With just three days until the Oscars, you probably don’t have time to watch all of the best picture nominations. But hopefully you can carve out a few hours for one or two—and to help you choose, we’ve compiled all the information you need to know about the candidates.
Below are the trailers, directors, actors, plot descriptions, and reviews for each film nominated for best picture. For a crash course on some of the story lines to watch for on Hollywood’s big night, the Atlantic put together a comprehensive guide.
The 89th Academy Awards, hosted by comedian Jimmy Kimmel, air Sunday (Feb. 26) at 8:30pm ET on ABC. And the nominees are…
Director: Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners)
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Plot: Aliens have landed on Earth, and a linguist is tasked by the US military with learning their language and communicating with them.
Upside: “The best film of the year to date, ambitious in conception and extraordinary in execution.”—Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
Downside: “The sort of superficially profound movie that initially seems deep and weighty but stops making sense the moment you put down the bong.”—Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
Director: Denzel Washington (The Great Debaters, Antwone Fisher)
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis
Plot: A black garbage collector (who is also a former Negro League baseball player) clashes with his family in 1950s Pittsburgh. The story is based on the August Wilson play of the same name.
Upside: “A front-row seat to the beautifully mounted revival of a classic work of American drama, starring two stars who know and understand that text as well as any actors in the world.”—Dana Stevens, Slate
Downside: “Not cinematic enough to make you forget you’re watching something conceived for another, more spatially constricted medium.”—David Edelstein, New York Magazine
Director: Mel Gibson (The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto)
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer
Plot: The true story of Desmond Doss, an American conscientious objector and combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II.
Upside: “Violent, harrowing, heartbreaking and unforgettable.”—Rex Reed, New York Observer
Downside: “As tepid as deafening, blood-soaked movies come.”—Michael Joshua Rowin, Brooklyn Magazine
Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie (Starred Up)
Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
Plot: Two brothers in West Texas reunite to rob branches of the bank that’s about to foreclose on their family property.
Upside: “A mesmerizing, modern-day western that moves with the coiled intensity of a rattlesnake ready to spring.”—Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Downside: “The action is as schematic and artificial as a chess game.”—Richard Brody, New Yorker
Director: Ted Melfi (St. Vincent)
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe
Plot: The true story of three female African American NASA mathematicians; the plot centers on Katherine Goble Johnson’s work calculating the flight trajectories for astronaut John Glenn’s first orbit around the Earth.
Upside: “Both a dazzling piece of entertainment and a window into history.”—Stephanie Zacharek, Time
Downside: “Paint-by-numbers biopic about people who were almost beyond a shadow of a doubt more interesting than the film ever suggests.”—Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending
La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Plot: A modern-day musical about an aspiring actress and a struggling jazz pianist in Los Angeles who fall in love.
Upside: “A big, joyful celebration of old-school Hollywood musicals…but it’s also smarter, tougher, and sadder than its moonstruck trailer might suggest.”—Tim Grierson, New Republic
Downside: “Step Up 6: Awards Season.”—Walter Chaw, Film Freak Central
Director: Garth Davis (feature film debut)
Cast: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman
Plot: A man in Australia uses Google Earth to find his long lost family in a small village in India.
Upside: “If you have ever been a child, raised a child, lost a child, or met a child—or a mother—this movie will wreck you.”—A.O. Scott, New York Times
Downside: “There is barely enough of it to fill the dramatic space, and the second half is a slow and muted affair.”—Anthony Lane, New Yorker
Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret)
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler
Plot: After the death of his brother, a lonesome janitor returns to his hometown to take care of his nephew.
Upside: “A masterpiece in a minor key, an exploration of grief that never lets its characters—or its audience—off the hook.”—Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
Downside: “Too often here you feel the fingers of the writer, typing the story into existence, crafting it to its desired ends.”—Noah Gittell—Washington City Paper
Director: Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy)
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris
Plot: A young man’s journey to find himself, told across three time periods in his life.
Upside: “A film of rare grace—a tender, compassionate, restrained look at a life lived in the shadows.”—Adam Graham, Detroit News
Downside: “An overworked agenda of cultural woes that’s more concerned with rubber-stamping issues than telling an original story.”—Scott Marks, San Diego Reader