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?
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.”
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.