‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Detroit’ Deliver Oscar Season a Month Early

Christopher Nolan and Kathryn Bigelow have both made gripping movies that demand to be taken seriously by awards voters

It’s not even August yet, but Christopher Nolan and Kathryn Bigelow have come to town bringing something we don’t usually get much of in July: Oscar season.

Nolan’s “Dunkirk” and Bigelow’s “Detroit,” two big and bold movies sporting the names of the cities where they take place, are unquestionable awards contenders. And they’ve arrived more than a month before the usual rush of Oscar hopefuls comes in late August and early September at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals.

They both have obstacles to overcome before they’ll be slam-dunk contenders, but these are movies that awards voters have to take seriously – and they could well end up being more to the Academy’s taste than the smaller contenders we’ve seen so far, including the terrific comedies “Get Out” and “The Big Sick.”

Of course, it’s not unprecedented to see a real Best Picture contender at this time of year: Bigelow’s Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” was released in June in 2009, Nolan’s “Inception” (the only best-picture nominee among his 10 films) in July the following year. Among other recent Best Picture nominees, “Hell or High Water” and “The Help” were August releases, “Boyhood” a July release.

But it’s rare for two potential heavyweight contenders from directors like Nolan and Bigelow to arrive back-to-back at this time of year; “Dunkirk” opened on July 21, and “Detroit” moved up its limited release to July 28 before an August 4 wide release.

In addition to its theatrical release, “Dunkirk” had its official Academy voters screening on Saturday night in Beverly Hills. To all reports it drew a completely packed and raptly attentive house to the 1,000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater, and when it ended the film was met with sustained applause that lasted through much of the credits.

The older members of the Academy have long been accused of having a soft spot for movies about World War II, which “Dunkirk” is – but Nolan’s adventurous structure, jumping around in time to tell three different stories, makes it feel more adventurous and challenging than a straight war picture.

One hurdle it must overcome is that Oscar voters have never wholly embraced Nolan: Even when “Inception” landed a Best Picture nomination, he didn’t get a Best Director nod. And most of his films are honored mostly in the below-the-line categories – the best-pic snub of “The Dark Knight” famously prompted the Academy to expand the number of nominees from five to 10.

In addition, the Actors Branch is by far the largest branch in the Academy, but “Dunkirk” is an ensemble movie in which most of the actors don’t have enough to do to stand out come awards time. Mark Rylance, who got the most applause at the AMPAS screening, is in many ways the emotional heart of the film, and the actor with the best chance to land a nomination; in fact, he’s quite possibly the only cast member with much chance of getting one.

Still, the strong box-office returns, the almost unanimous rave reviews and the initial Academy reaction should make it clear that “Dunkirk” is Nolan’s best chance yet to get some major Oscar attention.

Kathryn Bigelow has already gotten that kind of attention, winning Best Picture and Best Director for “The Hurt Locker” and landing another best-pic nomination for 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”

In some ways, “Detroit” is cut from the same cloth as those movies: It’s a visceral, immersive movie about the 1967 riots in Detroit, a fact-based work of gripping intensity that can be difficult to watch and harder to shake.

The film is particularly intense in a lengthy central section that takes place inside the Algiers Motel, where several Detroit police officers spent most of a night terrorizing a group of blacks, plus two young white women, in an attempt to find a sniper. Three of the blacks ended up dead and the rest were scarred for life, and Bigelow does not pull any punches in her depiction of the horrors.

On the basis of sheer filmmaking skill, “Detroit” should be an easy contender for many awards. But in some ways it’s a tough sell to voters. Based on true events and relying on extensive research from “Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” screenwriter Mark Boal, it will no doubt be controversial: An end-credits note admits that there are varying accounts of what actually happened inside the Algiers, so it’s all but inevitable that the film will face complaints that it got things wrong or wasn’t fair to one character or another. (While most of the characters are real people, three of the main cops are given fictional names.)

The film also plays with an audience’s expectations; at one recent screening of a different movie, I found myself overhearing a heated conversation between defenders of “Detroit” and those who’d been taken aback when it shifted from an overall look at the riots to an intimate and terrifying look inside the Algiers.

Will confounded expectations lead to resistance? This could be less of a problem with voters, because the word will be out about “Detroit” before most of them see it. But it is unmistakably a tough sit, and it may also stir up some controversy about white filmmakers telling a black story. (Will that be troubling in the age of #OscarsSoWhite?)

But Bigelow and Boal are filmmakers who don’t give an inch; as Claudia Puig wrote in her review of the film at TheWrap, “Detroit” is an “extraordinarily searing film.” Like “Dunkirk,” it demands attention from viewers and yes, from voters.