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Sometimes a particular film highlights what you love in cinema. In the case of the latest film in our journey through ten films that Vincent Views as significant, I saw it knowing its rather twisty reputation, but completely underestimated just how involving and compelling it would be. I rented the film on VHS (remember those?) and started watching it leaning back in my chair. Within ten minutes I was leaning forwards with my elbows on my knees, completely riveted by what I was watching. I did not change my position until the credits rolled. This film cemented thrillers as my favourite genre, and is something of the gold standard when it comes to viewing thrillers.
Listing significant films inevitably means that they be memorable. Perhaps ironically, Memento is a deeply memorable film, mainly for its complex structure but also for its weighty themes, interwoven beautifully with the elements of neo-noir and modern tragedy. Repeat viewings as well as teaching placed this film within my top ten of all time, as each time I encounter the film I find something new and every discussion about it opens intriguing avenues. It was, perhaps as it was for many, my first exposure to Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker whose work continues to enthral and fascinate me. But while the extraordinary vision of Interstellar, the genre defining and then redefining Dark Knight trilogy and the intricate spectacle of Inception all have their time and place, Memento is perhaps Nolan’s finest work. It is a brilliant latticework of a film that merges form and content with crystalline precision, tells a deeply affecting story of a hopelessly flawed protagonist, and asks philosophical questions about morality, memory, identity and choice.
DISCLAIMER: I have not seen any of the nominees in the categories of Foreign Language Film, Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, Animated Short, Live Action Short Film, so I have no view on them.
When it comes to the Oscars, one can pick what is likely to win, and what one would like to win (or, according to the more arrogant out there, what should win). On the first point, the easy answer is what has won so far. If a film has won awards at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, not to mention various critical awards and those of the various filmmaking guilds of America, it is likely to pick up Best Picture at the Oscars. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is a tendency.
As previously mentioned, I predict that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will pick up Best Picture. What I would vote for, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is a different matter. Of the nine nominees, I was most impressed by Dunkirk, but World War II films are such clichéd Best Picture winners that I would not vote for it. In a year when focus is on gender relations in the film industry, I want to support a film that has something positive to say about women, and is also something outside the generic norm. Lady Bird and The Shape of Water fulfil those criteria, and the latter is also a fantasy film, extremely rare in these circles. Therefore, in my fantasy AMPAS vote, I would pick The Shape of Water.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (predicted winner)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a surprising lead contender for Best Picture because Martin McDonagh is not nominated for Achievement in Directing. If he were, I would predict a victory, but as he is not, I have the same dilemma. Much as I love Christopher Nolan, he has opted for a safe award genre with his World War II thriller. As impressively directed as Dunkirk is, I want to see him garner awards for science fiction films like Inception and Interstellar. Therefore, I champion another of my favourite directors, Guillermo Del Toro. Handily, I suspect he will actually walk away with the award anyway, which will make me happy.
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water (predicted and preferred winner)
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
I have not seen any of these, but I would be flabbergasted if Coco did not bring Pixar another award.
The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
Coco, Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson (predicted winner)
Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha
Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman
From its opening extended take of soldiers walking through deserted streets, Dunkirk arrests attention and maintains a tight grip throughout its running time. It is by turns a gripping, moving and eerie experience, more an existential thriller than a war film. It eschews prolonged battle sequences yet the fear of attack by land, sea and air is constant, while aerial dogfights make abrupt intrusions into the visual assembly. Its story progresses through the attempted evacuation of British troops from the French coastal town in 1940, but presents its three plot strands across different time frames – land for a week, sea for a day, air for an hour – simultaneously rather than sequentially. It draws on silent cinema with a great trust in visual storytelling, combined with an intense soundtrack that blends Hans Zimmer’s relentless score with a sometimes suggestive and other times crashing sound mix. It is light on characterisation and dialogue, which combined with its primarily visual storytelling results in a somewhat impressionistic experience. It is in several ways a departure for writer-director Christopher Nolan, being his first foray into historical dramatization while also foregoing a central character such as Bruce Wayne or Dominic Cobb, since its three narrative strands follow a range of figures caught up in the evacuation. On the other hand, Nolan is very much on home turf thematically, as his familiar tropes are present including a layered narrative and an explicit engagement with the cinematic manipulation of time. The intercutting of the three stories echoes the multiple levels of Inception and Memento, as well as the nested narratives of The Prestige and the time-jumping of Interstellar. Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut between these strands, and this discontinuity demonstrates Nolan’s ongoing exploration of trauma and the associated fracturing of the mind.
The film emphasises trauma with Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked Shivering Soldier, who contrasts with Tom Hardy’s unflappable RAF pilot Farrier, while stoicism informs the older generation both civilian – Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson – and military – Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, as well as the younger generation in Dawson’s crew and Fionn Whitehead’s young Tommy on the beach who would be a wide-eyed innocent if his eyes did not hint at what he has seen. This is a recurring feature throughout Dunkirk, as director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema captures close ups of faces and eyes as well as subjective angles and oppressive lighting to convey the imprisonment of the stranded soldiers, also by Nolan’s decision to concentrate the film on the empty stretch of the beaches as well as the pitiless expanse of the sea. For some, this could be alienating as viewers may want a wealth of character detail in order to engage with the drama. But the film’s sparseness is also a great strength as the film creates an immersive and absorbing world that the viewer can themselves inhabit and fear. The ‘enemy’ is only seen in silhouette, which makes them all the more menacing, especially when bullets from unseen sources pepper the soldiers and, in a sense, the viewer themselves. All reactions to film are subjective, and Dunkirk emphasises the subjectivity of experience. Experience is central to the film, the experience of the characters parallel to that of the viewer. As a film, Dunkirk is an intricate and electrifying lattice of image and sound. As an experience, it is ruthlessly efficient and mercilessly tense, a sublime immersion in trauma, time and terror.
It’s a wonderful night for Oscar! Or at least it should be on February 28th. As the 88th Annual Academy Awards approach, it’s time for me to look over the various categories and offer Vincent’s View on the nominees and likely winners.
I decline to arrogantly presume that I know best and say what the Academy got wrong. I don’t necessarily agree with the nominees and, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I would have voted differently. I had my own favourites last year but that’s simply my view – the assembled results of nearly 7000 people do not pale in comparison to my almighty judgement, or indeed anyone’s. What interests me is what the particular nominees say about tastes and trends about Oscar nominees, now and historically.
Beginning with the nominees for Best Picture, they are a rather surprising bunch. I have written before on the kind of film that tends to win Best Picture and the commonalities among nominees. The cliché is that biopics win Oscars, but more broadly historical films win Oscars. Historical films attract awards, presumably because the AMPAS members (not to mention other institutions) respond to the apparent gravitas of “history.” Furthermore, films “based on a true story” do well, as few things offer more “importance” than “truth.”
With that in mind, consider the eight nominees for Best Picture:
If the nominees were still restricted to five, I believe that the nominated films would be Bridge of Spies (based on real events), Brooklyn (literary adaptation), The Revenant (literary adaptation, based on real events), Spotlight (based on real events) and either Room (literary adaptation) or The Big Short (literary adaptation, based on real events). In addition, all of them are concerned with ideas of “America,” a common theme of Best Picture winners from Wings (1928) to Patton (1970) to Unforgiven (1992). The six films here are concerned with, respectively, the Cold War, the immigrant experience, frontierism, church and community, family, financial disaster. All of the key nominees present aspects of America in relief and highlight them to the world. Cinema has long been an important form of US propaganda, so it is unsurprising that the Academy reward films that effectively advertise the USA. And if the advertisements are about less than savoury events, like Spotlight and The Big Short, this shows a degree of self-reflection and introspection somewhat lacking in US foreign policy and election campaigning.
Two of the nominees are, however, anomalous: The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw both films and enjoyed them very much, but to see them nominated for Best Picture is actually staggering. Both are science fiction films (space travel, post-apocalyptic), which makes them part of a very rare group. The only other sci-fi films to be nominated for Best Picture are Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), Inception (2010) and Gravity (2013), so to have two such films nominated in one year is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie and a sequel, only the fifth to ever be nominated after The Godfather Parts II and III, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King. So for the first time, a sci-fi sequel is up for Best Picture! This is actually radical and groundbreaking for the Academy, and perhaps signals a possible shift in its members’ typically conservative tastes.
Continuing my response to the response to Oscar nominations, it is worth noting that there are certain types of film that are consistently honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This type is determined more by content than anything else. I have seen the accusation that the Academy is more interested in rewarding financial than artistic success. In the case of the current crop of nominees, this is patently nonsense, as the eight films nominated for Best Picture are the lowest earning group of nominees in recent years. The combined box office gross of the eight Best Picture nominees came to $203.1 million before the announcement of the nominees, and there is little time before the ceremony for this to increase significantly (although American Sniper is doing very well). Furthermore, look at the earnings of other films, including nominees in other categories. In an act of remarkable brashness, Paramount submitted one of the year’s highest earners, Transformers: Age of Extinction, for consideration as Best Picture. Shockingly, it was not nominated in that category or indeed any other, but the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects (the category Transformers: Age of Extinction had a chance in) have a combined box office gross of $3.6 billion worldwide. So to say that AMPAS only rewards box office winners is simply untrue.
It is typical that the Academy Award for Visual Effects goes to commercially successful films, often along with other post-production categories such as Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. What irritates me about this is the perpetuation of the art/entertainment divide – movies make money and might win an award for their effects; films are “art” and win awards for being “artistic”. It is an utterly nonsensical division that I love to see occasionally challenged, such as when genre films like Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) are nominated for Best Picture (unsurprisingly, neither won that award although both won Best Visual Effects, as well as Cinematography). There are exceptions that straddle the divide, earn vast box office receipts and pick up multiple awards as well, but these are few and far between. The best example is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), a fantasy blockbuster that won all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated. Although they did not win, other unusual nominees include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), as well as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the occasional animated film such as Toy Story (2010), Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and especially Gravity (2013).
An interesting comparison can be made between Gravity, which won seven Oscars including Best Director, and Titanic (1997), which tied the record of eleven awards set by Ben-Hur (1959) (a feat later achieved by The Return of the King). Both Gravity and Titanic were commercially successful, and both are disaster movies with very high production values. Yet Titanic was more honoured than Gravity, picking up Best Picture whereas Gravity lost out to 12 Years A Slave. The common factor between 12 Years A Slave and Titanic is the factor that the Academy consistently rewards – history.
Look over these Best Picture winners of the last three decades:
2013 – 12 Years A Slave
2012 – Argo
2011 – The Artist
2010 – The King’s Speech
2009 – The Hurt Locker
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire
2007 – No Country for Old Men
2006 – The Departed
2005 – Crash
2004 – Million Dollar Baby
2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2002 – Chicago
2001 – A Beautiful Mind
2000 – Gladiator
1999 – American Beauty
1998 – Shakespeare in Love
1997 – Titanic
1996 – The English Patient
1995 – Braveheart
1994 – Forrest Gump
1993 – Schindler’s List
1992 – Unforgiven
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs
1990 – Dances With Wolves
1989 – Driving Miss Daisy
1988 – Rain Man
1987 – The Last Emperor
1986 – Platoon
1985 – Out of Africa
1984 – Amadeus
Only eight (26.6%) of these thirty Best Picture winners have a setting contemporary to the time of their release, whereas twenty-one (70%) have a historical setting, ranging from 18th century Vienna to ancient Rome, 13th century Scotland to various points in the 20th century. Many of the films feature significant historical events, including World War II (four), Vietnam (three), the Middle East (two) and the US Civil Rights Movement (the anomaly is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Ten of these films (33.3%) are based on specific historical events or people, making them “true” stories.
The Academy consistently rewards the depiction of history, both in terms of period setting and significant events. Unsuccessful nominees have the same features – Saving Private Ryan, L. A. Confidential, Quiz Show, The Cider House Rules, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning – demonstrating that a significant proportion of nominees depict historical subjects. One can interpret this historical dimension as adding (in the minds of some) an element of gravitas, a quality that makes the film seem “important”. If we accept that AMPAS is an institution devoted to the development, promotion and cultural significance of motion pictures, then it follows that this institution would reward films that make the effort to engage with significant socio-cultural concerns and events. “History” can be considered a short-hand for this, the Academy honouring films that depict “history” because this subject matter is worthy of reward. Equally, it is rare for a contemporary-set thriller to win Best Picture (only The Silence of the Lambs and The Departed in the last 30 years – Argo and No Country for Old Men have thriller narratives, but both are historical and the former is based on a true story) and unheard of for a science fiction film to win. Gravity came closest and I had hopes for Interstellar this year, but no such luck for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic. Surprise, surprise though, Interstellar is nominated for Visual Effects.
This goes back to the art/entertainment divide, a form of cultural elitism that goes far beyond the Academy Awards. The Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature rarely (if ever) go to science fiction, fantasy or thriller novels, and there remains the nonsensical view that literature and theatre are “art” and therefore somehow superior to cinema which is “only entertainment”. Interestingly, one of this year’s nominees, Birdman, engages with this elitism through its portrayal of a former movie star struggling for credibility in the face of immense cultural prejudice, including a scene where a theatre critic lambasts the entire practice of Hollywood cinema for being too commercial and giving awards for “cartoons and pornography”. The great irony of AMPAS is that it perpetuates this bizarre double standard within its own medium, for the most part ignoring genre films and those with a contemporary or (God forbid) future setting and consistently rewarding historical dramas of “importance”.
While I am frustrated by this practice of AMPAS, it would be unfair to entirely blame AMPAS, because the cultural attitudes at work here go far beyond a single institution. But I will blame the Academy members for their general conservatism and reluctance to honour films that differ from the typical pattern. Nominees like Gravity and Avatar, and the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, are especially gratifying because films like these develop the cinematic medium, creating fantasy worlds and taking audiences to new and exciting places. The challenges and innovations of these films are often expensive and the only way they can pay for themselves is through commercial success, therefore by honouring such films the Academy honours and encourages the development and continuance of cinema itself. That is what I would like to see more of in the future, though I am not optimistic as year on year the Academy instead rewards subject matter rather than innovation, perpetuating an unnecessary cultural elitism.
Following my review of Interstellar, I thought it time to discuss another of my top ten directors. Christopher Nolan has had an impressive ascension through the hallowed halls of Hollywood, attaining a position similar to those of previous directors I have written on, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. All of these filmmakers are able to make distinctive, personal films within the institution of Hollywood, films that bear their unmistakable stamp.
Nolan’s progress has been remarkable – in fifteen years and with only nine films to his credit, he is now a marketable brand. This is evident in the publicity campaign for Interstellar: posters and trailers emphasise that the film is FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, relying upon the director’s name rather than that of the stars as is more common practice. This is surprising considering the bankability of the principal actors of Interstellar – while their names appear on posters, they are not mentioned in trailers and there is no mention that these are Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey, Academy Award Winner Anne Hathaway, Academy Award Nominee Jessica Chastain and Academy Award Winner Michael Caine. Publicity for other recent films featuring these actors has emphasised them, but in the case of Interstellar, the director is used as the major selling point.
This emphasis upon Nolan has grown over his career – publicity for Insomnia mentions that the film is from THE ACCLAIMED BRITISH DIRECTOR OF MEMENTO. Similarly, publicity for The Prestige describes the film as being FROM THE DIRECTOR OF BATMAN BEGINS AND MEMENTO.
Both these films, however, were largely sold on their stars, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are simply promoted as Batman films. Following the success of The Dark Knight and Inception, however, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar declare the director; these films are FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN. What then, does this publicity refer to?
The Nolan brand is one of major releases of ever-increasing size, and with particular emphasis upon complexity – in short, brainy blockbusters. If the Spielberg brand is one of sentimentality then Nolan’s is intellectual – here is the filmmaker who makes you feel intelligent (if you can make head or tail of his films). While this is unfair to Spielberg, whose films are often as complex as they are sentimental, Nolan’s films consistently display interests in time and identity, and utilise elaborate editing patterns that confuse and delight in equal measure. This has led some reviewers to describe the director as chilly and unemotional, more interested in calculation than feeling. This seems strange when considered in light of the consistent interest in loss and grief that runs through Nolan’s oeuvre. Consider the grief that drives Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and perverts Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, as well as Cobb’s haunting guilt in Inception and the tragic self-perpetuation of Memento, not to mention the parent-child relationship that runs through Interstellar. Nolan’s films are driven by the emotional torment of their protagonists, and the various narrative and stylistic tricks all serve this central conceit, taking the viewer into the emotional state of the characters through a dazzling mastery of the cinematic medium.
For all the scale and grandeur of Nolan’s blockbusters since Batman Begins, it is Memento that I pick both as my favourite Nolan film and the best introduction to his oeuvre. This is not to say that Nolan has lost his way or his interests and concerns have been swamped by bloated budgets and studio demands, but Memento’s deceptive complexity rewards repeat viewings and endless discussion (having taught this film several times on a film-philosophy course, I have repeatedly found this to be the case). Memento’s chronological rearrangements express the subjectivity of memory and knowledge, and the lack of certainty over what is presented at face value, while the presence of tattoos highlights the (unreliable) use of embodiment to fix oneself in the world. The ethics of revenge and personal goals are questioned and answered, and those answers are then questioned afresh. And the emotional core mentioned above provides the film with a deeply tragic dimension that leaves the viewer unsettled, both sympathetic and uncomfortable towards the protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce). This ambivalence has continued throughout Nolan’s work, and while Memento may not be the most ambitious work in his oeuvre, it remains an enthralling and compelling introduction to the work of this distinctive and singular director.