Best Movie nominees

Oscars 2016: Best Picture nominees viewer's guide

No one was sure who would be nominated – and not everyone was thrilled – but when Chris Rock hosts the 88th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 28, a whopping 57 films will be represented. So to help you prep for the least predictable Oscar race in recent memory, EW has your inside scoop on who’s been nominated and why. Ahead, a look at the year’s best picture nominees. Pick up the latest issue of EW here.

Sprung from the mind of George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road represents the culmination of the director’s singular vision and his decades-long career. His motivation was both simple and radical: create an end-to-end chase that propels the audience straight into the action – without exposition or explanation – and then expect them to catch up. Populated by a primitive society with its own rituals and language, the film becomes an allegory for the downfall of totalitarian male-dominated societies, anchored by a dominant female character unmatched since Ripley in Alien.

No other film in the race had a longer gestation. Delayed by 9/11, studio shifts, and global warming, Fury Road didn’t get off the ground until it moved production from Australia and began filming in Namibia in 2012. “Given that it was such a tough film to make, I’m quite comfortable in saying it’s way better than it had a right to be, ” Miller says. He eschewed CG for practical effects whenever possible, upping the budget and the risk. “It didn’t feel like everybody was going to set every day, ” he says. “It felt like we were going into the wasteland: real vehicles with real assailants after you.” And now, real acclaim. – NICOLE SPERLING

Spotlight, the story of the team of Boston Globe journalists who uncovered the breadth of the pedophilia scandal within the Catholic Church, is a small miracle of a film. It entertains while it informs, turning the intricate, and often mundane, practice of investigative journalism into riveting cinema. Much of the credit goes to director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor), who, along with coscreenwriter Josh Singer, researched the paper’s Spotlight Team, and their work, to create a world that felt authentic. “Neither Josh nor I are journalists, ” McCarthy says. “And in any industry, there’s a certain culture, certain politics, the inside-baseball chatter of it all. We wanted to get that right.” They did. From the worn office furniture and cramped desks to the tedium of shoe-leather reporting and the emotional burden of knowing something you can’t quite yet prove, the film pulses with an energy and an authenticity that almost approaches documentary. Few films have gotten the culture and context of newspaper journalism this right. “It’s a really, really hard thing to pull off, and Tom did it, ” says Michael Keaton, who plays Spotlight Team leader Walter “Robby” Robinson. “That to me is the greatest accomplishment of the movie.” – NICOLE SPERLING, with additional reporting by Devan Coggan

It really shouldn’t be so entertaining: Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is an astronaut left behind by his crewmates after a storm on Mars. He finds himself alone on the Red Planet without enough food to survive until another ship might reach him. Yet in the able hands of director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, The Martian – much like the Andy Weir book it’s adapted from – is thrilling, funny, moving, and, yes, fun. “It’s very optimistic, ” says Damon. “Ridley and I agreed we didn’t want to lose this sense of terror, the idea of being millions of miles away from anybody else, and Mark has a number of problems he has to solve.” It’s Watney’s problem solving – including using human waste as fertilizer to grow potatoes – that has entranced audiences, to say nothing of the heartwarming idea of countries working together (well) to bring him home. “If he panics, he’d be dead, ” Scott says. “The optimism is fun. Great fun, actually.” Agreed. – SARA VILKOMERSON

Coming off his Best Picture win for Birdman, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was on a quest to turn a simple, primarily nonverbal story about a man’s journey of survival and redemption into an immersive and visceral cinematic experience. “It was a mecca, a voyage, a biblical tale he wanted to experience, ” says star Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the film’s protagonist, Hugh Glass. “When a director of that caliber asks you to go on a journey like this, you jump.” The end result is notable for its shocking—and often shockingly beautiful—imagery of seemingly uninhabited wilderness and for its raw, primal performances from Oscar nominees DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, which throb with urgency. Central to that urgency is a bear attack that has begun to take on an almost mythic status among cineasts, in part because Iñárritu and his team have declined to discuss how they did it. The bear, for the record, is completely digital, but you’d never know it. “You feel like you’re watching something you shouldn’t be watching, ” DiCaprio says. “The way they integrated the breath of the animal, the sweat, the blood, the tense moments of silence where she’s sniffing around wondering what to do next, you are really on the edge of your seat.” – NICOLE SPERLING

The true story of an American attorney (Tom Hanks) brokering a deal to trade a captured Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) for a downed U.S. spy-plane pilot came with high personal stakes for Steven Spielberg. As a kid growing up in the early 1960s, he was certain the Cold War would bring about the end of the world through nuclear annihilation. “It was in my bones to tell this story, ” he says. “There’s so much about it that has to do with personal integrity, and how do you live with yourself, and what’s the best way to live with yourself.” He reckons that the kind of quiet heroism found in this true-life story may be one reason the world didn’t end in a fireball. “We’re still here, ” he says. Integrity is a tricky commodity in a story packed with spies, diplomats, and politicians. “They’re all performing, ” Spielberg says. “It’s very, very hard to know what people really believe, because everybody has an agenda. Everybody has something they don’t want to tell us. And that’s part of the entire genre of the spy movie. You don’t know who is telling the truth or what their intentions are, and you’re not supposed to know that. You’re just supposed to be along for the ride.” – ANTHONY BREZNICAN

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