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Five Oscar hopefuls: What to see, and what to skip

Now that Ricky Gervais has once again made the Golden Globes worth watching and the Academy is set to announce its nominations, you may find yourself wondering whether any of these movies are any good. Some certainly are — if you haven't seen Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hateful Eight, or Brooklyn, set about correcting those egregious oversights sooner rather than later — but those still playing don't exactly represent an embarrassment of riches. Here, in descending order of quality, are the major contenders still in theaters.

5. Carol

There's beauty in the margins. Todd Haynes, an accomplished director of women in trouble (see also Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Safe, and Far from Heaven), spins a Patricia Highsmith novel of star-crossed lovers into a tearjerker of utmost restraint. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are the inamoratas in question, and their bond — which develops via an almost unspoken mutual understanding between the two — is too new and undefined for their contemporaries in 1950s society to embrace or even understand. We often catch glimpses of the two through windows and mirrors, as though Haynes wants us to view them through the same distorted lens as those who would keep them apart from one another. Though some may be left cold by the remove at which Haynes keeps us from his superlative leads, others will be putty in his gifted hands.

4. Trumbo

In hindsight, what's most surprising about the life of Dalton Trumbo is that it took this long for Hollywood to make a biopic about it. One of 1940s-era Hollywood's most successful and prolific screenwriters, the Roman Holiday scribe was also among the Hollywood 10 — artists and technicians banished from the film industry on suspicion of being Communist sympathizers. Bryan Cranston is magnetic in the lead role, imbuing the blacklisted wordsmith's life story with characteristic verve. Watching him openly defy the congressional witch hunt that was the House Un-American Activities Committee isn't as galvanizing as it's meant to be, but the parade of celebrity-impersonating cameos is more fun than it usually is in these movies. (It also gives the criminally underutilized Diane Lane something to do.) This is hardly free of the bluster that is the hallmark of prestige pictures about "serious" subjects, but there's a certain breeziness to Trumbo that keeps it from delighting in its own importance.

3. The Big Short

Adam McKay, whose prior films (Anchorman, Step Brothers) revolved around Will Ferrell's hijinks, now turns his attention to something even more worthy of ridicule than cable news: the ongoing financial crisis. The Ferrell-free ensemble cast includes Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling as Wall Street insiders who notice the housing market's downward trend long before anyone else and contrive to profit from it. (Also, they're the heroes of this story.) McKay's comic sensibilities are better suited to highlighting the many absurdities of this situation than some of the more sanctimonious Wall Street takedowns preceding The Big Short, but they don't gel with the film's eventual call for viewers to get outraged at how little has been done to fix the quagmire.

2. Joy

Whither the David O. Russell of yore? Idiosyncrasy was once the writer/director's defining trait, apparently to his detriment — after reaching his high-water mark with Three Kings, the abrasive filmmaker's confrontational approach toward his actors during I Heart Huckabees made him persona non grata. He returned six years later with The Fighter, a film as well-behaved as he was said to have become during his six-year hiatus. Here he's once again teaming with Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper. Though their last two collaborations (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) grated at times, they were far easier to recommend than this biopic about Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop. It's all over the place in the worst way, stacking the deck against its heroine so high that everyone besides her comes across as a one-dimensional cartoon character.

1. The Danish Girl

The problem with The Danish Girl is the same problem with most movies directed by Tom Hooper: It's directed by Tom Hooper. The same affinity for ultrawide fisheye angles most recently seen in The King's Speech and Les Misérables continues unabated here, making it feel as though we're watching goldfish rather than, you know, real people experiencing unique circumstances. Chief among them is Eddie Redmayne — fresh off his Oscar win for The Theory of Everything and whatever Jupiter Ascending was meant to be — as one of the first recorded patients to receive sex-reassignment surgery. This being the 1920s, you can imagine how well that goes over with her peers. That premise doesn't lack for potential, but it's rendered dramatically inert by Hooper's staid staging and shallow characterizations. If you're in the mood for a moving story about the transgender experience, stay home and watch Tangerine on Netflix instead.