When it comes to Best Picture contenders, I tend to group them into two categories. The first category is what I call the “skinny” contender, meaning that the film is likely to figure into just a few high-profile categories—typically picture, director, screenplay, and one or two acting races—since it simply isn’t built to make a big dent in the tech nominations. Most of the potential awards movies we’ve seen so far this year, like The Big Sick and Get Out, are skinny contenders, though there is precedent for such a film to go all the way: Just two years ago, Spotlight became the first Best Picture winner to take home fewer than three Oscars in over 60 years. Still, no matter how well these movies do or how warranted their awards consideration may be, they will not have the profile of a juggernaut.
Dunkirk does, and it’s 2017’s first real “plus-size” Oscar contender. Acclaimed by critics and a big hit at the box office, Christopher Nolan’s World War II film is a near-certain Best Picture nominee and will contend in a great many other categories, too, thanks to its dazzling tech credits. When all is said and done, could it end up with the most Oscar nominations of any 2017 movie? To find out, let’s go over the races where Dunkirk will be in the mix and suss out its primary competition.
We’ll start with the two biggest categories, Best Picture and Best Director. In the first category, Dunkirk is well-situated. An acclaimed, successful World War II film by one of Hollywood’s top helmers? You can save it a slot.
Best Director is the more enticing category, since Nolan has never been nominated there. Even when his 2010 film Inception scored a Best Picture nod, Nolan couldn’t break into that year’s very stacked Best Director race. I suspect that even though there are films from Oscar favorites like Steven Spielberg and Alexander Payne still to come this year, Nolan will have an easier time punching through with Dunkirk, and I’ll give you three reasons for it.
1) Oscar loves a make-good nomination, and if there’s a perception that you’ve been unjustly snubbed in the past, it will only aid how your future efforts are received. Let’s not forget that the Academy’s seismic move to open up the number of Best Picture nominees came about because Nolan’s The Dark Knight had been left out in the cold. This is a chance for voters to really make it up to him.
2) With Dunkirk, Nolan is working in a far more Academy-friendly genre after his past pursuits in the superhero and sci-fi fields. Many critics and voters have been hailing Dunkirk as Nolan’s masterpiece, and that it may be, but what some of them really mean by that is, “He’s made the sort of film I’m more inclined to like.” That will go a long way.
3) The Best Director category has really swung towards technical achievement as of late, honoring spectacles like Hacksaw Ridge, The Revenant, and Gravity. Given Dunkirk’s scope, Nolan’s prowess will be hard to top.
Can Dunkirk score an acting nod? For the most part, it’s not that kind of movie, since it goes lean on characterization and many members of its ensemble are all but indistinguishable. However, Dunkirk does boast a recent Oscar winner, Mark Rylance, in its cast, and he’s afforded some of the film’s most memorable moments. If a rising tide floats all rescue boats, expect Dunkirk’s potential awards run to lift Rylance into Best Supporting Actor consideration. (Sorry, Harry Styles fans. At least he’ll almost certainly be asked to present!)
Another high-profile category to watch is Best Original Screenplay. Nolan’s scripts for Memento and Inception were both nominated, which ought to give him some momentum here, but this is a murderously stacked race that will include movies like The Big Sick and Get Out as well as Spielberg’s The Papers, Payne’s Downsizing, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new Daniel Day-Lewis film, and a host of other original contenders like Detroit, The Darkest Hour, Suburbicon, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I’m leaving out at least a dozen more—it’s that loaded this year. Nolan’s lean screenplay for Dunkirk will find its strongest competition here, and a lot will depend on how strong the year-end crop of films turns out to be.
I’m much more confident in Dunkirk’s chances at scooping up a passel of tech nominations. Lee Smith’s fluid cross-cutting will likely land him in the final five for Best Editing, and director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema—who has never been nominated, despite shooting distinguished films like Her, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Fighter, and Let the Right One In—ought to score his first nod for Best Cinematography. Well-liked war movies often score nominations in Best Sound Design and Best Sound Mixing, and Dunkirk will be no exception.
Composer Hans Zimmer has more to do in this movie than most of its actors, so expect him to snag yet another nod for Best Original Score for supplying verve to Dunkirk’s otherwise-silent sections. I’d also expect to see the film clock a Best Visual Effects nod, since there have recently been one or two slots reserved for technically accomplished Best Picture nominees. Other tech nods for Best Production Design and especially Best Costume Design and Best Hair and Makeup will prove a little more difficult to earn. Saving Private Ryan grabbed some of those, but that film had more sprawl in its settings and the 2017 competition is stiffer for Dunkirk. (Can its wet soldiers really snag a Best Hair and Makeup nomination when at least two of those three slots are likely saved for the aliens of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill drag in The Darkest Hour?)
So of those Oscar categories I’ve mentioned, I think Dunkirk is well-positioned to score at least 10 nominations, which gives it a strong shot at leading the awards-season field several months from now. It will have to fend off other would-be plus-size challengers like The Darkest Hour, Downsizing, Wonderstruck, and The Greatest Showman, but I’ve got faith. Its greatest competition may be two studio stablemates: Warner Bros. will also be pushing Blade Runner 2049 and Wonder Woman for awards this year in several of the categories that Dunkirk has now laid claim to. With Nolan’s war epic likely to topple them as the studio’s biggest awards-season hope, Diana Prince and those replicants may face their greatest challenge yet.