In hindsight, I did not watch many new films in 2017. I missed a lot, but I loved what I did watch.Continue reading My Favourite Films of 2017
Dunkirk’s 1 hour and 46 minutes run time is significantly shorter than director Christopher Nolan’s other films. The Dark Knight trilogy, The Prestige (2006) and Interstellar (2014) are epics that all run for over two hours. Despite the shorter duration, the intense tone of Dunkirk makes it feel just as long. Dunkirk is not your typical war movie. There are no buff super soldiers who wipe out large amounts of enemy forces and save the day. It is still a tale about survival, but it is much more focused on the everyday soldier of World War II who just wanted to get home. Nolan wants to create as much empathy in the viewer as possible. In doing so he demonstrates that he understands the benefits of the cinematic experience.
To appreciate the tone of the film, you’re going to need a brief history lesson on the evacuation at Dunkirk. In 1940, Allied forces, especially the British, French and Belgians, realised that there was nothing they could do about Nazi Germany taking over France. Consequently, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered an evacuation from Dunkirk, on the French coast. Christopher Nolan’s film is about the evacuation, featuring characters from all parts of evacuation – infantry soldiers, air force pilots and citizen boats sent to rescue soldiers because warships were too easy for the Germans to spot.
Nolan wanted to capture the evacuation at Dunkirk from the eyes of the everyday soldier who was just trying to survive the retreat. The tone of the film is one of desperation and survival. Nolan clearly wanted to create a sense of empathy between the viewer and the characters on screen. This is not a new concept for films, but as I said earlier, Nolan understands what makes the cinematic experience so great: it appeals to our visual and auditory senses.
The one word I used to describe the film when I left the cinema was “intense”. Dunkirk keeps you uncomfortable and on the edge of your seat for most of the experience. While the close-ups of the protagonists struggling to prevent themselves from drowning at sea and long establishing shots of the dire situation create powerful images, it’s the film’s musical score and terrific sound design that solidify Nolan’s position as a cinematic master.
Throughout Dunkirk, a high-tempo score (composed by the legendary Hans Zimmer) accompanies the on-screen images. The two most common compositions I remember are called The Mole and Supermarine. The Mole can be heard in most of the trailers, it’s the track with the constant ticking noise towards the end. As the film progress, it sounds like the score becomes louder and somewhat uncomfortable.
This is especially true of the track Supermarine. A Vox video I found while researching this piece explains the score perfectly: “an overwhelming orchestra that seems like it’s rising higher and higher, but never actually does”. Much like the film’s characters, the viewer waits for a break that never comes.
There’s no better way to create a sense of empathy with the viewer. The film’s largely silent protagonists continually transition from one bad situation to another, never given a break from their terrible circumstances or impending German air, land and sea attacks. There’s never a rest for the protagonists, so why should the viewer get a rest. It’s such a subtle addition that I didn’t notice it was happening until one scene towards the end of the film when the score is silenced. Pardon the cliché, but the silence is peaceful. It’s a very symbolic moment, providing a huge relief for the viewer.
Side bar: The Vox video that I just referenced explains that the technique Nolan and Zimmer use is called a Shepard Tone, several tones, separated by an octave, on top of each other. This makes the tracks sound like they are increasing in volume, even though they are not. Take a few minutes to watch the video, it explains the concept a lot better.
Dunkirk’s sound effects further enhance the experience. Dunkirk is a loud film. Even in a normal cinema – without the louder sound produced for cinemas like Xtremescreen or Vmax – every explosion from dropped bombs and submarine torpedoes, and every bullet shot from the fighter planes and infantry rifles is loud. Uncomfortably loud. It wasn’t uncommon to see other moviegoers jump in their seats from the unexpected explosions or bullet shots. Just like the soldiers, you’re never expecting an explosion or gunshot when it occurs.
It’s easy to imagine the terror the soldiers would have felt, not knowing if the next bomb or gun-shot would take their life. This is yet another example of Nolan creating more intimacy and empathy between the people on the screen and those looking at the screen.
Dunkirk is not the first film where Christopher Nolan has used sound design to great effect. I first fell in love with Nolan from his Dark Knight trilogy. The second film, The Dark Knight (2008), is my favourite film of all time (but that’s a story for another time). One of my favourite scenes from The Dark Knight is when Harvey Dent is being transported to prison because he wants everyone to think he is Batman.
The whole scene, from the moment he leaves in the police van, to the moment Jim Gordon reappears and arrests The Joker, plays out without a backing track; only diegetic sound can be heard. Panicked chatter between police guards, The Joker mumbling, the hum of the Batmobile, RPG explosions, sub-machine gun clips being unloaded on police vehicles. It’s a terrific scene, and is more effective because of the lack of a backing track.
The other memorable Nolan scene that comes to mind is in Interstellar when the shuttle launches into space. The sound of the thrusters kicking in and launching the shuttle was so loud that it vibrated the floor under my seat. Suddenly, I was in the shuttle with the crew, heading into space.
With streaming services like Netflix and the ease of illegally obtaining new release films, the cinema experience is under threat. However, directors like Christopher Nolan are giving film fans a reason to visit their local cinema. I believe the auditory experience that Dunkirk provided me in a movie theatre cannot be replicated properly from a home environment (unless you’ve got a world class home theatre system).
Dunkirk solidified what I’ve felt about Christopher Nolan for a while now: he understands the benefits of the cinematic experience. Films are best when the viewer’s experience is a visual and auditory one. Dunkirk is a masterclass in both.
We’re currently in the midst of the award season for the film, television and music industries. The best films, actors and actresses, directors, television shows, writers, songs, producers and artists are being honoured and acknowledged for their exceptional contributions to their respected industries. Each winner is invited on stage, and then given less time than they need to thank whoever they want.
Most of these speeches are your standard affair of thanking family, cast members and any other influencers. However, occasionally a winner will use their award win as a public platform to spread a political or social message. Recent examples include Meryl Streep’s 2017 Golden Globe speech against then United States President-elect Donald Trump, or Leonard DiCaprio’s 2016 Oscars acceptance speech touching on the reality of climate change.
With the Oscars only days away (Sunday 26 February, North America) I ponder: should award winners be using their award winner speeches at industry events to spread political and social messages? It’s a subject I’m currently torn on, and I’d love to know your thoughts once you’re finished reading and understand my conflicting points of argument.
What celebrities say is instantly newsworthy
On the one hand, there is no more public platform than an awards show. The award winner is given the spotlight exclusively for a couple of minutes and free reign to speak about anything they want. Celebrities have proven to be some of the most influential figures when speaking out about social issues. So when we combine the two, the message becomes instantly newsworthy and spreadable.
The mainstream news media thrives on the entertainment sector and what celebrities say and do. This is especially true when political statements are made that may cause conflict. Streep’s political views were spread around the world by news organisations because it created a narrative of conflict between her and Trump. A quick internet search for ‘Golden Globes’ still brings up news articles about Streep’s speech.
That’s the undeniable power that celebrity messages have when news organisations catch on.
Awards nights are about recognising achievements
On the other hand, does preaching about social issues during awards shows detract from the award actually being won? Without searching for it, could you tell me the award Streep was accepting at the Golden Globes? It was the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award, a prestigious award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment” (Wikipedia). In the context of the award, Streep’s powerful speech has some relevance. She speaks out against the immigration bans President Trump was threatening to bring in, highlighting the diverse talent that makes up Hollywood and the industry she’s contributed so much too.
However, in doing so, the news coming out of the Golden Globes was “Meryl Streep attacks Donald Trump”, rather than “Meryl Streep wins an award for outstanding contributions to entertainment”. You could say it’s selfless of award winners to take the spotlight away from their successes to highlight issues they feel are more important. But the whole idea of an awards night is to take a night to acknowledge the contributions of people in the industry and the projects they’ve helped to create.
Entertainment can’t help but be wrapped up in politics. Many movies, novels, comics, and songs draw from the world around them to tell stories. The science-fiction genre is especially great at displaying politics in a metaphorical sense, as are many rap albums. I’m not saying keep your politics out of my awards night. Let’s maybe just think about whether it’s the right platform.
Does the message fit the platform?
We’ll keep with the Streep scenario because it’s the most relevant. Clearly Streep feels extremely passionate about the issue and understands that what she says has a tremendous influence on her peers and consumers of her work. Had she expressed her speech through social media, through a series of Tweets or Facebook posts, or a similarly lengthy video, or if she had appeared on a talk show with the same message, would it have been as effective? I think so. Maybe it would not have been accompanied by the same raw emotion, but you can guarantee the news angle would have remained the same. Especially considering it would have come from someone of Streep’s celebrity status.
On February 11, Streep accepted an award from the Human Rights Campaign for being an Ally for Equality, and made another speech against President Trump. Considering the nature of the award, this is the perfect stage for such a speech, and it received equally as much media coverage.
Ultimately, it’s up to an award recipient to decide what they want to talk about when they are given the spotlight. The spoken word is a very powerful tool, and an awards night like the Oscars is the ultimate soapbox. However, if making that message detracts from the overall aim of the awards night – recognising the exceptional contributions of talented people – is it really the right platform to be using?
I’d love to know your thoughts.
Nathan is the founder of Think First Entertainment. You can find him on Twitter @Nathan_M96.
2016 was most definitely the year of the superhero film. Marvel has been putting out a constant stream of its cinematic universe films for years now, but this year we got three of them. DC also decided it had to play catch up and released two films. Are we suffering from superhero film fatigue? I don’t think so, they are all different stories and worlds. It’s like asking if we’ll ever be fatigued by the Fast and the Furious franchise: probably not, car stunts are cool.
Enough rambling, here are my five favourite films of 2016!
As with my favourite games of 2016 list, these are not necessarily films I thought were the best of 2016, rather the ones I had the most enjoyment watching.
The Hateful Eight (January, 2016)
While The Hateful Eight was released on December 31st overseas, it did not release until January 14 in Australia, so it can sneak onto the list. Quentin Tarantino is a master director, who succeeds at developing interesting characters to tell stories about. The Hateful Eight is a prime example, using the interactions between eight characters at one location to tell a suspenseful story.
As the lengthy film progresses, we learn more about the eight mysterious characters and that some of them may not be who they say they are. It’s a wonderful example of character driven storytelling that works largely because of the terrific writing and acting performances from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins and Tim Roth.
The cinematography is also brilliant, with shots chosen to further emphasise the relationships between certain characters. The Hateful Eight received an Oscar nomination for best cinematography, but was beaten by The Revenant. It did, however, win best original movie score – the first Tarantino film to have an original score – and best supporting actress with Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Extended Edition (June, 2016)
I’m being very specific with this one and sayiing the extended edition is one of my favourite films of 2016 because the extra 30 minutes actually improves the film.
The extended scenes are largely related to one of the opening sequences in the desert, and are spread nicely throughout the film, but they make the motives of Batman, Superman and Lex Luthor much clearer. It feels like Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment wanted to trade clarity for a PG-13 rating in the U.S. to bring in more viewers.q
Criticism aside, I’ve been waiting for a Batman and Superman film ever since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began teaming up its heroes. It’s been a long wait, and I felt it would never happen, but DC has finally got on the superhero team-up film bandwagon.
For all of its flaws, it’s just great to see Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman depicted on the big screen!
Captain America: Civil War (May, 2016)
The Captain America films are some of my favourite Marvel films. I love the cinematography and the action sequences the Russo brothers create.
Captain America: Civil War is the culmination of this phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s a great action film. There never feels like a ‘right’ side of the conflict, with both Captain America and Iron Man expressing strong reasons why superheroes should and shouldn’t register to be under control by the United Nations.
The highlight of the film, however, is the massive fight sequence between the two factions, which includes the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Hawk Eye, Black Widow, Ant Man and the newly introduced Spider Man.
Captain America: Civil War was an ambitious project that showed the capabilities of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and its vision for future films.
Arrival (November, 2016)
Hopefully you’ve already read what I think about Arrival, so you know why it’s on this list.
Arrival succeeds because it tells a different kind of first contact story, one about communication and language rather than military intervention to save the planet.
The pacing is great, the cinematography elegant and the acting outstanding. Arrival is an all-round well polished film.
Arrival is one of my favourite films of 2016 because of the messages it expressly and implicitly tells. There are interesting ideas of language and how culture is effected by it, and of course being a science fiction film there’s a hypothetical theory about the relativity of time.
Arrival probably isn’t one of those films I’d watch over and over again, but it has left a lasting impression on me.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (December, 2016)
You can definitely tell that the new wave of Star Wars films are being made by people who love the Star Wars franchise. Like J.J. Abrams last year, Gareth Edwards has created a wonderful film that captures what makes Star Wars so great, while also bringing something new to the franchise.
Rogue One tells the story of the spies who stole the plans to the Death Star. Whereas the original trilogy and The Force Awakens use a war as the backdrop for a story about heroes destined to save the galaxy, Rogue One is about an unlikely crew uniting to help the rebellion take its first action against the Imperials.
Rogue One’s final act, a well scripted 30 minute action sequence, demonstrates inspiration that the film draws from war movies.
Rogue One emphasises the fact that it is different from the main Star Wars films by removing the traditional crawl at the beginning and the famous main theme. However, it is still a wonderful Star Wars film with a new and exciting story to tell.
With a likeable cast of characters, great CGI and special effects, Rogue One is one of the great blockbuster films of 2016 that every Star Wars fan should see.
Deadpool (February, 2016) – The funniest superhero film of 2016
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (October, 2016)- A solid action film starring Tom Cruise
Suicide Squad (August, 2016) – A fun collection of characters that could have been so much better
Sausage Party (August, 2016) – A smart comedy about what supermarket products finding out what humans do to them at home
What were your favourite films of 2016? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @Nathan_M96.
Arrival, from Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), might be one of the best films of the year, a close second behind Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (I kid about that last part, but the DC fanboy within me wishes it were true). It’s a wonderful piece of art, both in the cinematic delivery and the messages it preaches. Arrival is about an expert linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), whose services are required when 12 alien ships land on Earth.
The film jumps straight into the action, taking all of five to ten minutes to setup up Adam’s character and her current situation. Arrival is a slower paced film, but it moves forward at a constant pace. The cinematography and selection of shots is smart and effective; the sound design is eerie, creating a sense mystery throughout; the alien’s character design is unique; and the CGI is believable.
Arrival is a first contact science fiction film, but largely holds back on the action sequences. As a result, dialogue takes up a large portion of the film. Both the content and delivery are superb. Amy Adams delivers a captivating leading performance with Jeremy Renner providing a solid supporting role.
Language, culture and how the two interact is Arrival‘s biggest theme. With 12 different nations and cultures over the world trying to converse with the aliens – called heptapods in the film because of their seven legs – how their languages effect their interactions with the aliens is important, and it’s not something I’d thought about before seeing the film.
Some nations want to talk to them and interact with them to find out why they are on Earth, whereas others take a more hostile, military approach when they decide conversation is not working. The film uses the metaphor of chess to help the audience understand how different languages influence how cultures perceive the world, and how this could have a negative effect on someone or, in this case, something learning the language and how the culture perceives the world. Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson wrote a great piece on this aspect of Arrival, you should give it a read once you’re done with this.
Other ideas in Arrival include the idea of living in the present and the relativity of time; that’s where the science fiction elements take full flight. Gizmodo’s Beth Elderkin asked some interesting questions with regards to the theories express in the film. Another good read.
However, the idea, or message, I want to talk about today is the idea that humanity’s instinct is to treat every new race as a threat. The term used to demonstrate this in the film is “give weapon”. Some nations deem it hostile, while others are sceptical about its meaning. As you’ll see if you watch the film, all of the above ideas interweave and play off one another. However, given the events of the past week and the year in general, this final theme is why Arrival’s release could not have come at a better time.
In science fiction films, a new threat is usually a new species that has come to take over Earth. However, translated to modern times, these threats to the unknown or misinterpreted take the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, etc. Throughout history, anything new or different has been seen as a threat and to be met with hostility or oppression. Just look at colonisation and its effects on indigenous races globally, or how the Catholic Church views homosexuality.
We like to group ourselves in every way possible. We group by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, wealth class, which state we live in or even which neighbourhood. Sure, these groups all have things that make them unique, but too often we perceive different as hostile. It’s a misinterpretation, a failure to understand and it’s hurting us as a collective.
The power of science fiction is that it groups humans together, forcing us to unite to solve an issue rather than tackling it alone. To Arrival’s heptapods, we are all humans. We are all a collective. Science fiction films, and especially Arrival, remind us that deep down, we are all the same. We are all human. In Arrival, it takes an alien species and some science fiction theories to unite us. Is that really what it is going to take to stop humanity from hating, fear-mongering and oppressing itself?
The bigger question something like this raises is, how do we stop something that’s so entrenched? We’ve been grouping ourselves and fighting against ourselves for centuries, millennia even. Sure, we’ve got a United Nations, but it’s more a symbol than anything meaningful. Arrival suggests that we must negotiate and communicate with each other to achieve a non-zero sum game. That is, both sides can gain something from a transaction. Clearly, we are a long way from achieving this, but eventually we have to turn conversation into meaningful action.
We don’t have to completely understand each other and our unique cultures, but it is important that we understand that hate, disrespect and isolation of groups and cultures does not help humanity. Arrival only takes two hours to demonstrate this fact, and it’s the most relevant and important two hours of film you should consume all year.