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Dunkirk Will Probably Win Best Picture, but a Changing Oscar Landscape Could Favor A Micro-Budget Dark Horse

Christopher Nolan's WWII epic is the prohibitive Oscar favorite, but its ultimate fate could change the Academy Awards forever.



By early November, the awards season has begun in earnest. There are still three months left until the big Oscar night, but make no mistake about it: People already kinda know which movie is going to walk away with the big prize at the end of this breathless march to March. Nobody wants to admit as much, as that would leave us with precious little to talk about for the next six months.

Of course, some years make it easier to read the tea leaves than others. In 2015, for example, a lot of pundits deemed “Spotlight” a prohibitive favorite as early as September (“Fury Road” was too good, and “The Revenant” was never going to be good enough). In 2016, on the other hand, it was still hard to say what movie was going to win the Oscar for Best Picture even after the Oscar for Best Picture had been given out.

In 2017, one of three things will happen:

1: Dunkirk” will sail away with the trophy, along with a civilian flotilla’s worth of technical awards.

2: Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” will tap into the historical moment at hand, becoming the first late December release to squeak under the deadline and sneak away with the race since “Million Dollar Baby.”

3: “Get Out” or Luca Guadagnino’s achingly tender “Call Me by Your Name” will emerge as a popular first choice among Oscar voters, and a film that was made for considerably less than $10 million will win Best Picture for the second year in a row, confirming that “Moonlight” changed the game in more ways than one and forever altered our idea of what constitutes an “Oscar Movie.”

Irrepressible A24 offerings “Lady Bird” and “The Florida Project” could also fulfill this potential, and even “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbings, Missouri” has an outside shot. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” and Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” will likely prove too particular.

“Call Me By Your Name”

Let’s start with the first — and most likely — scenario.

“Dunkirk” is going to win. It’s almost certainly going to win. …Okay, it’s definitely eligible to win. A leviathan that has temporarily ducked back under the surface after pulverizing multiplexes all summer long, Christopher Nolan’s symphonic blockbuster is not only one of the biggest studio films of the year ($523.7 million worldwide for a historical epic about one of modern history’s greatest non-events), it’s also one of the best. Forget the 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or that the popular Christopher Nolan fan site IMDB has it ranked as the 93rd best movie of all time, and focus instead on the staggering 94 score on Metacritic.

Read More: ‘Dunkirk’ Review: Christopher Nolan’s Monumental War Epic Is The Best Film He’s Ever Made

An auteurist masterpiece bankrolled with oodles of Hollywood money, “Dunkirk” is the most grounded movie that the world’s most popular director has ever made, innovative enough to dazzle critics and visceral enough to wow audiences of all ages — it’s rare that World War II veterans and One Direction zealots can rally around the same cause, but here we are. If only this film had entered into the Oscar races of yore, when a well-mounted epic was guaranteed a certain portion of the vote, “Dunkirk” would already have its name engraved on a few little gold men (though in that case it probably wouldn’t be called “Dunkirk”).

Of course, “Dunkirk” is nothing if not a testament to the fact that certain victory has been thwarted before. Extenuating circumstances aside, there are things about the movie itself that might hurt its chances. For one thing, it’s not a story about America, which is always hard for Americans to wrap their heads around. It’s not a story of a stirring military triumph. It’s not an emotionally driven tear-jerker like “Saving Private Ryan,” which couldn’t even win Best Picture by killing a school teacher played by Tom Hanks.


Melinda Sue Gordon

On the contrary, the most recognizable face in “Dunkirk” is almost completely obscured by an oxygen mask, and even the film’s loudest champions would be hard-pressed to identify any of Nolan’s characters by name. It’s a colossal work of entertainment that generates sentiment through raw spectacle, orchestrating an elegant tapestry of stress and catharsis that needs to be experienced on a screen the size of a skyscraper in order to be enjoyed as its director intended. In other words, it’s a good thing that a huge percentage of voters saw the film in theaters, because those standard-def “For Your Consideration” DVDs aren’t going to be doing “Dunkirk” any favors.

Then there’s “The Post” to consider. Every year, there’s always one movie that — due to its mystery, its pedigree, and the auspiciousness of its late release date — we have to assume will be a major contender. Needless to say, a historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep is pretty much the Platonic ideal of awards season wild cards, even before you factor in the extent to which a movie about the journalists who declassified the Pentagon Papers might dovetail with current events (every vote is a vote against “fake news”).

The most relevant film isn’t always the one that wins (unless I’m overlooking the urgent social context of watching Michael Keaton run through Times Square in his tighty-whities), and yet there’s no use denying that we live in an age where what something is about is of greater importance than how it’s about it. “Dunkirk” might be a profoundly rousing testament to the power of selflessness and solidarity, but its themes may be too diffused to connect with people who feel the need to make a more literal statement; this is where “The Post” could gain valuable subscribers. It’s not alone on that front.

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