Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ Is the First Slam-Dunk Oscar Contender of 2017

'Dunkirk' is the First Slam-Dunk Oscar
Warner Bros.

It was shocking.

Warner Bros. had played all the right notes with “Inception.” A summer blockbuster that quickly took on a prestige sheen, Christopher Nolan’s mind-warping actioner was easily one of the year’s best films. With overwhelming critical, popular and industry approval, it was instantly set on a crash-course for a best picture Oscar nomination.

A director bid, meanwhile, seemed a foregone conclusion, particularly in the wake of Nolan’s 2008 “The Dark Knight,” which came up short in the major categories and, in part, led to the film Academy’s decision to expand the best picture field to better accommodate movies of its ilk. But “Inception” was a step above in this regard, bravura filmmaking, the kind of entertainment directors only dream of conjuring (no pun intended). Nolan was secure.

Then: the nominations. Not only was Nolan passed over for directing, but somehow, a film built on its structure and editorial prowess was ignored by the film editors branch. A best picture nomination and, eventually, four Oscars — for cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects — frankly felt like cold comfort. What happened?

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We’ll avoid a seven-years-later postmortem, but terms like “genre bias” were certainly thrown around at the time. And it’s always possible that perceived shoo-ins (Ben Affleck for “Argo,” Ridley Scott for “The Martian,” etc.) miss the cut when voters assume they’re safe and spread their votes elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, Nolan — largely considered one of our great contemporary filmmakers — remained, and remains, without an Oscar nomination for directing.

That alone would be enough of a framework on which to hang a campaign for his latest film, “Dunkirk” — that is, if it didn’t do such a phenomenal job of making that case on its own.

The film, a riveting account of the defense and evacuation of British and Allied forces on the shores of Dunkirk, France during the Second World War, might well be Nolan’s masterpiece. At a swift 106 minutes, it’s his leanest, most driven film to date, as well as the strongest case he’s made yet for utilizing the Imax format. But, as a trio of stories taking place within separate timelines that cascade together in a feat of structural bravado few would even conceive for a film like this, let alone attempt, “Dunkirk” also stands as one of the director’s most fascinating experiments with time so far.

Nolan has long been interested in this concept and how it impacts the structure of his work, from the backwards trajectory of “Memento” to the magic-trick paradigm of “The Prestige” to the temporally tiered experience of “Inception.” And whether the film worked for you or not, “Interstellar” took these ideas to bold thematic heights. Nolan says as much with how he shapes his films as he does with anything else.

I belabor all of that only to say that if editor Lee Smith doesn’t finally receive Oscar recognition, I’ll need to eat my hat. And if Nolan doesn’t finally land a notice from his filmmaker colleagues in the Academy’s directors branch, something is…amiss.

His work with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, meanwhile — who stepped in for longtime regular Wally Pfister beginning with “Interstellar” — hits a new level with the sense of immersion going on here. He, too, is due for a first nomination, after already making fine cases with films like “Let the Right One In,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Her.”

Aurally speaking, though hindered somewhat in Imax by the company’s proprietary sound system (a matter of preference, perhaps), the sound design of the film is crucial to the experience. Nominations for sound editing and mixing are on the table and could be easy wins; prestige war films always fare well in these categories. Also possible for a nomination is Hans Zimmer’s original score. Laced with a ticking-clock motif and an aggressive urgency of strings, it’s incredibly effective at propelling the film forward at every stretch. Zimmer has twice been recognized by the Academy for his Nolan collaborations, for “Inception” and “Interstellar.”

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On the acting side, “Dunkirk” is a true ensemble film, and for stretches, it plays out like a silent movie. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for standouts as the cast is called upon to serve as a sort of phalanx for Nolan’s vision. That said, if the actors branch seizes on anyone in particular, it will be Oscar winner Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”). As an English civilian crossing the channel to assist in the rescue effort, he brings a sense of calm and warmth to the proceedings. There are no explosive “Oscar clip” moments, though one fleeting instance of clenched emotional determination may leave your mouth agape. His serenity is just singular in an otherwise tension-filled experience. Fionn Whitehead makes a solid anchor as an English soldier trying desperately to evacuate, and Tom Hardy is enigmatic as an unflappable fighter pilot, a sort of guardian angel in the skies. But Rylance adds something else entirely.

The back end of this summer has brought a number of delights, from the personal grace notes of “The Big Sick” to the metaphysical richness of “A Ghost Story” to the elegiac flourishes of “War for the Planet of the Apes.” But — and due respect to those films and deserving early-year entries such as “Get Out” — “Dunkirk” arrives as the first slam-dunk Oscar contender of 2017. It’s one of the great entries in a well-worn genre that has never, ever seen anything quite like it.

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  1. johnny didactic says:

    History is written by the victors. What is the difference between a fast evacuation and a panicked retreat? True historians refer to this as “mercy at Dunkirk”.

  2. SalULloyd says:

    I doubt that. He doesn’t hang out at the same cocaine parties as the Academy, hence his omission from THE DARK KNIGHT and INTERSTELLAR.

    • John says:

      Haha, that would explain, why they ignore Nolan at the Oscars…
      But that’s the secret of his success: He works hard (10 movies in 19 years!) and does his thing, while the others waste their time and money on drugs, booze, hookers and ‘getting famous’.

      Nolan only does press, when he needs to & this is how it should be done.

      This guy should be a role model for Hollywood.

  3. I have my group photo six months earlier of my grandfathers regiment. He was in the conscripted Welsh guards, although on the Dunkirk beach he was with six family members not just soldiers. These guys did not want to be in the army and fortunately all made it home. Later they went on to win and exchanged his medals for a book of flowers from Israel. Movie a big hit whatever.

  4. Moviegoer says:

    I can see it getting nominated in pretty much every category. I also think Logan has Oscar chances and Beauty and the Beast will get nominations in production/costumes/music categories.

  5. Daniel Wiebe says:

    I feel the same way about Logan, it should be in contention for many awards, but then its a “superhero movie.”

  6. lololee24 says:

    I didn’t find this movie boring but then, I have a good attention span.

  7. richard Rumana says:

    Sorry but the confused hodgepodge was the whole point of the film. Remember this was a full-scale military retreat. The soldiers were NOT marching bravely into battle they were running away from the Germans. From the point of view from the soldiers on the beach, there only was chaos, confusion, and death, and the noise must have been deafening. “Keep Calm and Carry On” my ass. Nolan’s vision in his directing was superb and brilliant to make a war movie from a soldiers point of view.

  8. Shary says:

    Dunkirk is a confused hodgepodge of too many viewpoints and too little focus. The characters are so thinly written that it’s hard to tell them apart. The score is a godawful racket that assaults the eardrums almost nonstop. Oscar-worthy? Not even close.

    • Ken says:

      This score is indeed the greatest single impediment to participating or enjoying this film, it is like a sledgehammer smashing you in the head throughout the entire film. But this is a Nolan thing, he often does not believe in the merit or success of his films without a thick slathering of Zimmer on top.

  9. tlsnyder42 says:

    Three cheers for BRIGSBY BEAR, WIND RIVER, WONDER WOMAN, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, LEGO BATMAN…

  10. tlsnyder42 says:

    It could be better. Where are the really small boats coming to the rescue? interesting fact: The nation prayed, and God gave bad weather to the German Air Force stationed inland but good weather in the English channel for the people’s boats!

  11. Taylor says:

    You are right. This is the most overrated load of noise and incoherence since “The Mummy”. It has its virtues, but is no masterpiece.

  12. Steve Barr says:

    Why do I have the feeling that this movie is way overrated and I’m a Christopher Nolan fan

    • gennaro says:

      Sure Dunkirk is WAY OVERATED. Nice try is about the best compliment I can give. Movie making has truly gone down in quality these days. Good actors, good stories, good equipment, and yet poorly made films. Too bad.

    • Kim says:

      …because you’re not a fan? Maybe you liked his past movies for the wrong reasons? Maybe you’re wrong? Maybe your opinion doesn’t really count?

      This is his masterpiece.

  13. Bill B. says:

    It has Oscar written all over it. Not sure that’s a compliment or not.

  14. Iván el Conquistador says:

    How sad it is that innovating and creative directors have to make movies about World War II to get the Oscar? Happened to Spielberg, might happen to Nolan.

  15. LOL says:

    Nolan’s films have no soul. He also panders to studio mandated ratings instead of pursuing an appropriate intellectually adult take on his material.

    Kubrick’s work had balls. Nolan is castrated.

    • Ric says:

      Nolan has never used gore, blood, excessive violence, explicit sex or any of the so-called adult content in his highly successfull career. Yet, you, an annonym in a Variety article comment section thinks he should pursue the “appropriate intellectualy adult take” I just can’t, I’m laughing, honestly.

    • Kim says:

      Hmmm, I think it takes some courage to make today a giant WWII movie about a military disaster where the Nazis ain’t defeated, no clear hero exists, without big stars and a non-linear, experimental storyline…that’s pretty much the definition of ‘having balls’, right?

  16. Steve says:

    One can’t help but relate this film to that beauty”Mrs Miniver” where her husband leaves the home to take his small power boat across the channel to return troops to Britain while his wife is dealing with a downed Nazi pilot

    • Kim says:

      Yes, I need to watch ”Mrs Miniver”…

      And Leslie Norman’s old “Dunkirk” (1958) B&W epic.

      And if you didn’t see it yet, check out “Atonement” (2007) by Joe Wright, which has an incredible Dunkirk sequence, too. It’s one 5 minute long shot capturing the chaos in an amazing way.
      It was the highlight of that film & maybe it inspired Nolan to look closer at the Dunkirk events again.

      And “Their Finest” (2016) with Gemma Arterton and “Churchill” with Brian Cox and “Darkest hours” with Gary Oldman have their Dunkirk moments, too.

      Now, I hope, that Ridley Scott does his “Battle of Britain” epic, too.
      It probably depends on the success of “Dunkirk”.

  17. Seth says:

    Nolan is a master of manipulating time.

  18. Walter says:

    Thank you. We appreciate it.

  19. Mike says:

    I always loved Nolan’s work and I’m very excited to see this.
    Nolan is almost too perfect a director.
    He never made a bad or even mediocre movie.

    Everyone was a commercial success. If “Dunkirk” is a hit – and it will be – then this is his 10th success IN A ROW. When did this happen the last time ? Not even Steven Spielberg had a run like this, did he?

    Nolan’s films are so good, because they are daring in their realism, their formalism & their storytelling.
    His Oscars for directing, producing & writing have to happen this year.
    It’s long, long overdue.

  20. cadavra says:

    I’ve always found Nolan’s films a bit on the cold side, but this looks like nothing else he’s done before. Of course the race is far from over, but it’s truly hard to believe he won’t at least get that Best Director Oscar.

    • Mike says:

      The “coldness” you are talking about is similar to the style of Stanley Kubrick and results from avoiding obvious emotional manipulations of the audience. They stimulate the mind and don’t ask for tears all the time. But everyone of his films creates a certain mood that makes for addictive entertainment.

      • tlsnyder42 says:

        One problem with INCEPTION is that, unlike the first MATRIX movie, the consequences of being killed in the dream world were not made as real. So, when the “good guys” were fighting the “bad guys,” I felt no jeopardy toward either, especially in the action sequences set in the snow.

      • tlsnyder42 says:

        Give me Ford, Hawks, Capra, Minnelli over Kubrick. . . Movies are an emotional battleground. A really great movie should make you laugh and cry, not just stimulate your mind. Some “intellectual” movies have major intellectual, logical flaws, like Bill Maher’s pseudo-intellectual RELIGULOUS or Michael Moore’s movies.

      • guylodge says:

        Plenty of people have warmed up to Kubrick films and not Nolan ones. No need to get condescending.

      • cadavra says:

        An excellent comparison, Mike, and indeed, INTERSTELLAR seemed very reminiscent of 2001. But there are times when you really want to empathize with the hero(ine) and he often falls short. Though as I said, this doesn’t seem to be the case with DUNKIRK, and I hope I’m right. I’m really excited to see it, especially in 15/70 IMAX.

  21. hepwa says:

    And you’ve seen Call Me By Your Name?

  22. Walter says:

    INCEPTION was nominated for Best Picture the year it came out. This article makes it sound like it wasn’t.

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