For the second year in a row, I've managed to see all of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar before the ceremony itself. Last year, I used that to blog about which "horse" you should back, depending on your movie tastes. This year, since I managed to see them all with weeks to spare (rather than days), my version of the post can help you actually see the movie that's right for you.
Here's a list of the eight Best Picture nominees, in the order I personally prefer them. Included are links to my original reviews.
#1) The Martian. I have a reputation with many people as a film snob, but among this year's Best Picture nominations, my pick would be one of the big-budget, stalwartly mass market options. (Even my true favorite movie of the year -- not nominated for Best Picture -- is the widely seen Inside Out.) This big crowd-pleaser is still smart. While that can also be said of Mad Max: Fury Road (we'll get to that), I found The Martian's thrills to be more emotional than visceral, and I'm a sucker for emotion in film. That's what put it on top for me. That, plus the real and entertaining performances from Matt Damon and the all-star cast. And I simply found The Martian to be the most fun of this year's slate.
#2) Room. As I just said, I want a movie to stir emotion. And in a weird way, Room stirs the same feelings of triumph as The Martian. But man, does it put you through the wringer first. If you're not afraid of some truly dark subject matter, and want the full spectrum of laughter, tears, tension, shock, horror, and more, Room is for you. It also boasts (in young Jacob Tremblay) a child performance of a caliber that only comes along once in a decade.
#3) Spotlight. If "based on a true story" appeals to you, Spotlight is the movie for you. It's one of two films in this year's slate meant to inspire outrage over true events. It's the more "conventional" of the two, but that's not a bad thing in this case. It's raw and powerful as it takes you through heartbreak into outrage, and it's loaded with wisely muted performances from a brilliant ensemble cast. The story is the star, perfect for a movie about reporters.
#4) The Big Short. The other big "angertainment" movie among this year's nominees, The Big Short is more fun in its approach and execution. It's almost satirical in its playfulness, but still finds room for some strong performances. Compared to Spotlight, this one won't leave you drained and hollow, but some would say that makes it more approachable. In that way, The Big Short breaks from the "Oscar formula" without really breaking away from the Oscar formula. It's probably folly to hope for a real departure like The Martian or Mad Max: Fury Road winning, so this might be the more realistic option.
#5) Bridge of Spies. Compared to the movies I've listed so far, the subject matter here is easier and the morals far less ambiguous. It sounds superficial, but this is your movie if you like Steven Spielberg and/or Tom Hanks. It's a fine movie, a good story of an unlikely hero stepping up in a time of need and winning in the end. But it's not the best work from either of Spielberg or Hanks.
#6) Mad Max: Fury Road. If you read my blog, and you're the sort of person who would like this movie, you've already seen this movie. I suspect I don't need to describe its appeal as much as I need to explain why it's so far down my list. I can only point back to my preference for emotional thrills over visceral ones; this movie offers more of the latter. Even then, I felt it had my eyes popping more than it had my blood pumping. Your post-apocalyptic mileage may vary.
#7) Brooklyn. Here's your tried-and-true, patented "Oscar movie." Girl meets world, girl becomes a woman. Tribulations, and triumph. This is also your movie if you're a fan of expert scene and costume design bringing the past to life. Not too long ago, this movie might have been the favorite for Best Picture. This year, it's the long shot.
#8) The Revenant. It's hard to know who to recommend this movie to, and not just because I disliked it. I mean, the main thing it has going for its carefully staged, painterly visuals. But if you like that, I think you should be backing George Miller. The visuals of Mad Max: Fury Road are just as thought out and lavishly realized as anything Alejandro González Iñárritu presents in The Revenant; Miller just doesn't need to be as conspicuous about it with difficult, long takes. I guess The Revenant is your movie if you love revenge stories, and nothing else I described above sounds good to you. Otherwise, I got nothin'.