Films of the year: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan's extraordinary Dunkirk sits at number three in our films of the year countdown...

Films of the year: Dunkirk (3rd place)

Christopher Nolan’s film before Dunkirk was a divisive, hugely ambitious sci-fi project. Interstellar broke the two and a half hour barrier, and to this day, mention of its final act is enough to get a good quality pub debate going. It was a sci-fi original movie that broke through at the box office too, and had a very real sense that nobody else could have shepherded the project through the Hollywood system, yet alone realised something so cinematic in doing so.

The same applies there for Dunkirk, Nolan’s thrilling, outstanding World War II-set thriller, a film that absolutely demanded to be seen on the biggest screen you could find. In an era where movie executives are battling to hold off the growing threat from Netflix and its ilk, surely filmmakers such as Nolan, who not only champion the big screen but show its ongoing worth, are the ones to back.

In the case of Dunkirk, it did also offer a marked contrast to Nolan’s previous projects, and demonstrate his range. It was a lot shorter for one, telling its story completely and leaving change from 110 minutes. Furthermore, it’s an outright period piece (his first since the sorely underrated The Prestige), and a telling of a true story (his first). For he opted to bring to the screen again the operation to try and rescue over 300,000 stranded troops in Dunkirk, near the start of World War II.

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Two other films have worked around the same story this year. Churchill, starring Brian Cox, is the less successful, and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour gets a wide release in the UK next year, and covers the politics very well (Their Finest, another movie well worth seeking out, is around the same subject matter too to a degree). But Nolan is interested in the human beings on that beach, and the extraordinary effort to rescue them. 

It’s the human stories that Nolan zeroes in on, opting for three strands. Tom Hardy’s pilot’s attempt to stage an air rescue (and Hardy’s latest demonstration that you can act with half of your face covered up). The mole, trying to take troops en masse over sea, supervised by Kenneth Branagh standing on a pier. And the flotilla of small boats that flooded across the channel, with particular emphasis on Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson.

You’re left in little doubt as to the stakes, courtesy of an outstanding opening sequence. And from that very early point on, Nolan’s film turns the screw, and doesn’t let up. The relentless build, and the growing threat, are also powered by Hans Zimmer’s superb, ear-blasting score that never lets go. I’ve been up and down on Zimmer’s work in recent times, but his score to Dunkirk isn’t just superb, it’s vital. Nolan’s real juggling act here is curating the talents of a bunch of exceptional talents in front of and behind the camera, and ensuring they build to the sum of their collective parts. They do, and I think there’s a compelling case for Dunkirk to be regarded as Nolan’s best film to date. I’m not utterly sure it is, but conversely, I’m in little doubt that this is premium Nolan.

It’s premium cinema, too. I saw Dunkirk twice on an IMAX screen, and both times got utterly lost in it. My ears rang for a good day or two afterwards, so raging was the sound mix. And on both occasions, it was the kind of film where I just sat afterwards for several minutes, moved by what I’d seen, and severely grateful that Christopher Nolan exists.

Dunkirk is astounding cinema. The kind of film we’ll be talking about for years to come. Nobody, as the saying goes, does it better…


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