Hugo, Asa Butterfield, ...
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk

On Tuesday morning, breakout starlet (and burgeoning icon in your high school’s Archery Club) Jennifer Lawrence woke up extremely early to announce the Academy Award nominations. Rumors indicate that the lovely Ms. Lawrence was joined on the podium by a sad trombone player during the reading of the Best Picture nominations.

Now, any list that includes Terrence Malick’s cosmic masterpiece The Tree of Life deserves props, but it’s striking just how underwhelming the big race feels compared to the last couple of years, which generally featured a neat mix of arty thrillers, fantasy blockbusters, classy Big Idea dramas, and movies directed by someone other than Stephen Daldry.

But we’re well into the winter doldrums now — this weekend sees the release of Katherine Heigl’s One for the Money, the long-awaited prequel to the Pacino-McConaughey unclassic Two for the Money — so why not get caught up on all the prestige pictures you’ve mostly been avoiding? The most important movie to see this weekend is:

1. Hugo

Hugo walked away with 11 nominations, the most of any film this year. The vast majority of those nominations are for technical Oscars — which might sound like a backhanded compliment. It’s not, though: From the glorious train-station setting to the vividly realized fairy-tale vision of Paris to the remarkable 3-D cinematography, Hugo is a film that feels like the work of professionals at the top of their game. (The only technical award that Hugo isn’t nominated for is makeup.) Hugo is also a moving ode to the very notion of the cinema. It will make your brain cry beautiful tears.

2. Haywire

Last week, two movies about badass women opened in American theaters. One of them was awesome. One of them was Underworld: Tokyo Drift. Haywire didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, but that’s understandable. In some ways, it’s a throwback to a simpler time, when America was still making the greatest action movies in the world. In an era when most action heroes are half digital and half wirework, why not go see a movie where the punches actually look like they hurt?

3. A Separation

Fellow movie lover, when you hear the words “Iranian family drama,” do your eyes immediately glaze over? Well, what if I added that this particular Iranian family drama — unsurprisingly nominated for Best Foreign Film and surprisingly nominated for Best Original Screenplay — is actually a stealth thriller, set in a society so fascinating and confusing and painfully human that it practically feels like real-world science-fiction? A Separation is slowly expanding into more markets this weekend — congratulations, citizens of Bethesda, Md.! — but if it’s not playing close by, consider writing a letter to your local theater/congressman.

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Just a few days ago, Oscar prognosticators and cynical gasbags were predicting that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be shut out of the Oscar race for the mere crime of being overly complicated. Twist! Tinker Tailor walked away with three nominations — one for the quietly magnetic Gary Oldman, one for the quietly magnetic screenplay, and one for the quietly magnetic score. Go experience the quiet magnetism for yourself. If it helps, think of Tinker Tailor as a secret Christopher Nolan movie: It features Oldman and Tom Hardy, it’s about well-dressed dudes who tell lies, and you’ll feel a real sense of accomplishment when you finally figure out the plot two days later.

5. The Artist

Speaking of moving odes to the very notion of cinema, The Artist was supposed to be this year’s out-of-nowhere populist success. With 10 nominations in the bucket and an odds-on shot to win Best Picture, could the film finally play in Peoria? Quick, go see The Artist before all your friends tell you how much you would enjoy The Artist!

6. Rango

By every measure besides cold hard cash, this was a rough year for animation. DreamWorks offered a couple of half-hearted franchise extensions with Kung Panda 2 and Puss in Boots. Pixar disappointed everyone except for the children of the world with Cars 2. Happy Feet 2 offered sad proof that the penguin fad was over. Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chipwr3cked briefly looked like a box-office failure, thus indicating the presence of a loving god, but then it kept making money, proving that we live in a cruel meaningless universe. But like a lone gunman riding on horseback through a bleak wasteland of mediocrity, there was one animated film brave enough to be original. Rango is probably one of the weirdest kids’ movies made in recent years. It’s also the only kids’ movie that will subconsciously prepare your children to enjoy The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly when they’re old enough. It’s back in theaters for one week. Do your children a favor and check out this Oscar-nominated treat.

7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Now that star Rooney Mara earned herself a semi-surprise Best Actress nomination, there’s no better time to check out the Hollywood-with-a-Swedish-accent adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller, which also features a memorable supporting turn by Christopher Plummer, who’s currently cruising to a showdown with his old nemesis Max von Sydow in the Best Supporting Actor category. (I’m sure they’re best friends.) Conversely, you can just rent the non-nominated soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which is actually longer than the two-and-a-half-hour movie.

8. The Grey

It’s Taken with wolves. Don’t front like you’re not interested.

9. Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol

You know what didn’t get any nominations? Ghost Protocol, which is widely considered to be the finest Mission: Impossible movie ever made. (I still give the edge to 2, since it’s basically Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious with more motorcycles.) Assuming your local IMAX theater isn’t already playing Underworld: On Stranger Tides, pay the extra charge and see Ghost Protocol on the big big screen.

10. The Adventures of Tintin

Here’s my wise older brother offering his cogent thoughts on the Oscar nominations:

“How was Tintin not nominated in the animated feature category? I think there were two features about cats that I’ve never heard of (Puss in Boots 2? Cats in Paris or something??), but no Tintin. On the upside, maybe this means that most people won’t see Tintin, so I can go back to comfortably liking Tintin without worrying about seeming mainstream.”

We’re a fun family.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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