Tag Archives: Hans Zimmer

The MovieMini Awards for the Films of 2017

In difficult times, we often turn to the movies for comfort, for inspiration, for escape, for expression. We have throughout cinema’s history and we will throughout cinema’s future.

Without a shadow of a doubt, 2017 was a difficult year. But it almost seemed like movies responded accordingly. Not only were films great from January to December, but they also often transcended the art form, bleeding into real life with such vividly real emotions. That’s what cinema is meant to do.

Once a year in film wraps up, it seems only appropriate to celebrate it and to celebrate it thoroughly. 2017 is one of those years where it seems necessary, where reflection expands upon the impact that the films have.

We see this celebration in the form of awarding films, and many places and people take part, from critics to Academy voters. And while it’s fun to watch those award shows, they risk becoming frustratingly difficult to engage with. Response to cinema, to what’s “the best” has its objective elements, but it’s also often subjective and personal. That’s why we feel the need to celebrate 2017 our way, as we can only add another layer, a layer that distinctly reflects us.

Our celebration takes the form of the MovieMini Awards, a project we’ve spent more than two months on. We gathered a team. We traversed four rounds of voting. We poured ourselves into our writing. And we dressed it up a little to present it all to you.

Without further ado, here are the MovieMini Awards for the films of 2017:

Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: Willem Dafoe — The Florida Project

Image courtesy of A24

In much of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, the oft-menacing Willem Dafoe plays a warmer, more paternal motel manager named Bobby.

In a scene likely to find itself on Dafoe’s Oscar reel, Bobby confronts a pedophile lurking around the motel’s many children. At first, Bobby seems to treat this man with some sympathy, but it becomes apparent that that may have been to avoid rousing suspicion among the kids. As he escorts the pedophile away, anger bubbles behind Dafoe’s facade. Then, when he angrily rebukes the man, we get a sense of how protective Bobby is of the children he’s constantly fighting with and that even now, Bobby’s seen it all before.

Perhaps the movie’s harshest reality is at the end when — spoilers — Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is about to be separated from her mom. Dafoe, who’s spent so much time trying to help the pair, has no choice but to walk away and separate himself from the situation. He can’t help anymore and that, perhaps more than anything, hurts. He’s not there watching the pain anymore, but we see in his eyes that he’s been changed by all of this. Sure, he’s seen it all before, but that doesn’t mean he can bear to see it again — you just don’t get used to that sort of pain.

Hooman Yazdanian

Runner-up: Michael Stuhlbarg — Call Me by Your Name

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

Within Michael Stuhlbarg’s sublime and endlessly warm performance, one brief moment always comes to mind. When Elio, fresh off an agonizing farewell with Oliver, wanders into his father’s study and catches his eye, Stuhlbarg lifts his chin up and breaks out an ear-to-ear smile. So begins the heartbreaking and tender penultimate scene of Call Me By Your Name.

Stuhlbarg’s performance — which is equal parts gentle, edifying and achingly human — leads to one of the most unforgettable monologues in modern film history.  “Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it, the joy you’ve felt.” The soft, quiet breaking of Stuhlbarg’s voice is masterful — a perfect ending to a spectacular supporting performance.

— Michelle Lee

3. Jason Mitchell — Mudbound
4. Richard Jenkins — The Shape of Water
5. Armie Hammer — Call Me by Your Name

The Next 5
6. Mark Rylance — Dunkirk
7. Michael Shannon — The Shape of Water
8. Bill Skarsgård — It
9. Tracy Letts — Lady Bird
10. Christopher Plummer — All the Money in the World

Achievement in Makeup & Hairstyling: Ivana Primorac, Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick — Darkest Hour

Image courtesy of Focus Features

Heavy makeup often becomes an issue for films. When there’s so much work being done, there’s an equally large risk that something will stick out or look visually off, especially when there are other characters without makeup in the same shots. But the prosthetics in the Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour are seamless. Gary Oldman, an otherwise thin man, is fully transformed into a rather different type of physicality, a physicality that is integral to defining the character of Churchill. There’s so much humor in Churchill’s bumbling demeanor, and yet there’s so much power and gravitas in it as well. So many layers of the film are pulled off, including Churchill’s interactions with other characters.

The makeup work hits that sweet spot between too much and using an actor that only roughly looks like Churchill, allowing the essence of the man to come through as perfectly as possible.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Mike Hill, Shane Mahan — The Shape of Water

Fox Searchlight/Courtesy

The work done in The Shape of Water has proved to be a bit of a divide for categorization and judgment. Some deem the Amphibian Man’s exterior as, actually, a costume, it being something actor Doug Jones put on. But we look at it as makeup work, as a sort of large scale prosthetic piece designed to be skin, not costume.

And, in addition to the wonderful period details of the hair of the rest of the cast, the skin of the Amphibian Man is truly outstanding, built from such minute detail to create a creature that feels fully imagined and realized. Each part of the creature feels alive in such majestic ways.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Deborah LaMia Denaver, Adruitha Lee — I, Tonya

The Next 3
4. Joel Harlow, Cindy Harlow — Logan
5. Paul Engelen, Sarah Alice Hoyle, Lesley Nobile — Phantom Thread
6. Sarah Craig McEathron, Linda Dowds, Sean Sansom — It

Achievement in Costume Design: Mark Bridges — Phantom Thread

Image courtesy of Focus Features

Mark Bridges’ remarkable work is vital to Phantom Thread, because if it were not excellent, it’d be hard to buy into the hype surrounding Reynolds Woodcock. As important as it was for Daniel Day-Lewis to inhabit Woodcock, it was crucial for Bridges to do the same. He had to make clothing that Woodcock would, not just clothing from 1955, but clothing this particular man would make at this particular stage of his life. That meant using copious lace with rich colors — hallmarks of the Woodcock brand — and imbuing regal undertones in the many dresses Alma (Vicky Krieps) would fashion. It also meant making a wedding dress that, while beautiful to us, would’ve disappointed Woodcock.

Beyond the dresses, Bridges is responsible for dressing the characters on a daily basis. Before a word is spoken, we know what time period it is. Before Alma speaks to Woodcock in their diner meetcute, we can get a sense of her present state. Her slightly wrinkled, slightly misfit outfit contradicts with Woodcock’s strenuously put together, neat clothing.

So is it cheating to pick the film literally set in the fashion world for best costume design? Honestly, yeah, probably. Do we care? No.

Hooman Yazdanian

Runner-up: Jennifer Johnson — I, Tonya

Neon/Courtesy

Jennifer Johnson absolutely nails the look of the figure skating world in I, Tonya. Johnson’s work was especially important in capturing different stages of Tonya Harding’s life. Early on, before Harding hits it big for the 1994 Olympics, most of Tonya Harding’s clothing was handmade by her. As such, Johnson effectively made Harding’s clothing look homemade and ill-fitting, contrasting with the more prim costumes we see from Harding’s competitors.

Later, as Harding’s star is rising, we see her showing off fancy jewelry she hadn’t donned prior, representing Harding’s own feeling that she was finally making it. In the 1994 Olympics, Harding’s competition outfit looks more than up to snuff with her competitors — finally she belonged. The way Harding was dressed is an important plot point in I, Tonya, and Johnson managed to hit all her marks.

Hooman Yazdanian

3. Renée April — Blade Runner 2049
4. Lindy Hemming — Wonder Woman
5. Jacqueline Duran — Beauty and the Beast

The Next 5
6. Luis Sequiera — The Shape of Water
7. Stacey Battat — The Beguiled
8. Jeffrey Kurland — Dunkirk
9. Jenny Eagen — Hostiles
10. Michael Kaplan — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Best Documentary Feature: Icarus

Image courtesy of Netflix

To be honest, it’s hard to say I thought I’d be calling Icarus the best documentary of the year early in the movie. Within 15 minutes, we see a man trying to cheat a cycling race show his dog’s testicles to the doctor helping him dope. What the hell is going on?

The film begins with Bryan Fogel, the documentary’s director, wanting to see how possible it would be to get away with doping in a cycling race. He enlists the help of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who put Fogel on the same regiment he put Russian athletes under, injections in the butt and all. What happens after this weirdness — that’s admittedly still fascinating — is remarkable.

As Russia’s systemic doping was unveiled during filming, Icarus’ focus shifts to the scandal at large, where Rodchenkov is a major player. The movie shows the rampant, state-sanctioned cheating going on in Russia (which now finds itself banned from the upcoming Winter Olympics). More compelling than even that is the light it sheds on Russia’s treatment of anyone who could harm the nation and Vladimir Putin’s reputation.

On a more human level, Fogel delves into Rodchenkov, highlighting his emotional journey and presenting us with a three-dimensional character. Rodchenkov gets an opportunity to shine; we see his sadness, his fears and the traumatic experiences that led him here. We get a sense for his personality through his sense of humor, and in a beautiful scene at the end of the film, we see Rodchenkov frolic with Fogel’s dog on a beach, seemingly happy and free, for now.

A movie that begins with dog testicles, frozen pee and Fogel’s butt turns into a thriller rife with geopolitical conflict and, undoubtedly, one of 2017’s best films.

— Hooman Yazdanian

Runner-up: Jane

Abramorama/Courtesy

From the first minute, Jane is easy to become fascinated with. It’s a look at over 100 hours of never-before-seen footage of the famous Jane Goodall during her journeys with the apes she got so close too. But the documentary is also a sneakily epic and intimate character piece. As the film turns to its second half, we start to get a sense that we’re witnessing such a wholesome portrait of Goodall’s life, of what drove her not only as a scientist, but as a woman in that time and as a human being in general. It’s a soft portrait, but it’s unbelievably powerful. Director Brett Morgen’s control of the archival footage and quiet empathy for Goodall, which comes out in the editing, is nothing short of masterful, and Philip Glass’ score is one of the most beautiful of the year.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Faces Places
4. Kedi
5. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

The Next 5
6. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
7. Strong Island
8. City of Ghosts
9. Chasing Coral
10. Batman & Bill

Breakthrough Performance by an Actor or Actress: Timothée Chalamet — Call Me by Your Name

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Well, well, well. Someone had themselves quite the year. Timothée Chalamet, the star of the magnificent Call Me By Your Name, undoubtedly delivered one of the best performances in recent years in this film. His expressive face and ultra-specific physicality — whether its his posture, his dancing or the way he falls into Armie Hammer — tell a story, all on their own. In Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet had lengthy close-ups of just his face and he pulled it off better than just about any veteran actor could. His tone-perfect line delivery ties the bow on a  performance that leaves no nits to be picked.

Add to that his brilliance as the scene-stealing, People’s History of the United States-reading bastion of pretension we all know in Lady Bird, and it’s hard not to get excited for his future in the industry.

That’s what made it so disappointing to see that one of his next movies is a starring role in a Woody Allen film. The young actor’s apology gives us some hope that he actually did learn from and recognize the mistake, and can make more mindful decisions going forward. It’d be a shame if he didn’t because he’s got unrivaled potential and we’d love to see him succeed.

Hooman Yazdanian

Runner-up: Daniel Kaluuya — Get Out

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Daniel Kaluuya is ready to be a star. He’s likely been ready for a while and, frankly, it’s telling that he didn’t get a true shot until now. And now that he did get that chance, Kaluuya’s emotionally versatile, wary performance in Get Out earned him an Oscar nomination. His generally perturbed, concerned vibe is perfect for the role, as is his bemused dismissal of the consistent microaggressions hurled his way. Kaluuya’s eyes are extremely expressive — which is all the more harrowing in the context of the film — and they get a chance to do a lot of work in Jordan Peele’s many close-ups.

His accent work is impressively natural as well; Kaluuya so thoroughly inhabited the role that it was legitimately shocking to hear his thick British accent outside of the film. In 2018, the 28-year-old’s much-deserved breakthrough will continue as he is set for roles in Black Panther and Steve McQueen’s next film, Widows.

Hooman Yazdanian

3. Brooklynn Prince — The Florida Project
4. Vicky Krieps — Phantom Thread
5. Dafne Keen — Logan

The Next 5
6. Ahn Seo-hyun — Okja
7. Mary J. Blige — Mudbound
8. Tiffany Haddish — Girls Trip
9. Betty Gabriel — Get Out
10. Florence Pugh — Lady Macbeth

Achievement in Sound Editing: Richard King, Alex Gibson — Dunkirk

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

The sound of Dunkirk is about as integral to the cinematic experience as any other aspect. With specifically sound editing, which is the creation of sounds, Dunkirk plants us firmly in the three settings of the film — the cockpit of a Spitfire, the deck of a civilian boat and the beaches of Dunkirk, France.

The sound of most war films is mainly filled with gunfire, and Dunkirk does have plenty of it. But it’s the variety of sounds that is the film’s greatest asset. We not only get bullets launching out of guns, but we get the impact of those bullets, whether they be ripping through the wooden planks of the mole, piercing the side of a boat, pinging off the Spitfire and more. Beyond the guns, though, we also get the roar of a few different airplanes, both fighters and bombers, as well as sounds that build the space of these characters so thoroughly, such as the rattle heard inside a cockpit. The goal of sound is immersion, and the sound editing of Dunkirk accomplishes that goal incredibly.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Mark Mangini, Theo Green — Blade Runner 2049

Warner Bros./Courtesy

The sound editing of Blade Runner 2049 is rather raw and incredibly forceful. The futuristic Los Angeles and Las Vegas feel rather suffocating, claustrophobic and overwhelming, and the intensity with which the sound editing team craft the sounds of the cities and the sounds of the hovers cars and the guns that fill their streets adds immeasurably to those elements and our experience of them. In a world void of nature and much color, the sounds are made to get under our skin and rattle us. Silence permeates much of the film and then, when the actions ramp up, the explosions of the sounds hit hard. Without spectacular sound editing, Blade Runner 2049 wouldn’t be nearly as effective in evoking the humanity the entire film hinges on.

— Kyle Kizu

3. William Files, Douglas Murray — War for the Planet of the Apes
4. Matthew Wood, Ren Klyce — Star Wars: The Last Jedi
5. Nathan Robitaille — The Shape of Water

The Next 5
6. James H. Mather — Wonder Woman
7. Julian Slater — Baby Driver
8. Matthew Wood, Trey Turner, Christopher Scarabosio — Phantom Thread
9. Shannon Mills, Guillaume Bouchateau — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
10. Choi Tae-young — Okja

Achievement in Sound Mixing: Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo — Dunkirk

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

No matter how well sounds are crafted, they oftentimes don’t have as much of an impact if they’re not mixed well. In Dunkirk, the sounds evoke such visceral reactions because of how they’ve been compiled, because of their onslaught. One scene exemplifies this. During the first attack on the mole, gunfire rips through the wood, bombs explode on the hospital ship, the German fighter planes’ horns shriek from above and voices scream as bodies splash into the water. It’s a mix so overwhelming and intense that it becomes genuinely brutalist.

And that brutality is extended to the rest of the film. The volume levels are never off mark, and when they’re loud, they deafen with a purpose. The layers also extend deeply, specifically in the climactic oil scene where the three storylines collide, and the ridiculous sounds of each are mixed to perfection both in their own spaces and in the edited audial flow between those spaces. Dunkirk’s sound mixing truly raises the bar for other war films.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern — The Shape of Water

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

The Shape of Water’s sound mixing is rather subtle. There aren’t many obvious sound moments, but the sound mixing does go a long way toward building the world that our characters inhabit. Much of the film takes place in the underground government facilities, which is host to advanced technology, a creaking and echoing atmosphere and plenty of water. In fact, it often is with water where the sound of the film does such wonderful work. The sound of water is treated delicately, but also majestically, enhancing so much of the thematic work being done. In the climactic moment, that water pours down as gun shots sound out, the sound mixing as integral to the release of the moment as the writing, performances or any other aspect.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill — Blade Runner 2049
4. Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin — Baby Driver
5. Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The Next 5
6. Josh Berger, Derek Heir, Tom Johnson, Robert Hein — The Lost City of Z
7. Chris Duesterdiek, Andy Nelson, William Files — War for the Planet of the Apes
8. John Midgley, Adrian Bell, Christopher Scarabosio, David Acord — Phantom Thread
9. Paul Urmson, Brian Tarlecki, José Antonio García — Hostiles
10. Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Vince Caro — Coco

Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Laurie Metcalf — Lady Bird

Image courtesy of A24

There are certain supporting performances that are arguably just as key as the lead performances to the film’s success. Whether as a scene-stealing villain such as Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, or Anthony Hopkins psychologically fraught 26-minute “lead” performance in Silence of the Lambs or Jake Gyllenhaal’s essentially co-leading Jack Twist in the emotionally devastating Brokeback Mountain, there are films that rise to their great heights because of the perfect synchronization between a lead and their main supporting actor. And Laurie Metcalf’s role as Lady Bird’s mother Marion is one of these.

While much of the film can be seen as a young woman’s version of Boyhood, in which we watch Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) go through her senior of high school, the film’s powerful, lived-in drama comes from the butting heads of Metcalf’s seemingly domineering mother (who is actually very caring towards her daughter, despite her sometimes harsh words) and the free-wheeling and free-spirited Lady Bird.

Metcalf though, unlike some other overbearing motherly performances (specifically, Allison Janney in I, Tonya), brings a bruised humanity to the role. While Marion can tell her daughter she’s not college material, or that her father has been battling depression or that she can’t afford Lady Bird’s New York state college ambitions, there’s always a bracing realism and warmth to her. While the film is told from Lady Bird’s perspective, the film wisely ends with Lady Bird realizing what her “small,” “midwest of California” city of Sacramento meant to her, but more importantly, what her wise mother, perfectly played by Metcalf, meant. Thus, for a film that’s widely considered one of the best coming-of-age stories in cinematic history, it may just be the older woman who’s already come-of-age to only go through a midlife crisis that illustrates what makes Lady Bird so powerful and relatable.

— Levi Hill

Runner-up: Tatiana Maslany — Stronger

Roadside Attractions/Courtesy

In regard to performances of characters experiencing tragedy, it’s easy for actors to overemphasize that tragedy, to make it too much of the focus. But Tatiana Maslany, in the Boston marathon bombing true story Stronger, is incredibly delicate and empathetic in shaping Erin Hurley, the girlfriend of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose legs were amputated after the bombing.

There is certainly focus on the impact that the tragedy has on these human beings, and Maslany is absolutely gripping in those scenes, heartbreakingly bringing the overwhelming emotions to life with such vivid use of her eyes and strain in the rest of her face. But Maslany also handles the soft moments of reconnection with Jeff and the difficult frustration of Jeff’s troubled recovery so well. Her character is so selfless, but also holds her self-worth so strongly, and Maslany lives in that conflict with grace.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Holly Hunter — The Big Sick
4. Dafne Keen — Logan
5. Mary J. Blige — Mudbound

The Next 5
6. Allison Janney — I, Tonya
7. Tiffany Haddish — Girls Trip
8. Betty Gabriel — Get Out
9. Lesley Manville — Phantom Thread
10. Bria Vinaite — The Florida Project

Best Foreign Language Film: A Fantastic Woman

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Sebastian Lelio’s best films have been dedicated to giving women who typically don’t have voices the chance to be the central characters in compassionate character pieces. In Gloria, for example, Leilo created a stunning portrait of an aging woman who still wants to have fun, to be free, to go out, to have sex, to drink and to find love. Where Hollywood rarely, if ever, gives women over 45 a chance to star, let alone in a film actually about the very ordinary life of a woman “of a certain age,” Leilo marvelously details the intimate moments of a life that deserves to be on the big screen.

However, what Lelio accomplishes with A Fantastic Woman might be his most excellent film yet — if much darker than Gloria. A Fantastic Woman follows Marina, a transgender woman working as a waitress and aspiring to be a singer, living her life with Orlando — an older businessman who owns his own textile company. Yet one day, Orlando falls ill, is taken to the emergency room and then dies.

Before even given the time to mourn for her lover’s death, Marina is treated by his family with disdain and as a potential cause of Orlando’s death. To them, she is perverse. However, with the fantastic lead performance of Daniela Vega and Lelio’s considerate direction, the film reveals the lifelong traumas people and society have placed upon her and her want to simply be treated empathetically. And even with these issues, and Lelio’s ever-changing tones (suspense thriller, romantic drama and even a musical), the film and Vega never lose sight of what is at stake for Marina. Thus, the story not only shows a “Fantastic Woman” but becomes a fantastic film of grace and defiance in the face of hate.

— Levi Hill

Runner-up: Loveless

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

Andrey Zvyagintsev has become known as Russian public enemy #1, despite also being the most internationally acclaimed Russian filmmaker working today. After The Return — Golden Lion winner in 2003 — Zvyagintsev has used simple stories of family disputes as grand metaphors for the societal issues found within contemporary Russia. Loveless, his second Academy Award nominee after Leviathan, is his most scathing film yet.

One day, a young boy  — who has become emotionally distant due to his parent’s diatribic divorce — disappears walking home from school. From here, Zvyagintsev digs into the issues these two parents have, painting a portrait of social malaise and two despicable characters (Boris and Zhenya), asking whether this broken of a relationship and a society even deserve these children to begin with. Loveless is, without a doubt, one of the toughest watches from 2017, but its blunt impact is not easily forgotten.

— Levi Hill

3. Foxtrot
4. The Square
5. Raw

The Next 5
6. First They Killed My Father
7. BPM (Beats Per Minute)
8. On Body and Soul
9. Thelma
10. In the Fade

Best Animated Feature: Coco

Image courtesy of Pixar

Disney-Pixar’s Coco is enthralling in nearly every way. Visually, the film is stunning in its depictions of a small Mexican town where neighbors all know each other, as well as its inventive interpretation of the Land of the Dead. Emotionally, Coco is deeply omnipresent.

When star Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is chastised by his family for wanting to be a musician — his great-great grandfather ran away to chase fame as a guitarist — he steals the guitar of the town’s most well-loved musician so that he himself can perform in front of the town to prove his talent. But, the performance is on Día de los Muertos, and those who steal from the graves of the dead on Día de los Muertos find themselves lost in the Land of the Dead, where they require the aid of their ancestors to return to the Land of the Living.

At its core, Coco speaks to narratives of lineage, familial love and finding oneself — and it ties each of these themes together with the thread of familial bonds that transcend time and space — all in the context of a very special holiday, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

— Sophie-Marie Prime

Runner-up: The Breadwinner

Gkids/Courtesy

The Breadwinner is a film that elevates animation in ways directly connected to the art form. The story it tells is harrowing and dark, and the content is often restrained so that the film may appropriate for families, as the film involves families. But it also is always pushing at the glaring social issues inherent to the narrative, specifically the oppression of women in much of Afghanistan’s culture. As visually striking as it is emotionally engaging, the film also shows love for the great parts of that culture, the parts that bond the beautiful family at the story’s core, and the parts that allow the film to also act as an almost fable-esque tale that is distinctly youthful. The Breadwinner is essentially animation, constructing a narrative with such significant real world implications while maintaining a sense of wonder that only animation can hold.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Loving Vincent
4. The LEGO Batman Movie
5. Cars 3

Performance by an Actor or Actress in a Specialty Role: Andy Serkis as Caesar — War for the Planet of the Apes

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Andy Serkis has been innovating ever since his performances as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy nearly two decades ago. That became a turning point for motion capture, but it’s really been the new Planet of the Apes trilogy and performance capture where Serkis has changed our idea of what acting is and what it means to perform. Truly, in the Apes trilogy, we are seeing Serkis’ performances; we are seeing him bring the character of Caesar to life. Visual effects may realize the ape exterior, but it is Serkis’ performances that realize his interiority.

In War for the Planet of the Apes, Serkis not only offers his most emotional turn in this technological phenomenon yet, but also one of the most emotional turns of any performer of the year. With War, director and co-writer Matt Reeves sets out to specifically test Caesar, to bend and break his character so that his morals come directly into conflict with what’s needed to save the apes. Serkis hits on this conflict heavily, painting Caesar as a tragic figure, but also as an epic one. Precisely because of the sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes visceral, rage-filled facial expressions in the raw close-ups of Caesar, War is elevated intangibly and turned into a gripping blockbuster, a vast epic and an intimate character piece all at once. It is no coincidence that Andy Serkis’ Caesar will be remembered as one of the greatest characters put to film in the 21st century.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Doug Jones as Amphibian Man — The Shape of Water

Fox Searchlight/Courtesy

Doug Jones has made quite a career for himself, notably starring in many of Guillermo del Toro’s films, including as the notorious Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. Jones’ work as The Asset, or Amphibian Man, in The Shape of Water is among the best he’s ever done. His handle of sensuality, innocence and intimidation are essential to the characterization of this mysterious creature. The way he sits, hoping to get back on Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) good side after eating one of his cats, exhibits his humanity. His embrace for humans after so much betrayal at their hands is heartwarming, while his protective vengeance is satisfying. Jones makes his Amphibian Man a feeling being, and he makes us believe it’s all possible.

Hooman Yazdanian 

3. Saara Chaudry as Parvana — The Breadwinner
4. Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel — Coco
5. Gael García Bernal as Héctor — Coco

The Next 5
6. Taika Waititi as Korg — Thor: Ragnarok
7. Robert Gulaczyck as Vincent van Gogh — Loving Vincent
8. Will Arnett as Batman — The LEGO Batman Movie
9. Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke — Star Wars: The Last Jedi
10. Michael Cera as Robin — The LEGO Batman Movie

Achievement in Production Design: Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola — Blade Runner 2049

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

With Arrival, Denis Villeneuve distinguished himself as a director who can, in collaboration with a brilliant production designer and set decorator, design sets the way physical space/light artists do. And with Blade Runner 2049, and production designer Dennis Gassner and set decorator Alessandra Querzola, he only furthers this notion.

Blade Runner 2049 is, quite simply, jaw dropping, Much of that comes from Roger Deakin’s photography, but an equal if not greater portion comes from the production design. Undoubtedly influenced by the light and space artist James Turrell, like Arrival was, the sets are often beacons of light, mostly artificial but often natural. Here is where the designs elevate to thematic significance. The world of Blade Runner 2049 is void of nature and color much like the original, hence the focus on spaces that bring in light. But this is a future 30 years removed from the original, and where the original was gritty, this world has attempted to smooth out the surfaces, to make perfect a world without nature and natural color — hence the brilliant, jarring, forceful shapes of the sets.

Production design and set decoration can often feel merely like dressing, like pretty layers simply for the sake of pretty layers. But Blade Runner 2049 is the epitome of design working on unmatched levels.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Paul Denham Austerberry, Shane Vieau, Jeff Melvin — The Shape of Water

Fox Searchlight/Courtesy

The production design of The Shape of Water works like nearly every other element of the film, evoking a quiet, majestic beauty. The sets of Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) apartments are so deeply decorated, elegantly colored, delicately aged and thoroughly lived in that they, alone, would’ve pushed this craftsmanship up this far on the list, but the film also lays out the underground facilities and much of the exteriors with such period strength. Good production design for period films is an accomplishment in and of itself, but The Shape of Water is also distinctly a fantasy film, a Guillermo del Toro fantasy film with just as much flourish in the production design of that aspect as well. The film becomes a visual genre delight through its sets.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis — Dunkirk
4. Rick Heinrichs, Richard Roberts — Star Wars: The Last Jedi
5. Mark Tildesley, Véronique Melery — Phantom Thread

The Next 5
6. James Chinlund, Amanda Moss Serino — War for the Planet of the Apes
7. Aline Bonetto, Anna Lynch-Robinson — Wonder Woman
8. Jean-Vincent Puzos, Maria Andrea Rangel, Naomi Moore — The Lost City of Z
9. Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer — Darkest Hour
10. Claude Paré, Rosalie Board — It

Achievement in Visual Effects: Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist — War for the Planet of the Apes

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Similarly to Andy Serkis’ performances in this trilogy, the visual effects have been sorely under-awarded. But enough is enough. The clear, unmatched, inarguable standout of the year in this craft category is the trilogy’s final installment, War for the Planet of the Apes.

With years of further development from the first, the visual effects team envisions the apes in their most photorealistic manner yet. The hairs, both individual and packed together, are palpable and tangible, and the rough skin, often shot in harrowing, raw close-up, looks weathered in ways that only truly lived in skin often does.

But the apes aren’t all that the visual effects can boast about. The film is host to wondrous production design, and the extension that the visual effects provide — such as in the opening action sequence or in the mostly CGI cave home that gets raided early on in the film — is purely breathtaking.

The team even developed a system for the creation of trees in the forests that the characters traverse. Rather than model them one by one like done in the past, the team uses the system, titled Totara, to develop trees in groups and allow factors such as competition for sunlight and the age of separate trees in relation to how they grow next to each other to determine the ultimate layout of a forest.

On so many levels, the visual effects of War for the Planet of the Apes functions in ways that the craft should — enhancing character and enhancing the characters’ interactions with their setting. It is a genuinely groundbreaking picture from a visual effects standpoint.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Scott Stokdyk, Martin Hill, Philippe Rebours, François Dumoulin — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

STX Entertainment

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will never get accused of having too compelling a story and especially not of having good acting. But the visuals are worth the price of admission alone. They just about had to be too, given this movie’s groan-inducing line delivery and dialogue.

The unique (in a good way) character design, sweeping landscapes of spectacular worlds, captivating opening sequence and especially notable market design help make Luc Besson’s latest film a visual masterpiece. Unfortunately, it couldn’t go beyond that.

Hooman Yazdanian

3. John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer — Blade Runner 2049
4. Andrew Jackson, Andrew Lockley, Scott Fisher, Paul Corbould — Dunkirk
5. Dennis Berardi, Shane Mahan, Trey Harrell, Kevin Scott — The Shape of Water

The Next 5
6. Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlan — Star Wars: The Last Jedi
7. Erik-Jan De Boer, Stephen Clee, Lee Jeon Hyoung, Joon Hyung Kim — Okja
8. Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
9. Bill Westenhofer, Frazer Churchill, Alex Wuttke, Mark Holt — Wonder Woman
10. Charley Henley, Ferran Domenech, Christian Kaestner, Neil Corbould — Alien: Covenant

Achievement in Film Editing: Lee Smith — Dunkirk

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

How Lee Smith was passed on for an Academy Award nomination for his work on Inception is baffling. But there is nothing that can take away from what he’s accomplished with Christopher Nolan’s most challengingly structured film since that mind bending thriller. The fact that Dunkirk works at all on a narrative level is a testament to how good its film editing is. And the fact that Dunkirk’s narrative does not simply just work, but becomes something emotionally profound and entirely singular points to its film editing as something genuinely special.

The first moment that the film editing comes into focus for the audience is a stark, forceful cut from Cillian Murphy’s soldier as a composed leader to him as a shivering, broken man.

But that moment is simply one layer. The entire structure of the film is continuously working to offer us a perspective of the grand event taking place. Running them on the time scales that he does, Nolan, and Smith in the execution of those scales, forces us into absorbing the intense, distinctly human efforts of the soldiers, pilots, generals and, most importantly, civilians. Running them chronologically would vastly limit the emotional possibilities.

On more of a technical level, running them chronologically would also rid the film of the immense tension it holds. Composer Hans Zimmer utilizes the Shepard Tone illusion in his music to craft a sense of never-ending rising tension. Nolan constructed the screenplay in the same manner and intended to construct the film under that guiding illusion as well. Lee Smith executes the edits with that idea of a constant rise in the narrative stakes. When there’s a release in one storyline, the stakes of another are amped up. The whole film, in turn, becomes a masterpiece of suspense.

Dunkirk’s greatest and most stunning, borderline indescribable moment of film editing comes in its climax, the oil scene. It’s here where the three storylines collide, but the climax fascinatingly plays out of order. Smith underscores their collision with an effectively overbearing force, but he also disorients us with the composition of the entire sequence while never losing our focus through the coherence in that very composition. It is extraordinary editing that only comes from a film editor with a complete grasp on what “cinematic” means, and intention to break its rules and extend its possibilities.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Mako Kamitsuna — Mudbound

Netflix/Courtesy

There’s a tension in the storytelling of Mudbound. It attempts to constantly utilize purely novelistic features, such as narration and overt symbolism, to maintain the literary beauty of the piece while it also attempts to render the story as something specifically cinematic.

The simultaneous success of these two layers is due to plenty of brilliant work from various departments, but one of the most integral is the film editing. Mako Kamitsuna’s control of pacing is extremely tight, doling out the emotional beats not necessarily smoothly, but on an intensely affecting wave of progression. Kamitsuna does wonders for each character, but also for the piece in balancing those characters. She evokes the deeply personal while also painting the journey of so many different people and turning the film into a sprawling epic.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss — Baby Driver
4. Joe Walker — Blade Runner 2049
5. Walter Fasano — Call Me By Your Name

The Next 5
6. Nick Houy — Lady Bird
7. Gregory Plotkin — Get Out
8. Dylan Tichenor — Phantom Thread
9. Sean Baker — The Florida Project
10. Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham, Josh Schaeffer — Molly’s Game

Achievement in Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema — Dunkirk

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography for Dunkirk may not pop quite like Roger Deakins’ lensing on Blade Runner 2049 does, and for that reason, we expect this to be an unpopular pick. But picking the one that pops the most would be a cop out. It should be about the service the cinematography provides to the film’s story and to the cinematic experience. In that light, while it was close, we firmly believe in our winner.

The simple existence of some of the imagery in Christopher Nolan’s war epic is something not to be underappreciated, as van Hoytema and his crew literally invented rigs that could lock the IMAX cameras onto the exteriors of Spitfires. So much of the aerial photography wouldn’t be possible before this film, which represents visual storytellers pushing cinematic boundaries to explore the power of the cinematic image.

The aerial portion might be van Hoytema’s greatest accomplishment on this film, the difficulty of it unimaginable. But the rest of the Dutch-Swedish photographer’s work is transfixing. In no other film will we find an IMAX camera carried handheld like a GoPro. These shots transport us, immerse us within the film. We feel the Dunkirk beach and live on it because van Hoytema is literally running on it, carrying the IMAX camera next to his head. It’s not necessarily flashy cinematography, but it’s just as striking as any other imagery of the year.

Even without flash or pop, van Hoytema is still able to leave us with haunting iconography, epitomized in the tranquility of a Spitfire coasting over Dunkirk and in the defiance of that same Spitfire crackling as it burns.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Roger Deakins — Blade Runner 2049

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Even the best director is only as good as the crew that works with them, and luckily for Blade Runner 2049 helmer Denis Villeneuve, his crew contained arguably one of the best cinematographers working today: Roger Deakins. From the orange-laden dunes of a desolate Las Vegas to the grungy, dilapidated iron works in a massive factory, the landscapes and spaces of Blade Runner 2049 are gorgeously captured by Deakins’ keen eye for visual storytelling. Every set, environment and piece of architecture is meticulously angled, without feeling overtly staged, as Deakins is able to imbue even the most kinetic sequences with a harrowing stillness. After DP’ing two previous films with Villeneuve, Deakins’ third with the director might be his cinematic magnum opus.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

3. Dan Laustsen — The Shape of Water
4. Rachel Morrison — Mudbound
5. Swayambhu Mukdeeprom — Call Me by Your Name

The Next 5
6. Darius Khondji — The Lost City of Z
7. The Camera Crew — Phantom Thread
8. Andrew Droz Palermo — A Ghost Story
9. Masanobu Takayanagi — Hostiles
10. Alexis Zabe — The Florida Project

Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score): Jonny Greenwood — Phantom Thread

Image courtesy of Focus Features

Phantom Thread is twisted and psychological, subtle and calculated. Jonny Greenwood’s score fills a baseline-level role of enhancing an already complex narrative, while at the same time standing alone to fill the haunting silences between the characters with suspicion, passion and condemnation.

In truth, as gorgeous and sinewy as Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, and the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps are, Greenwood’s score alone tells the story of Phantom Thread just as well. Dances on piano keys and stringed orchestras communicate infatuation, tenderness, frustration and internal chaos with precision and cutting honesty.

It does so, however, without negating the inherent frivolity and bliss felt when Day-Lewis and Krieps are seen walking near a beachy cliff together. Greenwood’s composition is so exacting, that, after seeing the film, one can picture its imagery just by listening to “Alma” or “Phantom Thread III.” The score of the film is a study in the same themes as its acting performances: love, manipulation, control and obsession.

— Sophie-Marie Prime

Runner-up: Hans Zimmer — Dunkirk

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Recently, Hans Zimmer, in collaboration with Christopher Nolan, has been one of the most effectively experimental film composers in the industry. With Interstellar, he abandoned percussion and composed from a deeply emotional starting point to craft his most personal score to date. With Dunkirk, he abandons melody almost entirely, treating the score like a layer of sound design — Alex Gibson, the supervising music editor, was nominated by the Academy in the Sound Editing category. The score becomes undoubtedly his most intense.

With Dunkirk, Zimmer uses the Shepard Tone, an illusion of constantly rising tension. In conjunction with the structure of the film, the score works wonders in physically, viscerally affecting viewers. The music, with the illusion and with Zimmer’s almost underwater atmospheric sound design, feels invasive and manipulative in how it provokes that reaction, even leaning into horror-esque compositions to elevate the suspense, which turns the cinematic experience of the film into a thoroughly wholesome one.

But then the score turns to the unbearable beauty of Edward Elgar in its most emotional moments, specifically with “Variation 15,” rendering the music as not only a mode of intensity, but also as a mode of humanity.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Alexandre Desplat — The Shape of Water
4. Daniel Hart — A Ghost Story
5. Oneohtrix Point Never — Good Time

The Next 5
6. Tamar-kali — Mudbound
7. Philip Glass — Jane
8. Michael Giacchino — War for the Planet of the Apes
9. Max Richter — Hostiles
10. Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna — The Breadwinner

Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song): “Mystery of Love,” Sufjan Stevens — Call Me by Your Name

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Sufjan Stevens may be the perfect movie musician. Stevens has uniquely mastered evoking tone without being one-dimensional. He penned two brand new songs for Call Me By Your Name and they ended up as our top two finishers in this category.

As Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) hike together, “Mystery of Love” plays. Stevens initially appears to be singing from Elio’s perspective: “Oh, to see without my eyes/ The first time that you kissed me.”

Stevens’ lyrical work combines with airy, delicate vocals to evoke the wondrous flight of the heart for a first love. But he doesn’t lay claim to Elio’s full range of emotions. He’s interpreting just like we are, projecting. He speaks not just for Elio, but for us as well.

Even as Elio and Oliver frolic through beautiful wilderness, it all feels fleeting. Stevens describes the quiet terror of this fleeting love perfectly, speaking the contradiction into truth: “Oh, oh woe-oh-woah is me.”

It’s so good now, how bad will it be when it ends? Such is the fear of an impermanent love. Stevens sings “Now my riverbed has dried/ Shall I find no other?” He’s asking us, can it get this good again? And if not, is it truly better to have loved and lost?

Hooman Yazdanian

Runner-up: “Vision of Gideon,” Sufjan Stevens — Call Me by Your Name

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

Sufjan Stevens has mastered the art of heartbreak. On “Visions of Gideon,” Stevens’ ethereal voice encapsulates the experience of love lost and he vocalizes the fleeting nature of love. Did it really happen? He sings: “For the love, for laughter I feel up to your arms/ Is it a video?”

Played during Call Me By Your Name’s final scene, with a close-up of Elio (Timothée Chalamet) staring into a fire and crying, “Visions of Gideon” perfectly complements Elio’s hurt. As Stevens sings “I have loved you for the last time,” he forces the audience to pay attention. Elio’s face shows us the pain and Stevens’ song blocks the exits.

Hooman Yazdanian

3. “I Get Overwhelmed,” Daniel Hart — A Ghost Story
4. “Remember Me,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez — Coco
5. “The Pure and the Damned,” Oneohtrix Point Never, Iggy Pop — Good Time

The Next 5
6. “Mighty River,” Mary J. Blige — Mudbound
7. “The Crown Sleeps,” Qais Essar, Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna — The Breadwinner
8. “How Shall A Sparrow Fly,” Ryan Bingham — Hostiles
9. “Summer Storm,” Joel P. West — The Glass Castle
10. “This Is Me,” Benj Pasek, Justin Paul — The Greatest Showman

Achievement by a Debut Director: Greta Gerwig — Lady Bird

Image courtesy of A24

In probably the biggest anomaly of our voting, Gerwig managed to beat out Jordan Peele here despite finishing behind him in Best Director and Lady Bird falling behind Get Out for Best Picture. We can only attribute to this some overlap between voting blocks for Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, whose director Luca Guadagnino is far from a feature debut.

Whatever the reason may be, Gerwig manages a much-deserved win here. Though she co-directed a film in 2008, Lady Bird was Gerwig’s debut as a lone director, which is a monumental task itself. And what a debut it was.

Gerwig’s proclivity to excel when shifting the film’s tone is incredibly impressive, reminiscent of work you’d expect from a director in her 10th outing. The way she draws performances out of every single actor in the film is stunning. The intimacy she establishes without an overemphasis on close-ups is masterful. The camera still drives these intimate moments as much as Gerwig’s phenomenal screenplay do, with Gerwig employing over-the-shoulder shots to let us literally see things from different characters’ perspectives. Gerwig builds Lady Bird’s setting precisely, with everything from room decorations to parking lot hangouts reeking of authenticity. Emotional punches hit when we least expect them, like when Lady Bird leaves douchey Kyle’s (Timothee Chalamet) house and we get a glimpse at his sick father.

With all of these talents and such a beautiful handle of subtlety so early in her directing career, it’s incredibly exciting to await what Gerwig has in store for us next.

Hooman Yazdanian

Runner-up: Jordan Peele — Get Out

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Jordan Peele, of Key and Peele fame, was long pegged as a comedian. But, in his big screen directorial debut, Peele showed the world he can do much more than that. In Get Out, he’s crafted a horror movie for the ages. His mastery of pacing and genre belie his lack of experience. The fact that Peele’s first film has already become a cultural touchstone, mined for conversation topics and memes alike, bodes well for his future in filmmaking.

Every industry is better off for having people like Jordan Peele, and his combination of social awareness, sheer brilliance and ingenuity should make him a leading auteur in the film industry for years to come (although we’re not going to pretend we won’t miss his acting as well).

He’s already hinted at a possible sequel to Get Out as well as the fact that he’s toying with other “social thrillers,” as he calls them. Sign us up.

Hooman Yazdanian

3. Aaron Sorkin — Molly’s Game
4. John Carroll Lynch — Lucky
5. Kogonada — Columbus

The Next 5
6. Matt Spicer — Ingrid Goes West
7. Julia Ducournau — Raw
8. William Oldroyd — Lady Macbeth
9. Taylor Sheridan — Wind River
10. Chris McKay — The LEGO Batman Movie

Best Original Screenplay: Greta Gerwig — Lady Bird

Image courtesy of A24

Lady Bird wants freedom and attention, independence and spontaneity. She’s a performer in the way that we all are as we shape ourselves into the people we want to be — and into the type of friend, daughter, son, sibling, parent, etc. those around us want us to be, too. She wants to be liked, and she wants to like herself.

Within that narrative, there are notes of Wizard of Oz-ian conflicting desires to both leave home and return home once you’ve left. Lady Bird paints its story through a subtle lense of class. There is a mother who wants to keep her daughter close so desperately that she pushes her away in the process.

Lady Bird is nostalgic, wise and authentically adolescent. Lady Bird is truly something special.

Gerwig sews fresh and endearing narratives of friendship and finding oneself with threads of class and fearsome yet irresistible independence. With Lady Bird, she crafts a character that is always lovable and at times self-centered, the latter of which is an inevitable part of growing up.

— Sophie-Marie Prime

Runner-up: Jordan Peele — Get Out

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

From a purely storytelling perspective, what stands out about Jordan Peele’s Get Out screenplay is how unbelievably tight it is. This is screenwriting of the utmost efficiency and control. Both the story’s arc and Chris’ (Daniel Kaluuya) are smooth and hit every necessary beat hard. The ensemble is balanced brilliantly. The symbolism is deeply ingrained in the conceit as well as in the consistent, layered and always motivated character actions. And the emotions ring true.

Those last two aspects are where the screenplay transcends simply being brilliant storytelling (which would be enough, alone, to earn its place here). Get Out evokes reality for so many Black folks, and it evokes it specifically with storytelling, with written characters, like Chris, and storytelling concepts, like the Sunken Place, that craft a narrative with such pressing implications, with such profound symbols.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Paul Thomas Anderson — Phantom Thread
4. Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani — The Big Sick
5. Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch — The Florida Project

The Next 5
6. Vanessa Taylor, Guillermo del Toro — The Shape of Water
7. Bong Joon-ho, Jon Ronson — Okja
8. Liz Hannah, Josh Singer — The Post
9. Kogonada — Columbus
10. Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza — A Fantastic Woman

Best Adapted Screenplay: James Ivory — Call Me by Your Name

Image courtesy of Houston Cinema Arts Festival

“When you least expect it, Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot. Just remember: I am here. Right now you may not want to feel anything. Perhaps you never wished to feel anything. And perhaps it’s not to me that you’ll want to speak about these things. But feel something you obviously did.

You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, to pray that their sons land on their feet. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it. And if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out. Don’t be brutal with it. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster, that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything ― what a waste!”

Scripts and their words and structure are always the blueprint for what will become either a great film, or a classic one. James Ivory’s precise, careful, emotionally resonant adaption of André Aciman’s adaptation of Call Me by Your Name — as illustrated by the above scene, the best of 2017 — is an all-time classic. Like the novel its based on, and thanks to considerate direction by the always fantastic Luca Guadagnino, Ivory’s script puts an emphasis not on plot, but on small character beats that culminate in a denouement (starting with the dialogue above) that will leave most viewers flattened with the insightful depths of emotional honesty.

— Levi Hill

Runner-up: Dee Rees, Virgil Williams — Mudbound

Netflix/Courtesy

Mudbound aims to utilize many novelistic qualities of storytelling, and the brilliance with which the film accomplishes that starts precisely with Dee Rees and Virgil Williams’ adapted screenplay. There’s plenty of narration throughout, but it’s all used so purposefully and, in turn, effectively.

The story of Mudbound is heavy, and Rees and Williams take care of that aspect. There’s expressionism in much of the plot details and the construction of many of the character moments. Rees and Williams, however, are also restrained throughout, allowing the quiet details to speak loud.

The writers don’t simply take care of one character, but of all of them. The emotional balance they lend to each member of the ensemble is nothing short of outstanding, but Rees and Williams also do craft the Black characters so profoundly that it is they who hold onto our hearts long after we’ve closed our Netflix tab.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber — Our Souls at Night
4. Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves — War for the Planet of the Apes
5. Hampton Fancher, Michael Green — Blade Runner 2049

The Next 5
6. Aaron Sorkin — Molly’s Game
7. James Mangold, Scott Frank, Michael Green — Logan
8. Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis — The Breadwinner
9. Rian Johnson — Star Wars: The Last Jedi
10. James Gray — The Lost City of Z

Achievement in Directing: Christopher Nolan — Dunkirk

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan is one of the quintessential directors of our time, telling iconic story after iconic story. Awards bodies may not have recognized him for much of his career, but films like The Dark Knight and Inception are cultural landmarks that will stand the test of time. After nearly 20 years of Nolan building one of the most impressive filmographies ever, he brings us Dunkirk.

Dunkirk is an interesting convergence point in his career. It’s yet another incredibly entertaining blockbuster that also acts as an innovative, subversive art film. It’s a film that, while not necessarily as culturally pervasive as some of his other work, will be remembered by general audiences more than most films are. But it just so happens to be in a genre that is a bit more friendly for organizations such as the Academy, who have finally nominated Nolan. And while it might not be his most impactful piece in the ways that his other landmarks are, Dunkirk does also happen to be Nolan’s greatest directorial effort.

With Dunkirk, Nolan structures and constructs a story so forceful in its specifically cinematic features. The director is often the figure around which the multitude of crafts are organized and where they are put into coherent focus. The fact that each layer of Dunkirk’s cinema — its sound design, its production design, its cinematography, its score, its ensemble and more — all excel not only individually and not only as parts of a whole, but as a singular, organic whole that serves story is a testament to how absolutely refined, precise and, frankly, masterful Nolan’s focus as a director is on Dunkirk.

Cinema is meant to be a purely visual art form, and Dunkirk is a film that challenges established structures to expand notions of what can be accomplished visually. The film quite literally offers us never-before-seen imagery. In that light, Dunkirk is a significant, important accomplishment in film. Those accomplishments don’t necessarily become the most widely beloved films of their time; although, Dunkirk is not far off and comes closer than similar films (but in truth, they don’t make films like Dunkirk). But when a film not only challenges boundaries but actually pushes them, that organizing force, the director, should be celebrated endlessly.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Jordan Peele — Get Out

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Jordan Peele’s Get Out is probably one of the year’s most beloved films, but most of that love has been pointed at Peele’s excellent screenplay. Peele’s directorial work, however, is just as skillful.

Peele is already a master of hinting at tension, rather than shoving it down our throats. The way he shifts from a normal close-up to an extreme close-up on Chris’ face, crowding up his — and the viewers’ — space, during the famous “no, no, no” scene with Georgina (Betty Gabriel) is a perfect example. (Watch it)

He shows an uncanny mastery for knowing just how long to let a shot linger. When Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris stares into the eyes of a downed deer, we get a sense of Peele’s pacing and of the movie’s tone. This is no comedy. No, this is a movie crafted by someone who knows how to do horror. He knows when to subvert our expectations for a jump scare and when to satisfy them, when to point out irony in our societal preconceptions and when to emphasize the terror in them.

Hooman Yazdanian

3. Luca Guadagnino — Call Me By Your Name
4. Greta Gerwig — Lady Bird
5. Denis Villeneuve — Blade Runner 2049

The Next 5
6. Guillermo del Toro — The Shape of Water
7. Dee Rees — Mudbound
8. Paul Thomas Anderson — Phantom Thread
9. Sean Baker — The Florida Project
10. Matt Reeves — War for the Planet of the Apes

Performance by an Ensemble: The Cast of Lady Bird — Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith, Bob Stephenson, Jake Mcdorman, Jordan Rodrigues, Shelly Yuhan

Image courtesy of A24

From top to bottom, Lady Bird is populated by phenomenal performances. Saoirse Ronan is pitch perfect, exuding the essence of her character in every scene, notably in her characteristic audition for the school play. As much as Ronan’s Lady Bird wants to think she has herself figured out, Ronan makes the questioning subconscious visible.

Laurie Metcalf might be even better than Ronan in her wonderful, lived-in performance as Lady Bird’s mom, Marion. And Tracy Letts plays empathy, kindness and bottled-up depression excellently in one of the year’s best supporting performances.

Beanie Feldstein’s wondrous depiction of the longing best friend has flown under the radar this year, but it deserves recognition. Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges each capably occupy smaller roles while consistently managing to steal scenes. For Chalamet, it’s with pretension and humor; for Hedges, it’s with awkwardness followed by an explosion of pain.

Even those in smaller roles — such as school staff depicted by Bob Stephenson (who might have the year’s funniest scene as the football coach directing a play), Stephen Henderson, Jake McDorman and Lois Smith — get chances to shine through.

In addition to the individual excellence of the performances, Lady Bird is able to thrive off the excellent give-and-take between its actors. The best moments in the film tend to be emotional exchanges between the characters, something this cast seems to have mastered. Additionally, the sheer fact that even actors in much smaller parts got chances to shine highlights the effectiveness of this ensemble. Characters had opportunities to control their own scene without the leads insisting on taking up all the air in a room.

In a film carried by a screenplay devoted to making each of its characters as full-fledged and real as possible, Lady Bird’s cast had to be excellent and they were in the year’s best-acted film.

Hooman Yazdanian

Runner-up: The Cast of Get Out — Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Betty Gabriel, Lil Rel Howery, Lakeith Stanfield, Marcus Henderson, Caleb Landry Jones

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

The phrase “perfectly cast” is often thrown about too freely. Every once in a while, however, it rings entirely true.

The cast of Get Out is an impeccable blend of veteran actors and relatively unknown newcomers. At its core is the exceptional Daniel Kaluuya, an English actor who was previously best known to American audiences for Sicario and the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” (note: if you haven’t seen this episode, do yourself a favor and watch it). Kaluuya turns in a charismatic and soulful performance as Chris Washington, rightly earning an Oscar nomination for the role.

The Armitages could not have been cast better, with the ever-perfect Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, two widely-respected actors with storied careers who have still somehow maintained enough anonymity to seamlessly blend into these characters. Quite literally everyone else in the cast is also pitch perfect, including Allison Williams, Lakeith Stanfield, and scene-stealer Lil Rel Howery. Altogether, it produces one of the most formidable ensembles of 2017.

— Michelle Lee

3. The Cast of Call Me by Your Name — Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Vanda Capriolo
4. The Cast of Mudbound — Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks
5. The Cast of The Shape of Water — Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones

The Next 5
6. The Cast of Dunkirk — Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy
7. The Cast of The Big Sick — Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Vella Lovell,  Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler
8. The Cast of The Post — Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Allison Brie, Carrie Coon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jesse Plemons
9. The Cast of The Florida Project — Brooklynn Prince, Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo, Aiden Malik
10. The Cast of Okja — Ahn Seo-hyun, Hee-Bong Byun, Steven Yeun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall, Giancarlo Esposito

Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Timothée Chalamet — Call Me by Your Name

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In many ways, Timothée Chalamet’s characterization of Elio Perlman is one marked by opposites. Elio is carefree but methodical, melancholic but exuberant and, above all, full of both boyish naivete and extreme precociousness. Which is all to say, Chalamet portrays 17-year-old Elio in all of his unabashed complexity, producing perhaps the most fully realized character of 2017.

Chalamet benefits from a rare brand of charisma, one that emits empathy rather than mystery. This allows Chalamet to make Elio’s quietest moments his most revealing, including a devastating final scene. As the end credits begin, we see Elio’s avalanche of emotions, from disbelief, to anguish, to as close to acceptance as he can come. Shot in one beautiful, long take, this scene caps off one of the strongest and most nuanced performances of the decade.

— Michelle Lee

Runner-up: Daniel Day-Lewis — Phantom Thread

Focus Features/Courtesy

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, who, at first glance, seems to be the archetypal obsessive artist. But as the film carefully unravels, Day-Lewis’ layered performance hints at much more. His peevish nature isn’t just a product of obsession; it’s a yearning for the past — as with many artists, Woodcock believes authenticity is leaving his industry. He fears it’s out with the old, in with the vile “chic.”

Day-Lewis’ oeuvre has instilled anything his character says with an aura of significance. We can’t help but hang on every witty, biting word. His exchanges with Alma (played by the amazing Vicky Krieps) are works of art, their first meeting a perfect meet cute imbued with nervous energy and infatuation.

Day-Lewis has said this film will be his last. If it is, it would be a perfect swan song to an amazing acting run, adding one more brilliant performance to a career chock full of them. But we hope the greatest living actor has a change of heart.

Hooman Yazdanian

3. Daniel Kaluuya — Get Out
4. Andy Serkis — War for the Planet of the Apes
5. Hugh Jackman — Logan

The Next 5
6. Robert Redford — Our Souls at Night
7. Christian Bale — Hostiles
8. Jake Gyllenhaal — Stronger
9. Harry Dean Stanton — Lucky
10. Woody Harrelson — The Glass Castle

Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Margot Robbie — I, Tonya

Image courtesy of Neon

I, Tonya was one of the most — if not the most — fun movies of 2017. It’s witty and gripping, and handles certain domestic violence issues with great care. Margot Robbie shows the world a side of Tonya Harding that no one had ever seen before, and perhaps didn’t care to see. While the real-life, 1994 “incident” left America believing Harding was evil, Robbie’s portrayal of Harding begs to differ. She’s certainly no angel, but she is also a woman who has experienced abuse, physical and emotional. This version of Harding is tough, endearing and hilarious.

Robbie’s performance is one of thoughtfulness, even in comical moments. With the current social climate, performing a female character who is physically abused is no easy feat. And on top of that, to make said female character funny in such a serious matter is unbelievable. Despite knowing the outcome of the “incident,” we truly can’t help but cheer for Tonya to beat the odds. The Tonya Harding the media introduced us to in 1994 couldn’t do it, but the one Margot Robbie introduces us to makes us second guess whose side we were once on a few Olympics ago.

— Samantha Celentano

Runner-up: Saoirse Ronan — Lady Bird

A24/Courtesy

In a year of amazing lead actress performances — seriously, the actresses in our Next Five would all contend in a normal year — Saoirse Ronan has flown under the radar. She’s picked up nominations all year and even won a Golden Globe, but not many discuss that her performance in Lady Bird is one of the most genuine of the year.

Ronan especially shines when on screen with Laurie Metcalf, and both impeccably pull off the quick mood swings that can characterize a mother-daughter relationship. They move from crying to an audiobook to immediately fighting, from fighting to marveling at the perfect dress in a very Ross-like store. Ronan’s performance in these scenes is incredibly naturalistic.

Her best work is late in the film when her character’s mom refuses to speak to her. Lady Bird pleads with Marion, trying to get her to admit that she’s proud. But as Ronan’s voice trembles, Lady Bird shows that she’s internalized her mom’s criticisms: “Please, Mom, please I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I’m ungrateful and I’m so sorry…” Then, she yells, “Talk to me, Mom! Mom, please! Talk to me!” Her pleading to get her mom’s attention might have been the most stirring, powerful moment in an excellent film full of them. For that reason, and many others, Ronan was one of the best lead actresses of the year.

Hooman Yazdanian

3. Frances McDormand — Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
4. Sally Hawkins — The Shape of Water
5. Brooklynn Prince — The Florida Project

The Next 5
6. Meryl Streep — The Post
7. Jessica Chastain — Molly’s Game
8. Daniela Vega — A Fantastic Woman
9. Vicky Krieps — Phantom Thread
10. Haley Lu Richardson — Columbus

Best Motion Picture of the Year: Call Me by Your Name

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It is genuinely hard to come by a movie that conveys love the way Call Me by Your Name does. One of the best parts about this film is that it is not necessarily a gay love story, but rather a love story that is about two bisexual people. The script is derived from the novel of the same name by André Aciman, and it is perfection — not just the adapted screenplay (James Ivory), but the set, the soundtrack, the performances and the earnest storytelling by Luca Guadagnino. With such an extraordinary love and gut-wrenching heartbreak, how could this not be the best movie this year?

To begin, it is difficult not to fall in love with this movie when we’re suddenly spending a summer somewhere in Northern Italy. The set design and cinematography alone are enough to make us drop everything and find an apricot farm in Italy to live on. The soundtrack jumps from beautiful, classical piano to awesome 80’s jams, and then to original songs by Sufjan Stevens, which we end up playing on repeat after leaving the theater. Timothée Chalamet, although not completely new, seems to be what we have been missing from amazing movies. The pure chemistry and passion portrayed by him and Armie Hammer is astounding. This movie wouldn’t have been what it was if Elio and Oliver were played by anyone else. To top it off, Michael Stuhlbarg gives audiences the speech of a lifetime at the end. It is a speech everyone should hear.

In short, every feature of this film combines to create a beautiful experience that is guaranteed to move you, to leave you speechless. It’s a love story, but better, more transcendent.

— Samantha Celentano

Runner-up: Get Out

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Jordan Peele’s Get Out is an accomplishment of the highest order. It entered the Best Picture race back in February 2017, and it came in armed with a brilliant cast, a first-time director who should probably take over the industry and a tight script devoid of any fat. As solely a cinematic accomplishment, it holds up, giving us tension, laughter, anguish, relief and a twist that feels earned. Get Out explores what it means to feel trapped, whether that’s by an oppressive system or by one’s own emotions. It gives us humanity. In the film’s final minutes, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is driven by a survival instinct but trapped by grief he has suppressed, leading him to make a questionable decision that nearly proves fatal.

Additionally, Get Out has impacted its culture in a way films packed with social criticism thrive to do. The film has produced memes, sure, but it more importantly came out at the perfect time to spark conversation about injustices in policing and the dangerous nonchalance of white, liberal racism. In a time when the latter has been oft-ignored in favor of whataboutism decrying  “those racists over there,” Peele put it in viewers’ faces. He made it undeniable. Racists come in all different packages. They don’t just say the n-word; they can pelt and oppress with subtler microaggressions too.

Hearkening back to genre greats of the past like Stepford Wives while reinvigorating horror with passion, ingenuity and social commentary, Get Out is one of the best films of 2017.

Hooman Yazdanian

3. Lady Bird
4. Phantom Thread
5. Mudbound
6. Dunkirk
7. The Shape of Water
8. Blade Runner 2049
9. The Florida Project
10. Coco

The Next 10
11. The Big Sick
12. The Post
13. I, Tonya
14. War for the Planet of the Apes
15. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
16. Wonder Woman
17. Stronger
18. Good Time
19. The Beguiled
20. Hostiles

 

Featured image courtesy of Warner Bros./20th Century Fox/A24/Universal Pictures/Focus Features/Sony Pictures Classics.

Kyle Kizu’s Favorite Scene of 2017: The Oil — ‘Dunkirk’

It’s hard to know where and how to start writing about the climax of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. There is so much going on, not only in what’s happening on screen, but also in how everything builds to that point — and that doesn’t even take into account that much of the scene jumps around in time. That it all works, that it all coalesces into an absolutely mesmerizing sight of overwhelming intensity is beyond astonishing.

I define the climax as everything that happens once Hans Zimmer’s “The Oil” starts playing and until it stops. So, that starts right after the little ships arrive, when those on the Moonstone first see the destroyer bombed, and ends when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is finally pulled up onto the Moonstone as it flees the water on fire.

The climax folds the three storylines on top of each other, amplifying the tension that they’ve individually held throughout the first two-thirds of the movie and producing pure exhilaration immediately. The whole film is essentially crafted as a climax, so this moment is the climax of the climax. It’s almost unfair.

The most effective work the sequence does is a bit subtle, but it’s present from its very first shot: there’s a constant negotiation between the intimate, personal perspective and the massive event, full of masses of people.

As the Moonstone approaches the bombed destroyer, we, through the camera, stand on the boat with them, seeing the huge army ship go down far off in the distance. It’s a raw, human, gripping perspective, the framing of the destroyer through the front window of the Moonstone as terrifying and transfixing for us as it is for Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), whose distraught face we cut to.

The sequence then cuts to shots of the masses of soldiers loading onto the little ships from the beaches. The shots are strangely tranquil, nearly still and holding longer than most shots do, allowing the pure process of the evacuation, and how truly massive it is, to sink in without romanticizing it.

The rest of the sequence is much of the same. If we get, for example, a perspective shot from behind Tommy as he swims through the water to try to find safety on the destroyer, only to realize that it’s sinking — a 12 second shot, which is far longer than most action shots — we get a shot of the tens of soldiers trying to find their way off, sliding down the side of the ship or jumping off before getting trapped underwater.

There are multiple intimate perspectives throughout the sequence: that of Tommy, the Moonstone and Farrier. And there are multiple large scale portions: the soldiers loading from the beach, the soldiers on the sinking destroyer, the soldiers in the water and the soldiers loading onto the boats near the destroyer.

We, the viewer, are disoriented on multiple occasions, seeing the destroyer sink at the beginning of the scene from the Moonstone’s perspective before jumping back in time to see it again from Tommy’s — not to mention that we saw it sink from Farrier’s perspective earlier in the film.

It’s all jarring and chaotic — frantic, desperate bodies filling the screen as they fight to survive. And Hans Zimmer’s “The Oil” only makes it more so, leveraging the Shepard Tone, the illusion of rising tension, while also actually adding layers and volume as the music builds to its own climax. The piece feels invasive, as though it’s taking control of our own bodies, throwing them into the water and forcing them to fight too.

It’s so chaotic because it’s meant to be. It’s so chaotic because the filmmaking is not. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is all-encompassing, immersive, breathtaking and, as said before, perspective-based, placing us into the water, onto the boats and within the cockpit. The sound design is absolutely haunting, a brutalist atmosphere of bodies splashing in water, creaking ships, gunfire, explosions and, most impactfully, screaming voices. The editing is almost balletic, cutting with intensity, but also with fluidity at each turn, rendering the entire sequence into a beauty of movement both in-frame and between frames. And the structural give-and-take is stunning — particularly at the sequence’s climax, when Farrier stops the German bomber only for it to crash into the water and cause the fire, and at the sequence’s release, when a soldier’s life is violently taken in the midst of crackling fire just as Tommy’s life is saved as he’s revealed as the soldier being dragged alongside the escaping Moonstone.

Even with all that’s been said, it’s hard to feel as though I’ve done the sequence justice. There are so many intangible, particularly visual layers to it that can only be absorbed by watching it. I hope that I’ve been able to unpack some aspects of it. But what I’ve written this all for, anyway, is for you to revisit it, for you to give it another watch.

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

Trial: What is the best superhero musical theme of the DCEU?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is the best superhero musical theme of the DCEU?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Kyle Kizu
Judge: Sanjay Nimmagudda

*Warning: Potential spoilers for ‘Man of Steel’ and for ‘Wonder Woman.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

As this video explains, Wonder Woman’s theme (AKA “Is She with You – Wonder Woman’s Theme”) by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is basically a Led Zeppelin song — driven by a killer riff bound to become permanently lodged inside your brain, but in a good, “Kashmir” sort of way. The Wonder Woman theme accomplishes what any superhero score should — it represents the character. Wonder Woman is capable and incisive when necessary, a quality brought out by Tina Guo’s razor sharp electric cello riff. As DC overlord Geoff Johns said, Wonder Woman is the best fighter in the DC Universe, and her musical theme reflects this assertion. Simply put, her theme is badassery distilled in sonic form.

When Wonder Woman saves Batfleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the cello riff kicks in, the audience can’t help but feel a jolt of adrenaline. The tune is used to similar effect when Wonder Woman takes out a room full of German soldiers in her solo film, Wonder Woman. In this sense, the Wonder Woman theme functions as an element of a film’s set piece — just as CGI (for the sake of this argument) contributes to the design of a set piece, so too does use of the Wonder Woman theme immediately raise the stakes of any conflict. Every time that Wonder Woman’s theme is used, it’s a jolting and exciting moment, one filled with the thrills that superhero films thrive on.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Of greater import, is the type of jolt that audiences feel when Wonder Woman’s theme is used. I’ll preface this by saying that other superhero themes are undoubtedly effective — John Williams’ Superman theme sounds hopeful, and Hans Zimmer’s Batman theme from The Dark Knight Trilogy is darkly pragmatic; both tunes capture the essence of the heroes they represent. But these superhero themes are merely effective, while the Wonder Woman theme is also affective. For the first time, a superhero theme sounds like a call to action. Wonder Woman’s theme is empowering, a source of energy that films featuring her draw on. It’s energy that is communicated to anyone listening to her theme.

Wonder Woman’s theme represents the character’s warrior persona, but the theme goes further, representing all facets of the character. Wonder Woman’s mantra is “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” The compassion that drives Wonder Woman is inherent in her theme — as “Is She with You” trades biting cello riffs for contemplative string melodies, the song invokes Wonder Woman’s great capacity for love, not just fighting. This sentiment is taken a step further in Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score for Wonder Woman, which alters the implied darkness of “Is She with You” to become a score driven by warmth and idealism.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Additionally, Wonder Woman’s theme is a landmark in film scores, just as Gal Gadot’s portrayal of the character is a landmark in cinema itself. We’ve heard Superman, Batman and Spider-Man represented through music before. But as an introduction to a new character, Wonder Woman’s theme is as significant as Gal Gadot’s performance.

If nothing else, Wonder Woman’s theme is hugely listenable as an individual track. In particular, Tina Guo’s metal cover of the theme will turn your daily walk to (insert something mundane here) into a heroic march into battle.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Kyle’s argument:

It’s a bit unclear what the specific Superman theme in Man of Steel is, but all signs point to “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” as the heart of the score’s character. Once that logistical step is taken, though, it’s difficult to think of any other theme as better. This one is just too moving on every level.

Hans Zimmer had an absolutely enormous task ahead of him in crafting an original theme for Superman. That of the 1978 film is iconic, injected into the veins of the character. But the choice to leave it behind was a smart one; it would be almost too camp in a contemporary film with the tone that Man of Steel aims for.

In brilliant manner, however, Zimmer actually doesn’t wholly deviate from that ‘78 theme. He takes the specifics notes of it, and leaves behind its aged sense of melody to adapt them for our contemporary understanding of it.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Zimmer is often at his best when at his most minimal. The end of “Time” from Inception is all that’s needed to make that case. With “What Are You Going to Do,” Zimmer starts with soft and gentle singular piano notes. It echoes the thematic structure of the film; at the beginning of the film, Clark Kent struggles with his strength, with holding so much power despite the gentleness of his core.

The film is all about Clark finding the synthesis of power and gentleness/kindness in a world that isn’t so kind. That synthesis begins with the introduction of the drums and the whirling strings as the piano notes become more forceful. Here, Zimmer’s adaptation of the classic notes find the same kind of awe-striking build and progression of the original. For about a minute and a half, the track almost feels like it’s searching — just as Clark in the middle of the film, despite coming upon his suit and past, is still searching for what it means to be Superman.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

And then the track explodes into wonder that even Wonder Woman’s theme can’t quite match. It’s fascinating what Zimmer does with layers. The layering, in terms of what instruments are being used, where they’re being used and how, is very similar to his work on The Dark Knight Trilogy, but the distinction is in tone. Zimmer is a master of tone and despite this track holding the same kind of bombast that much of his previous work does, there’s an unmissable, undoubtable sense of hope in “What Are You Going to Do.”

Yet, the track does not end with just two minutes of hopeful bombast. Somehow, Zimmer dives back to a sort of humble quietude before exploding yet again.

On purely a musical level, Superman’s theme is magnificent. It’s informed, in every sense, by character and, thus, is able to feed back into how character is shaped in the film.

That Zimmer’s work has become so utterly adored and embraced as this generation’s Superman theme — despite the film’s mediocre reception — is yet another testament to how well-executed and brilliant of a theme it is.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Kyle, there’s no doubt that Hans Zimmer’s Superman theme is one of the great film scores of all time. The fact that his score can compete with the original John Williams theme is a huge testament to how well the new Superman theme represents the character. To my great surprise, the Superman theme does not actually give the listener the power of flight.

But Zimmer had a template to work from. He had a goal, to make music that embodies hope, but that goal was set by John Williams. In other words, a good Superman score had been done before. You even mention the fact that Zimmer took specific notes from Williams’ theme. While the Wonder Woman theme takes a page from Led Zeppelin, choosing the rock and roll aesthetic of that band was an original interpretation of the character, whereas the Superman theme was less distinctly an original interpretation. In short, it’s easier to choose John Williams as the template for a score, than it is to take Led Zeppelin as inspiration, and forge a new path for Wonder Woman.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Through crafting the Wonder Woman theme, Zimmer, Junkie XL and Tina Guo were treading new ground, and in doing so, all three artists made a contribution to the very character of Wonder Woman. Hans Zimmer redefined Superman, but that pales in comparison to doing the act of initial defining, which he, Junkie XL and Tina Guo did with the Wonder Woman theme. The character of Wonder Woman isn’t the same anymore, because of their work on her theme. There’s no way a comic book reader will open the pages of a Wonder Woman story, and not mentally hear her theme.

And while both the Superman theme and the Wonder Woman theme perfectly encapsulate their respective characters, the Wonder Woman theme has proven more malleable, and adaptable to various films. The Wonder Woman theme, biting and incisive in Batman v Superman was modified to reflect the more compassionate character we met in Wonder Woman. The essence of the theme remains the same, but structurally speaking, it can be modified to fit different films. In Justice League, Danny Elfman tweaks the theme — instead of an electric cello, the theme’s riff is played on horns, reflecting the epicness of the Justice League.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

In contrast, the Superman theme has proven less adaptable. It really only works in the context of Zimmer’s bombast. The fact that Elfman would turn to Williams’ original Superman theme for Justice League illustrates this fact — the sweeping majesty of Zimmer’s Superman theme has yet to work effectively in a non-Zack Snyder film.

Finally, I take issue with the need to stray from the “camp” of the Williams score. There’s nothing wrong with campiness, especially when it’s sincere, and if there’s one thing that’s essential to Superman, it’s that he’s a sincere, saving-cats-from-trees kinda guy. The Zimmer score might convey hope, but I would argue that before being a symbol of hope, Superman is primarily an emblem of goodness. In essence, Superman’s hopefulness stems from his capacity for being indiscriminately good, and that’s a concept that the Williams score captures more effectively.

Most importantly though, the Superman theme lacks the affect of the Wonder Woman theme. At the end of the day, the Wonder Woman theme is a source of empowerment. And while the character of Superman might have been a similar well of empowerment in the past, Wonder Woman has arguably become this generation’s Superman. It’s only fitting that her theme surpasses Superman’s.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Kyle’s rebuttal:

Harrison, you mention how Zimmer had a template, but that’s not any sort of knock. If anything, it’s a testament to the fact that Zimmer had to follow something so iconic — a daunting task — and still made something both informed by the original, but also distinctly its own. Most don’t even realize that it takes notes from the ’78 version, but everyone feels a renewed, modern sense of Superman. That’s a great achievement, not a knock in any way.

The Wonder Woman theme is, undoubtedly, awesome, but in it lies plenty of issues. You argue for its badassery. I can’t say anything against that. But I can say that the theme does less character work than you give it credit for.

Firstly, the theme uses the Man of Steel score. Between 3:25 and 4:10, there is a literal lift of Superman’s theme. Any sense of hope that “Is She with You?” builds for Wonder Woman’s character is marred by the fact that the only soft moment in the track is wholly define by Superman’s music. There’s no other sense of quietude that is its own.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Secondly, her theme isn’t malleable because it had to be adjusted for. Gal Gadot, herself, says that Batman v Superman got the character of Wonder Woman wrong. So, the character work that the theme does in that movie is off. Wonder Woman had to course correct. This sense of unending goodness in her character is more defined by Patty Jenkins’ direction and Gadot’s performance in her solo film than it is by the track that’s based in a movie where Wonder Woman gives up on mankind — something we now know she would never do.

Wonder Woman’s theme may be what people think of, but that’s only because no one had done it before. It’s easily possible that, hypothetically, another composer’s theme would be what people think of — because it’s the first.

It’s also arguably only so memorable because of its badassery. Plus, memorability does not mean superior. The feat of creating something that’s iconic on its own despite something so iconic coming before it is greater than creating a badass start. One can look to the rest of each character’s scores as evidence. I remember nothing of the rest of Gregson-Williams’ score other than a general notion of goodness. With Man of Steel’s score, I remember distinct tracks.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Since we haven’t seen Justice League yet, you can’t genuinely leverage it. Wonder Woman’s theme may be adapted, but we don’t really know how it functions in the film — perhaps poorly. The same goes for Elfman’s choice use the ’78 theme. He actually says he’s using it for a rather dark moment, and we don’t know how much Superman is in the movie and what exact Superman we’re getting (black suit or not), so we don’t know what the function is. We can’t make arguments based on what we don’t know.

I also think you misunderstand how I talk about “camp.” There’s nothing wrong with “camp.” But to think that it’s negative to stray from it for this new film — a film entirely different in tone both as a story, but also musically in that we literally don’t think in the same ways of melody anymore — doesn’t make sense to me. Zimmer did necessary work to modernize Superman and you even say that the score is one of the best of all time.

Finally, Wonder Woman may be this generation’s Superman. But that’s only true if we’re talking about the films. Man of Steel’s score perfectly evokes a contemporary sense of Superman. The movie might fall short elsewhere, but that doesn’t take away from the work that the theme does. So listen to it and adore it, even if they didn’t love the film. While Wonder Woman is a better film, Zimmer’s Superman theme transcends film.

Sanjay’s ruling:

Wow. First of all, I applaud both Kyle and Harrison for two holistic arguments that truly elevate the discourse surrounding movie scores to an extremely thought-provoking level. Harry, your assertions in exploring the malleability and nigh ubiquitous nature of “Is She with You?” is inspiring. Kyle, the depths to which you explore Zimmer’s intricacy in crafting a new theme for an iconic character is revering. If I could, I would call this a tie based solely on the eloquent, scrupulous analysis of these two tracks by the both of you, but in reading your rebuttals to one another and subsequently re-reading your original arguments, I think I’ve made a decision – albeit begrudgingly.

Harry, you mention how Wonder Woman’s theme is overtly affective. It impacts how the character’s perceived not only in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but also in the likes of her comic series, future movies and so on. You also mention that the song is not merely a song but rather a capsule that encompasses melodic allusions, character motivations and qualities as well. While I wholly agree with you on those points, I do have to concede that Kyle’s argument that creating a theme for a hitherto unseen character on film, while undoubtedly momentous, is a less daunting task than re-defining a cultural icon auditorily.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Why do I say this? Well as Kyle points out, in creating Superman’s new theme in Man of Steel, Zimmer was fighting an uphill battle. John Williams’ uplifting score from Superman ‘78 is deeply engrained in the cinematic and generalized cultural zeitgeist. Zimmer was always going to face the court of comparative public opinion, so he had to craft something both inherently, emotionally familiar yet distinctly different in execution so as to not do a disservice to the Last Son of Krypton while not simply riffing of his compositional predecessor. That’s a daunting task and seems much more likely to fail than establishing the tonal (pun intended) status quo for the Pride of the Amazons.

While I do not refute, at all, the waves “Is She With You?” has made since first appearing in 2016, and the detail that went into composing such an elegantly powerful song for the fictional embodiment of those qualities, I have to side with Kyle in that “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” (I’ve always thought that it should be ‘You’re,’ sue me) accomplishes all that and more, at least in my opinion, in spite of what came before it. It’s played over the end credits of the film, without even a glance at the character it encapsulates, and still manages to contribute the persona of Superman. I’m going to give this one to Kyle, but let’s be real here, both themes are always an auditory cue that something insanely badass is about to happen onscreen.

 

Do you agree with Sanjay’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different DCEU theme? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 3-2

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 1-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-1

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

Trial: What is ‘Blade Runner 2049’ director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Levi Hill
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘Blade Runner 2049.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s argument:

It’s not an easy task to take a beloved science-fiction classic — one that American Film Institute listed as the sixth greatest science fiction film of all-time — then one-up it. But that is exactly what Denis Villeneuve has done with his masterpiece Blade Runner 2049.

In an age of stale, repetitive blockbusters (lesser “replicants” of their former self), Denis uses this very meta-textual set-up to make an outwardly replicant of the original film. The original film followed a blade runner, Agent Deckard (Harrison Ford), as he begins to hunt down replicants that just want to be human. Because of this, the film created a human perspective from the outside looking in of things that just want to be treated equal to the humans they are modeled after. From this perspective, the film was calculated and cold. Ford played a detective tasked with murdering and murdering (mostly) innocent replicants — until he just can’t anymore because he has fallen in love with one, Rachael (Sean Young). All the while, he is increasingly haunted by memories of violence, and an unicorn running free.

The film leaves us cold, if visually enthralled.

Is Deckard a bad guy? Is he a replicant? Are memories only real for humans?

Wisely, Denis has created another cold, calculated story from Ridley Scott’s template, but frames the story entirely from the *spoiler alert* replicant perspective. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is indeed a replicant (Nexus 9 model), and once again, is tasked with hunting down the Nexus 6s and 7s that can live as long as humans, if not much longer. However, unlike other replicants we have seen, he has a timed life span, unable to live longer than any other human. He also is made to obey orders from the LAPD — facing a strange PTSD test that questions whether he has established any lasting emotional capabilities after each bloody mission of killing his own kind.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Think A Clockwork Orange’s eyes wide-open scene, but with the humanity removed.

Thus, when K experiences a “miracle” that threatens to “break the world,” Denis’ intelligent placing of the main character as replicant creates an emotional pay-off about the very definition of what constitutes a “human.” The audience’s alignment creates an emotional journey that explores the politics of a rebellion, the cost of human life in a looming war, the power of memories and the sacrifices people make for just wanting to be free.

Acting as a sequel or a “replicant” of the original story, Blade Runner 2049 is the only sequel I can think of that is finally more human than the original — “more human than human.”

Besides this storytelling ambition, that posits itself as a meta-textual statement on how stories can play on established world-building, Denis has also crafted a story more experimental than Enemy, more intense than Sicario, more sprawling than Prisoners and more intellectual than Arrival.

A factory scene, with a grinding, synthetic score rivals the poetic, haunting, surreal beauty of anything Tarkovsky created in Stalker or even in the also lyrically tinged Enemy. A late stand-off between K and a highly-skilled foe adds more bone-crunching intensity than any of Sicario’s many gruesome shoot-outs. The scope of the film, that constantly reimagines what is capable for the medium of film, blows any recent Bond film out of the water and definitely dwarfs the complex, expanding mystery in Prisoners. Then, the very existential question of what it means to be human, and how one becomes “human,” carries more weight here than the equally intellectual questions regarding memory and communication in Arrival.

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With Denis’ controlled direction, each drawn-out, beautifully framed moment stands out as a work of art and the highest class of blockbuster filmmaking. With repeated overview shots of an overpopulated, water-soaked LA, or the orange dust clouds that pervade every frame in the Las Vegas setting, Denis creates a visual structure that only can be registered in all of its majesty on the big screen. It’s the first film Denis has made — and the first film this year, outside of Dunkirk — that visually cannot be truly appreciated without the biggest screen and the loudest sound.

And let’s not forget, this film is following one of the already most visually accomplished works of all-time.

Oh, and Denis proves why Harrison Ford, after many years of taking roles seemingly only for a paycheck, was once considered the most sought after actor. Ford arguably has never been better, and while the actor needs to be praised for bringing an unexpected amount of soul, much also has to be said about the bold choices Denis makes regarding the iconic character.

Every choice Denis makes here — in storytelling, composition, editing, sound, score, acting and design — acts as a culmination of what he has done before.

Not-so-simply-put, in every single facet of filmmaking, this is Denis’ home-run. This is his masterpiece. This is his classic.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Arrival is Denis Villeneuve’s best film because it is the sole entry in his filmography that will define and inform our national conscience for years to come. The film released in the US the weekend after the 2016 election, and it was a clarion call for empathy and rationality, and a denouncement of violence and xenophobia — all of these qualities coalesce to become, at once, a warning against belligerence and a message of consolation in the face of vitriol. There hasn’t been a more timely film in recent memory, a film that speaks to our hearts so frankly, elegantly and warmly. The film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer himself admitted that writing Arrival came from a place of necessity, the need to invite people to empathize and communicate with each other. It was a cinematic invitation that won him the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

On the level of craft, Arrival is made with precision and purpose, all of which make it yet more profound (especially when paired with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal score). Bradford Young’s cinematography is utterly jaw dropping, and while he might not have the experience of the seasoned Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator, Young delivers shots that are just as jaw dropping as any of Villeneuve’s Deakins-shot films — particularly Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) first glimpse at the heptapod spaceships, as clouds roll away.

Paramount/Courtesy

Choosing a mellow, soft color palette of blues and grays to reflect the film’s message of nonviolence was an inspired choice by Young, who shot the film digitally, leveraging the color grading that such a format allows. Arrival is an example of what humanity can strive for, but it is also a fine example of what digital filmmaking should aspire toward.

Then, the production design, the look of the heptapods and their language are astounding feats of design. The towering alien figures are as majestic as whales, but with just a touch of humanity. Their language is beautiful to behold, an example of how design mirrors theme, since the heptapod view of time is nonlinear. The meticulousness and originality that went into creating the heptapod language is itself worth the price of admission.

Ultimately though, Arrival is the story of a mother and her daughter, and we see how time spent with someone, no matter how brief, is worth it if there is love. That’s a message that, regardless of political era, is resonant and timeless. Beneath the film’s linguistic theory is a warm, beating heart, featuring arguably the most emotional climax in any Villeneuve film. Though Arrival is a film of our time, it is also one that prevails throughout cinema henceforth.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s rebuttal:

Harrison, I don’t disagree with anything you have mentioned above, except that Arrival is Denis’ best film. Rather, it is his second best film, as Blade Runner 2049 took everything that made Arrival a modern landmark, and then one-upped it by giving each of those themes (xenophobia, communication between different species, rationale before violence, familial bonds) a greater sense of purpose and clarity in Blade Runner 2049, albeit with the bigger risk of following up a top ten science fiction masterpiece, while maintaining the very pointed political critique.

Plus, it doesn’t have the most atrociously handled line of dialogue in an otherwise excellently written film — “let’s make a baby” — or the asinine plot contrivances of the Chinese General Shang telling Louise Banks, in the future, that her former/present self should tell his former/present self his wife’s dying words to create world peace. It still doesn’t make sense to me, how a film that did so well for 95% of its run time, can botch the last 15 minutes so severely. Should have it been powerful? Yes. Was it? If you like your movies overly sentimental and don’t fret about plot holes completely untouched, maybe it was — but not for me.

As for Blade Runner 2049, it’s hard to discuss the story at all, but the plot holes that might be present in the film are meant to be there. It’s not a conclusive picture of an entirely built world, but rather, it operates as a conclusive story for Agent K and in some ways, Agent Deckard. The audience is left to ponder real ideas, without given either/or answers. Arrival poses big questions, but rarely allows ambiguity to remain once the final frames brace us. If there is a flaw in Arrival, it’s that.

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Say what you will about the lengthy run time of Blade Runner 2049, but if you take any individual scene out, the aura of the mystery, the power of the last 45 minutes and entire grandeur of the project are lost, like tears in the rain. Can you imagine if Lawrence of Arabia was condensed? 2001: A Space Odyssey? The Godfather? Lord of the Rings: Return of the King? Hell, even Interstellar cannot be trimmed and fully be seen as the experience it needs to be. Some films need that time to work us over and create new visual and audial scapes for us to experience. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those films.

Then Leto, yes, he sort of seems off in the film (to some, not me), as a less dimensional villain. However, isn’t that the point? He is one of the only human characters in the world given significant screen time, and humans have created this travesty of the earth where the ice caps have melted and we’ve become so overpopulated that people are crammed in high rises living in hallways, not rooms.

With this, does it not make sense to make the incomparably privileged and wealthy Wallace (Leto) an egotistical, calculated, business-is-cutthroat monster, hell-bent on seeing his own agendas accomplished? Great or fine, Leto’s performance here is not bad, and in fact, it works for the film’s message.

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This is a film that even refuses to paint the main antagonist of the film, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), as anything resembling simple. While a replicant and forced to obey Niander Wallace (Leto) at all cost, Luv even finds a sense of depth in her constructed humanity that Marvel, D.C. or any comparable blockbusters haven’t come close to since the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

Add in the symbolism of Wallace’s blindness, unable to see the world for what it is, and Luv’s uncontrollable tears when near him, and the duality of the two characters comment on how seeing is believing within Blade Runner — whether you are a human or a replicant.

There’s an immense sense of complexity in every frame, the most minute of details matter here. The opening shot of a green iris of an eye, followed by a match cut of the barren landscape of the outskirts of Los Angeles say more about the world and tone and theme of Blade Runner than most filmmakers accomplish in a career. And that’s not taking into account the more experimental flourishes that appear in Blade Runner — and are absent from Arrival — such as when Joi malfunctions in San Diego and, instead of quickly cutting, we see an extended take of her heartbreaking malfunction in stop-motion, as the world around her remains shot in real-time.

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I haven’t even touched on the fact that, somehow, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch may have outdone the original Vangelis score by adding more bombast to giddily jarring purposes, or that every female role in the film creates the agency and urgency in the story, or the other big fact THAT HARRISON FORD IS ACTUALLY 100% ACTING AGAIN, which, considering the potential of him showing up here simply being a fan service-y extended cameo, like what some have argued his scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are, says a lot about Denis’ care to make sure that every element of the film operates as a soulful, humanistic, impressionistic exploration of the fundamental question to existence: what does it mean to be alive?

Designed from beginning to end to be enrapturing, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most accomplished directorial visions we’ve ever seen — taking an already highly touted vision and making it fresh, unique and cinematically groundbreaking all over again.

If that isn’t enough to convince someone Blade Runner 2049 is the greatest Denis Villeneuve film (so far), a film that not only excels with the given template of blockbuster cinema, but truly advances what is capable for big-budgeted storytelling, then I don’t know what is.

Blade Runner 2049 is what it looks like when the highest of art has finally perfectly synchronized with the spectacle of $150 million of pure, crowd-pleasing imagination. Seriously, the fact that an esteemed film critic has compared Blade Runner 2049 to an Andrei Tarkovsky film says a lot about this film’s poetic, epic beauty.

Take a bow, Denis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Without a doubt, Blade Runner 2049 is proving to be not just a great sci-fi film, but one of the greatest sequels of all time, deserving a place alongside Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. However, it is by no means a perfect film. For starters, Jared Leto has yet to wipe his take on the Joker from our memories, and his portrayal of Niander Wallace doesn’t do him any favors. He continues to harp about his method acting, which gives the character a built-in invitation for dislike. Even without such promotional antics though, his portrayal of Wallace is neither threatening, nor as profound as the rest of the film. In contrast, there isn’t a character in Arrival that is the least bit distracting. An ancillary performance from Forest Whitaker lends the film with a gravitas that Leto can’t pull off, while Stuhlbarg highlights the baser elements of our humanity. Leto might gesture toward grander ideas, but doesn’t succeed as well at conveying them as Arrival.

Additionally, while Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is noteworthy, it doesn’t pick up the baton from Vangelis as elegantly as it could have. Much of their score in Blade Runner 2049 veers toward bombastic sound design, and while this approach worked for Zimmer in Dunkirk, it feels jarring when the expectation is the melancholic synth-jazz riffs of Vangelis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Moreover, when it comes down to picking the best Denis Villeneuve film, choosing Arrival feels like the best representation of Villeneuve as a director. The aesthetic choices, production design and the internal logic of the world feel more unique to Villeneuve, whereas in Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is forced to play in a sandbox created by Ridley Scott. While Villeneuve succeeds in conforming to the rules of Scott’s universe, the originality present in Arrival makes it a better candidate for choosing Villeneuve’s best film. The endings of both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are very emotional, but while the latter film incorporates imagery and musical cues from its predecessor to elicit emotion, Arrival does not have such a reliance. Instead, the emotional finale of Arrival is achieved solely by the characters crafted within it, lending it a sense of originality that just slightly puts it ahead of Blade Runner 2049.

Even though Arrival is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, the characters onscreen and the subversion of sci-fi is still a wholly original cinematic experience. For once, we see a strong female intellectual be the hero of a film. Sure, we’ve seen various professors lead their respective films, but how often is it that a female professor is the star of a film, let alone a female humanities professor? It’s impossible to understate how significant it is that the humanities save the world in Arrival. Ultimately, Arrival boils down to a story about mothers and daughters, and when the box-office of Blade Runner 2049 is partly due to a lack of female audiences, Dr. Louise Banks, and the film she inhabits, is worth celebrating.

Kyle’s decision:

Both arguments are intensely passionate, informed and well-crafted. And this has proven to be one of the better Trials as the arguments and rebuttals are rather different. Levi jumps in with an expansive, overwhelming (in a good way) comprehension of film itself while arguing for Blade Runner 2049, placing it not only within Villeneuve’s filmography and not only in conversation with the landmark original, but within the landscape of film today and in harmony with the history it fits into. It’s an extensive but fluid argument — one that makes me feel the need to put a word limit on Trials as it becomes difficult to not be persuaded by so much excellent argumentation.

But Harrison fights back with fervor, making a more humanistic case for Arrival, a case that pleads for the importance of film outside of the boundaries of film itself. The parallels between Arrival’s themes and today’s problems are harrowingly emotional, and you brilliantly lay out how affecting Arrival is through not just the presence of those parallels, but through how expertly they’re pulled off. You also do a better job in your opening at pointing out the coherency of those intangible elements of the film, theme and emotion and humanistic importance, and how the color palette, the design and the subject matter exist truly as veins of the film, rather than just facets.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

After reading the openings, I realized that these arguments may be calling into question what “best” really means. Levi made the better case for Blade Runner 2049 as Denis Villeneuve’s most brilliantly crafted film, while Harrison made the better case for Arrival as Denis Villeneuve’s most important film. In the rebuttal, I needed more from Levi about Blade Runner 2049’s importance outside of film. I got more about the brilliance of it as a film in film history, in comparison to the original and in Denis’ filmography. I got some small rebuts of Arrival as a film. I got some superfluous detail that didn’t need to be there and threatened the stability of the argument. But I did end up getting that idea of the film’s importance outside of the art form it comes in, how it also has many of the relevant, pressing humanistic themes that Arrival has — not just ideas of humanity in general — and makes use of them well within its own story.

Harrison bounces back with a very fine rebuttal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t present enough in terms of Arrival’s brilliance within the scope of film nor does it take down Blade Runner 2049 in regard to those elements, only offering rebuts of a performance and the score. The rebuttal, however, solidified that, if this were an argument of “importance” rather than “best,” Harrison would be the winner.

But Levi does too well to be overcome. While you may slightly lose out in the “importance” battle (and “slightly” is the important word as anything more severe might’ve cost you), you are undeniably convincing in every other area in regard to defining what “best” is and placing Blade Runner 2049 into that.

Winner: Levi Hill

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different Denis Villeneuve film as his best? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 2-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-0

 

Featured image via Warner Bros. and Paramount.

Top 10 science fiction films since 2010

With the release of the decades-in-the-making Blade Runner 2049 nearly upon us, the MovieMinis staff compiled a list of what we believe to be the best science fiction movies of the last several years. The genre has seen a bit of a resurgence in the past decade. Both big-budget and independent filmmakers have leaned on sci-fi as a means of approaching Hollywood from a new, daring angle. And while for every Interstellar there’s bound to be an unfortunate Battleship, there’s no denying that the good outweighs the bad (or, in Battleship’s case, the very, very bad). Without further ado, here are the MovieMinis picks for Top 10 Sci-Fi Films of the 2010s:

10. (Tie) Upstream Color

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Shane Carruth will likely never get the mainstream credit he deserves, but, then again, even the cinephiles enraptured by his work have yet to agree on the meaning of either of his two sci-fi masterpieces: Primer and Upstream Color. Whether Upstream Color is more of an experimental exploration of a deteriorating relationship or, rather, an unsettling science fiction narrative about mind control and the unforeseen power of the natural world may still be up for debate. Yet, what is not up for debate is the technical brilliance and narrative abstraction working seamlessly together to create an uncommonly intelligent experience that expects the audience not only to be engaged, but to actively want to work for any semblance of an answer. If that isn’t a hallmark of the best sci-fi works across all mediums, then I don’t know what is.

— Levi Hill

10. (Tie) Snowpiercer

CJ Entertainment/Courtesy

Prior to the well-known Netflix film Okja, Bong Joon-ho started working with American actors on Snowpiercer, the adaptation of the French graphic novel La Transperceneige — and what he gave us is a science fiction film that the US film industry is not worthy of. While obvious in its commentary on the class system, the film is far more layered in that commentary, and that commentary is far more wide-reaching in scope, than it may let on. Not only deconstructing the upper class’ oppression of the lower class, Snowpiercer thoroughly dissects the idea of how flawed a rebellion can be and how malleable a the middle class truly is. And while that rebellion happens, always pushing forward, shot in stunning tracking profiles, the film focuses in on the two Asian characters who are always concerned with what’s outside of the train. In that, Joon-ho breaks down the barriers of the system, quite literally at points, to show that that’s not all there is.

All of that is simply the allegorical underpinnings of the story, which also features brilliant performances from Chris Evans, at perhaps his finest, and Tilda Swinton, in one of her most transformed roles. The action is breathtaking and the production design is integral, and feels organic, to the world that Joon-ho builds. Snowpiercer is inventive science fiction, in ways that both make the most of the storytelling style of the American system — a machine of forced, strict linearity — while also showing that perhaps the best kind of storytelling is that which can look outside of the system.

— Kyle Kizu

9. War for the Planet of the Apes

20th Century Fox/Courtesy

There’s arguably more “war” in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes than in War for the Planet of the Apes, but therein lies the success of this trilogy-closer — War is a methodical, elemental and profound examination of conflict, rather than an outright staging of conflict. As a result, we see Caesar (Andy Serkis, giving the performance of his career) fall to depths previously unimaginable, so, when he rises, it becomes a triumphant moment for the character, the franchise and the entire genre. Speaking of genre, this film returns sci-fi to its allegorical roots — before mother! unveiled its own take on the Bible, War turned Caesar into a Mosaic hero leading the film’s spin on the Book of Exodus. Forget The Batman, Matt Reeves already has a perfect trilogy on his hands.

— Harrison Tunggal

8. Looper

Sony Pictures/TriStar Pictures/Courtesy

That Looper is Rian Johnson’s only jump into science fiction filmmaking, prior to his small gig of directing the upcoming 8th episode of the biggest franchise in the world, is bizarre when considering the good amount of the craft, skill and storytelling that he proved within the genre. Starring a nearly unrecognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a wholly committed Bruce Willis — which is sadly rare these days — Looper takes a time-traveling high concept, that would work on its own storytelling premise, and wisely adds in a considerable amount of heart about the cycle of violence. The filmmaking ambition that Johnson illustrates with a third of the budget of most sci-fi blockbusters is exactly why there is an intense amount of hope behind the impending greatness of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

— Levi Hill

7. ex_machina

A24/Courtesy

Part psychological-thriller, part romantic drama and all science fiction, Alex Garland’s 2014 indie sleeper hit not only put actress Alicia Vikander on the map, but it also redefined the extent to which humanity can play an integral role in a cyborgian sci-fi film. By crafting a narrative centered around identity, autonomy and sentience on such a small scale, Garland elicits a much more personal chemistry between his three leads (Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac) that leads to more electric and shocking interactions over the course of the story. For a film to so fully resemble a character study that the existential debate it poses over technological consciousness becomes the least intriguing aspect onscreen (relatively speaking, of course) is not an easy feat, yet ex_machina accomplishes this in spades.  

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

6. Interstellar

Paramount/Courtesy

Interstellar may not be Christopher Nolan’s best work — that honor could be argued for Inception, The Dark Knight or even Dunkirk — but it is, after retrospection and consideration of the value of film as art, undoubtedly his most important. There are few films in recent memory, if any at all, that try to tackle our purpose, our mission, our existence as living beings on a massive scope, while still basing that investigation in the deeply personal quite like Interstellar does. Immediately throwing away the egocentric idea that the Earth is “ours,” Interstellar forces us to consider our place in the universe and asks what continued survival really means. Is the decimation of those on Earth worth the prolonged existence of humans as a species? Or is it our very connections, our very love that we create with one another that is the key to our survival, and thus cannot be thrown away? In proposing those questions, Interstellar utilizes perhaps the strongest, most imprisoning and debilitating antagonist not only in film, but in life: time. We’re all bound by time, intrinsic to our existence as three dimensional beings, and cannot stop the ever moving train of life that will lead us to inevitable death. With that, epitomized by Cooper leaving his family behind to go on his mission, the film asks: how do we reconcile ourselves with the fact of existence of billions of others, and how do we honor that reconciliation without truly abandoning those we love?

While it may not be the most well-made of Nolan’s films, it has various aspects that epitomize his greatest strengths as a storyteller. Nolan’s collaborations with Hans Zimmer reach their pinnacle with Interstellar, as Zimmer composes his most vulnerable and affecting score yet. Nolan’s work with actors is notably less involved than some other directors, as Nolan leaves a lot of the responsibility up to the actor to understand the character within the story first and foremost. With Interstellar, that understanding finds a symphonic unity with Matthew McConaughey, who turns in his most committed performance. And while Nolan may not be a subtle writer, his screenplays are always haunting in at least some regard. The goodbye scene between Cooper and Murph is an example of tragic poetics, as is the video message scene, both written with an intimacy, love and sense of human existence within the many questions he presents that all coalesce stunningly. And the potential of Nolan’s practical chops as a director are fulfilled in the action sequence — the docking scene should go down as one of the most triumphant, and brilliant composed, in science fiction history.

Interstellar, already with so many singular qualities, even further distinguishes itself in the genre of science fiction by not only basing itself in accurate science and legitimate theoretical astrophysics, but organically utilizing those elements within its narrative. The visuals of the wormhole and the black hole were created from genuine equations written by executive producer and notable astrophysicist Kip Thorne, which lends a sort of tangible credence to them (and even helped Thorne write two papers on scientific discoveries from the visual effects). And, in regard to the narrative, time is inherently connected to astrophysics, and Nolan’s use of time as a narrative device to score the tragedy of humankind, and specifically the tragedy of a father and a daughter, is overwhelmingly heartbreaking.

Interstellar presents the type of big questions, and ways of tackling them, that we should demand from science fiction films that venture out into space because few other films genuinely try to answer them, let alone propose them in the first place. Interstellar does both, and is not afraid to embrace the intimacy of our humanity either.

— Kyle Kizu

5. Arrival

Paramount/Courtesy

In Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, alien spacecrafts descend upon the earth, hoping to end the cycle of violence that has always withheld humanity from achieving its full potential as a species. The aliens arrived when the people of earth needed them most. Eerily, Arrival did the same for us, releasing in the US three days after the 2016 presidential election. To the millions of people to whom Donald Trump poses an existential threat, the film was a reminder to not lose hope — an affirmation that our baser human instincts don’t hold a candle to empathy and communication. To the rest of the country, the film was a warning that vitriol is never the basis for progress. It’s hard to think of a film more urgent than Arrival, harder still to think of one more beautiful and profound.

— Harrison Tunggal

4. Her

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Though less overtly “sci-fi” than most other films on this list, Spike Jonze’s Her is one of the most thoroughly, organically defined. The film is set in a near future where artificial intelligence exists and people have distanced themselves from each other even further, and the design of each and every single frame, which acts to set forth those notions, is breathtaking. From the wandering souls walking through a much larger Los Angeles (shot partially in China) to the stunning skyscraper-high apartments, Her is arguably as well built of a world as Mad Max: Fury Road, yet on the other end of the spectrum. But Jonze doesn’t simply present a new kind of world; he crafts characters that feel like genuine parts of that world. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as Theodore Twombly, and the simultaneous intense disconnect and vulnerable sincerity have remnants in today’s world, just brought to their extreme here. And the love story told — between a man and an artificially intelligent device — is one of the most tragically beautiful and heartbreaking ever put to film. Her is a true gem, one that only the mind of Spike Jonze could conjure up.

— Kyle Kizu

3. World of Tomorrow

Bitter Films/Courtesy

Watching the 16 minutes that comprise animator Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, one feels as though every frame of it could inspire multiple film adaptations, novels aplenty and one or two television shows. The short film tackles capitalism, time travel, cloning, the evolution of the internet, mortality, the limitations of art, slavery, artificial intelligence, love (the love of sparkly rocks, aliens named Simon and clones named David, specifically), economic recessions and depressed poetry. But this isn’t to say that the film is incoherent — it is a delight to discover, and its endless invention is a joy to experience as it washes over the perplexed, awed viewer. As an older version of Emily explains the titular future world to her younger self, one begins to grasp the futility of explaining the foibles and idiosyncrasies of our own times to the more innocent people we were as toddlers. Futile as such an attempt might be, one can’t help but feel excited for the sequel Hertzfeldt has planned.

— Harrison Tunggal

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Warner Bros./Courtesy

George Miller’s return to the franchise that he started way back in 1979 was the most welcome of returns. Who knew a four-quel that features endlessly bombastic sound and rapid-fire editing could be not only one of the best science fiction films this decade, but truly ever. Using the Mad Max mythology of Earth becoming a completely desolate wasteland and humanity becoming even more desolate in their compassion, Miller retools the story and setting to not only create a powerful environmental message against misunderstanding sustainability, but also a tale about the tyranny men preside over others, women in particular. Acting as a not-so-subtle allegory for triumphant women and the resistance against their male oppressors — which grows more relevant by the day under the current presidential regime — Mad Max: Fury Road is just a hell of a movie. In fact, in an era of blockbusters mostly devoid of risk and danger or even vision, Fury Road was the adrenaline needle, straight to the heart, that we needed — just to remind us that there’s no art form quite as emotionally exhilarating as cinema.

— Levi Hill

1. Inception

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Following the release of The Dark Knight, there must have been those who thought director Christopher Nolan had undoubtedly crafted his magnum opus with the comic book crime epic. That was, until Inception hit theaters. Conceptually daring in its coupling of the time-tested caper film with the more abstract and imaginative idea of transitory dreamscapes, Inception represents a paragon of contemporary science fiction cinema. From the kaleidoscopic manipulation of Wally Pfister’s beautiful cinematography to Hans Zimmer’s now iconic score (complete with brass fanfare), Nolan and his crew created a motion picture that has made a lasting impact on the cultural zeitgeist. When “your mind is the scene of the crime,” there’s a lot of room for interpretation on the inner workings of the human psyche, and Nolan’s idea to not only enter that arena but to incorporate his signature style of paradoxical large-scale intimacy lets players like Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard and Tom Hardy to fully realize their character’s roles within a larger, engaging and cohesive script.  The methods through which Nolan tests the limits of his audience’s suspension of disbelief, and of reality itself, are grounded by a through line of realism so that whether it be the instantaneous degradation of a building or a slow-motion free fall off a bridge, the audience is kept captivated through and through. Inception will somehow make you feel simultaneously astounded, satisfied, confused and frustrated as you find yourself asking – was it all just a dream?

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

Honorable mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian, Source Code, Gravity

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

2018 Oscar Predictions: Best Original Score

Best Original Score is a bit of a mix between celebrity status and merit. Sometimes the best score among the bunch is passed on for a more popular name, but the disparity, in that case, between the best and the winner isn’t massive.

It’s a bit easy to rule out Carter Burwell for his Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri score and John Williams for his eighth take on Star Wars. Neither won precursors and while there may be fans of Williams’ compositions, neither feel particularly memorable either.

This year, Hans Zimmer’s brutally intense Dunkirk score, one that almost feels like sound design (the supervising music editor was nominated in the Best Sound Editing category), or Jonny Greenwood’s classically inspired yet singularly beautifully work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread seem like the two that most obviously deserve it.

However, both Zimmer and Greenwood will likely be passed over for Alexandre Desplat’s work on The Shape of Water. Not only did he win both the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, but he has also apparently been schmoozing in the time prior to voting, a tactic that has worked for other Oscar nominees this year. His score is undoubtedly beautiful, serves the film wondrously and is not the most heinous of the nominees to award. But it is unfortunate that more powerful scores will miss out.

If the Oscars were truly about the best of the year and not just the most popular or most campaigned, Daniel Hart’s A Ghost Story score would’ve been nominated.

The Nominees
Hans Zimmer — Dunkirk
Alexandre Desplat — The Shape of Water
Jonny Greenwood — Phantom Thread
John Williams — Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Carter Burwell — Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Will win: Alexandre Desplat — The Shape of Water
Could win: Hans Zimmer — Dunkirk
Should win: Hans Zimmer — Dunkirk
Should’ve been nominated: Daniel Hart — A Ghost Story

 

Featured image via Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Summer Oscars: The Best in Movies of Summer 2017

No one is going to fight for last summer. It was a horrific time for movies, blockbuster after blockbuster failing both financially and critically, and the few indie gems that did come out being ignored. While its best film, Hell or High Water, is undeniably magnificent, the list falls off steeply after that. So when it came to this summer, many were hesitant. Would the studio continue to crank out garbage? Unfortunately, it did, with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Transformers: The Last Knight both continuing a disgusting trend. But unlike last summer, for every stink pile this summer, there was a brilliantly entertaining crowdpleaser. For every horribly messy embarrassment, there were two or three films that showcased some of the most masterfully artful filmmaking of recent memory. Despite it being one of the worst periods for the box office, this summer’s movies themselves, as many have said, represent one of the best seasons we’ve had in a long time. In May, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and The Lovers hit on both ends of the cinematic spectrum in lovely fashion. As June rolled around, It Comes At NightThe Big SickBaby Driver and The Beguiled showcased why relatively smaller films are where we should invest our interest. But let’s also not forget about the wondrously historic event that was Wonder Woman. In July, blockbusters found life again, as Spider-Man: Homecoming reinvigorated the web-slinger, War for the Planet of the Apes capped off one of the best trilogies of all time and Dunkirk stunned as an overwhelming cinematic achievement that perhaps only Christopher Nolan could’ve made. Indies didn’t stop either, with A Ghost Story haunting us to this day, Girls Trip stomping on everyone’s pre-conceived notions and Atomic Blonde kicking everyone’s ass as women have this summer. A dip may have expectedly come in August — it’s almost unavoidable — but within the bad were gems like Ingrid Goes WestLogan LuckyWind River and the arresting, John Cho-starring (more please!) Columbus.

It’s been shocking to watch this summer unfold, great movies releasing almost weekly. Top 10 lists of this season rival those of the entirety of last year. So, to combat this strange idea that films not from the fall should be left on the cutting board when it comes time for awards season, we at MovieMinis thought to award the best of summer 2017 so that they may have their fair share of the spotlight:

Best Original Screenplay: Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani — The Big Sick

Amazon/Courtesy

Comedies had fallen flat. Great romcoms were almost non-existent. Then, The Big Sick showed up and not only gave us more from the genre than we’ve had in a long while, but genuinely brought out the best that it could offer. And it all starts with its absolutely pitch perfect script. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon based The Big Sick in the true story of their romance, and it’s easy to immediately feel the truth at the core of the film, which features such emotionally resonant scenes that hinder on what a character says and what another doesn’t — the film being, on a whole, about communication and perspective. Gordon and Nanjiani give thorough perspective to each character in the film, something that most films in general don’t do. Kumail, Emily, Emily’s parents, Kumail’s parents and Kumail’s friends are all written with a care for independent motivation and given actual arcs that are fulfilled. And all of this is outside of the comedy, which is perhaps its best feature. While, these days, most jokes in films feel forced, The Big Sick is all about natural humor, humor that feels informed and plays off of the film’s themes of perspective and culture. Truly, The Big Sick‘s script is wholesome. But if we were being honest, it deserves this award if only for that 9/11 joke.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: David Lowery for A Ghost Story

Bret Burry/A24/Courtesy

A Ghost Story‘s screenplay reportedly hovers around 30 pages. Many know that the “one page, one minute” concept is a mostly incorrect generalization, but to have 30 pages turn into 90+ heart-wrenching minutes is a feat, a feat because writer-director David Lowery somehow finds a harrowing, haunting truth with very few words. It’s not surprising, considering that the film is essentially a showcase of minimalism on all levels, but each line of dialogue, each crafted scene, in setting and progression, hold the weight of the human condition — our fight against time. The characters are defined with a tragic tenderness. The supernatural concept is executed so organically. While most of the film becomes about the visual, it’s the written word that conceives such a thing, and it’s hard not to be wholly moved by the simple and profound written word of A Ghost Story.

— Kyle Kizu

Nominees:
3. Trey Edward Shults — It Comes At Night
4. Bong Joon-ho, Jon Ronson — Okja
5. Christopher Nolan — Dunkirk

Honorable Mention: Kogonada — Columbus

Best Adapted Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves — War for the Planet of the Apes

20th Century Fox/Courtesy

The most recent Planet of the Apes trilogy is led by one of the best film characters of all time, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and that is a huge credit to the screenplays behind the films. In the best of them all, War for the Planet of the Apes, the script plunges Caesar to his lowest point, and it is nothing less than riveting. Despite the regality that emanates from him, he is brought to a crushing point of desperation — exacerbated by the menacing, if sympathetic Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Ultimately though — and this is perhaps the most defining trait of this Apes franchise — Caesar’s downfall makes him yet more human in the eyes of the viewer, and more importantly, his arc by the end of the film feels rewarding and earned. Over the course of three films, Caesar has transformed from a mere pet into an epic hero of biblical proportions — a legendary Mosaic figure that thenceforth enriches and informs the history of the apes. Then of course, War’s script maneuvers tone expertly — showing us the harrowing depths of Caesar’s fall, but also taking moments to inject much-needed levity through Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and franchise mainstay Maurice (Karin Konoval). Such a script makes War the capper to one of the great film trilogies of all time, a sentiment echoed by 20th Century Fox’s plans for a major awards campaign.

— Harrison Tunggal

Runner-up: Sofia Coppola — The Beguiled

Ben Rothstein/Focus Features/Courtesy

There are two wars in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. One is obvious— the film follows a school of women and young girls in the Confederate south as they nurse a Union soldier back to health. The other is far more subtle; it wages beneath the surface, simmering behind genteel manners, flirtatious glances and courteous dinners. Coppola’s script rises to the challenge of the particular setting, imbuing those infamous Southern manners with surprising malicious underpinnings. Even Colin Farrell’s charming Union soldier comes across as harmless on paper, but it’s the nonverbal threats accompanying his every word that leave the audience on the edge of their seats. News that Coppola was adapting the original 1971 film came with both criticism and anticipation, but in the end, the script is one of her all-time best. Talk about nailing an ending.

— Kate Halliwell

Nominees:
3. Erik Sommers, Chris McKenna, Christopher Ford, Jon Watts, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein — Spider-Man: Homecoming
4. Alice Birch — Lady Macbeth
5. Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs — Wonder Woman

Honorable Mention: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham — The Glass Castle

Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Holly Hunter — The Big Sick

Amazon/Courtesy

Holly Hunter has always been a reliable character actor, winning an Oscar in 1993 for Jane Campion’s The Piano. However, it has been awhile since she gave a performance that dominated the critics circle and awards season talk. Well, thanks to her touching, humorous and scene-stealing turn in The Big Sick, it appears that she is about to enter those conversations again, and maybe even dominate them.

In the film, Hunter plays Beth, the mother to Zoe Kazan’s character Emily Gardner whose sudden medical condition puts her into a coma. From here, Emily’s ex-boyfriend, Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) feels like he has to stay bedside to Emily throughout this ordeal, despite Beth’s wishes for him to keep his distance. At first, Beth’s character seems like the stereotypical, stuck-up mom who doesn’t believe anyone will know her daughter better than her. Yet thanks to both Hunter’s acting and Nanjiani’s writing, the film slowly reveals the depths of character that have made Beth such the stern mother she is. While she may live an upper-middle class life, saying her life has been easy is a miscalculation of her tics. Being the performance behind some of the most tear-jerking scenes in the movie (and since the movie might be the biggest tear-jerker of the year so far), Hunter won us over. Look for major awards talk to come her way this year.  

— Levi Hill

Runner-up: Rooney Mara — A Ghost Story

A24/Courtesy

No one does repressed grief quite like Rooney Mara. From her turn as a restrained, lovestruck shopgirl in Carol, to Lisbeth Salander’s trademark subdued fury, Mara has built a career on her ability to speak volumes with a single look. A Ghost Story marks a return to form for Mara, who is genuinely devastating as a grieving wife haunted by her recently deceased husband. Mara is as understated as always, and again she’s enormously effective. Pain flickers across her face, then it’s quickly replaced with a sort of emptiness, a numb realization that things will never return to the way they were before. Mara has reached a point in her career where perfection is expected, and as such, her performance in A Ghost Story will most likely miss out on any awards season recognition. Even so, it’s comforting to know that performances like these are just another film for Mara. We can look forward to many more understated, brilliant turns to come.

Just perhaps not ones that involve eating an entire pie.

— Kate Halliwell

Nominees:
3. Tiffany Haddish — Girls Trip
4. Tilda Swinton — Okja
5. Kirsten Dunst — The Beguiled

Honorable Mention: Zoe Kazan — The Big Sick

Achievement in Costume Design: Jeffrey Kurland — Dunkirk

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Dunkirk may not jump out as a film with amazing costume design. And that’s exactly why it’s such an achievement. Costume designer Jeffrey Kurland didn’t have the uniforms in hand to simply recreate. Each garb had to be handcrafted with the character’s definition ingrained in each thread. Upon close inspection, what may have initially looked like an endless see of brown becomes an indicator of what kind of soldier each one is. For Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), his uniform is overwhelming and big, a sign of his youth and inexperience. Alex (Harry Styles) wears, as some may not have noticed, a slightly different uniform (people have connected his character and his regiment to Scotland), one that fits tighter and is more controlled, indicative of his higher status. But the singularity of uniforms wouldn’t have been enough to sell the look of this film. Dunkirk is about being there. It’s about feeling as though you’re on the beaches, as though you’re being bombed by German planes. It’s about the feeling of being stuck. And the costumes had to be designed with this gritty, dirty, sweaty sense of desperation, of being washed over by ocean water, of being stranded for a week and beaten down into the streets and sand.

But the costumes are also about the civilians who came across on boats. The sweaters have already been raved about humorously on social media. But the 40s English attire truly does inform the story. These are ordinary men thrust into an operation far greater than anyone may handle, and the humble simplicity in a hand-knitted red sweater truly does impact the film and call to the “Dunkirk spirit” as much as the soldiers’ wear and tear does.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Stacey Battat — The Beguiled

Focus Features/Courtesy

Period dramas tend to seem like a boring choice when it comes to costume design recognition, but the pastel evening gowns and crinkled crinolines of The Beguiled are too fabulous to ignore. In one particularly memorable scene, Kirsten Dunst’s sexually repressed Southern belle comes to dinner in a ruffled, revealing gown that ostentatiously shows off her best assets. Her attempt at wooing Colin Farrell’s charismatic Union soldier is just as unsubtle as the gown itself. Instead, he’s more interested in Elle Fanning’s far younger seductress, who is all blushing cheeks and fluttering eyelashes in a series of flowy white gowns. Nicole Kidman presides over the chaos as a stern, commanding governess. She’s nearly always clothed in imposing high-necked gowns, excepting the already infamous “Bring me the anatomy book!” scene, where she’s literally up to her elbows in blood. What a waste of a gorgeous nightgown.

— Kate Halliwell

Nominees:
3. Holly Waddington — Lady Macbeth 
4. Cindy Evans — Atomic Blonde 
5. Lindy Hemming — Wonder Woman

Honorable Mention: Annell Brodeur — A Ghost Story

Achievement in Production Design: Nathan Crowley — Dunkirk

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Similar to its costumes, Dunkirk doesn’t jump out as a film with stunning production design. In actuality, it’s not meant to be one. The production design, much like every other craft aspect of the film, acts in service of immersion, in service of the visceral, tangible, largely physical experience. Shooting on the real beaches of Dunkirk came with a big problem: part of the central setting, the mole, had been destroyed. And thus, production designer Nathan Crowley was tasked with recreating it, with building a pier that’s been, alongside the soldiers, the blunt victim of unforgiving waves and, more terrifyingly, dive-bombers. As Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) run down the breakwater, squeezing between soldiers and traversing blown off portions over only planks, the mole feels and, most importantly, looks alive, like a character bracing alongside the soldiers.

The sets of ship interiors and exteriors during attacks, of a stronghold in the city and of the equipment and vehicles on the beaches are designed with that same gritty, worn down aura and historical accuracy. These sets are complex and extensive, built to invoke claustrophobia. Crowley also makes use of portion sets and cardboard cutouts for backgrounds, extending the view of soldiers endlessly, capturing the scope of 400,000 men.

But where the film engulfs us next is in its design of its planes, recreating Spitfires through redesigns of other planes. The dogfight sequences are some of the most stunning of Dunkirk, and the fact that real planes are used, interiors and exteriors designed with pinpoint precision, does wonders for the main goal of the film: transporting us there.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Aline Bonetto — Wonder Woman

Warner Bros./Courtesy

In the first act of Wonder Woman, we feel a sense of awe not yet felt within the DC Extended Universe, as we explore the island of Themyscira, where Wonder Woman was brought up by the Amazons. The architecture and culture of Themyscira is reminiscent of the ancient Greeks, but unique enough to fascinate and intrigue viewers, and that’s a credit to production designer Aline Bonetto. Of course, her work in designing the drabness of London and the battlefields of World War I are admirable, but her work in designing Themyscira is truly praiseworthy. She carves out a space within the DCEU that’s bright and majestic, and it leaves us nothing less than wonderstruck.

— Harrison Tunggal

Nominees:
3. David Scheunemann — Atomic Blonde
4. James Chinlund — War for the Planet of the Apes 
5. Scott Chambliss — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Honorable Mention: Hugues Tissandier — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling: John Blake, Jay Wejebe — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Marvel/Courtesy

The makeup in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is nothing short of pristine. The stunning makeup on the colorful aliens Yondu (Michael Rooker), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) were carryovers from the first Guardians film, but this time, John Blake, Jay Wejebe and their team created an entire race of aliens covered in a gold sheen — the Sovereign. These aliens look like walking Oscars, which could be somewhat prophetic given the team’s excellent work in this film. If that weren’t enough, the film also puts a spotlight on the Ravagers, a motley crew of scarred, deformed space pirates, which put the onus on the makeup team to create a variety of hardened alien thieves. In particular, the film’s joke about Taserface (Chris Sullivan) wouldn’t have worked had it not been for an appropriately tasered face. Even though Star Wars: The Last Jedi might throw this makeup team’s chances at Oscar glory for a loop, they deserve every bit of praise for this list of summer awards.

— Harrison Tunggal

Runner-up: Shandra Page, Tony Ward, Mia Goff, Natalie Christine Johnson — The Beguiled

Focus Features/Courtesy

Rarely does hairstyling get as much recognition as makeup, but the work of the hair team of The Beguiled is as integral to the film as every other craft department. With the film’s themes and concepts, of sexual attraction, of a deconstruction of the male gaze, of a community of women separated from the warring country, and with the historical setting, the hairstyling had to be pitch perfect. And it is. The younger children all hold a sense of curiosity and innocence within the larger scale of events. Nicole Kidman emanates a regal authority, fitting her position as head of the house. Elle Fanning’s hairstyling evokes the explorative sexuality that is centric to the film’s story, as is the quiet and repressed core of Kirsten Dunst’s character, whose hair reflects her journey of attempting to break free from a community she doesn’t feel as though she truly belongs to. On an aesthetic sense, the hairstyling is beautiful. But because of the fact that it serves the story so thoroughly, it deserves endless recognition.

— Kyle Kizu

Nominees:
3. Jessie Eden, Sasha Grossman — It Comes At Night 
4. Laura Morse, Christine Blundell — Wonder Woman 
5. Sian Wilson — Lady Macbeth

Honorable Mention: Lesley Vanderwalt — Alien: Covenant

Achievement in Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema — Dunkirk

Warner Bros./Courtesy

It was hard to imagine Christopher Nolan without his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister. But after Interstellar, it became hard to imagine Nolan not working with Dutch-Swedish lenser Hoyte van Hoytema for the foreseeable future. And their collaboration on Dunkirk shows just why Hoytema may be Nolan’s greatest partner. From the breathtaking first image to the mesmerizing penultimate shot, Hoytema’s work represents the pinnacle of cinema, especially in its IMAX 70mm form. As what’s been said time and time again with Dunkirk‘s craft categories, the main goal of the cinematography is for immersion. And it does that unlike any film truly has. Utilizing the IMAX camera like a go-pro, Hoytema places us as a soldier on the beach, ducking for cover, racing to the departing boats, shaking at the shockwaves of bombs. Through the cinematography, we inhabit a space on the small civilian boats, thrown around by waves. We inhabit a space below deck on navy destroyers, nearly drowning after being downed by a U-boat. We inhabit a space in the air, peering through the scope, veering left and right, laboring as we try to shoot down the German ME 109s. These are camera angles that haven’t been fully realized until this film, with Hoytema and the team inventing rigs to place cameras where they’ve never been before.

On a technical level, the work is astounding. At first, it might not seem as artistic as his cinematography on Interstellar. But Hoytema is perhaps more subtly artful in his rendering of Dunkirk. Like the shot above, there’s this breathtaking sense of scope, this arresting design of the mise-en-scene that tones the look of Dunkirk with a trapped claustrophobia amid one of the largest and most important events of the 20th century. And at the end, the wandering camera almost finds a tranquility unexpected with a film like Dunkirk. Farrier’s (Tom Hardy) Spitfire, gliding with the soldiers below and the city in the background, is truly a shot for the ages, a quiet one that allows us to breathe after all of the overwhelming movement. It’s cinematography that represents the best that cinema can offer, that fights for the medium, both of the film format and of film in general, with something purely visual.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Andrew Droz Palermo — A Ghost Story

A24/Courtesy

If Dunkirk showcases the best that cinematography can offer on the large scale, then A Ghost Story offers the best of cinematography on a small scale. Andrew Droz Palermo’s work truly shows an artist in tune with every thematic level of the art. With A Ghost Story, we’re meant to project our emotions onto the titular ghost, and Palermo rightfully lingers, hangs and frames shots in ways that overwhelm — especially in the framing of uninterrupted still shots — to a point where it’s impossible not to find a profound emotion, or ten, within the eyes of the ghost. But Palermo also excels in movement, his tracking in particularly. There’s this haunting, majestic, almost mythic poetry as we slowly follow the ghost, wholly crafting the film’s spirituality and invoking just what the film needed to become truly great: making us, the viewer, a ghost ourselves.

— Kyle Kizu

Nominees:
3. Philippe Le Sourd — The Beguiled
4. Bill Pope — Baby Driver
5. Michael Seresin — War for the Planet of the Apes

Honorable Mention: Elisha Christian — Columbus

Achievement in Film Editing: Lee Smith — Dunkirk

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Dunkirk performs an illusion: the Shepard tone. You may think I’m talking about the score. I’m not. The score performs the illusion too, but Dunkirk, the film itself, is structured in a way that replicates the effects of the typically musical anomaly — something Christopher Nolan intended while writing the screenplay. It’s a massive, difficult task to weave together three storylines that not only are all constantly rising in tension, but also play out on different timeframes. Before jumping in, outside of those complex aspects, Lee Smith is incredibly calculated when crafting action scenes. The Spitfire sequences have been raved about for their realism, and credit must be given to Smith for how fluid and steady the progression of each dogfight is. And right before the soldiers are dive-bombed by German planes, Smith lingers on reaction shots, of eyes wandering up to the sky at the source of noise, masterfully building suspense. But Smith has done these and similar things before, his work on the grander scale of Dunkirk being what truly solidifies this as his and Nolan’s greatest collaboration yet — a monumental feat when considering their work on Inception. Despite jumping backward and forward in time, there’s never a sense of imbalance in the film’s momentum. Each thread feels as though it’s still progressing, even when it’s treading water we’ve been through before — often thanks to careful revelations of dramatic irony. And as the film builds, the structure does too. As expected, the three timelines meet at a singular moment. But instead of simply crashing them together, Nolan and Smith play the climax out of order as the threads seem to try to find each other. There’s a great sense of disorientation, a purposeful one to tone the chaotic, senseless and harrowing event happening before their (and our) eyes, but the scene never loses focus or coherency — a quality that all the best edited films have. The climax plays out of order, but it plays so masterfully that out of order feels somehow more organic, an intangible sense of filmic cohesion, just as the entirety of Dunkirk is, due to how the film is put together.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss — Baby Driver

Sony Pictures/Courtesy

While Dunkirk is a monumental feat in film editing, Baby Driver isn’t as far off as one would assume. Blending the tap and dance sound mixing of a classical musical, with more ferocity of any heist scene featured in Fate of the Furious, Baby Driver would not be as successful of a film as it is without the incredible, crisp editing that Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss pull off. Edgar Wright’s films always feature bravado filmmaking, with wipe pans, dual screens, long tracking shots and practically anything else the cinematic genius can think of, and only editors with the most amount of precision could bring all of the visual and aural synchronization together. So while this might be our runner-up for Best Editing, don’t be surprised if the film manages an ACE nomination later this year.

— Levi Hill

Nominees:
3. David Lowery — A Ghost Story
4. Sarah Flack — The Beguiled
5. Matthew Hannam, Trey Edward Shults — It Comes At Night

Honorable Mention: Meeyeon Han, Yang Jinmo — Okja

Achievement in Sound Editing: Richard King, Michael W. Mitchell, Randy Torres — Dunkirk 

Warner Bros./Courtesy

If we had to pick the most important technical aspect of Dunkirk, which would be an entirely unfair and borderline impossible task, the one that would be the most understandable to point to is sound, both editing and mixing.

Editing is the crafting of sounds and, in Dunkirk, it’s often specific sounds that add the most to the suspense. The incoming wane of the German planes’ horns is truly horrifying, as is the bombs’ explosions, which find a terrifyingly earthy, subsurface sound as they lift sand and soldier into the air.  When we’re in the interior of planes, the rumble of metal adds to a sense of immersion, to a sense of fear and anxiety in the smallest of spaces. And with the approach of Nolan, to remove the face of the enemy, bullets are louder, more jarring and more affecting. They pierce, whether it be through skin or sand or wood or metal, with a jolting, invasive, bodily ping. Dunkirk is meant to be a suspense film, and the specific sounds of war, sounds that real Dunkirk veterans have said are louder than the actual event, are crafted here with their fullest effect.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Will Files — War for the Planet of the Apes

20th Century Fox/Courtesy

In the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy, we see some of the most realistic special effects of all time, but the CGI wizardry wouldn’t hold up if not for excellent sound editing. The sound editing of War for the Planet of the Apes completes the film’s masterful CGI illusions, connecting our expectations of ape sounds with the visuals onscreen. We are convinced that the apes onscreen are grunting, shuffling about in the snow and fighting in a realistic way. Additionally, the sounds of war — the opening and closing battle scenes in particular come to mind — are immersive, putting us on the ground alongside Caesar and his apes. War films are often recognized for their sound editing, and in these awards, War for the Planet of the Apes is no different.

— Harrison Tunggal

Nominees:
3. Choi Tae-young — Okja
4. James Mather, David Mackie, Nina Norek — Wonder Woman
5. Shannon Mills, Guillaume Bouchateau — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Honorable Mention: David Acord, Addison Teague, Lee Gilmore — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Achievement in Sound Mixing: Mark Weingarten, Unsun Song — Dunkirk

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Sound mixing is how all of the sounds are brought together to create an atmosphere. And, quite evidently, Dunkirk has an auditory atmosphere fit for a horror film. No, truly. Dunkirk‘s sound mixing is in the vein of horror films. Think to the bombing of the hospital boat. As the giant ship’s metal moans as the boat tips into the wood of the mole, a voice can be heard screaming repeatedly, its body being crushed. Body’s jump off into the water, each splash toning the already terrifying scene that’s featured gunshots riddling the pier and bombs exploding on the boat.

The mix overwhelms us into a transfixed terror, hosting obviously physical elements within those attacks. But it also is subtly physical, working on every layer, literally, to render the beach, boats and air tangible. The wind and splashing waves almost feel like they hit us, constantly sitting behind the dialogue, reminding us of the setting. The wisp of the air, rattle of the Spitfire’s cockpit and masks of the pilots render dialogue as muffled and communication as difficult, as it would be in its reality. Dunkirk‘s sound mixing can transition from desperate voices drowning within the interior of a ship to massive explosions on its exterior with such fluidity while also maintaining the chaos of the situation. And that’s the true purpose of sound mixing, to become physical and to inform the story. With Dunkirk, there’s almost no movie at all without the horror that the mix provokes.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Kasper Pedersen, Al Green, Mary H. Ellis, James Peterson — Baby Driver

Sony Pictures/Courtesy

Sound will always be one of the most underrated aspects of film, especially sound mixing. Where sound editing can tend to favor bombast, as sound editing represents the actual sounds we are hearing, mixing has to favor subtlety. Mixing is how the sound designers bring together all of the disparate sounds to create one perfect aural mix.

And honestly, it doesn’t get much better than what can be heard in Edgar Wright’s summer masterpiece Baby Driver. Featuring a booming soundtrack, with tight editing of car chases and heist scenes in sync with the sound, the Baby Driver mixing team had their work cut out for them. Imagine having to combine a rollicking Bellbottoms song, with the faint singing and air drumming of Ansel Elgort (in-tune with the music), with a souped-up muscle car’s engine running, all the while in the distance a heist with sirens and shooting is taking place. Sound like a doozy? Well, that’s just the first scene in a film filled to the brim with impeccable craft in the audial categories.  

— Levi Hill

Nominees:
3. Chris Duesterdiek, Erin Michael Rettig, Shawn Holden — War for the Planet of the Apes
4. Michael L. Barnett — A Ghost Story
5. Chris Duesterdiek, Danny Michale, Park Jong-kun — Okja

Honorable Mention: Ronnie Mukwaya — Wonder Woman

Achievement in Visual Effects: Dan Lemmon, Joe Letteri — War for the Planet of the Apes

20th Century Fox/Courtesy

If one were to travel back in time to 1968 and show Charlton Heston War for the Planet of the Apes, one could undeniably convince him that the film was made using real ape actors (Hell, you could convince me that the film was made using actual apes). Of course, one would cause irreparable harm to the space-time continuum, possibly precipitating an actual simian hegemony, but that’s beside the point. The fact is, the visual effects in War (and the trilogy it belongs to) are utterly groundbreaking. Great CGI is nothing new, but the way the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise is predicated on photo-real apes is nothing short of extraordinary. These films need their apes to look believable, or else there’s no way an audience could invest in its characters, and it works — in the faces of these apes, we see genuine human emotion. The words “movie magic” get thrown around too casually to wholly represent the peak craftsmanship involved in creating this franchise’s apes, but one does feel a sense of wonderment at seeing something as totally unique and powerful as the CGI in War.

— Harrison Tunggal

Runner-up: Scott Stokdyk, Joe Letteri — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

STX Entertainment

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets initially looked like a visual risk, seemingly bordering on muted overuse of CGI that could fall flat and become forgettable. Thankfully, the film evades that pitfall, so much so that it almost makes up for the unengaging story and one dimensional characters. And that’s because, in a way, the visual effects do impact the story. The beings and objects that the CGI in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets creates are distinct. Worlds are rendered with attention to detail, not just aesthetically, but societally, as civilizations are visually crafted with systems, practices and purpose. That’s what takes the visual effects to the next level. They’re stunning and beautiful to look at, generating imagery that only a visual master like Luc Besson and an expert visual effects team could’ve concocted — aliens are neither replicants of humans nor are they so wildly complex — and making use of color in distinct and attractive ways. But the visual effects also serve to world-build, or in this case, universe-build, and they’re taken to the next level for it.

— Kyle Kizu

Nominees:
3. Matthew Crnich, Ray McMaster, Doug Spilatro, Christopher Townsend — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
4. Jeon Hyoung Lee, Jun Hyoung Kim, Mike F. Hedayati, Erik De Boer — Okja
5. Viktor Muller, Bill Westenhofer, Loeng Wong-Savun — Wonder Woman

Honorable Mention: Theodore Bialek, Lou Pecora, Dominik Zimmerle — Spider-Man: Homecoming

Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: Mark Rylance — Dunkirk

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Similar to his Oscar-winning Bridge of Spies turn, Rylance’s performance in Dunkirk is incredibly understated, with perhaps even less screen time. In the film’s aftermath, one quickly realizes that it’s the work of an actor who informs every bit of himself, physically and vocally, with why his character is the way he is. Truly, the aftermath, both at the end of the film and after audiences have left the theaters, is where Rylance’s performance holds the most weight.

Within Dunkirk, Rylance plays a civilian committed to crossing the channel, even in dire circumstances, and a man with a fascination for the RAF’s planes. But pay close attention to the dialogue after his boat, the Moonstone, full of rescued soldiers, dodges one final attack before making its way back to England, and Jack Lowden’s Collins asks Rylance’s Mr. Dawson how he knew the maneuvers to evade the German plane. Mr. Dawson says that his son was in the RAF before Peter, the son that we’ve known, reveals that he had a brother who died three weeks into the war. Mr. Dawson says, “I knew he’d see us through,” before tending to a shaking, terrified soldier (Cillian Murphy). In that moment, and after that specific line and that specific image, we pause, our breaths almost taken away.

The exposition, about the engines of Spitfires, delivered with a comforting admiration, becomes highly personal. The recurring fatherly moments — both in image (his heartbreaking nod to Peter after a tragic reveal) and in dialogue (his collected yet commanding presence when organizing a hectic rescue) — portray a character so defined and so thoroughly realized that, in repeat viewings, it’s difficult not to be in awe of Rylance as a performer.

But finally, one moment stands out. As Collins’ plane crashes into the water, Peter tells his Dad that he didn’t see a parachute and that the engine was out. Mr. Dawson doesn’t respond. Peter repeats. Mr. Dawson steers his boat firmly ahead. Peter repeats again, adding that the pilot is probably dead. Finally Mr. Dawson flings around, yelling, “Damnit Peter, I hear you!” He glances back. “Maybe he’s alive.” His volume lowers to a heartbreaking reserve. “Maybe we can help him.” It’s a moment that comes before the revelation, and is powerful when first seen. But in learning of his dead son, one who flew with the RAF, this moment transforms. His yells and his desperation are in an image of his son. In that moment, Mr. Dawson is trying to save the son that he couldn’t, and Rylance uses every ounce of his physical emotion to find that truth.

Dunkirk is an overwhelming spectacle, a film more about the event and the mass of people than purely individuals. Many have said that the near nameless, near faceless characters are simply there, without much emotion. But imagine Dunkirk without Rylance’s Mr. Dawson. It’s really difficult. Imagine Mr. Dawson as played by someone other than Rylance. It’s almost impossible. Rylance plays the most pivotal role in the film. Mr. Dawson is the core, the heart, the father — a character with actual inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s late father — that guides this picture’s emotions along a harrowing journey. It’s Rylance who sees us through.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Ray Romano — The Big Sick

Amazon/Courtesy

In The Big Sick, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) meets Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), the parents of his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Zoe Kazan), who falls into a coma. Despite Beth and Terry’s initial dismissiveness toward Kumail, he still decides to have lunch with them in the hospital cafeteria. As if things couldn’t get any more uncomfortable, Terry almost immediately dials the awkward levels to precipitous heights: “So, uh. 9/11. . .” Nevertheless, Terry develops a close bond with Kumail over the course of the film, and Ray Romano gets the chance to showcase his iconic comedy chops, while diving into his best dramatic role. Romano’s delivery relishes the awkwardness of Terry’s situation, but underneath it, there’s a tenderness and sincerity that The Big Sick depends on, and makes it all the more endearing and emotional.

— Harrison Tunggal

Nominees:
3. Michael Fassbender — Alien: Covenant
4. Chris Pine — Wonder Woman
5. O’Shea Jackson Jr. — Ingrid Goest West

Honorable Mention: Steven Yeun — Okja

Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score): Hans Zimmer — Dunkirk

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Many weren’t sure what to expect with Dunkirk‘s score, unsure of how legendary composer Hans Zimmer could expand his already endlessly experimental career after voiding percussion and crafting his most emotional score with Interstellar. But somehow, with Dunkirk, Zimmer goes further, composing music that serves the film in an entirely different way. Here, Zimmer seemingly avoids musicality entirely, instead enhancing the soundscape of the film infinitely by adding to it. The center of the score is the tick of a watch, representing the urgency and immediateness of time. The tick is overbearing at times, ramping up tenfold, invading our bodies and digging its way into our heads. Much of the score’s lower sections are made up of sounds that feel as though they’re remnants of the battle itself, as though they’re the creaks of boats, the wanes of the ocean against a ship’s metal or the explosions of bombs. There are certain horror inspirations, with the biting strings of violins, the moan of the bass, the constantly and quickly fluctuating volume of a high pitched, auric screech. The beginning of Home sounds as though it’s been plucked straight out of a horror film.

As mentioned before, Zimmer makes use of the Shepard tone, a musical illusion that sounds like it’s constantly rising in tension. For a film based in suspense, tension and terror, such an illusion has immense effect, the pieces often becoming so filled with energy that’s then released in climactic fashion during the attack sequences.

But even despite the fact that Zimmer strays from typical musicality, he still manages to compose some career best work. In particular, The Oil represents everything utterly magnificent about Zimmer. Like pieces from Interstellar and The Dark KnightThe Oil starts incredibly low in volume and thin in layers. Playing at the climax of the film itself, The Oil builds in layers and volume consistently for six straight minutes, adding literal rise to the illusion of rising, before exploding into its own climax just as the film does. With this, the piece then becomes a serious, overbearing manipulation of the mind and the body, which initially sounds unpleasant, but, when watching the film’s climax, grabs hold of the eyes in ways that the climax couldn’t without the piece and in ways that cinema strives for.

And all of this comes without discussion of the film’s most emotional and most musical element: the influence of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod. Portions of it can be heard in Home, beautifully encapsulating the “Dunkirk spirit” as the civilian boats arrive. But none is more moving than Variation 15, a variation on Nimrod composed by Benjamin Wallfisch and produced by Zimmer, which plays at the end of the film. There’s something “unbearably moving” about it, as Christopher Nolan himself says in regard to Nimrod. And the piece does just that. The events at Dunkirk were a “military disaster” as Winston Churchill put it. But there’s “a victory inside this deliverance,” and it is exactly Variation 15 that renders not only the journey of the characters as triumphant, but Zimmer’s score and Dunkirk itself as well.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Daniel Hart — A Ghost Story

A24/Courtesy

Whether it’s the grating strings that herald Whatever Hour You Woke, or the warm, embracing melody of a single violin on Post Pie, Daniel Hart’s score for A Ghost Story never relents in its uncanny power to haunt the listener. The sense of introspective melancholy found in any of the score’s tracks lingers with the listener, until — especially through the defining track, I Get Overwhelmed — a swell of emotion becomes inescapable, maybe even cathartic in a powerfully ethereal way. A Ghost Story asks its viewer to project emotions onto the titular lonely specter, but Hart’s score amplifies those emotions, making them profoundly affecting in myriad ways. Resultantly, listening to Hart’s score is its own singular experience, one that exists beyond the confines of the film itself. Just put it on at night, maybe even fall asleep to it, and see what it tells you.

— Harrison Tunggal

Nominees:
3. Michael Giacchino — War for the Planet of the Apes

4. Brian McOmber — It Comes At Night
5. Oneohtrix Point Never — Good Time

Honorable Mention: Michael Giacchino — Spider-Man: Homecoming

Performance by an Ensemble Cast: The Big Sick

Amazon/Courtesy

Where the potential for brilliant ensemble work in The Big Sick started was with the script, as Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani wrote each character with a genuine emotional arc. But that would’ve been for only so much had the roles not been cast to utter perfection. Kumail plays himself, which could’ve turned out poorly for the film. But he allows for a vulnerability that speaks to the reality of the story while other playing-themselves-stunts might’ve avoided such an aspect. Zoe Kazan, playing Emily, gives herself over to the role, also finding a vulnerability, except with the perspective of her character, which makes for a performance that feels singular and truthful. Romano and Hunter, playing Emily’s parents, play off of each other impeccably well, nailing the key traits of character that allow for a back and forth rhythm that elevates the importance of their relationship and role within the story as well as the comedy that they provide. The same goes for Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, playing Kumail’s parents, who bring an opposite perspective, but an equally dynamic chemistry. Throw in Bo Burnham basically playing himself (which is a good thing!) and supporting characters that each feel like their own person, and The Big Sick is the type of ensemble that doesn’t come around that often.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: Okja

Kimberly French/Netflix/Courtesy

Every member of Okja’s ensemble cast is essential, bringing new dimensions and nuances to the film. Of course, there’s Ahn Seo-hyun, who gives the film its beating heart, and the obvious standouts like Tilda Swinton, bringing her unique brand of weird humor, and Jake Gyllenhaal, who adds to the zaniness by giving a performance that is essentially a Joker audition. Though he doesn’t have much screen time, Giancarlo Esposito also lends the film his trademark cool. The cast comprising the Animal Liberation Front brings their A-game too, as Paul Dano and Lily Collins play determined, uncompromising activists. Steven Yeun arguably gives one of the best performances in the film, since he is playing a distinctly Korean-American character, one that is essential in developing the theme of linguistic boundaries, and how systems of power play into them. Every character in Okja is rich and specific in detail, and only through a stellar ensemble cast can the film’s characters be truly realized.

— Harrison Tunggal

Nominees:
3. Dunkirk
4. Baby Driver
5. The Beguiled

Honorable Mention: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Achievement in Directing: Christopher Nolan — Dunkirk

Melina Sue Gordon

While many may still hold that The Dark Knight or Inception are better films, few will argue that Christopher Nolan’s direction of Dunkirk isn’t the best of his career, which is seriously saying something. The film has been awarded so many categories above precisely because of how every aspect of this film is working at full power and with full force, something that comes together under the guidance of one of the true auteurs of our time. Dunkirk is Nolan’s most cinematically ambitious film, utilizing the IMAX film format like it never has before and turning to visual elements of film, and away from dialogue and conventional story, to craft a piece of art that is wholly and purely cinematic, that can only exist as a piece of cinema. Nolan’s guiding hand paces the film to craft unmatched tension and structures the film to capitalize on and make the most of the historical event as well as to continue his investigation into time. It is at once Nolan’s most experimental film, the film that deviates the most from his typical style and expands his purview, while also being perhaps the most “Nolan” film we’ve gotten so far. His composition of action sequences, grounded in the physical, tangible reality of practical sets and practical effects, represents a technical genius on par with Alfonso Cuarón and George Miller, directors of similarly gigantic cinematic achievements. But his handling of theme, that of time, invoked by the film’s structure, elevates him above being purely a masterful technician. Nolan, showcased perhaps most efficiently and thouguhyl by his direction of Dunkirk, is a masterful storyteller.

Runner-up: David Lowery — A Ghost Story

Bret Burry/A24/Courtesy

A Ghost Story is obviously a very personal story to David Lowery, and sometimes, because something’s personal, it fails to be translated and executed in a way that resonates with audiences. And yet, there’s so much care offered to each frame, to each performance, to how each aspect of production, from technical to emotional, coalesces into the singularity that is A Ghost Story — a tale about grief that is as human as any film you might think of. Lowery’s direction, how he holds on to scenes, how he paces and progresses the narrative and how he forces the viewer to confront the film, is sublime. But his job as a director perhaps becomes elevated by how he works with his team and how he opens up to suggestion. The film initially was structured much more linearly until Shane Carruth came in to help edit. The film also lacked the song I Get Overwhelmed and how that song is intimately connected to the characters until Daniel Hart, who created the song, suggested it. Lowery’s personal vision doesn’t fail because he allows others in on it. A Ghost Story is not the sign of a typical “auteur,” but of someone who knows that in order to craft his deeply personal message, it has to become about the collaboration between everyone. And in that way, under that type of direction, A Ghost Story is a fully realized story about the weight of time.

— Kyle Kizu

Nominees:
3. Edgar Wright — Baby Driver
4. Bong Joon-ho — Okja
5. Trey Edward Shults — It Comes At Night

Honorable Mention: Matt Reeves — War for the Planet of the Apes

Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Florence Pugh — Lady Macbeth

Roadside Attractions/Courtesy

It was a summer of nasty women. In an attempt at viral marketing, the team behind The Beguiled rolled out a summer campaign that dubbed its leading ladies “vengeful bitches.” While the term certainly fit, an unassuming summer indie ended up making Sofia Coppola’s scheming Southern belles look positively docile. Lady Macbeth, starring Florence Pugh, was the feminist, “burn the patriarchy” movie of the summer. In the beginning, it’s a tired tale; Katherine (Pugh) is married off to an older man in what is quickly revealed to be a loveless marriage. Unlike similar period dramas, however, Katherine is no damsel in distress. She makes the jump from blushing bride to cunning psychopath in the blink of an eye, manipulating everyone in the household as her plan comes to fruition. It’s a star-making performance for Pugh, who shot the film at 19 and currently sits on the precipice of becoming Hollywood’s newest ingenue.

— Kate Halliwell

Runner-up: Ahn Seo-hyun — Okja

Netflix/Courtesy

None of Okja’s jabs at the meat industry, animal rights activism and the violence condoned by capitalism would hit hard without the audience’s investment in the relationship at the film’s core — the friendship between Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and Okja. Since Okja is a CG creation, Ahn deserves praise for being able to act alongside a stuffed animal (later replaced with a CG super pig). She wrings heaps of emotion from us, as she frolics with Okja in the woods of her home, and as she descends into a hellish meat packing plant to save her friend. Ahn is one of the best child actors working today, and she has an undeniably bright future ahead of her.

— Harrison Tunggal

Nominees:
3. Aubrey Plaza — Ingrid Goest West
4. Charlize Theron — Atomic Blonde
5. Gal Gadot — Wonder Woman

Honorable Mention: Nicole Kidman — The Beguiled

Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Andy Serkis — War for the Planet of the Apes

20th Century Fox/Courtesy

War for the Planet of the Apes, despite the grandeur and bombast implied by the title, is an intimate character study. As a result, the film relies heavily on closeups of character’s faces, more so than its two predecessors, and Andy Serkis (Caesar) rises, like he’s never done before, to that challenge. Serkis should have been nominated for awards for his pioneering motion capture work long ago, but detractors claim that CGI gives him an unfair advantage. No matter where you stand on this issue, it’s undeniable that War is predicated on Serkis’ performance. The computer wizardry behind Caesar needs to start somewhere, and Serkis provides expressions that could stand on their own. If the film isn’t evidence of the man’s talent (It is!) just look at this. We knew Serkis could deliver an extraordinary breadth of emotion from the previous films in the Apes franchise, but War considerably widens that breadth. Through the film’s close-ups, the camera lingers on the pain, weariness and sometimes joy that Caesar feels, and those emotions are extremely palpable. In particular, when Caesar is reunited with his loved ones, we see a character defined by his composure break down completely, and Serkis’ performance is powerful enough to move us to tears. Serkis truly deserves every amount of praise that comes his way, and hopefully, come fall, Academy voters won’t tune out such praise.

— Harrison Tunggal

Runner-up: Joel Edgerton — It Comes At Night

A24/Courtesy

It Comes at Night is a film that revels in ambiguity, and that extends to Joel Edgerton’s performance as Paul, a man trying to protect his family amid a viral apocalypse. In many ways, the ambiguity in the film shows how difficult it can be to trust other people, and Edgerton’s performance is nuanced enough to suggest varying degrees of morality and maybe something sinister too. He claims to have been a teacher, but how does he know how to efficiently dispose of a body, let alone shoot with tip top accuracy? Edgerton’s facial expressions don’t give us any answers, intentionally keeping us in the dark. There’s a certain weight to the character that Edgerton brings too, a grounded sense of power that gives every yell and deep stare a harsh resonance, and that’s the brilliance of his performance.

— Harrison Tunggal

Nominees:
3. Robert Pattinson — Good Time
4. Kumail Nanjiani — The Big Sick
5. Woody Harrelson — The Glass Castle

Honorable Mention: John Cho — Columbus

Best Motion Picture of the Summer: Dunkirk

Warner Bros./Courtesy

From the very beginning of Dunkirk, especially if viewed in IMAX 70mm, we are immersed, moved and affected on every sensory level in ways that virtual reality could only dream of. As showcased by its various technical awards, Dunkirk is a film that begs to be seen theatrically, that fights for the art form of cinema as it’s truly and only a cinematic experience. It’s host to action sequences that we almost never get, realistic and bracingly physical scenes that truly transport us to the beaches of Dunkirk, to the boats on the channel and to the air above, realized by artists, on every level, working toward their full potential. Its structure is experimental and, through perfect execution, almost groundbreaking, opening up a new space in how one experiences a film and how a filmmaking crafts a tense and utterly transformative story. But then there’s the sense of theme within the film that elevates it, a theme that Christopher Nolan’s been obsessed with investigating since the start of his career: time. Time works in the film to add to suspense. But it also works in building perspective, to capture scope and to evoke humanity. Dunkirk is wrapped in terror, horror, fear and more, but there’s a through-line of humanity, how all of those intense and overwhelming emotions come directly from our humanity, something Nolan approaches with empathy. In its final minutes, toned triumphantly, Dunkirk solidifies itself as more than just a technical achievement. It’s a film that represents everything that film stands for, in the theatrical, cinematic experience, both on a sensory level, but also on a deeply emotional, resonant and empathetic level as well.

— Kyle Kizu

Runner-up: It Comes At Night

A24/Courtesy

In It Comes at Night, indie-cinema-savior A24 and budding horror visionary Trey Edward Shults team up to deliver a sparse, Lynchian slow-burn of a horror-thriller, one where nightmares bleed into reality to create an inescapable sense of fear and dread. Such fear is merciless and it easily devours even the most moral of people, so when the film postulates this sentiment, a lurch in the gut becomes inevitable. Never mind the ambiguity surrounding the identity of the titular “it.” Ignore the divided opinions between critics and audiences. This film warns us that untethered, insidious fear will be our doom, and it’s a warning that needs heeding now more than ever.

— Harrison Tunggal

Nominees:
3. A Ghost Story
4. The Big Sick
5. War for the Planet of the Apes
6. Baby Driver
7. Wonder Woman
8. Okja
9. Good Time
10. The Beguiled

Honorable Mention: Columbus

 

A Note: We at MovieMinis feel a need to take into account sexual harassment and assault when relevant to films. ‘A Ghost Story’ is one of those films where a conversation must be had in order to be responsible writers, journalists and human beings. Casey Affleck was accused of sexual harassment while making the film ‘I’m Still Here.’ The cases were settled out of court. We will not, nor will we ever, act as the court, but we will and must believe the women that took cases up with him because it is necessary — as so few victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are believed in the first place. This past of Casey Affleck has influenced many viewers of ‘A Ghost Story’ in deeply negative and painful ways, so we must make clear that our recognition of the film is not in support or endorsement of him. We denounce those actions and we must confront the reality that ‘A Ghost Story’ will always be affected by his presence. In our decision to recognize the film, we aimed to fully avoid Affleck and hoped to look at the achievements of the other people who made undeniably excellent contributions to the film. While ‘A Ghost Story’ should never be looked at as wholly separate from Affleck, we feel as though there’s a way to both celebrate the work of certain artists while also not ignoring the problems that arise with his involvement. We hope we’ve been responsible and we stand with survivors and victims. 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

Ranking Christopher Nolan’s 10 films

Pretty quickly, one realizes that Christopher Nolan has never made a “bad” movie. Some have been a bit more divisive than others, but even then, none have failed financially or critically, or in the eyes of the public. His lowest rated film on RottenTomatoes, at 71%, is Interstellar, a film many, including myself, consider their favorite of all time. So then, a list of this type comes down to being about the good and the great, which makes it all the more exciting, but all the more difficult to truly nail down rankings. Some films have impacted culture unlike most movies in general, while others are some of the most impressively crafted pieces of art of our time, even if they lack similar cultural impact. But after long deliberation — and I must make note that these are what I think are his best, not my favorite, as that is a whole other list — I’ve come to a ranking I feel comfortable with:

10. Following

Following

Zeitgeist/Syncopy/Courtesy

Following is a fantastic film, and it’s still #10. The main reason for that is that it seems like here, Nolan was out to prove himself, which rendered the film as more of a showcase for what was to come than a full film in and of itself. And yet, Following is built on such an intriguing structure that really does show that Nolan is a singular storyteller. With impressive performances and sharp technical composition on a microscopic $6,000 budget, the neo-noir is a debut that one can return to and still discover more in every time.

9. Insomnia

Al Pacino Insomnia

Summit/Warner Bros/Courtesy

Insomnia has sparked a lot of discussion from Nolan fans about whether or not it really is a “Nolan” film. It’s the only one he doesn’t have a writing credit on, although Nolan was involved in later drafts of the script. But, perhaps in result of the scripting situation, it’s the only film of his that doesn’t seem to have as sharp of a story as others.

Yet, when one really looks at Nolan’s career, it becomes quite simple to place Insomnia as a vital step within it. The film falls in line with his investigations into the validity of truth and what that means for his protagonists. And, even though its executed in a different way, Insomnia also creates a fascinating exploration of time — not only through Detective Dormer’s haze of insomnia, but also through his aging career. There may not be enough “pop” for some people’s liking, but with great performances from Al Pacino and Robin Williams as well as a crime intrigue that would explode over the rest of his career, Insomnia is an astonishingly good film to be at #9.

8. Batman Begins

Batman Begins

Warner Bros/Courtesy

Batman Begins revolutionized not only the superhero genre, but the blockbuster genre as well. To this day, many still reference the movie as inspiration for their gritty, realist take on whatever film they’re making.

And it is just that spectacular. The way Nolan slips through periods of time to craft the growth and development of Bruce Wayne from his youth through to his decision to build the identity of the Batman is structurally ingenious and some of the best “origin” work there is. Batman Begins truly does take the Caped Crusader and put him in a light that he was always meant to be under.

But there are two reasons that it stands lower. The film struggles in its third act, reverting to a bombastic (in a not so good way) mess of a climactic battle that seems so out of place for Nolan. It also feels as though, here, Nolan is still searching for the true feel of the world. The color palette changes rather jarringly between this installment and the next, and some of the more fantastical elements seem fit in a Burton film, not a Nolan one.

7. The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises

Warner Bros/Courtesy

The Dark Knight Rises seems to get the most flack out of all of Nolan’s films, and it’s not for no reason. The final installment of his Batman trilogy does crumble, in ways, under its massive ambitions. Plot holes are a bit more prevalent than they’ve been with Nolan, and some deus ex machinas pop up here and there.

But it’s difficult to not be impressed by his grand vision. While some films present a grand ideology as a mask and never expand upon it, The Dark Knight Rises carries its societal complexities through its 165 minutes with full force — seemingly because the film is in the vein of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

The ideology is muddled for some, but the scope is undeniable. With inspiration from the Dickens novel, and in simply keeping with Batman tradition, the city of Gotham is a living and breathing character unlike it ever has been before.

And as a third and final installment, The Dark Knight Rises also closes Bruce Wayne’s arc in such a resonant and fulfilling manner. Even with its imperfections, the film ends his journey in an equally epic and intimate manner, a feat most trilogies struggle accomplish.

6. Memento 

Guy Pearce Memento

Summit/Newmarket/Courtesy

Memento, the film that truly placed Nolan on the map, will forever remain a stunningly iconic piece of cinema — it’s already being referenced and utilized in film schools as a representation of structure, editing and the evolvement of the noir genre.

And all praise is wholly earned. While some may call Nolan’s structures “gimmicks,” it’s near impossible to do so with this picture. Running backwards and forwards at the same time, the film expertly crafts both its neo-noir mystery and grittiness as well as what many experts call a perfect representation of the experience of someone with anterograde amnesia — pulled off with razor sharp editing and a visual grasp that really is the immediate maturation of Nolan as a masterful storyteller (thanks to his first collaboration with Wally Pfister).

But the elements would only add up to so much were it not for the film’s ending, which is such an unnerving and affecting idea of the self and of the self’s reality. In that sense, Memento is the first of Nolan’s films where there’s not a single wasted moment, not a single wasted frame.

5. Inception

Inception

Warner Bros/Courtesy

Inception is a cultural phenomenon, which is such a bizarre statement when one really thinks about it. This is an original, scifi blockbuster with nearly an hour and a half consisting solely of expositional dialogue, and the other hour being a time-bending, crosscutting maze.

Nolan, however, as a storyteller, captured the zeitgeist precisely because of those elements. The exposition functions as the most thorough and fascinating world-building of Nolan’s career, while never slowing down the film’s pacing because it’s interwoven with stunning visual innovation and illusion that play right back into that world-building.

As for that last hour, it’s simply a masterclass in filmmaking, specifically in editing, but also in terms of evoking theme. It functions as a Bond-esque heist thriller, which is badass in and of itself, but it also leaves a mark on viewers that they can’t shake — their realities turned upside down and questioned.

And all of that comes without mention of Leonardo DiCaprio in yet another fully committed role, and composer Hans Zimmer also at his most culturally iconic. On a good day, Inception could break the top 3, but what ends up placing it at #5 is that, upon return viewings and close inspection, such a slick film contains some rough edges. Nevertheless, Inception will last a lifetime.

4. Interstellar

screen-shot-2017-07-30-at-9-37-17-pm

Paramount/Warner Bros/Courtesy

To be clear, Interstellar is my favorite of his. But it’s difficult not to find the objective weaknesses in the movie. A few expositional scenes are not entirely necessary. Some of the thematic ambition is tonally off mark, or simply too gigantic for its own means.

But Interstellar lives with an earnestness that some sadly ignore. In Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, there’s such an intense drive of hope and for progress, delivered with such vividness and verve and evoking a sense of humanity’s innate nature for exploration — something the film needed to not completely collapse in on itself.

And the film is, quite obviously, Nolan’s most emotional work to date as well. While some complain about the aspect of love, they seem to unjustly wash over the absolutely remarkable aspects of it. Cooper saying goodbye to Murph is a scene of tragic poetics, written with a beautiful tenderness, filmed with a raw intimacy and acted so genuinely. And Cooper watching his kids grow up through 21 years of video messages is a scene that truly cannot be described. In that moment, story transcends the dimensions of film and taps into something purely human — we’re all tragic victims of time.

(And how science and love function together in that ending, after repeat viewings, of which I’ve had many, makes complete sense in respect to the dimensions that some just may not understand.)

Accenting such work, Hans Zimmer taps into a humanity he had never reached before either, resulting in his most affecting score to date. And both Zimmer and Nolan combine to craft gripping, jaw-dropping action sequences that mark Interstellar as a representation of what cinema should strive for visually.

Sure, it’s not his most well-told or well-executed story. But there’s something to be said about what Interstellar means as a piece of art, as a statement on humanity and humankind. Most will write that aspect off, but when art reaches for that, reaches that high, it becomes more important for it, and Interstellar is Nolan’s most important film thus far.

3. The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

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If it’s not for Inception, Christopher Nolan will be remembered for The Dark KnightBatman Begins may have revolutionized superhero films, but Nolan’s second Batman installment re-revolutionized it, while revolutionizing cinema in general.

First and foremost, The Dark Knight features one of the most terrifying and haunting performances of all time in Heath Ledger’s Joker. The best performances happen when an actor embodies a character, when an actor lives in a character’s bones and blood so thoroughly that they cease to exist as themselves in those moments. And Ledger strikes on that singularity of acting. The Joker is perhaps the most iconic villain in cinematic history, but credit must also be given to Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan.

With The Dark Knight, the Nolans fully realize the potential of Batman, Gotham city and the world they occupy, and ingeniously inject ideas of contemporary, post-9/11 society into the film to do so. The Joker’s mantras are fear and nihilism, manifested through terror threats. Gotham City, vulnerable, aching and scared because of its history, are the terrified. But the Nolans execute these scenes with perfection. The terror isn’t in the terrifying event itself, but in its anticipation. That’s where the epicness of The Dark Knight lies, within its thorough and unsettling sense of fear on a city-wide scale.

And those elements are completely dependent on how The Dark Knight functions as a crime drama, specifically on a human level. Some complain that Bruce Wayne is really the third most prevalent character of the film, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I would retort that that’s because, while Batman Begins is Bruce Wayne’s story, The Dark Knight is Batman’s story. The tragic fall of man necessary to crime dramas are found within Batman, Jim Gordon and, most obviously, Harvey Dent. All three are tested in ways that question their moral center and break their moral codes. The trio’s chemistry is dynamic and lively, grand and intimate. In that sense, The Dark Knight really does earn its comparisons as the contemporary version of The Godfather.

If the film had the efficiency and pacing of Batman Begins and a more overt necessity of Bruce Wayne, not as his own character, but as a necessary duality of Batman like The Dark Knight Rises, then The Dark Knight nears complete perfection. It stands slightly away from that, but there’s something to be said about how it handles the top of Bruce Wayne’s character arc. It is undoubtedly another cultural phenomenon, and a step forward for film altogether, and that matters for so much.

2. The Prestige

Christian Bale The Prestige

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For a long time, The Prestige went under-appreciated by most. But the film has aged unbelievably well, with many critics ranking it as Nolan’s best prior to Dunkirk‘s release. The Prestige will never match the cultural recognition of almost all of Nolan’s films. But it was, for a long time, his most perfectly crafted. Think the perfection, on all levels, of Memento, and intensify it.

The structure is informed, an illusion itself that defines the DNA of the film. There is no other way of telling this story. The shifts in time not only set up the deception, but thoroughly color and accent the rivalry — one of the best in contemporary film.

And that’s where The Prestige steps above Memento and, in turn, above most others: how its characters inhabit such its perfectly crafted world. The chemistry between Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, in regard to their hatred and despise of one another, is electric. Jackman is at his career best, owning his character’s desperation and obsession with an aura of truth that he only comes close to again in Logan. Bale’s performance is less overt, but just as impressive, with him having to convey a subtle truth about his character that builds just as much depth.

As said before, it all comes back down to the pitch perfect execution of their machinations. But it’s as the film wraps up, as the film pulls off its own “prestige,” that we begin to recognize how each frame that came before knew of its place, of its meaning — not one frame wasted. Some have strangely chided the film’s ending, but what’s built to in those final moments is really what the entire story was setting up thematically.

Oh, and did I mention that David Bowie (RIP) plays Nikola Tesla and is so good?

The Prestige has been the best of Nolan as a storyteller and a filmmaker for so long. But there’s just one aspect that’s let it sink, just one factor that keeps it away, and rightfully so, from the #1 spot.

1. Dunkirk 

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It feels quite wrong for Nolan’s “best film” to not be a blockbuster, to not be a grand spectacle, and, truly, that’s what places Dunkirk above the rest. Its The Prestige-level of storytelling but in the massive scope that Nolan has always aimed for. Following was a showcase for his talents, and 19 years later, they’ve been fully realized.

Parring down dialogue and plot, not in response to critics, but in line with what the story calls for, Dunkirk features a method more refined than in any of Nolan’s other work. The film starts with a simple goal, of immersion, and branches out its impact from there.

The immersion starts with a capitalization of the IMAX 70mm format unlike any of his previous outings. Sound, cinematography, editing, setting, scale and the pure massive image on a true IMAX screen all coalesce and augment one another in ways that cinema should aim for visually. Cinema is about the image and, especially with this method, Dunkirk ends up being Nolan’s most cinematic endeavor.

But through immersion, he builds tension. His time-bending structure avoids gimmickry, evoking ideas of perspective and truth, but also serving as a literal experiential manipulation to manufacture the most intense action of his entire career. There’s such a viscerally invasive sense of suspense that grasps your spine and doesn’t let go for 106 minutes, only made more affecting by an entirely in-tune Hans Zimmer and his anxiety-inducing, rising, unforgiving score that makes use of the exact same manipulation to generate tension.

And, through the perfection of craft on all levels, through a singularity of filmmaking in all aspects, the film succeeds thematically as well. Each technical and more methodical choice seems to enrich theme, and that’s the way it should be.

Dunkirk is about the nameless, the faceless. It’s about the terror of war and the perspective of all of those involved in the action of this massive of event, while also digging down on a distinctly, intimately human level too. It’s about the disjointedness and senselessness of war and how that affects the humans involved, fair or not. But, finally, it’s about togetherness. Even with the disparate truths of experience between the soldiers in the air, the soldiers on the beaches and the civilians on the sea, Nolan builds a togetherness. He builds character, story and meaning through action, some moments more subtle than others, but all evoking what’s so special about the event and its aftermath: the “Dunkirk spirit.”

Dunkirk will never reach the cultural impact or significance of most of Nolan’s films. It couldn’t. But in its efforts of purely cinematic storytelling, on the big screen, and, on quite a new level for Nolan, what it means in regard to history and how it builds its truth, Dunkirk is something we haven’t gotten before, even with Nolan, and something we could only get with him in the future.

‘Dunkirk’ Review: Christopher Nolan’s moving war epic is an unparalleled directorial feat

Dunkirk is, in a measured 106 minutes, one of the most impressively crafted films of recent memory, and Christopher Nolan’s greatest achievement, so far, as a filmmaker — something that holds immeasurable weight considering that this is the director of The Dark Knight TrilogyInception and Interstellar.

The three threads of the story — land, sea and air — occur on different timelines. But the concept is executed on an ingenious level. There’s never a sense of narrative momentum slowing down with these jumps, and that’s because they never actually slow down. Each thread, even if touching on story beats we’ve already met, is running forward with unstoppable force. The narratives are always progressing.

As the film unfolds, we get a sense that the slippage of time, of one thread onto another, is just the beginning of a process. The threads start to get closer and closer. The characters colliding. Hans Zimmer’s score building. Their space narrowing down to a single place in time. And as they coalesce — after hours of viscerally immersive cinematography and practical effects, in the cockpits of real Spitfires, on the actual sand of the Dunkirk beaches, on the cramped decks of a civilian boat actually out in the waters, all toned by a bone-shakingly haunting soundscape — the tension overwhelms one into a transfixed terror.

While Dunkirk doesn’t actually bleed, except for a brief moment, the film’s veins do bleed with senselessness. There is no mercy in war. No simple path. No logic. There is only terror. And Nolan’s film does that as well as war films with blood.

And yet, all would be for only so much were the film not laced with every ounce of humanity Nolan could bring to it. The emotions that Nolan concerns himself with are the heroics of war within the faceless, within the nameless. Men whom history won’t remember as anything other than nameless and faceless. As the film rises from the terror, and as composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s Variation 15, a version of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, plays, Dunkirk proves its unbearably moving heart, a hear that renders survival as victory.

Grade: A+

Our full review of Dunkirk

 

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ is a structural masterpiece of tension, crafting emotion out of immersion — Full Review

*Warning* Spoilers ahead. Stop reading if you haven’t seen the film.

As Dunkirk required three timelines to tell its story, I required three viewings before reviewing. One to plunge into the filth. A second to discover what I missed. The time inbetween to read up on more background and intricacies. And a third to absorb as close to an entirety as I can.

And yet, an ‘entirety’ is entirely out of reach. Even on the 5,000+ square feet of an IMAX 70mm screen, details are so ingrained within each frame that it becomes impossible. That’s the nature of movies, however. And specifically, that’s the nature of Dunkirk.

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We were never meant to receive each piece of experiential information. We must simply be aware of their presence because the film is as massive as it is intimate. As we run on, sail across and fly through the vastness of land, sea and air with these characters, we’re constantly stuck in suffocating spaces — the countless bodies lined up on the mole, the tight cabins of the Moonstone, the seemingly inescapable naval destroyer interiors and the rattling cockpit of a Spitfire.

That’s the contradiction that director Christopher Nolan must overcome. On their surface, land, sea and air are the most wide open of visual scapes. In Dunkirk, they’re the cell with no escape.

One of the most stunning shots of the entire film shows precisely how Nolan does it. As enemy planes dive bomb the beaches, the film cuts to a wide shot of the scrambling men in the sand, framed by two (prison) bars.

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These may be wide open plains, but there’s nowhere to hide. As 400,000 Allied forces find themselves surrounded by enemy troops on the beaches of France, one sense arises: we’re trapped. And only one sense comes next: we must survive.

As Christopher Nolan has said time and time again, Dunkirk is a suspense film before it’s a war film. Its main question is not of the politics of how the Allied troops got to where they were. It’s simply a response to the situation, a matter of the soldiers’ perspective: will they survive? The soldiers didn’t know the exact position of the enemy, the reason why the RAF weren’t showing up or anything another film may show. So, neither will we. We’re simply planted alongside the soldiers, improvising and panicking as one of them.

With such a goal, Dunkirk becomes, in a measured 106 minutes, one of the most impressively crafted films of recent memory, and Nolan’s greatest achievement, so far, as a filmmaker — something that holds immeasurable weight considering that this is the director of The Dark Knight TrilogyInception and Interstellar.

There’s a method here more polished than in any of Nolan’s previous work. Taking the film’s goals, the genre and Nolan’s affinity for practical effects and large format offers immersion on an unmatched level.

Most of Dunkirk’s aerial sequences were filmed in just that: the air. Retrofitting old planes and inventing rigs for IMAX cameras, as well as sending the actors up into the sky make for images that tap into unidentifiable aspects of our viewing minds, aspects that allow us to process when real physics — of planes executing meticulous turns in the sky’s true air — are at work. It’s a difference that just can’t be understated and it’s a difference that Nolan doesn’t waste, precisely because of how those fights are orchestrated.

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While X Wings are quick to down their targets, Spitfires, flown by Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), are slow and methodical. It takes minutes for our pilots to line up their guns and, nine times out of ten, those bullets will miss. It takes fierce, dedicated evation to stay alive, and careful communication to execute the perfect shot. Dunkirk’s aerial battles are more so eerie and unnerving, yet gracefully beautiful dances, which makes for better battles.

But the fact of the matter is that these sequences, and the rest of the masterclass action, of which it feels egregious to simply brush over, are in service of a larger technical endeavor. This is a suspense film, built on tension. And thus, Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer design their respective work to build tension. With a score that feels more like an augmentation of an already vicious and grueling soundscape, Zimmer utilizes the musical illusion of the Shepard Tone.

In simple terms, the Shepard Tone is an illusion consisting of three layers of sound, all an octave apart. The top layer moves from loud to soft. The middle layer stays the same. And the bottom layer moves from soft to loud. The effect is a constant feeling of rising tension. So while there may be a constant ticking, one that is undoubtedly central to the idea of time running out and to a sense of tension, the true core of this score lies in its ghostly, unforgiving, oceanic orchestra.

But Nolan makes use of the same trick in his own work. His intention with his three part structure was to adapt the Shepard Tone, an initially musical phenomenon, to writing and, in turn, to a film.

How can that work though? The three threads occur on different timelines. When they cross, we jump backwards and forwards. There’s a disjointedness to its structure.

We’ll get to that last part. But the concept is executed on an ingenious level. There’s never a sense of narrative momentum slowing down with these jumps, and that’s because they never actually slow down. Each thread, even if touching on story beats we’ve already met, is running forward with unstoppable force. The narratives are always progressing. If we’re jumping back to a moment we’ve seen before, it works because it’s a new moment in the thread we occupy.

For Dunkirk, one of the most massive and important events of the 20th century, such crafting of tension is the only way to approach this story.

And it works. As the film unfolds, we get a sense that the slippage of time, of one thread onto another, is just the beginning of a process. The threads start to get closer and closer. The characters colliding. The score building. Their space narrowing down to a single place in time.

And as we reach it, and as The Oil, one of Zimmer’s most truly affecting pieces ever composed, begins to play, the built up pressure, the gravest of circumstances, the grimmest of violence and the senselessness of survival all coalesce into a feeling of cinematic immersion singular to itself.

A ship is bombed, oil spills and soldiers swim helplessly in the water as the Moonstone braves waves to save as many as it can. And by virtue of editor Lee Smith’s absolutely refined work in bringing the filmic version of the Shepard Tone to fruition, the tension overwhelms one into a transfixed terror.

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There is truly no appropriate description for such a feat of cinema, of filmmaking, of storytelling, all with a purpose, a purpose that fits.

And yet, all would be for only so much were the film not laced with every ounce of humanity Nolan could bring to it. It may seem cold to some at first. But upon reflection and return, Dunkirk’s idea of namelessness, near facelessness, all without much background, if any at all, is informed. And it comes in two shapes. Terror and togetherness, both crafted through perspective.

The terror of the situation is evident from the start. A surface swim into history will provide enough context to scare. But it’s in how Nolan crafts the scenario.

Bullets pierce without origin, without cinematic warning and with only an intention to kill. As hundreds of thousands of soldiers slowly rise after dive bombers sweep the beaches, hundreds, if not thousands remain motionless on the sand, built into the mise-en-scene as the cinematography lingers for long enough, but briefly enough to truly haunt.

The entire opening, filled with biting violin strikes as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) carry a man on a stretcher for what seems like miles across the beach and the mole to a hospital ship about to leave, simply results in the downing of that very ship, with tens of wounded men on board, via enemy bombing.

With only seconds to decide, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) yells at the top of his lungs that the ship must be pushed away from the mole as it sinks — if not, then the mole would be completely blocked as an escape route. These are the sacrifices that must be made, captured as the camera slowly tracks away from Bolton’s frozen fear as all he can do is watch men flail overboard.

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Warner Bros/Courtesy

As the ship collides into the mole for a moment, and Alex (Harry Styles) is pulled away in the knick of time, a voice can be heard screaming as its body is crushed. The camera, of course, lingers.

While Dunkirk doesn’t actually bleed, except for a brief moment on the Moonstone, the film’s veins do bleed with senselessness. There is no mercy in war. No simple path. No logic. There is only terror. And Nolan’s film does that as well as war films with blood.

In fact, this idea of terror, and its causes on the individual, can be traced back through Nolan’s career, most significantly to The Dark Knight — what many call a response to post-9/11 US society. In that seminal film, the terror truly manifests not when the events happens, but as those they could happen to anticipate them.

The same can be said with Dunkirk. Some call Harry Styles’ Alex a villain, but what he actually represents is one of the more obvious victims of terror.

In his anticipation of terror, Alex turns on Gibson, a man who saved Alex’s life when he opened the door for drowning soldiers within the destroyer sinking after a torpedo strike, and accuses him of being a “German spy” with “an accent thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

The scene is the one that proves Styles as more than a serviceable actor — because, as Nolan has said, the scene contains a subtle truth dependent on him to deliver. These lines of dialogue hold one of the very few direct mentions of the Germans. Outside of this scene, they’ve simply been called “the enemy,” and are never shown — their villainy more an idea than a people. But as a man anticipates the worst of terror, his potential death, it is he, one of our heroes, who throws the name of the enemy at one of his own.

War evokes tribalism, primalism even. There is one goal: survival. And even in his most vulnerable and terrified state, Alex states a truth of the matter: “survival isn’t fair.”

The idea calls to mind George (Barry Keoghan), the 17 year old boy sailing with Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s father Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who is knocked down the stairs to below deck on the Moonstone by the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), bashing his head, incurring brain trauma and dying off screen.

His death is senseless. His death isn’t fair. The Shivering Soldier, a man consumed by his own fear, by his own anticipation of terror, causes George’s death. The burden of such an accident on someone who never intended harm isn’t fair.

But the deck of the Moonstone — where the Shivering Soldier, perhaps the most irredeemable character of Dunkirk, stands — is where we find that other aspect of humanity: togetherness.

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The Moonstone ‘little ship’ in Dunkirk — Warner Bros/Courtesy

As the climax of the filmic Shepard Tone reaches, the film slows down momentarily. At this point, George has fallen and revealed that he can’t see. Peter has attempted to comfort him as much as possible, but can’t do much more.

The Moonstone sails into the climactic battle, rescuing soldiers, Alex among them. Alex ventures below deck and discovers George. Peter frantically says, “Be careful with him.” But Alex replies, “He’s dead, mate.”

Peter pauses to process, and then says, “Well be bloody careful with him.”

Peter looks at his father at the ship’s wheel. The Shivering Soldier, having checked on the boy’s well-being before — to which Peter initially chided him — asks again if the boy will be okay. Peter stares at him. Then, despite just learning of George’s death, he nods.

The moment is among many. A togetherness marks the film with such powerful, purposeful quietude.

Near the beginning of the film, Gibson hands over a container of water, an implied scarcity, to thirsty stranger Tommy. Later on, as the naval destroyer is torpedoed and begins to sink, Gibson nearly jumps over board. But, after hearing the faceless screams of those trapped inside, risks his life to open the door to the interior, saving them. As Gibson gains a spot on a tiny departing boat, while Tommy and Alex are denied access, Gibson slips off a rope so that they may hold on as they row back to shore.

Farrier, low on fuel and turning around to head back to mainland, sees an enemy bomber in his rear mirror as it targets boats below. He’s right there. And no one else is. He turns around.

Tom Hardy Dunkirk

Warner Bros/Courtesy

Despite accusing Gibson of being a spy and nearly forcing him to walk into slaughter, Alex, as their temporary hideaway ship sinks, makes sure to make Gibson aware that they’re escaping. In tragic senselessness, the man who has saved the most lives drowns. But it’s the man who nearly had him killed who tries to help him in the end.

Perhaps the film’s most touching moment can only be recognized in hindsight. Throughout Dunkirk, Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson and his son marvel at the sight of the RAF’s Spitfires.

At one point, Collins’ plane gets shot and he must make an emergency crash into the ocean. Mr. Dawson tracks the crash, steering intently at its site. As the plane downs, Peter tells his dad that there’s no use, that the engine cut and a parachute wasn’t pulled. Mr. Dawson ignores. Peter repeats. Mr. Dawson ignores again. Peter insists. And Rylance superbly delivers his following lines with a sense of desperate helplessness, touched by aching sadness. “I hear you Peter, I hear you,” he yells. He begins to trail off. “Maybe he’s alive.” Even more so. “Maybe we can help him.”

Mark Rylance Dunkirk

Warner Bros/Courtesy

It’s not until the end of the film that we learn that Mr. Dawson’s oldest son, Peter’s brother, was an RAF pilot, but died three weeks into the war. And finally, the moment clicks. As Collins goes down, all Mr. Dawson can see is his oldest son. He wasn’t able to save his son. But maybe he can save Collins. Maybe that can mean something.

There are many more. They may be missed at first, but that’s simply because of the event within which they take place and the fact that they’re not forced.

But both togetherness and senselessness merge and unify. They both come back to the moment with Peter and the Shivering Soldier after George’s death, and the return to England when Peter gets George in the paper as a hero at Dunkirk. In this sense, as he has done so many times before, Nolan tackles the notion of truth, the value of truth. But while he may be questioning it in previous films, stating that, sometimes, truth isn’t for the best, it almost seems like, with Dunkirk, he’s positing that this grand idea of truth is simply impossible.

The film’s multiple perspectives and disjointed structure may never be fully figured out. It’s difficult to tell exactly where everything stands and when — its jaggedness purposeful in disorientation. But that sense evokes this idea that each perspective holds its own truth, its own reality. And like Inception, that may be valid in itself. For the men on the beaches, the RAF left them in the dust. For a pilot like Collins, he fought his own near deadly war. We empathize with the soldier who asks Collins, “Where were you?” But we also empathize with Collins through Mr. Dawson’s lines. Pointing to the Moonstone, he says, “They know where you were.”

The Shivering Soldier has suffered enough. He may be the cause, but he is not to blame for George’s death. His truth is not in George’s death, but rather in his overcoming of his self in the aftermath. And, with it being after his change, his sight of George’s body at the end will only help him come to terms with war.

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Cillian Murphy as the Shivering Soldier in Dunkirk — Warner Bros/Courtesy

For George, he took one step that changed his life. While he may not have made it to Dunkirk, while he may not have been directly involved in saving anyone, that step is a bravery to be rewarded, especially with his death as a result of senselessness and the privilege of the living left behind. His name belongs in the paper because, in that moment, the truth doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is an idea of truth.

And it is the idea of truth that elevates the reading of Winston Churchill’s famous address by young Tommy.

The heroics of war are everywhere. In the leaders, sure. But history will be kind to accomplished leaders, to singular individuals easy to point out.

What Nolan concerns himself with is the heroics of war within the faceless, within the nameless. Men whom history won’t remember as anything other than nameless and faceless. Men who’ve gone through hell and come back. Men who blame themselves, feel ashamed of themselves as Alex does when he first boards the train. Tommy — who represents that merge of togetherness and terror, as he rejects tribalism, but shakes with deep panic beneath the water as bullets fly above — is the face of the faceless. It is all of these men who are deserving of the words of Churchill. It is for them for which they were spoken. So it is one of these men who must read them.

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Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk — Warner Bros/Courtesy

What I’m always interested in with a film is the truth that the filmmaker brings to it. And the details of the truths that Christopher Nolan brings to Dunkirk are profound.

Nolan’s grandfather was a navigator on a Lancaster, a British plane from the Second World War. He didn’t make it out of the war, which calls to mind Tom Hardy’s Farrier. A pilot who, after indescribable, unquantifiable heroics, is captured as his plane crackles ablaze, defiant.

That nature and fate made Nolan’s father obsessively interested in planes and aviation. Nolan’s father passed away a few years ago. At his funeral played a variation of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, the musical piece which composer Benjamin Wallfisch scores his own variation of for the film’s final minutes.

While watching the film a third time, after I’d learned of Nolan’s father, the stunningly gorgeous shots of Farrier’s Spitfire gliding gracefully above the thousands of cheering soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk hold an unbearably moving truth, a truth that renders capture triumphant, a truth that turns survival into victory, a truth that crafts a heart at the center of Dunkirk and shapes the rest of its humanity throughout.

Grade: A+