At the beginning of last year, I wrote a piece about the films I was most looking forward to for the 2019-20 movie season. Among them were some films that wound up backing up the hype, including Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman. Admittedly, I wound up with some duds in there like Cats, for instance. There were a couple others that never measured up to my expectations, but Cats is so awful that it deserves to stand alone as the worst of the bunch…by far.
With all that being said, Sam Mendes’ World War I film, 1917, also made my list. Like Cats, it deserves to stand alone as well, but for totally different reasons. It deserves to stand alone because it may be the best film of the year. Mendes was already responsible for directing Skyfall, arguably the best James Bond film ever. Now, he may have in fact made the best war film of all-time. How’s that for a hot take?
In that same piece, I had mentioned that 2019 would be a very strong year for movies. Almost a full year later, here’s my testimony to back up that statement – in the four years I have had this site, I never gave out a perfect 10 score to any film until this year. 1917 is now my second “perfect 10” in just the last two months.
In case you aren’t familiar with the plot of the film, 1917 revolves around the story of Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), two British soldiers who were given the unenviable task of going across enemy lines alone to relay a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to pull back his soldiers due to a strategic German trap. It’s hard to imagine that scenario nowadays, since it would only take a quick cell phone call or dispatch on a walkie-talkie to get the message across to whomever. But, in 1917, it required someone to go on foot across a deadly, warzone-battered terrain, filled with mud, blood and corpses. Corporal Blake is picked specifically by General Erinmore (Colin Firth), because his brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden), is among the men who would be ambushed and slaughtered by the German military if they don’t retreat.
The cinematography, done by legendary Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, is impeccable. Its brilliance is utterly beyond words. The film is shot in real-time with single-shot cinematography, which basically means the audience watches everything play out with no scene breaks as it actually would have happened if it were real life. A lot has been made of this in recent weeks leading up to the film’s release, and although it was executed to perfection, it’s not the first time it’s been done. Albeit unique, single-shot cinematography was also used in Birdman back in 2014, a film that won the Oscar for Best Picture that year. This is not to take away from the genius of the filmmaking, though, as Deakins has risen to rightfully become the heavy favorite to win the Oscar for cinematography this year for his work on this project.
Although there are scattered “A-Listers” in the film, such as Firth and Cumberbatch, and even actors from previous notable roles, such as former Game of Thrones stars, Richard Madden and Dean-Charles Chapman – the reality is that Mendes’ storytelling and Deakins’ cinematography are the bona-fide stars of 1917. The fact that great actors like Firth and Cumberbatch were willing to basically play cameos in the film shows you how great and important the film truly was to them.
Above, I wrote that 1917 may be the best war film of all-time. Let me explain why I believe that. Every great war epic is incredible in its own right. I’ve always held Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Glory and the Deer Hunter as the greatest of their genre, mainly due to the realism their stories portrayed. Saving Private Ryan was, and probably still is the most gruesome, realistic take of a war battle ever shot on-screen. Platoon is right up there, as well. As a result, the visuals of realistic casualties from war in both of those films tugged at our hearts like none other before them or most since. Glory and The Deer Hunter were great because of the actual stories they were telling. An all-black, untrained infantry led by a lone, white general into battle during the Civil War, and a story where we observe the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder that the young men had when returning home from fighting in Vietnam (before PTSD was even a widespread, household-known condition) provided some of the most emotional scenes in movie history.
1917 gives us all of that, wrapped up in one beautiful, unique masterpiece. Blake taking on the mission to save the lives of over 1600 of his fellow soldiers, one being his own brother, makes for an passionate story. On top of that, Mendes did a great job of showing the audience the true violence and injuries caused by war, a war that many historians refer to as the “last true war” because it was the last war to fully be fought predominantly on foot directly in front of your enemy without drones and other weapons of mass destruction doing the dirty work.
It’s hard to make a better, more complete film than 1917. It has a spell-binding story like Saving Private Ryan, with the unique flare of Birdman, and the visual beauty of Dunkirk. It’s as complete and visually superb a film as I’ve seen in a long time. It is an emotional, beautiful movie that keeps you willingly in its trenches, and is an absolute cinematic tour de force.
MATTER RATING: 10/10
OSCAR SCALE: 10/10 (BEST PICTURE, DIRECTOR, ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY, CINEMOTOGRAPHY, ORIGINAL SCORE, FILM EDITING, PRODUCTION DESIGN, SOUND EDITING, SOUND MIXING)
BY: CHRIS GUEST