s own experiences as a music student, as it feels so real and raw. Teller too came to the project with musical moxie having played drums in a high school garage band, but the actor had to learn the film’s jazz arrangements quickly and it shot in just 19 days. We’re looking forward to Teller’s second collaboration with Chazelle as a jazz pianist in the writer-director’s next film La La Land.
16. Wild – 2 Nominations
Basics: The true story of Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) who loaded up a backpack and hiked solo along the 1,100 mile Pacific Rim Trail to mend a broken heart and “find” herself. Along the way, she discovers frostbite, snakes, blisters, the trials and tribulations of tent-building and fire-starting as well as encountering a cast of eclectic characters ranging from creepy to quirky to charming. On the charming side there’s Michiel Huisman (of Game of Thrones and Orphan Black fame) as a sexy tryst-mate, and Thomas Sadowksi (Newsroom) as her supportive ex-husband. The film is a bittersweet tale that ultimately inspires by showing that channeling one’s inner reserves can triumph over grief.
Bravos: Witherspoon nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her gritty portrayal (no makeup, dirty hair) of the determined hiker, a reformed heroin addict, and Laura Dern snagged a Best Supporting Actress nod as her quirky, loving mom.
Bonus: Breath taking vistas of the Oregon-Washington wilderness and a cool, eclectic soundtrack ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Simon & Garfunklel to First Aid Kit and Portished. Director Jean-Marc Vallée helped Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto take home Oscar statues last year for their performances in Dallas Buyers Club.