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Dunkirk reviews stir Oscar buzz for 'best motion picture of the year so far'

Hans Zimmer’s score, Nolan’s screenplay and direction hailed as masterworks

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Reviews for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk are finally storming the beaches of the internet, and many movie critics are hailing the film as the English auteur’s crowning achievement among his already stacked filmography of boundary-pushing titles that have landed on the Academy’s radar in the past.

“This is visceral, big-budget filmmaking that can be called Art. It’s also, hands down, the best motion picture of the year so far,” EW’s Chris Nashawaty hails in his A-grade review. “By the end of Dunkirk, what stands out the most isn’t its inspirational message or everyday heroism. It’s the small indelible, unshakeable images that accumulate like the details in the corner of a mural.”

The three-time Oscar nominee’s latest — his 10th feature overall — dramatizes the events of the early stages of World War II, when Nazi forces closed in on over 300,000 Allied soldiers as they retreated across the shores of Dunkirk, France, where the film’s eponymous battle raged throughout May 1940. Nolan’s screenplay frames the conflict through three separate narratives, each following military men in the land, sea, and air as they navigate the hardships of war. Critics are not only singling out Nolan’s screenplay and direction as some of the finest of his career but of 2017 as a whole, signaling a potential bid for Best Picture as the awards race tightens.

Dunkirk is an impressionist masterpiece. These are not the first words you expect to see applied to a giant-budgeted summer entertainment made by one of the industry’s most dependably commercial big-name directors. But this is a war film like few others, one that may employ a large and expensive canvas but that conveys the whole through isolated, brilliantly realized, often private moments more than via sheer spectacle, although that is here too,” Todd McCarthy writes for The Hollywood Reporter, also calling the film a “stunning victory” and “not a war film of inspirational speeches, digressions about loved ones back home or hopes for the future,” as opposed to other films in the genre. “Somber, grim and as resolute in its creative confidence as the British are in this ultimate historical narrative of having one’s back to the wall, this is the film that Christopher Nolan earned the right to make thanks to his abundant contributions to Warner Bros. with his Dark Knight trilogy. He’s made the most of it.”

Also praising Nolan’s favoring of a more humanistic tone than the wild bombast of a typical summer blockbuster, Variety‘s Peter Debruge notes the filmmaker has placed a singular stamp on a well-worn genre.

“On one hand, he has delivered all the spectacle of a big-screen tentpole, ratcheting up both the tension and heroism through his intricate and occasionally overwhelming sound design, which blends a nearly omnipresent ticking stopwatch with Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score — not so much music as atmospheric noise, so bassy you can feel it rattling your vertebrae,” he writes. “But at the same time, he’s found a way to harness that technique in service of a kind of heightened reality, one that feels more immersive and immediate than whatever concerns we check at the door when entering the cinema. This is what audiences want from a Nolan movie, of course, as a master of the fantastic leaves his mark on historical events for the first time.”

The headline for The Telegraph‘s review, penned by Robbie Collin, champions the picture as “heart-hammering and heroically British,” heralding the filmmaker as operating here “at the peak of his powers.” Collin goes on to laud the score by Oscar winner Zimmer, calling Dunkirk “a silent film at heart” that comes alive thanks to the composer’s work, which is described as “battering, surging,” and “metronomically counting off the seconds.”

Peter Bradshaw, writing for The Guardian, agrees, calling the film Nolan’s best so far while singling out Zimmer’s work as “an eerie, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare” that “creates a continuous pantonal lament.”

Dunkirk storms theaters on July 21. Check out what the critics are saying about the film in the review excerpts below.

Chris Nashawaty (EW): 
“By the end of Dunkirk, what stands out the most isn’t its inspirational message or everyday heroism. It’s the small indelible, unshakeable images that accumulate like the details in the corner of a mural. A PTSD soldier walking into the surf to his death. The sight of a hit German plane silently pinwheeling down into the sea like a paper airplane. The female nurses handing out tea and comforting words to the haunted men when they’re rescued. This is visceral, big-budget filmmaking that can be called Art. It’s also, hands down, the best motion picture of the year so far.”

Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter)
“A decimation of the British at Dunkirk would almost certainly have resulted in the U.K.’s capitulation to Hitler and no American involvement in the European war. So the climax of the film, as beautiful as it is thanks to the visually stunning presentation of Hardy’s character’s fate, is more like the beginning of the real war. Even here, however, Nolan has figured out how to counter convention by having an excerpt from Churchill’s famed ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ speech of June 4, 1940 heard, not as intoned by the great orator himself, but by an ordinary soldier in very ordinary tones.”

David Ehrlich (IndieWire): 
“Neither as poetic as The Thin Red Line nor as savage as Saving Private Ryan, Nolan’s contribution to the war genre owes less to its forefathers than it does unbearably anxious thrillers like The Wages of Fear or even United 93. Riding Hans Zimmer’s typically bombastic score, which abandons melody in favor of ratcheting up the tension, Dunkirk leverages raw suspense in order to cut its characters away from their context and throw them back onto themselves. Few movies have so palpably conveyed the sheer isolation of fear, and the extent to which history is often made by people who are just trying to survive it — few movies have so vividly illustrated that one man can only do as much for his country as a country can do for one of its men. But Nolan, by stressing that grim truth to its breaking point, returns from the fray with a commanding testament to a simple idea: We may die alone, but we live together.”

Peter Debruge (Variety): 
“Steven Spielberg laid claim to the Normandy beach landing, Clint Eastwood owns Iwo Jima, and now, Christopher Nolan has authored the definitive cinematic version of Dunkirk. Unlike those other battles, however, this last was not a conventional victory, but more of a salvaged retreat, as the German offensive forced a massive evacuation of English troops early in World War II. And unlike those other two directors, Nolan is only nominally interested in the human side of the story as he puts his stamp on the heroic rescue operation, offering a bravura virtual-eyewitness account from multiple perspectives — one that fragments and then craftily interweaves events as seen from land, sea and air.”

Rosie Fletcher (Digital Spy): 
“It almost feels wrong to say that a film about a situation so grave – which involved so much loss of life – is utterly thrilling, but it just is. Nolan handles the subject matter with absolute respect, but his set pieces equal any modern fiction film for pacing, shocks and breathless adrenaline. Literally: there are times where it actually feels difficult to breathe.”

Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian): 
“Nolan’s Dunkirk has that kind of blazing big-screen certainty that I last saw in James Cameron’s Titanic or Paul Greengrass’s United 93. It is very different to his previous feature, the bafflingly overhyped sci-fi convolution Interstellar. This is a powerful, superbly crafted film with a story to tell, avoiding war porn in favour of something desolate and apocalyptic, a beachscape of shame, littered with soldiers zombified with defeat, a grimly male world with hardly any women on screen.”

Nick De Semlyen (Empire): 
“Rather than heroics, Nolan is concerned with what men can endure. Dunkirk is a study of people under immense pressure, from Rylance’s civilian-on-a-rescue-mission (call him the FBG — Friendly Boat Guy) to Cillian Murphy’s traumatised wreck-survivor (credited only as ‘Shivering Soldier’) to Harry Styles’ bolshy infantry grunt (an impressive debut performance, and definitely not the Rihanna-in-Battleship debacle you may have feared). At this darkest of hours, some of them crack; others hold firm. But all of the arcs are effectively underplayed, with muted performances, no big speeches and, in the case of Tommy, the terrified audience surrogate, almost no talking at all. It could be argued the characters are too thin, but at least there’s none of the melodrama of, say, Titanic or Pearl Harbor, two other epics based on real-life disasters. If anything, Dunkirk hews towards the arthouse, with the melancholy, spume-flecked tableaux it lingers on beautifully photographed by Interstellar DP Hoyte Van Hoytema.”

Brian Truitt (USA Today): 
Dunkirk is also one of the best-scored films in recent memory, and Hans Zimmer’s music plays as important a role as any character. With shades of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the melodies are glorious, yet Zimmer also creates an instrumental ticking-clock soundtrack that’s a propulsive force in the action scenes… Nolan’s feat is undeniable: He’s made an immersive war movie that celebrates the good of mankind while also making it clear that no victory is without sacrifice.”

Robbie Collin (The Telegraph): 
“Of the many things that stun and convulse you in Dunkirk, the smallest might have the most lasting impact. Early on, as the camera surveys the British soldiers stood along the French shoreline in thin, straggling columns, one thought – they’re so young – jams in your head like a door stop, and gets driven in harder with every passing minute. Christopher Nolan’s astonishing new film, a retelling of the Allied evacuation of occupied France in 1940, is a work of heart-hammering intensity and grandeur that demands to be seen on the best and biggest screen within reach.”