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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not an organization known for its embrace of the zeitgeist. Every year, the Academy Awards – almost without fail – honour not necessarily the freshest and most groundbreaking artists in Hollywood, but instead those it once chose to ignore. Hence the theory that most Oscar winners get to the podium not because they've produced their best-ever work, but merely because "they're due."

Think of the first-time Oscar wins for Martin Scorsese (The Departed), Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), and Colin Firth (The King's Speech). Or Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), Kate Winslet (The Reader) and Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine). All of these artists previously worked on inarguably better films that failed to net gold statuettes – but because the Academy finally realized the error of its ways, it decided that, hey, a middling film like The Departed or Still Alice would have to do. It's their time, let's find something to ensure they win before they die, etc. The Oscars are more often about lauding a good career narrative than anything else – it's there to ensure legacies, not to champion the best and boldest.

So it was with a shock on Thursday morning to discover that the Academy had more or less abandoned this year's presumed legacy candidates when announcing this year's nominees. The Oscar-less Ridley Scott – whose team has been mounting an intense and almost offensively blatant campaign to ensure The Martian director netted an Oscar after being ignored for Blade Runner, Alien and Gladiator – was snubbed. Carol director Todd Haynes, who has also never known the sweet embrace of a gold statuette despite stellar work on everything from Safe to I'm Not There, was similarly shunted aside. Ditto best-actress frontrunner Lily Tomlin (Grandma) and supposed best-supporting actor shoo-ins Michael Keaton (Spotlight) and Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight).

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None of these artists were coming to the game with their best work – and before the outcries begin, Haynes's Far from Heaven is a far better work than Carol, I'm sorry to report – but in the fevered weeks leading up to the Oscar nominations, it was all deemed "good enough." It was their year. Finally.

So while it's fine to shed a quick tear for those who once again have to return to Hollywood without an Academy Award in hand, this year's nominee slate is also cause for celebration: with a few exceptions (as always!), the Academy has actually managed to honour the best cinema of 2015.

The best-picture slate, to start, is a heady mix of the innovative and sublime. Mad Max: Fury Road is easily the year's most thrilling spectacle, an expert mix of blockbuster sensibilities and societal critique – the fact the film earned 10 nominations speaks volumes to the changing tide of the Academy's alleged grey-hair tastes. Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg's best, and delightfully quietest, film in years. The Big Short is a riotous look at the housing collapse of 2007 that could only come from the demented mind of Step Brothers' Adam McKay.

The Canadian-funded Room is a marvel of emotional catharsis. Spotlight is a pulse-pounding journalism thriller that never rushes to conclusions. Despite the whinging from certain critical circles, The Revenant is a true epic, one that circles around life's Big Questions, but isn't afraid to wallow in the muck, too. And Brooklyn is a subtle emotional punch to the gut, wrapped around a remarkably confident lead performance from Saoirse Ronan – the perfect example of the Academy deciding to laud not the showiest of roles, but the most effective. It's honestly one of the strongest, and most honest, best-picture lineups in recent memory. (And, well, there's also The Martian, which scored a best-picture nod despite its director Scott falling short. It's a great crowd-pleaser and Matt Damon is as charismatic as ever – even when planting potatos with his own human waste – but it's the one fluke on this list.)

Did the Academy get things wrong elsewhere? Sure, of course – it was still embarrassingly dominated by middle-aged white guys. Creed's tag-team of star Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler were left off the list, while Sylvester Stallone made the cut. Idris Elba delivered a chilling performance as Beasts of No Nation's chief madman, but he, too, was deemed unworthy. As was nearly everyone involved with the three-quarters excellent Straight Outta Compton. Diversity is a huge blind spot the Academy has failed to recognize again and again – there's no excuse.

But as the pundits and critics begin to place their bets leading up to the Feb. 28 ceremony – and as the studios and PR teams in Hollywood accelerate their campaigns – audiences can be assured that, for once, the Oscars aren't about whose time it should be. But rather, about whose time it actually is.

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