Darkest Hour (2017)

2018 #182
Joe Wright | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English & French | PG / PG-13

Darkest Hour

2017 was, for no readily apparent reason, a banner year for stories about Dunkirk making it to the big screen. In April there was Their Finest, a film about people making a film about Dunkirk (how apt). In July there was Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s high-profile telling of the evacuation itself. Finally, in January 2018 (because, when it comes to films, January and February are part of the previous year in the UK) there was this, the story of Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister of the UK in May 1940 and immediately having to deal with the situation in Dunkirk, alongside calls from within his own government to negotiate peace with Hitler — something Churchill was not inclined to do, despite the odds of winning the war not being in Britain’s favour.

The Dunkirk connection was certainly played up in the film’s marketing (the trailers made it look like Dunkirk 2), but while that situation does have a significant role to play (and both films climax with a recital of the same uber-famous speech), it’s only part of what this film’s actually about. Which does actually make it quite a neat companion piece to Nolan’s movie: it expands on the political backdrop surrounding Dunkirk, placing those events in a wider context. In doing that, it presents a different perspective on familiar events. Churchill is widely remembered as a great and beloved leader who saw us through the war, but here his own party treat him as something of a lame duck Prime Minister, and spend most of their time trying to convince him to take a different course of action.

In this respect, Darkest Hour seems dead set on removing the rose-tinted memory of World War 2 which says that “of course we stood up to those evil Nazis”. The film reminds us, and reminds us hard, that there were many people in positions of power who thought the best course was to acquiesce to Hitler — to give in and seek peace with him — and that, in many ways, their opinion was not irrational. Certainly, the film makes the case that it was the safer route in order to both secure the lives of our troops and hold off invasion of our shores. It’s relatively mature to both not hide from that reality and present the arguments as at least somewhat reasonable.

Never surrender

That said, the film fails to maintain the veneer of unvarnished historical reality for its entire running time. In the third act, Churchill boards a train and encounters members of the public in a sequence that is shamelessly, manipulatively, almost tweely patriotic and sentimental… and yet I kinda got suckered in by it anyway. I think that’s got something to do with these dark days we live in — wouldn’t it be nice to believe The General Public would want to stand up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming odds? Whether it’s historically accurate (maybe everyone was just better back then?) or whether it’s a nostalgic view of what people were prepared to stand for, I don’t know; but either way, it’s effectively aspirational.

A film like this is powered by it performances, and obviously Gary Oldman — subsumed in makeup to turn his slender frame into the famously rotund Churchill — is the stand-out. He thoroughly disappears into the role. Obviously the prosthetics help a good deal with that, but it’s also the voice, the gait, the mannerisms. Naturally he dominates the film, but there’s still some space for quality turns in the supporting roles. In particular, Stephen Dillane as the film’s de facto villain, Halifax, gives a performance that, in its own way, is just as mannered as Oldman’s (the lisping voice), but also just as subtly believable and well measured. Pretty much the same thing could be said about Ben Mendelsohn as King Colin Firth George VI.

But then there are other roles that are less well served. The women, mainly. Lily James’ secretary seems to be present merely to give a significant role to a female character, and to try to humanise Churchill by charting a very familiar “he’s tough to work with at first, but he’s got a heart of gold and is just super once you get to know him” arc. Similarly, Kristin Scott Thomas very nearly has an interesting part as Churchill’s wife, his long-time partner who’s been consistently overlooked in favour of his dedication to the public, but that’s an underdeveloped thread.

Supporting role

So, Darkest Hour is a strong movie in many ways — the male performances; Joe Wright’s classy direction; the way it manages to be simultaneously a more-realistic-than-most depiction of the “maybe we should surrender” debates in the early days of the war and a patriotic “we shall never surrender” entertainment — but it’s also let down by some of those lapses into cliché and sentiment. How susceptible you are to the almost-propagandist “this was our finest hour in the face of terrible odds, both at home and abroad” narrative may dictate how much you like the end result. For me, the aforementioned successes outweigh the faults on balance, but there’s no denying there are problems.

4 out of 5

Darkest Hour is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Best & Worst of 2017

Having listed all I watched in 2017 and analysed it thoroughly, it’s time for the finale: what I thought were the best films I saw last year.

After that, a list of major new releases that I missed, thus explaining why they’re not in my best selection (i.e. because I haven’t seen them).

But first, the less honourable list: the five worst films I saw in 2017.



The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017

In alphabetical order…

Into the Wild
Youthful Pretentiousness: The Movie. That it was written and directed by a 47-year-old, but seems to have gained none of the perspective maturity should afford, makes it even worse. It’s also a true story, and we should maybe feel sorry for the guy involved, but… well, he kind brought it all on himself, didn’t he?

London Has Fallen
You can just about enjoy this unwelcome sequel as a dumb actioner if you switch your brain off, but you really have to try to have a good time with it thanks to the cheap production values, rampant xenophobia, and furious American patriotism. If you still need putting off, consider this: I bet Trump loves this movie.

Space Jam
Last year Space Jam was recommended as one of the 50 “Must See Movies Before You Grow Up”. I disagree. It’s not funny, it’s not clever, and, even allowing for the limits of mid-’90s technology, it’s not very well made. It’s joyless and flat; a waste of time and effort. Also, one of this year’s two one-star films.

Vehicle 19
This is the other. It’s a low-budget thriller starring Paul “the one from Fast & Furious who died” Walker as a regular guy who gets in the wrong rental car and finds himself embroiled in a political conspiracy. It’s also all shot from within the car. That’s the kind of filmmaking conceit I enjoy, but Vehicle 19 provides nothing else entertaining to go with it.

Warcraft: The Beginning
Writer-director Duncan Jones, who showed such promise with Moon and Source Code, wasted several years of his career making this. Apparently he was keen to live up to what fans of the franchise expected, not just produce a generic fantasy movie with a brand name. Maybe for those guys he succeeded. For the rest of us, it’s… well, to be frank, it’s just crap.



The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017

This is the top 10% of my viewing from 2017. I saw 174 new films this year, which means this year’s “top 10” has 17 films. Should you think that’s excessive, just scroll on down and start reading wherever you please.

As always, this list is culled from all the movies I watched for the first time this year, not just new releases. However, I did watch 44 films that had their UK release in 2017, and seven of them are on my list, so I’ve noted their ‘2017 rank’ too.

2017 #7 Luc Besson’s gorgeous-looking Euro-comic space opera is a strange, sometimes messy movie, but somehow it keeps getting better the more I think about it. (Full review.)

Disney’s Polynesian princess has fantastic tunes, exciting adventure, hilarious gags, and, of course, a lot of heart. Also, a storyline that isn’t at all about finding romance. (Full review.)

2017 #6 Matthew Vaughn’s spy sequel endured a pretty mixed reception back in the summer, but I loved it. It’s inventive, provocative, irreverent, and fun. (Full review.)

The zombie subgenre should be played out ten times over by now, but then you get something like this. As with the best zombie flicks, it’s more about the humans than the monsters. But also it’s about the intense and suspenseful action sequences.

This French-Danish animation delivers understated beauty in its deceptively simple visual style, and an equally subtle but strong feminist streak in its story of one girl’s mission to reach the North Pole.

If there’s any horror creature more played-out than zombies, it’s vampires. Unless you’ve got a new angle, of course, and this fly-on-the-wall ‘documentary’ about a gang of Kiwi vamps imbues its subject with hilarity and new, er, life. (Full review.)

Grown-up sci-fi in this thoughtful and plausible exploration of man’s first contact with alien life. Would surely make a great double-bill with Arrival. (Full review.)

2017 #5 The latest attempt to bring the giant ape to the big screen is a creature-feature B-movie writ large, emboldened with all the CGI modern Hollywood can afford. Despite the marvellously pulpy story, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts brings a surprising amount of class to the endeavour, with some gorgeous cinematography and strikingly staged sequences. This may be 2017’s most underrated blockbuster. (Full review.)

2017 #4 Christopher Nolan’s first non-sci-fi/fantasy movie for 15 years is ambitious in other ways, trying to condense a massive military operation into a single movie — with the added pressure of it being a story both not often told and of immense importance: it represented a massive turning point in the Second World War. He carries it off with bold filmmaking that focuses on the intensity of the experience for the men in the thick of it, which is where he places the viewer. It’s 90 minutes of non-stop ratcheting tension, with a bit of well-earned patriotic catharsis at the end. (Full review.)

Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller foregrounds Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as a guy looking to make his fortune by racing around nighttime L.A. filming bloody crime scenes. There’s a state-of-the-nation element in the satirisation of trashy TV news and its bloodthirsty producers, but the real star is the, er, star: Gyllenhaal’s well-measured turn as a driven, unpredictable, possible psychopath. (Full review.)

The director of Once delivers another fable about people finding love through music. This time it’s about a gaggle of school kids, lending a coming-of-age universality and a kind of nostalgic melancholy — you don’t have to have been in a band, or grown up during the film’s 80s setting, to relate to the bittersweetness, the horrors and the wonders, of young love. (Full review.)

I watched It’s a Wonderful Life out of a sense of duty: it’s an iconic Christmas film, well rated on polls like the IMDb Top 250, but (obviously) I’d never seen it. I set out merely to rectify that, expecting to find something a bit saccharine and twee… but, blow me down, it’s not that at all: it’s a beautiful, brilliantly made, genuinely moving film. I even got something in my eye during the (inevitable) conclusion. My only regret is I didn’t watch it sooner.

2017 #3 I don’t think many people (if anyone) expected much when they rebooted Planet of the Apes back in 2011, but what’s followed is one of the great movie trilogies of our time. This concluding instalment could’ve lived up to its title and been an epic battle extravaganza, but that probably would’ve been a soulless disappointment. Instead, it remains focused on its characters — primarily Andy Serkis’ remarkable performance as the apes’ leader — to tell a tale that’s as much about internal battles as external ones. (Full review.)

Empire magazine picked this as their best film of 2016, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them (even though, today, I’ve ranked another one higher). The story of a young delinquent bonding with his reluctant foster father, it features the kind of quirky comedy, but with heartfelt dramatic undertones, that you only tend to get from small countries and their indie movies. It manages a perfect tightrope walk that renders it both sidesplittingly hilarious and sweetly moving. (Full review.)

I watched Kubo and Wilderpeople back to back all the way back in January, and felt at the time they were dead certs for my top ten — and here they are, almost a full year later, side by side again in the very upper echelons of my list. I thought long and hard about that, dear reader, because I didn’t want to be placing them here on the autopilot of 12-month-old suspicions. Now, I’m sure I’m not. Kubo is a majestic adventure movie, with truly stunning stop-motion animation and a powerful story, that deserves to be recognised outside of the confines of “animation” or “kids’ movies”. (Full review.)

2017 #2 This is the third movie in my top ten driven by music (the others were Kubo and, of course, Sing Street) — which is neither here nor there, merely a connection I literally just noticed. In this instance “driven” is the operative word, because it’s about a brilliant young getaway driver who choreographs his escapes to music blaring from his iPod. Writer-director Edgar Wright extends that conceit outward into the entire movie, with almost every key sequence perfectly underscored by an eclectic soundtrack. The action is thrilling, the dialogue is snappy, and the whole concoction is pure movie-magic entertainment. (Full review.)

2017 #1 Talking of placing things on autopilot, here’s another I made sure to have a good think about. When I first thought, “I wonder what my #1 movie will be this year?”, my mind immediately fired back with, “Blade Runner 2049.” But I made sure to think it through, in ways I won’t bore you with, and I came fairly close to putting Baby Driver here, but in the end I settled on Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi sequel (meaning the Canadian director tops my list for the second year in a row). I’m not even sure where to begin praising or explaining why this film is my favourite of the year, there’s just so much about it that’s perfect: the numerous thought-provoking sci-fi concepts that are carefully explored; the endlessly gorgeous cinematography (if Roger Deakins doesn’t get that Oscar now…); the way it builds out of the first movie but doesn’t entirely rely on it (as Drew McWeeny put it in his top ten article, “Blade Runner 2049 stands as a work of science-fiction that is so packed with ideas and invention and character that the single least interesting thing about it is that it also happens to be connected to another movie”)… I could go on (but that’s what my full review is for). It’s an incredible piece of work that can stand proudly alongside the classic original — which is perhaps its greatest achievement.


As usual, I’d just like to highlight a few other films.

Firstly, I can’t end this without mentioning the 31 films that earned themselves 5-star ratings this year. Already included in my top 17 we had these 13: Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, Contact, Dunkirk, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, It’s a Wonderful Life, Kubo and the Two Strings, Long Way North, Nightcrawler, Sing Street, Train to Busan, War for the Planet of the Apes, and What We Do in the Shadows. The remaining 18 were: The 39 Steps, Black Swan, City of God, The Conversation, Drive, The Exorcist, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Girl with All the Gifts, Her, In the Loop, It Follows, Manchester by the Sea, A Matter of Life and Death, Moon, Moonlight, Nocturnal Animals, Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno, and Yojimbo. Plus there was also full marks for the Black & Chrome version of Mad Max: Fury Road, and for two films I reviewed after watching them during my Rewatchathon, Jaws and The Terminator.

Additionally, let’s recap the 12 films that won Favourite Film of the Month at the Arbies, some of which have already been mentioned in this post and some of which haven’t. They were all in contention for my top 17, but obviously they didn’t all make it in. So, in chronological order (with links to the relevant monthly update): Kubo and the Two Strings, Fandango, Long Way North, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Nightcrawler, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes, Shin Godzilla, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Blade Runner 2049, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Finally, a special shout-out to several of this year’s big superhero movies, which I enjoyed a lot but didn’t quite make it into my top 17: The LEGO Batman Movie, Logan, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok. I liked most of the others too (even Justice League, as my review attests) but, unlike those four, they were never seriously in the running for my top 17.


I watched 36 movies from 2017 during 2017, including most of the big blockbusters, but that still leaves a considerable number of notable releases that I missed. As is my tradition, then, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films that I’ve not seen and are listed as 2017 on IMDb (with a couple of exceptions for films that are really from 2017 but happened to screen at a festival or two in 2016). In many cases these ‘missed’ films are awards-y movies that aren’t actually out in the UK yet (there are “2017” movies scheduled through until at least July 2018).

The films in this list have been selected for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety — some of these are films I have no intention of watching!

Beauty and the Beast
The Death of Stalin
The Hitman's Bodyguard
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
mother!
The Shape of Water
The Dark Tower
Fast and Furious 8
It
Logan Lucky
The Post
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
All the Money in the World
American Made
Battle of the Sexes
Baywatch
Beauty and the Beast
The Big Sick
The Boss Baby
Call Me by Your Name
Cars 3
Coco
The Dark Tower
Darkest Hour
The Death of Stalin
Despicable Me 3
The Disaster Artist
Downsizing
The Emoji Movie
Fast & Furious 8
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
The Florida Project
The Foreigner
Geostorm
The Greatest Showman
Happy Death Day
The Hitman’s Bodyguard
I, Tonya
It
It Comes at Night
Jigsaw
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Lady Bird
Lady Macbeth
The LEGO Ninjago Movie
Logan Lucky
The Lost City of Z
Molly’s Game
mother!
Okja
Phantom Thread
The Post
Power Rangers
The Shape of Water
The Snowman
Their Finest
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Transformers: The Last Knight
Victoria & Abdul
Wonder

…and many more.


And that’s 2017 all wrapped up. Well, apart from the fact I’ve got 54 reviews left to write. That’s the worst it’s ever been. I’ll be a while getting through them yet (even if I posted one a day from tomorrow, I’d still be going in March).

Anyway, a belated Happy New Year to you all. May 2018 bring you the viewing of many films — at least 100, amiright?

My Top 5 Most-Read New Posts in 2017

Last year I published a Top 5 of my most-read new posts in 2016, mainly to point out that I had no idea why the post that was #1 was #1. This year there’s no such oddness, but as I found it an interesting(-ish) exercise nonetheless, here we go again…

This year, all five of my most-read posts are from my TV review column. I don’t know if the TV-reviewing blogosphere is just less saturated than the film one (I’d wager not) or if the fact I combine multiple series in each post has a massive impact on their popularity (more likely), but they’re what get the biggest numbers for new content.

But this is a film blog (it’s in the title), so this year I’m doing two top fives: the genuine top 5 most-read new posts in 2017, which is also the top 5 most-read new TV-related posts, and then the top 5 most-read new film-related posts.

Without further ado:

The Top 5 Most-Read New Posts in 2017
(aka The Top 5 Most-Read New TV-Related Posts in 2017)

5) The Past Month on TV #21
including Game of Thrones season 7 episodes 2-5, Top of the Lake: China Girl, Twin Peaks season 3 episodes 11-14, Line of Duty series 3 episodes 4-6, Peaky Blinders series 2, The Bletchley Circle series 1 and 2, The Musketeers series 3 episodes 1-3, Sherlock’s pilot, and Wallander series 4 episodes 2-3.

4) The Past Month on TV #13
including A Series of Unfortunate Events season 1, Sherlock series 4, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the Arrowverse crossover Invasion!, Elementary season 5 episodes 1-3, Outnumbered’s 2016 Christmas special, and the Vicious series finale.

3) The Past Fortnight on TV #22
including Marvel’s The Defenders season 1, Game of Thrones season 7 episodes 6-7, Twin Peaks season 3 episodes 15-16, Designated Survivor season 1, and Rick and Morty season 1 episode 1.

2) The Past Month on TV #16
including Doctor Who series 10 episode 1, Marvel’s Iron Fist season 1, The Flash / Supergirl crossover episode Duet, The Crown season 1, Line of Duty series 2, Twin Peaks season 2 episodes 1-9, 24: Legacy season 1 episodes 5-8, Broadchurch series 3 episodes 4-8, and Unforgotten series 1.

1) The Past Month on TV #15
including 24: Legacy season 1 episodes 1-4, Broadchurch series 3 episodes 1-3, the 89th Academy Awards, Luther series 4, Peaky Blinders series 1, Twin Peaks season 1, Death in Paradise series 6 episodes 7-8, Elementary season 5 episodes 10-13, and Let’s Sing and Dance for Comic Relief series 1 episodes 1-2.

The Top 5 Most-Read New Film-Related Posts in 2017

In 6th to 9th place were more TV posts. The following ranked 10th to =13th overall.

=4) iBoy / Thor: Ragnarok
Netflix original iBoy was released all the way back in January, so had 11 full months to rack up hits. Marvel’s latest adventure, Thor: Ragnarok, came out just over two months ago, but quickly surpassed iBoy… only for iBoy to close the gap again in a small last-minute resurgence, weirdly. They both have hundreds of hits too, so it’s a helluva coincidence they should wind up with exactly the same total.

3) Logan
The second (and last) superhero movie in this top five. Like everything in this list, my review was posted shortly after it hit cinemas — people love new releases.

2) Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan’s almost-arthouse WW2 IMAX-shot epic is, according to most, one of the best films of the year and a frontrunner in the imminent Oscars race. Whether that explains why it got so many hits back in July, I don’t know. It might explain why it got nearly ten times as many hits in December as it did in November, though.

1) Alien: Covenant
Ridley Scott’s second attempt at launching a new trilogy in the Alien universe met with a mixed reception across the board, but excelled in this category at least. It can’t’ve hurt that I posted my review a couple of days before it even came out in the US — if there’s one thing people love more than reviews of recent releases, it’s reviews of things that aren’t even out yet. It hasn’t experienced a recent increase in interest like Dunkirk either, with 70% of those hits acquired in the first two weeks after I posted it. It’s also already my fourth most-read film review of all time. Who’d’ve thunk it?

One final observation…

Looking back at my most-viewed posts in individual months, in 2015 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came top in ten months and Chamber of Secrets in the other two. Then in 2016 Philosopher’s Stone was my most-viewed post every single month. But in 2017 it’s been top just four times. Fair play, that’s still far more than any other individual post (TV #15 and TV #22 are joint second with two apiece), but it’s gone from being unassailable to being regularly bested. There were even three months — a whole quarter of the year — when it didn’t make the top five.

The days of those two Harry Potter reviews accounting for an obscene proportion of visitors to this blog seem to be over… to be replaced by people looking for TV reviews. Funny old world.

The Driven Monthly Update for July 2017

It may be the silly season in cinemas, the time when summer blockbusters are at their most prolific, but July is traditionally one of my worst months for viewing — it has the lowest average (just 7.1) and is also the only month in 10½ years of 100 Films when I’ve failed to watch a single film (back in 2009). The story’s a little different this year, though…


#91 Big (1988)
#92 Headshot (2016)
#93 Inferno (2016)
#94 Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
#95 ’71 (2014)
#96 Planet of the Apes (1968)
#97 Jersey Boys (2014)
#98 War for the Planet of the Apes 3D (2017)
#99 22 Jump Street (2014)
#100 City of God (2002), aka Cidade de Deus
#101 The Driver (1978)
#102 Dunkirk (2017)
#103 Lion (2016)
#104 Get Out (2017)
#105 Free Fire (2016)
#106 Drive (2011)
#107 Sing 3D (2016)
War for the Planet of the Apes

The Driver

.


I observed lots this month, as you can see…

  • 17 new films watched makes July the second best month of 2017 so far (behind February’s 20) and by far my best July ever (beating the 12 of both 2015 and 2016).
  • Obviously that surpasses the July average, increasing it from 7.1 to 8.1 — still the lowest of any month. It also beats the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 14.2, now 14.6) and of 2017 to date (previously 15.0, now 15.3).
  • As you may’ve noticed, one of those was #100. I know it’s the title of the blog ‘n’ all, but, frankly, this is the fifth consecutive year that I’ve passed #100 before even reaching December — it hardly feels worth commenting on in depth. That said, its the second earliest I’ve got there, behind 2016’s May 28th and, having watched it on July 15th, just ahead of 2015’s July 27th.
  • Also: the #100 club is still a small group with just nine previous members (including one #200), so I did bother to try to pick a worthy film. City of God has been on my must-see list for almost 14 years, ever since it topped Empire’s “best of 2003” list, and was included in my 2015 WDYMYHS selections too, so it seemed a good pick.
  • This month’s proper WDYMYHS film: as if watching both Baby Driver and The Driver in the space of a month wasn’t enough, I also flung in Nicolas Winding Refn’s modern classic, Drive.
  • This month’s Blindspot film: in honour of the franchise’s latest instalment arriving in cinemas, I finally watched the original Planet of the Apes. It’s good, but I must admit I prefer the new ones. I still intend to watch the remaining four originals.
  • Weird coincidences: last July I watched Zootropolis, this July the broadly similar Sing; last July was when I last watched a new Ben Wheatley film, High-Rise, while this July it was Free Fire; and last July I watched the archetypal heist movie, The Sting, while this July I rewatched all three Ocean’s movies. None of those were intentional. Good thing I’d already watched Split (which shares a director with The Visit) and haven’t got round to Passengers (which shares a director with The Imitation Game), otherwise this would be going beyond a coincidence.
  • Finally: it’s the first time since records began (i.e. June 2008) that I’ve watched a film on July 12th. Yes, I have records of funny things like that. The fact I’m mentioning it now when I don’t normally shows how rarely this happens. Relatedly, then: how many days are there on which I’ve ‘never’ watched a film? Eight. That’s 2.2% of the year. Those dates are January 5th, May 23rd, June 29th, July 16th, July 19th, September 2nd, November 4th, and December 22nd. There’s no special significance to any of those (not that I can think of, anyway), it’s just random.



The 26th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
It was a pretty good month all round, looking back on it. Still, apes together strong — so strong that War for the Planet of the Apes is my pick this month.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
No outright stinkers this month, so, living up to the category name, I think my least favourite film of the month was also my last: Illumination Entertainment’s Sing, which is decent fun but no Pixar movie.

Greatest Meet Cute of All Time
If the rest of 22 Jump Street was humourless dross (which it isn’t), it would’ve all been worth it for the sublime ‘meet cute’ gag.

Best Death Involving a Motor Vehicle of the Month
Sure, The Driver and Drive may be all about using cars for action, but generally that’s for escaping. For murderousness, you have to turn to Free Fire, which (spoilers, cos it happens near the end) uses a van to go all Oberyn Martell on one of its characters.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Everyone has something to say when there’s a new Christopher Nolan film, and it appears people like to read what other people say too: the clear victor this month was my review of Dunkirk.



I’m still more than a month behind on my Rewatchathon, but hopefully now that I’ve passed #100 I’ll be able to drag myself away from new stuff a little more often. I’ve got a long list of “must rewatch”es raring to go, so it shouldn’t be so hard.

#21 Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
#22 Finding Nemo 3D (2003)
#23 Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
#24 Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

Rewatching the Ocean’s trilogy, I came to the conclusion that Twelve is a much better and more interesting film than Thirteen, though the first is clearly the best of all. Anyway, as seems to be becoming my MO with these rewatches, I wrote a little bit about Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen on Letterboxd.


has already begun.

Dunkirk (2017)

2017 #102
Christopher Nolan | 106 mins | cinema | 2.20:1 | UK, USA, France & Netherlands / English | 12A / PG-13

Dunkirk

Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Rises. Memento. The Prestige. Interstellar. Inception. The Dark Knight. Of his previous nine feature films, Christopher Nolan has seven on the IMDb Top 250 (in descending order as listed). I’m sure Following and Insomnia have their advocates as well. Nonetheless, many reviews are hailing Dunkirk as his best film yet. Some are even say it’s his first genuine masterpiece. Some that this is the film where he finally lives up to those endless Kubrick comparisons.

And some just harp on about how we have to see it in bloody IMAX, even though most of us can’t.

Personally, coming out of it I felt pretty much the same way I have about every Christopher Nolan film bar The Dark Knight: it was very good, but was it great?

We shall wait for them on the landing grounds

I don’t know how well the Battle of Dunkirk is known outside British shores (a lot better after this film, I’d wager), but I think it has a kind of ‘national myth’ status here; the sort of thing the phrase “our finest hour” was invented for. In 1940, British and allied troops retreated from the Nazi advance across Europe, ending up with their backs to the sea on the beach at Dunkirk, France, waiting for rescue from the British Navy. As their ships were plagued by German bombers and U-boats, eventually civilians were mobilised, with hundreds of fishermen and hobbyists sailing their tiny craft across the Channel to save as many as they could — in the end, over 330,000 troops. That’s ‘The Story’, anyway — I’m sure the truth is more nuanced. It’s also what provoked Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, which is probably even more famous.

So why hasn’t Dunkirk been more widely depicted on screen before now? Well, it didn’t involve the Americans, so I imagine that’s a big part of it. Also, it was technically a defeat — not exactly uplifting fodder. And where do you lay your focus? To take D-Day as a counterpoint: sure, it was a massive operation involving multiple beaches and thousands of troops, but you pick a handful of men to follow and you’re depicting the general experience. With Dunkirk, you’ve got the men who made it on to boats, those left on the beach, the civilians coming to their rescue, the sailors, the airforce… Or maybe I’m trying to make it sound more difficult to film than it actually is, and it all just comes back down to “the yanks weren’t there”.

Wherever did they find sand for all those bags?

But Christopher Nolan is allowed to basically do what he wants nowadays, and so Christopher Nolan is the one who’s finally made a film of Dunkirk. (I say “finally” — there have been others, a long time ago.) Despite it being the shortest film of his Hollywood career, Nolan gets round the perspective problem by making it an epic, driven by spectacular visuals and universal themes rather than a focused tale of just a character or two. In aid of this, it’s a three-pronged affair: in separate storylines we follow the soldiers on the beach and in the boats; a civilian craft on its way to rescue them; and a pilot providing air cover.

To complicate matters, Nolan stages each of these stories at a different time period — respectively, one week, one day, and one hour before the film’s climax — but intercuts them all as if they were happening at once. At times, literally: rather than limit each storyline to whole scenes one by one, events in each (like, say, a boat sinking with the soldiers on it and the pilot in a dogfight) are intercut as if they’re occurring simultaneously. It’s… an unusual choice. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I’m not sure what its goal is, exactly. For the film as a whole, it works effectively, especially spotting background details in each story that then crop up again later when other storylines catch up to them.

Background details

I think the main effect Nolan was aiming for is intensity. Not of war, so much, but of survival. That this is a PG-13 war movie caused some to balk — how can you depict war nowadays without blood and gore? But this isn’t a war movie per se, it’s an escape movie. It’s not about the reality of someone getting their arm or head blown off, it’s about escaping a sinking ship, or running out of fuel, or keeping going when the odds are against you. Couple this with the aforementioned visual spectacle, and a thunderous sound mix, and Dunkirk is definitely an Experience.

Indeed, for those without access to an IMAX — and, let’s face it, that’s the vast majority of viewers — the film’s sound is the main reason to see it in the cinema. It’s loud. I saw other people in my screening actually covering their ears at some points. That’s not just because my cinema had the volume too high (well, I don’t think it is), but I think it’s purposefully part of the effect. Of course, if you’ve got a decent sound system at home and are prepared to crank it up, maybe the Blu-ray will yet offer a similar experience. Certainly, in terms of the visuals, the disc release is likely to use the film’s IMAX Digital version, which features 80 minutes of 1.90:1 footage (vs. the constant 2.20:1 framing that you’ll see in most cinemas); and, if we’re lucky, they’ll include the IMAX footage in its full 1.43:1 ratio too (they did for Nolan’s Batmans, but not for Interstellar). It’s kind of ironic that this is a new-release film from a director hell bent on the sanctity of the theatrical experience (you probably saw his comments about Netflix earlier this week), where most of us will better see his intended visuals on a home video format than we will at the cinema.

We shall wait for them on the beaches

In trying to think how to sum up, I’ve come to the conclusion that early reviews have put too much weight on Dunkirk. I’m sat here pondering “is it Nolan’s best film?” or “is it the greatest war film ever made?”, rather than just “how was it as a film in itself?” On first blush, I wasn’t as enthralled by it as I was by The Dark Knight, or even Inception, but in some respects it’s a more mature, maybe even more cinematic, movie than either of those. As for being the greatest war film, I can’t help but instantly think of Saving Private Ryan, whose opening scene remains the one to beat, but also follows through with the rest of its story; and if we expand our scope to allow cinematic TV series, can anything top Band of Brothers? But, as I said earlier, Dunkirk isn’t trying to out-war those war movies.

So, setting aside questions of its place in film history, Dunkirk aims to be an intense experience about trying to survive events bigger than yourself. In that regard, it’s as successful as the evacuation itself.

5 out of 5

Dunkirk is in cinemas everywhere now. It’s also been released in IMAX, donchaknow.

It placed 9th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.