It may be too early to judge whether Dunkirk, the war drama and the latest passion project from writer-director Christopher Nolan, is his best movie so far, but its near universal acclaim suggests it could be one of the cinematic highlights of 2017. Already, reviews are incredibly positive (currently sitting at 94 on Metacritic) and box office projections show the film on course to dominate the competition this weekend, with $5.5m on Thursday night screenings alone. This is par for the course for Nolan, who, over the course of ten feature films, has grossed over $1.8bn worldwide (making him the sixth highest grossing director in history) and helped to define the modern blockbuster. For many, he is the filmmaker of his generation, not just in technical style and storytelling but in his ability to attract a passionate fan base few contemporary directors could imagine having.
Nolan is one of a very select few directors working today who can command the attention of mainstream audiences by his name alone - more so now in the expanded universe franchise age, where the importance of directors has become somewhat diminished in comparison to the intellectual property. This rare status has also allowed Nolan to become one of the wealthiest directors around, as he negotiated a record breaking $20m pay-cheque - plus 20% of the gross - for working on Dunkirk. Having helped to break the mould of the 21st century superhero film with his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan helped to legitimize an entire genre after decades of commercial and industry dismissals. Without Nolan, we probably wouldn’t have the model of blockbuster film-making we have now.
That staggering success only serves to drive home how surprising it is that Nolan has never been awarded an Oscar. His films have certainly raked in the nominations, with 26 of them over the years and 7 wins (mostly in technical categories), but Nolan himself has always gone home empty-handed - though he does have nominations to his name: two for Original Screenplay (Memento and Inception) and one for Best Picture (Inception).
Nolan’s Oscar history is more heavily defined by the snubs than the wins, with the absence of a Best Picture nomination for The Dark Knight sparking controversy amongst fans and critics alike. The Guardian called its omission a "disgrace", and it is often cited as one of the catalysts for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changing the Best Picture category to include up to ten nominees, thus ensuring that more genre and blockbuster fare be included among the best films of the year. That helped his next film, Inception, get onto that slate, but despite being one of the most exciting and technically proficient film-makers of this decade, the Best Director nomination has remained out of reach.
Nolan remains defined by and large as a blockbuster film-maker, even though he has his beginnings in low-budget drama and made his acclaimed Victorian mystery The Prestige right after Batman Begins. That’s made it difficult for the staid sensibilities of the Oscar voters to view his work on the level of more conventional awards fare, although that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, Star Wars, the highest grossing film of 1977, was a Best Picture nominee, as were Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn’t unusual to see the mainstream audience favourites receive recognition in this category alongside those dramas everyone expected to see.
That started to change in the late 1980s, as studios focused more on the Summer season and international grosses, which relied less on the kind of promotion an Oscar could bring them. Instead, smaller budget dramas used the Oscars as a marketing tool, releasing the film on a limited scale in the now expected end of the year slot and using the following months’ award nominations to sell the film to wider audiences. There were exceptions across the years, from Titanic to Gladiator to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the divide between “blockbuster” and “Oscar bait” became ever wider. Many films suffered as a result, but Christopher Nolan has become almost the symbol for this divide - overlooked for his talent and influence because a Batman story just won’t be seen as the platform to demonstrate them.
- Dunkirk (2017) release date: Jul 21, 2017