Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed
Starring two of the frontrunners, The Departed is a double dip in this year's Best Actor pool. Damon is the bad boy, mentored by Jack Nicholson's South Boston mob boss (loosely based on Whitey Bulger) to be a mole in the state police. DiCaprio is the local kid trying to make good, a cop infiltrating Nicholson's gang. It's violent, nervy and one of director Martin Scorsese's best.
Saoirse Ronan in Hanna
Between playing the confused lass who unwittingly caused all the trouble in Atonement and the immigrant woman who finds love in Brooklyn, Ronan was Hanna, a resourceful sprite raised by her dad (Eric Bana) to be wickedly lethal. But why? Stream this one and find out.
Brie Larson in Short Term 12
As a counselor in a home for at-risk kids, Larson shows early signs of the depth she'd deliver in Room and that maternal urge to protect. It's an emotionally rich performance in a film that doesn't shy away from the complexities of its setup.
Michael Fassbender in Shame
Sure, sure, you know all about Fassbender as Steve Jobs, Fassbender as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, Fassbender as a twisted slave owner in 12 Years a Slave, and even Fassbender as a British spy in Inglourious Basterds. But do you know Fassbender the sex addict? He's so tortured in Shame (2011), rapaciously hunting sexual encounters while hosting his equally kinky sister (Carey Mulligan) in his austere apartment. This movie isn't for everyone, but it is unforgettable.
Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female
That was her! Yes! Back in the day! (The "day" in this case being 1992.) There pretty much hasn't been a time in Leigh's life in which she wasn't a working actress. (She guest-starred on The Waltons, for pity's sake.) So it's hard to keep track of everything she's done before The Hateful Eight. Go back and rewatch this horror gem, in which she buddies up to Bridget Fonda only to attempt to steal her look, her man, her whole life, really.
Tom Hardy in The Drop
It's a pity that almost no one saw this slow-burn thriller from 2014. In one of his last roles, James Gandolfini stars as a bar owner who plans to skim a bit from some local gangsters, like that's a good idea. The Revenant's Hardy plays his cousin, who seems slow on the uptake, and perhaps a bit distracted by a budding romance with a new woman in the neighborhood (Noomi Rapace). You will watch and wonder why I recommended this one  until you get to the end, that is. Then, you will thank me.
Alicia Vikander in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
This should have been one of last summer's sleeper hits, but most folks just slept on it. Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill play rival spies trying to get Vikander's character to safety in West Germany. It's sexy, stylish fun, and Vikander (naturally) plays the smartest of the smarties. She's always the best thing in whatever she does.
Watch the "PEOPLE & EW Red Carpet Live" streaming pre-show celebration on Feb. 28 beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. PT on PEOPLE.com and EW.com, with live red carpet coverage, fashion and beauty trends, and winner predictions. And catch the 88th Academy Awards at 7 ET/4 PT on ABC. Click here for a handy ballot of this year’s Oscar nominees!