Oscar Beat: Is ‘Dunkirk’ a Major Contender?
Given that he’s one of the most successful and talented directors working today, it’s surprising that Christopher Nolan has still yet to score a Best Director Oscar nomination. He received a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay for Memento, the film that kicked off his career, and he was all but guaranteed a slot for the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight. But the morning the Oscar nominations came, Nolan’s name was nowhere to be found. Surely Inception would be the one right? Critical acclaim, huge box office, and the Dark Knight snub on everyone’s minds would do the trick. Nope. Once again, Nolan was passed over, and his most recent film Interstellar—despite an Oscar-friendly release date—failed to score nominations in the major categories.
Which brings us to Dunkirk. This is Nolan’s spin on the World War II movie, in which he offers a WWII movie unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It’s a bold, brilliant, and innovative piece of experiential cinema; a film whose sole purpose is to immerse the viewer in one of the most stunning acts of bravery in the face of defeat the world has ever seen. The narrative structure is unsurprisingly unique, as Nolan presents three separate storylines—by air, by sea, and by land—happening at different points in time that weave in and out of one another until converging in a sneakily emotional finale.
So what’s the verdict? Is Dunkirk an Oscar contender? Hell yes it is. This is the most surefire contender we’ve seen so far this year, and while I’m remiss to go into certainties this early (also given Nolan’s previous snubs), I will be surprised if Dunkirk doesn’t nab Nolan his first Best Director Oscar nomination. This is a film that could not have been made by any other director, and Nolan’s uniqueness of vision and ambition are on full display. This feels like the movie Nolan has been building up to making his entire career, and indeed in hindsight the narrative twists and turns of films like Inception and Interstellar feel like pieces of Dunkirk homework for audiences.
Beyond a Best Director nod, I think Dunkirk is a major player across the board. Looking ahead at an interesting though not overwhelming field this fall, a Best Picture nomination seems entirely possible if Warner Bros. plays its cards right. And cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema feels destined for his first-ever nomination for the absolutely stunning IMAX photography. It’s visceral and crystal clear, but also evocative and at times otherworldly. Hoytema first teamed with Nolan on Interstellar and also shot films like Her and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so he’s overdue.
As for the performances, the “experiential” nature of Nolan’s film demands that the characters are somewhat pliable though no less relatable—the point of the movie is that you, the audience member, could be any one of these people. Mark Rylance is the only one who has enough screentime to possibly warrant a Best Supporting Actor nod, despite the fact that the performances all around are fantastic. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the film lands a solid amount of nominations but maybe one (or none) in the acting categories.
Which brings us to Best Original Screenplay. Dunkirk is basically a silent film at times. The dialogue is sparse, and when it’s spouted, it’s not as if folks are going off on long, intricate monologues. This is clearly a film that Nolan wanted to show audiences, and so I don’t think Best Original Screenplay consideration is going to be warranted here.
But look for a well-deserved nod for production designer Nathan Crowley, who was previously nominated for his work on The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and The Prestige. And while Nolan is certainly #onbrand with the film’s sound mixing (lines of dialogue are somewhat unintelligible at points, keeping up his trend from Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises), the sound editing is phenomenal—the sounds of gunfire, bomb shells, planes, and even the sea are integral to immersing the audience in the film. I expect nominations for both Sound Editing and Sound Mixing are in the cards, and I’d go so far as to say the film is already a frontrunner to win—although Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver certainly deserves serious consideration as well.
Hans Zimmer’s score, like the film itself, is unique, but given his history with the Academy he’ll likely land a nomination if Dunkirk hits big with voters. His work here is less pleasing than his tremendous, heavenly Interstellar score, as he works to ratchet up the non-stop tension with a Dunkirk score that’s infused with the sounds of gunfire, planes, and the ocean, with a ticking clock motif underscoring the time-bending nature of the narrative. It’s honestly not my favorite Zimmer score, but c’est la vie.
One nomination you can count on is Best Editing for Lee Smith. He has a long history with Nolan and was nominated for his work on The Dark Knight, but the editing in Dunkirk is a stunning achievement. Again, Inception and Interstellar felt like lead-ups to understanding the twisty narrative structure of Dunkirk, but Smith assembles the film effortlessly, and the shifting viewpoints flow perfectly from one to the other.
Given Nolan’s reliance on practical effects it’s unclear if a Best Visual Effects consideration is warranted, so consider that “TBD” until the bakeoff season begins and Warner Bros. starts flaunting the work that was done to bring Dunkirk to life.
The thriller’s summer release date may feel anti-awards-bait, but Warner Bros. is no doubt hoping to play a long game here (remember, Saving Private Ryan opened in July). Of course box office will be a factor—the movie scored a solid $51 million on opening weekend, so if it has legs in the weekend to come, it has a better chance of penetrating that zeitgeist and staying on voters’ minds. Nolan is also no doubt looking to have the movie on Blu-ray just around the time that Oscar voting is happening, so that should give it a significant signal boost.
So to recap, here’s what I think Dunkirk’s Oscar chances are at this super early stage:
Best Production Design
Best Costume Design
Best Sound Editing
Best Original Score
Could Go Either Way
Best Supporting Actor – Mark Rylance
Best Sound Mixing
Best Visual Effects
Again, we’ll have to see how the film performs and if it’s got staying power, but Warner Bros.’ only other major Oscar player this year is Blade Runner 2049, so I imagine they’re gonna put a lot of weight behind this one.
If you missed my preview of the Oscar chances for films released in the first half of this year, click here. Until next time, folks…