Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, 1h 46min
This one has Best Picture nomination written all over it. It's a big movie and beautifully executed, telling one of the 20th centuries most stirring and significant stories.
Dunkirk, the event, evokes hundreds of small English fishing boats evacuating thousands of British and French troops that have been pushed by the Nazi army to the beaches of France, potentially to be slaughtered. Dunkirk, the movie, is about that event, but smartly personalizes it through individuals caught up in the evacuation.
There is the young soldier who is the only survivor of a small group that gets shot up as they escape through the town to get to the beaches. He meets a young French soldier who is burying a dead comrade in the sand. Together they are able to stow away on a series of rescue boats but the boats sink. Their escapes are harrowing.
Next is a father and younger son setting off in their wooden family boat from England. The oldest son was a pilot killed early in the war, and they are determined to help in whatever way they can. A young boy who does chores for them comes along as well. On the way to Dunkirk they rescue a soldier suffering from shell shock who has been stranded on a downed plane.
And then there is the pilot flying in formation with two others, as they try to shoot down the Germans strafing the soldiers on the beach. They often come to the rescue at particularly critical moments, but the other two pilots go down and he is running out of fuel.
With the focus on just these three groups, you become immersed in the difficulty of their plight. Identifying with their lives makes you understand what a close thing the evacuation actually was, much more than you would watching the deliberation of generals or even hearing Churchill’s rousing rhetoric.
Besides Best Picture, Dunkirk will likely be nominated for several technical awards. The filming is impressively panoramic when showing thousands of soldiers on the broad Brittany beaches. But in tight scenes like a cargo hold of soldiers filling with water or a pilot in his cockpit on the tail of a German fighter - the closeness is authentically claustrophobic. The throbbing sound track keeps you on edge, the sudden gunshots make you jump.
But it's the drama of the people we follow that makes you understand the miracle of Dunkirk. They are played by relatively unknown actors, giving Dunkirk an everyman quality. The only name star is Kenneth Branagh as the lofty, indomitable commander of the Allied forces. The anonymity of the cast makes these people real and their bravery even more amazing. They may have saved our civilization.
Wind River, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, 1h 47min
The opening scene shows an Indian girl in bare feet and torn clothes running across a snow-covered lake, eventually collapsing and dying. A predator tracker for the Fish and Wildlife service is brought in by the authorities to find the girl, her daughter’s best friend.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the tracker, becomes obsessed with the case because Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) has died much like his daughter, who was also found dead in the snow. Lambert lives on the reservation and was married to an Indian woman. They were out of town and there was a party at their house. He is beset with guilt, and the marriage didn’t survive their daughter’s death.
Since the murder was on an Indian Reservation, the FBI sends in an agent Jane Banner, but she is young and inexperienced. And so is the actress who plays her. There is no way the FBI would send someone that green alone on a murder investigation. Even given how the part is written, Elizabeth Olsen as Banner is way too glam for the part.
But Renner is perfect. With his craggy good looks and his perpetually wounded demeanor, he is perfectly believable as a lone tracker.
The plot hinges on whether he can get Natalie's brother to give up his druggy friends, who Lambert suspects are behind the killing. When he does, the story starts to spill out. Without giving away too much of the plot, the men who raped and killed Natalie meet a fitting end, particularly the most depraved of the bunch.
You stay engaged when Lambert is unraveling the mystery, but when he does, Wind River loses its energy and wraps up quickly and inevitably. The stunning drone shots of the dramatic Wind River Range may be the best part of the film, and the hand-held filming brings you right into the action and dialogue. Not a bad movie, but you can wait to see it when it’s released for streaming.
Atomic Blonde, directed by David Leitch, 1h 55min
Nothing here but glamour, fun and suspense – and that’s enough! Charlize Theron is Lorraine, the Atomic Blonde, and she kicks ass throughout with a sly look that tells you that she’s enjoying this character as much as you are.
It helps that there is a complicated spy plot that falls short of le Carré, but keeps you guessing. Lorraine is working for MI-6 and assigned to find a list of Western agents that has fallen into the hands of the KGB in the crucial days before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But you don't know who she is really working for, and you won’t know the answer until the very last scene. There is a strong supporting cast with James McAvoy, John Goodman and James Marsden, along with a host of other character actors that you can recognize but not name.
You may have missed it in theaters, but it should be streaming soon. A great popcorn movie – just sit back and enjoy.