The Academy Awards are the pinnacle of glamour and prestige in Hollywood, a flashy night for A-list actors to applaud themselves for films that roughly only half of Americans have seen. As The Ringer's Sean Fennessey points out, this year's nine Best Picture nominees have earned less than Star Wars: The Last Jedi's total domestic gross at the box office combined.
It's not that people don't care about good films but rather that these movies just aren't as accessible — or as big, in terms of scale and marketing budgets — to audiences as franchise blockbusters. It's also hard to know which film's for you when you're being inundated with awards season headlines about this film's Oscar chances and that film's brewing controversy.
With roughly a month to go before those shiny Academy Awards are doled out, we're taking a look at the 13 films you need to see before the ceremony to know what's up this awards season. Or you know, if you want to cheat your way to winning your office Oscar pool.
Call Me By Your Name
For fans of: Italian villas; summer; Armie Hammer dancing; soft-boiled eggs; The Psychedelic Furs; queer narratives; coming-of-age movies; short shorts; crying; Sufjan Stevens; peaches
What's it about? Luca Guadagnino's sensual queer drama is set in 1983 and follows an intimate fling between a precocious 17-year-old named Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) and a graduate student named Oliver (Armie Hammer), who spends the summer with the Perlmans at their splendid villa in northern Italy. Adapted from André Aciman's novel of the same name, every frame of Call Me By Your Name is lush and fully lived-in — and the intimacy is palpable. It's a film about the pangs of first love and self-discovery, and all of the playful moments in between.
It's also a career-making turn for young Chalamet, whose profound final scene is equal parts haunting and heartbreaking.
Nominated for: Best Actor for Chalamet, who at 22 is the youngest nominee in that category since 1939; Best Adapted Screenplay for James Ivory, who at 89 is the oldest male Oscar nominee ever; Best Original Song for Sufjan Stevens' delicate ballad "Mystery of Love"
Where to watch: Call Me By Your Name is currently in theaters nationwide. It will be available for digital download on February 27, five days before the Oscars.
For fans of: Coming-of-age movies; female storytellers; Timothée Chalamet; early 2000s slang; A People's History of the United States, " Crash Into Me"; rebelling; complicated mother-daughter relationships; breaking free
What's it about? Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school senior coming of age in the unbearably normal suburbs of Sacramento, California in 2002. Lady Bird (that's her "given name" — she gave it to herself) is a rebellious teen spirit suffocating under the weight of her weary but well-meaning mother's (Laurie Metcalf) control. But the teen angst and early '00s deep cuts are nothing compared to the film's sweet-like-candy center. Thanks to Greta Gerwig's generous lens, the pains of adolescence have never felt so raw and relatable.
Nominated for: Best Picture; Best Director for Greta Gerwig, who's now the fifth female filmmaker to ever score a directing nod; Best Actress for Saoirse Ronan; Best Supporting Actress for Laurie Metcalf; Best Original Screenplay for Gerwig
Where to watch: Lady Bird is currently in theaters nationwide.
What's it about? Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who is black, is meeting his white girlfriend Rose's (Allison Williams) parents for the first time, but the couple's weekend visit starts to turn sour when Chris realizes something far more sinister is afoot with the Armitage family. Yes, Get Out is a film about race — more distinctly, the commodification of black bodies — but the nuance of Jordan Peele's storytelling is far more chilling. It's a film with a lot to say, and Peele subverts common horror tropes to convey the message. Also, you'll never look at Fruit Loops in quite the same way.
Nominated for: Best Picture; Best Director for Jordan Peele, who's the fifth African-American to earn a directing nomination; Best Actor for Daniel Kaluuya; Best Original Screenplay for Peele
Where to watch: Get Out is currently available on DVD and digital, but if you want to experience the thrill of seeing it in the theater with a live audience, it's now playing in select theaters nationwide.
The Shape of Water
For fans of: Timeless romance; Turner Classic Movies; hard-boiled eggs; baths; Guillermo del Toro; fantasy; dance numbers; fish sex; Paddington
What's it about? On the surface, it's a love story between a mute human woman (Sally Hawkins) and an amphibian man of unknown mystical origins (the always unrecognizable Doug Jones). And, yeah, that relationship is sexual. But Guillermo del Toro's sensual tale is a film about the power of connection, of finding that one person — or sea creature — who truly understands you and makes you feel seen. It's as much a love letter to old Hollywood romance as it is to del Toro's beloved monsters.
Nominated for: So many! Best Picture; Best Director for Guillermo del Toro; Best Actress for Sally Hawkins; Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer; Best Supporting Actor for Richard Jenkins; Best Original Music Score; Best Original Screenplay for del Toro and Vanessa Taylor; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Sound Mixing; Best Sound Editing; Best Production Design; Best Film Editing
Where to watch: The Shape of Water is playing in theaters now.
The Florida Project
For fans of: Ice cream; young, unknown talent; Disney; star-making performances; childhood narratives; quiet storytelling; Brooklynn Prince's Twitter account; Tangerine; the future of cinema
What's it about? Mischievous young Moonee (Prince) lives with her careless twentysomething mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the Magic Castle, a motel in Orlando, Florida. They've been all but forgotten by society, living hand to mouth just a few blocks away from the shiny gates of Walt Disney World. But Moonee doesn't know that. She spends her days playing with her friends, spitting on cars, and eating ice cream. Meanwhile, the motel manager (a surprisingly tender Willem Dafoe) plays the part of the father figure/landlord/handyman dutifully. But director Sean Baker smartly never lets his lens shy too far away from 6-year-old Moonee. Through her eyes, there's still hope — and, more importantly, magic to be found out there.
Nominated for: Best Supporting Actor for Willem Dafoe
Where to watch: The Florida Project is currently available on digital, and five percent of the proceeds from its first-week sales will go to The Community Hope Center, an organization that helps "low-income, poverty level families and individuals" living in and around the Florida county where the film is set.
For fans of: Historical dramas; Mary J. Blige; cinematography; post-WWII America; exciting new voices; brilliant ensemble casting; films that confront racism and bigotry head-on
What's it about? Based on Hillary Jordan's novel of the same name, Mudbound follows two families living on the same desolate Mississippi farm in the 1940s — the McAllens, the white family who owns the land, and the Jacksons, the black family who work the land. Dee Rees's sprawling story is told through several characters' perspectives, including Florence (Blige), the weary Jackson family matriarch; Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), a depressed, city-bred wife; Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), the oldest son who returns from war a changed man; and Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund), the charismatic younger brother who strikes up an ill-fated friendship with Ronsel.
Nominated for: Best Supporting Actress for Mary J. Blige; Best Original Song for Blige's " Mighty River"; Best Cinematography for Rachel Morrison, the first female DP to ever be nominated in the category; Best Adapted Screenplay for Dee Rees and Virgil Williams
Where to watch: Mudbound is streaming on Netflix, so you really have no excuse not to watch it.
What's it about? Featuring a Murderer's Row of talent — from Hollywood titans Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks to familiar character actors like Carrie Coon, Bradley Whitford, and Bob Odenkirk — The Post is a star-studded film from legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg that's all about the sanctity of a free press. ( Timely!) Set in 1971, the drama covers the Washington Post's decision to print the Pentagon Papers, leaked documents that contained highly classified information about the country's intentions in Vietnam. It's slightly subdued for a Spielberg film, but it does include one of the most thrilling sequences of the year — and the only one that features a printing press.
Nominated for: Best Picture; Best Actress for Meryl Streep
Where to watch: The Post is currently in theaters nationwide.
For fans of: Fashion; Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis; food movies; dark comedies; poisonous mushrooms; buttering toast; killing the word "chic"; sumptuous filmmaking; shifting power dynamics; arthouse cinema
What's it about? A marriage between an insufferably charming fashion designer and the woman who disrupts, dismantles, and completes his disciplined life. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) and Alma (a sensational Vicky Krieps) are a match made in a fucking chic heaven. Every quietly hostile moment between the couple plays out like a piece of music, strained and passive, before it ultimately swells to an explosive crescendo. And Johnny Greenwood's lush, dynamic score is the perfect accompaniment to all that wonderful chaos.
Nominated for: Best Picture; Best Director for Paul Thomas Anderson; Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis; Best Supporting Actress for Lesley Manville; Best Original Score; Best Costume Design
Where to watch: Phantom Thread is currently playing in theaters.
The Big Sick
For fans of: Dark rom-coms; autobiographical storytelling; Silicon Valley; awkward first dates; stand-up comedy; family dramas; happy endings; badass husband-and-wife duos; laughing and crying simultaneously
What's it about? Loosely based on the real-life romance between Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick follows Kumail (as himself) and Emily's (Zoe Kazan) unusual courtship from its humble, bar-hopping beginnings to the hospital, where things really take a surprising turn. When Emily abruptly falls into a coma after a mysterious illness, Kumail forms an unlikely bond with her concerned mother (Holly Hunter) and father (Ray Ramano) — despite the fact that he and Emily had actually broken up because of his own issues with his traditional Pakistani parents. Directed by comedian Michael Showalter, The Big Sick is a blend of humor and heart — with an existential crisis or two thrown in for good measure.
Nominated for: Best Original Screenplay for Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon
Where to watch: You can stream The Big Sick on Amazon Video right now.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
For fans of: Awards season controversy; Frances McDormand at her best; biting dialogue; female rage; Lucas Hedges's career evolution; pitch-black comedy; memes
What's it about? Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is mad as hell, and she's not going to take it anymore. Following the brutal rape and murder of her teenage daughter, Mildred buys three billboards (outside Ebbing, Missouri) to publicly accuse the local police of not doing enough to solve the case. Her main target? The exasperated Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). But it's his racist, dense deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who just can't let Mildred's disrespect go so easily. By far the most controversial film this awards season, Martin McDonagh's bleak comedy is not for the faint of heart. It's an uncomfortable watch — and not just because of Dixon's hotly debated redemption arc.
Nominated for: Best Picture; Best Actress for Frances McDormand; Best Supporting Actor for Woody Harrelson; Best Supporting Actor for Sam Rockwell; Best Original Screenplay for Martin McDonagh; Best Original Score; Best Film Editing
Where to watch: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is currently playing in theaters nationwide.
What's it about? The film dramatizes the events leading up to the brutal 1994 attack of Tonya Harding's (Margot Robbie) rival on the ice, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, and the ensuing drama it causes for Harding, her Olympic chances, and her complicated relationship with her abusive ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the man who ordered the attack. The film's dueling narratives — told from Harding and Gillooly's conflicting real-life accounts — weave together a surreal tale of a white-trash underdog who fought to be recognized in a sport that never wanted her and actively railed against her. Perhaps that's too sympathetic for some people — but Harding doesn't want your sympathy anyway.
Nominated for: Best Actress for Margot Robbie; Best Supporting Actress for Allison Janey; Best Film Editing
Where to watch: I, Tonya is currently playing in theaters nationwide.
For fans of: War epics without all the grittiness; British actors; Harry Styles; aviation; Silent Tom Hardy; dude-centric movies; harrowing tales of survival
What's it about? Told through three alternating timelines that ultimately converge for a heart-pounding finale, Christopher Nolan's WWII epic is nothing short of a visual masterpiece. Based on true events, the sweeping film chronicles the harrowing evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in 1940, as the Germans zeroed in. Dunkirk is an expansive film grounded by the performances of its cast, led by Hardy (who says more with his eyes than he does actual words), Cillian Murphy, and newcomer Fionn Whitehead. Oh, and Harry Styles, who has the distinct honor of dropping the film's two f-bombs.
Nominated for: Best Picture; Best Director for Christopher Nolan (his first!); Best Original Score; Best Cinematography; Best Sound Mixing; Best Sound Editing; Best Film Editing; Best Production Design
Where to watch: Dunkirk is available on DVD and digital download, but if you want to see Styles up close on the big screen, you're in luck: The film is now playing in select theaters nationwide.
For fans of: Hand-drawn animation; The Secret of Kells; folklore; coming-of-age films; female storytellers; strong female characters
What's it about? The Breadwinner follows Parvana, a wildly imaginative 11-year-old Afghan girl, in the sobering aftermath of her father's wrongful arrest by the Taliban. Under Taliban rule in Kabul, women aren't allowed to leave their homes without a man to accompany them, so a resilient Parvana cuts off her hair and poses as a boy in order to support her family and rescue her father. From Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, The Breadwinner isn't just a gorgeously animated film about ugly things like war and misogyny; it's a film about the power of love and family even in the midst of such unspeakable horrors.
Nominated for: Best Animated Feature
Where to watch: The Breadwinner is currently playing in select theaters nationwide.
Honorable mention: BPM (Beats per Minute)
For fans of: Queer narratives; French cinema; feeling things; dance sequences; crying; activism; intimate love stories; How to Survive a Plague
What's it about? Robin Campillo's powerful French drama BPM (Beats per Minute) follows a spirited group of young ACT UP activists fighting the AIDS pandemic in Paris in 1992. While the narrative focuses on several key members, the film zeros in on the blossoming relationship between Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a brash HIV-positive man who pushes for a more militant form of advocacy, and quiet newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois), an HIV-negative man who lost his ex-lover to AIDS. Their intimacy — as lovers and partners — is never fetishized; it's depicted tenderly, from finding freedom under the strobe lights and pulsating beats of the discotheque to their final, heartbreaking moments together.
Nominated for: Nothing. The French film failed to make the Oscar shortlist for the foreign language film selection, and it's a real shame. But don't take my word for it — take Barry Jenkins's. The Moonlight helmer has been a vocal supporter of the film.
Where to watch: BPM (Beats per Minute) is currently available on digital download.