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.”Read More...
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