Gold Standard: Christopher Nolan has a complicated history with the Oscars — ‘Dunkirk’ might end that

Christopher Nolan discusses “Dunkirk” at CinemaCon 2017.
(Chris Pizzello / Invision)

Christopher Nolan, the cross-cut-happy auteur behind artistically ambitious, hugely expensive box-office behemoths like “Inception” and the “Dark Knight” trilogy, has never earned an Oscar nomination as a director.

Fanboys and some cineastes would call that omission a grievous oversight. Nolan’s detractors would cite it as a rare example of good taste on the part of the film academy.

Expect the debate to continue this year, though the discussion might be a bit more one-sided.


Nolan’s latest film, the war movie “Dunkirk,” opened this weekend to rapturous reviews and a better-than-expected box office take of $50.5 million. The eagerness to see “Dunkirk” extended to Oscar voters, who packed the film academy’s 1,000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on Saturday night looking to see if the picture, presented in glorious 70mm, lived up to the hype.

Even considering that at this time of year academy members can bring up to three guests to screenings, the early evening line snaking blocks around the Goldwyn indicated a high level of anticipation. The turn-away crowd for the 7:30 p.m. show resulted in the academy adding a second presentation at 10 p.m.

When “Dunkirk” ended and the credits rolled, Nolan’s name elicited a roar of approval and the majority of the audience — perhaps unaccustomed to a Nolan movie running under two hours — stayed in their seats until the lights came up.

Afterward, academy members — those able to articulate their thoughts after the grueling film — expressed admiration, calling it a “tour de force,” “gut-wrenching,“ “astonishing,” “extraordinary” and, yes, a “masterpiece.” Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (BAFTA-nominated for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Interstellar,” but still looking for his first Oscar nod), composer Hans Zimmer and the film’s sound design team were singled out.

The teenage daughter of a screenwriter academy member pointed out that Harry Styles deserved an Oscar for his portrayal of a British soldier. In a reversal of custom, it was the dad, not the adolescent, rolling his eyes.

And yet, though many critics cited “Dunkirk” as the Nolan movie that might convert non-believers (leaner run time, expository dialogue kept to a minimum), some Oscar voters left the Goldwyn without the scales falling from their eyes.


The film’s elastic structure — “Dunkirk” flits between three sections (air, land and sea) taking place in different locations and (mostly) different time frames during the 1940 rescue of Allied troops caught between advancing German forces and the French coast — irked some.

“I know this guy [Nolan] is incapable of telling a story in a linear fashion,” an Oscar-nominated producer complained, noting Nolan’s signature for scrambling time in his movies, “but the results are never as meaningful as he thinks they are.”

“It’s confusing,” added his companion. “And it distances you from what’s happening on the screen. I’ve always found his movies soulless.”

The academy hasn’t completely ignored Nolan over the years, nominating him twice for writing (“Memento,” “Inception”) and giving “Inception” a best picture nod in 2011. The “Inception” nomination came during the two-year window in which Oscar voters selected a fixed 10 movies for best picture, a shift many attribute to the outrage over Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” not being nominated in 2009.

For the last six years, the academy has asked voters to list five movies, not 10, on their ballots resulting in a best picture slate that has varied between eight and nine movies, depending on how members rank the films. Nolan’s last picture, “Interstellar,” released in 2014 in the thick of awards season, failed to earn a nomination. “Dunkirk” returns the filmmaker to a familiar summer movie battleground, with box office, not the Oscars, being the primary focus — for now.

On that front, “Dunkirk” has already scored a victory. The academy’s initial reaction, largely mirroring critics’ ecstatic reviews, signals that a long campaign to the Oscars is likely in the offing.

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Twitter: @glennwhipp