Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”
Oscar Moment: You Don’t Want My Name On It
Bryan Cranston’s turn as Dalton Trumbo relies heavily on scene-chewing theatrics (after all, Trumbo was always the most cartoonish person in the room), so it’s ultimately in the quieter moments that the actor’s real skill and the screenwriter’s sly maneuverings get the nuanced attention they deserve. Blacklisted and unable to get any work, the well-known Trumbo turns to the low-budget movie company King Brothers Productions to get a script job, but it’s the classic case of a writer being way too talented for a company best known for schlocky B-movie adventures. Trying to work the executives with wit and directness, Trumbo reveals himself to be the smartest and most cunning man in the room, and he does it without any theatrics needed.
Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”
Oscar Moment: Left For Dead
So much of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in “The Revenant” is built on silence, and his expressions are never more deafening than when his character, fur trapper Hugh Glass, is beaten and forced to watch his son’s murder at the hands of his own men. As the vicious assault takes place, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki lock DiCaprio in an excruciating close-up that captures his frantic panic in ways both crippling and soul-shattering. DiCaprio’s work here, which combines internal reckoning with exhaustive physical suffering, is the lynchpin to his achievement in “The Revenant.” It’s a microcosm of a moment that proves why he’ll be winning this year’s Oscar for Best Actor.
Matt Damon, “The Martian”
Oscar Moment: Fear My Botany Powers
“The Martian” confirms just how much of a star Matt Damon is, and nowhere is that more clear than in the film’s numerous web cam sequences in which Damon’s Mark Watney addresses his video diary directly and explains his current situation and goals to survive. Such direct exposition can be a very painful thing for the viewer to endure, especially when said exposition is about highly scientific operations, but Damon always keeps his character’s web cam monologues assessable, relatable and, most important, engaging. It’s in these moments, like when Watney devises his plan to grow potatoes by turning his poop into fertilizer (“Mars will come to fear my botany powers”), where Damon’s star power is at full blast and where he builds Watney’s character from the ground up as a self-effacing genius.
Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs”
Oscar Moment: The Ouster
Much of what makes Fassbender’s verison of Steve Jobs so magnetic is the way he outmaneuvers his own vulnerabilities. Jobs’ place as a visionary in the cultural consciousness would make it easy for the film (and Fassbender in particular) to treat his failures as mere roadblocks to a transcendent end. But the flashback sequence showing Jobs being pushed out of the Apple inner circle by former CEO John Sculley offers a glimpse at what’s at work in Fassbender’s performance even in the film’s quieter moments. The impassioned boardroom showdown hints that it’s not genius or a desire for control fueling Jobs, but a propulsion to turn failure into an asset. The resultant lightbulb moment for Kate Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman — that Jobs is using NeXT’s shortcomings as a way to work his way back into the Apple hierarchy — locks in that idea, setting the table for a proper understanding of the iMac finale.
Eddie Redmayne, “The Danish Girl”
Oscar Moment: The Dress
It’s easy to mock Eddie Redmayne and his love for Oscar-baiting roles, but the truth is that no performer handles these types of awards-ready vehicles with as much humanity, respect and emotional truth. The best example of this comes early in Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” when Redmayne’s Einar Wegener poses for a portrait and holds up a dress to her body. The image is an obvious metaphor given the film’s subject matter, but the way in which Redmayne plays this moment, showing the audience all the bottled up nerves and fears boiling to the surface of his character’s skin, is as precise and poignant as dramatic acting gets. The scene is the first time we see hints of Lile Elbe trying to break through the surface, and in Redmayne’s confused panic we know it’ll be quite the internal battle for the artist to reveal herself.
Cate Blanchett, “Carol”
Oscar Moment: First Time in the Store
The handful of sequences in the lawyer’s office are the ones where Blanchett can unleash Carol’s bottled-up anger, but it’s her character’s introduction that exemplifies what Therese finds so alluring. Her first scene requires her to be the object of desire while showing that same desire herself, all in a muted, coded way. Blanchett shows Carol’s confidence to pursue her feelings, to grab Therese’s attention and to lay the groundwork for their impending love affair, all through a few carefully chosen pieces of conversation. Phyllis Nagy’s script and Patricia Highsmith’s source material set up Carol as a kind of performer herself, and this department store transaction serves as her grand entrance.
Brie Larson, “Room”
Oscar Moment: Mother-Daughter Time
Brie Larson is an emotional force in “Room,” and the startling irony of the film is just how crippling things become when Ma and young Jack are saved from imprisonment and begin a “normal” life in the suburbs. Without the warped comforts of everything she once knew, Ma struggles to emotionally attach herself to this new world, and Larson tracks her character’s confused and erratic behavior with the type of control that Oscars are made for. Her emotional struggles reach their boiling point during a scene in which Ma lashes out at her own mother while slowly realizing that while her own son may be fine, she is anything but okay. Equal parts abrasive and pained, Larson owns this moment with shocking authority.
Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years”
Oscar Moment: The Projector Scene
One of our favorite scenes of last year is also the big Oscar scene for Best Actress nominee Charlotte Rampling. As Rampling’s Kate heads to the attic to investigate why her husband has been so despondent lately, she stumbles upon a projector and sets it up. Director Andrew Haigh stays on Kate’s face for what feels like an interminable amount of time. The only illumination comes from the swath of photographic colors splayed across her face as Rampling registers astonishment, disbelief and then deep pain. As Kate eavesdrops on someone else’s past, we experience the bittersweet pangs of nostalgia. Rampling is supreme here.
Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy”
Oscar Moment: QVC Face-Off
David O. Russell’s “Joy” is a messy movie, so it’s a testament to Jennifer Lawrence that she somehow manages to keep it all stitched together. The QVC-set scenes were unanimously praised by critics as the best parts of the movie, and they unsurprisingly put Lawrence and regular co-star Bradley Cooper head-to-head. After a nightmare of airtime puts Joy’s dreams on hold (Cooper’s Neil Walker decided to let a built-in QVC star market the miracle mop and the results were disastrous), Joy storms the QVC offices to confront Neil and force him to let her sell the product on air herself. It’s a bold move that QVC never really made, but Lawrence’s fiery conviction as she makes her case sizzles on screen. She doesn’t play up the moment in sheer bombast, but instead takes things way down, employing a strategic directness that hints at just how powerful Joy will become.
Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn”
Oscar Moment: “Oh, so you dance with loads of others?”
It’s not a coincidence that the first time we see Eilis as an assertive young woman and not merely a pawn in the whims of circumstance, it’s with the man that makes up the other half of the film’s central love story. Walking home from their first meeting at an Irish dance, her and Tony’s flirtatious back-and-forth establishes that she’s not a prize to be won or a romantic trifle. Her playful spinning of Tony’s gushing honesty manages to be at once a show of emotional strength and a sweet gesture. Ronan lets a tiny smile creep across her face and it’s just enough to hint at the bedrock connection that drives the rest of the film.
Tom Hardy, “The Revenant”
Oscar Moment: Murdering the Son
The murder of Hugh Glass’ son is a pivotal moment in “The Revenant,” and the scene is as much as of an Oscar moment for Leonardo DiCaprio as it is for Tom Hardy and his mumbling madman John Fitzgerald. There’s a jealousy-fueled evil and hatred burning inside Hardy here that is truly palpable, so much so that Fitzgerald becomes someone we fear because he’s clearly lost all threads of his humanity. There’s an unpredictable mania behind his eyes that is truly horrifying. “The Revenant” is a rather simple story of revenge, and in order for much of it to work we really need to be on Leo’s side as his character traverses the wilderness to get his revenge on Fitzgerald. A moment like this forces the audience to pick a side in the battle to come. Hardy has never been more malicious.
Christian Bale, “The Big Short”
Oscar Moment: Confrontation in the Office
It might be an obvious pick (seemed to be a go-to clip to show when “The Big Short” was making the late night rounds), but when Bale’s Michael Burry is confronted by one of his firm’s top investors, it’s the whole film in a microcosm: blustery, establishment opinion butting up against the quiet reality. Bale still adds nervous mannerisms to Burry’s interaction, but his relatively calm, measured approach to this confrontation sets up the strategic advantage that the rest of the historical narrative draws from. Also, in defending his office space, it’s the first hint to the extent that Burry is tied to his work. For as little we see of him outside that room, it might as well be his home.
Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”
Oscar Moment: It’s Time
Much of “Spotlight” is watching consummate professionals confront horrific reality with workmanlike resolve. Different members of the ensemble show that battle in their own way, internalizing that personal struggle or resigning themselves to the weight of their discoveries. Ruffalo’s Mike Rezendes is the most demonstrative of the group, never belying the internal engine that’s driving his segment of the reporting duties. Rezendes’ impassioned argument that the moment has arrived to take their story to the Boston Globe’s higher-ups is the most emotion that any member of the team allows to seep through. It’s not a long speech, but it’s enough to show the emotional toll that the story is taking on everyone involved.
Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Oscar Moment: Prison Meeting
The patience, reserve and subtle humor with which Mark Rylance plays Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is truly something to behold, and all of these features are on display in one of the film’s most charming scenes between Rylance and Tom Hanks. Hanks’ James B. Donovan has been assigned to defend Abel in court, and they have an awkward first meeting in the latter’s jail cell that pits Donovan’s patriotic resolve against Rylance’s humble fortitude. Both men are loyal to their country, and the different ways they express said loyalty becomes a dramatic and a comedic foil in this moment that deeply humanizes both.
Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”
Oscar Moment: The Diagnosis
It’s hard to leave off Rocky’s visit to Adrian and Paulie at the cemetery or any of his sage training advice for Adonis or his talk of giving up everything for one more day with his wife. But the moment that Rocky receives his cancer diagnosis is one of the character’s most human moments and a demonstration of Sylvester Stallone’s skill. Throughout the series, Rocky’s been forced to confront his own mortality. Seeing him navigate his way through denial, despair, resignation and resolve, all in the time it takes the camera to dolly back toward the hospital room doorway, ensures that the character and the film aren’t merely retreads of what came four decades ago.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight”
Oscar Moment: Toothless Condemnation
There’s an unspoken one-up-manship happening among the title group of Tarantino characters. Whether it’s by flourish or by deed, each of the unwitting cabin-mates carves out their own corner of detestable behavior as the drama in the cramped space unfolds. And although by this point we’ve seen rivers of bloody bile and viscera from close-range headshots being strewn about the room, Daisy’s explanation of her gang’s Red Rock plan is as memorable of an eruption. Emotionally naked as the space formerly occupied by her two front teeth, it’s a rare show of honest (if vile) emotion, untethered from a need to hide her true identity. It’s a bold move for the character and much of the viewer’s reaction to the film’s final action likely hinges on the perception of her in this raw, unguarded moment.
Rooney Mara, “Carol”
Oscar Moment: The First Date
There’s a special kind of terror and wonder that comes with a newfound love. Throughout the first lunchtime rendezvous between Therese and Carol, Mara somehow manages to let both of those dueling emotions play out across her face, learning more about the woman sitting across from her with each passing sentence. Therese hints at the ecstasy lying just beneath the surface through carefully controlled smiles and answers to Carol’s inquisitive questions. When the two women are able to share in the physical and emotional expressions of their affection for each other, it makes that fulfilled hope so much richer.
Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”
Oscar Moment: Porch Admission
Because of the inherent nature of their task, none of the journalist characters in “Spotlight” get a truly triumphant moment of reportage. Even when McAdams’ Sacha Pfeiffer stands on the porch of Ronald Paquin and the man explicitly admits that the accusations against him were founded, the sad truth of his confession blackens the relief that comes with finally getting answers. The resultant expose doesn’t necessarily hinge on Paquin’s testimony. But amidst the revulsion at what the man is admitting, it’s proof that her persistence can yield a greater understanding of the horrors the team is uncovering. In McAdams’ portrayal, we see Pfeiffer’s final piece of understanding locking into place, even as she’s flabbergasted by the matter-of-fact way that this information is being delivered to her.
Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Oscar Moment: I Want My Husband
One of the emotional crescendos of Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” is this heartbreaking moment in which Gertrude Wegener confronts her husband, Lili Elbe, after she decided not to attend her art gallery opening in Paris. Gertrude desperately wanted her husband to attend the exhibit with her, but Lili refused and would only attend as herself, forcing Gertrude to go alone. Carrying the burden of isolation on her shoulders, Gertrude confronts Lili and pleads to her to brings back her husband so that he may console his devastated wife. Vikander is an absolute force in this moment, combining desperation and heartbreak in an agonizing moment that will determine the future of this couple.
Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”
Oscar Moment: “You’re gonna win.”
Joanna Hoffman spends most of her time in “Steve Jobs” toggling between hard truths and words of encouragement. Wrangling these disparate technical and personal elements of the title character’s life doesn’t afford Winslet a bevy of quiet, introspective moments. But towards the film’s end, as Jobs and Hoffman are considering the fruits of their partnership, she delivers a final vote of confidence to her boss. Tinged with the knowledge of Jobs’ personal shortcomings that lined the path to this third unveiling, a little regret seeps in, leaving it far from a cleansing, rah-rah, all-is-forgiven pep talk. It’s a presentation of the idea that their symbiotic relationship (and not simply Jobs genius) was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the three pivotal moments that serve as the film’s guiding structure.