[SPOILER ALERT] for anyone that hasn’t seen one of Christopher Nolan’s movies – all will be covered, including some key plot details. So, watch them and come back!
TENET (2020) looks to be the film industry’s jumpstart, a big-budget, time-travel-centric blockbuster helmed by box office giant Christopher Nolan. The director that’s famed for his bold, smart puzzle box movies, boasts a filmography that reflects why people are so excited for a film like Tenet.
So, what of that filmography? What about it made us invest so much in the phrase ‘From visionary director Christopher Nolan’? Are there blotches in the man’s resume? A Nolan list has a tendency to divide, so here goes. My entirely subjective list: read on to see how it stacks up against your ranking!
Please note: I have excluded his debut feature, Following, from the list. As I have not seen it, it’s not fair to consider it in relation to his other pictures. I’ll be sure to remedy this soon.
9: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
Despite some super faithful followers arguing otherwise, it’s a near unanimous opinion that THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a disappointment. Coming hot off of the mature, gritty THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and the intellectual masterclass INCEPTION (2010), Nolan’s intelligence seems a little neutered in RISES, making way for spectacle that overwhelms the narrative and its logic.
Sure, there’s definite development. For example, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) face their demons from the previous movie in ways that are fulfilling and effective. But, it’s hard to become truly invested when the script forces some of this development in dumb ways: see newcomer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) describe how he knows Bruce is Batman because he met him at an orphanage when he was younger and recognised a look that was like ‘wearing a mask’.
Also, that spectacle. The thing about the action in THE DARK KNIGHT is that it was driven by the characters: the chaos of the Joker informs the more explosive set pieces. However, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES reverts to a Bond-esque plot of a nuclear weapon threatening Gotham because Bane (played with gusto by Tom Hardy) wants to eradicate the crime-infested city. RISES is not a bad film in its own right: it’s just a far weaker film than its predecessor. Moreover, it lacks the polish that we expect from Nolan. Brains are substituted for brawn, which goes against what makes the director so popular.
8: BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
Hear me out. BATMAN BEGINS is a good movie – it’s just an origin story that has to be told in order for original stories like THE DARK KNIGHT to follow. That nulls its excitement a little, worsened by the fact that Batman’s background is such a familiar one.
Nolantells that origin in a visually interesting way at least, particularly in its (literal) cold open: learning his skills in the Himalayas with a mysterious group of ninjas and their associate, Ducard (Liam Neeson), we see Bruce partake in a training montage that showcases how a man could actually perform some of the crazy feats that Batman is famous for.
It does introduce a weak end-of-the-world plot around halfway through however, which RISES would go on to replicate. Also, its secondary villain, Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), feels like an afterthought – more of a plot point carrier than an actual character. Nolan struggles to balance all of these elements in a credible way at times. But BEGINS still holds a special place in our hearts as Nolan gifted us with unforgettable images of Batman putting his predatory talents into practice. One will never forget the dockyard battle, concluding with the caped crusader uttering that immortal line – ‘I’m Batman’.
7: INTERSTELLAR (2014)
With such hype surrounding it, it was always going to be difficult for INTERSTELLAR to meet those expectations. Nolan’s space adventure was being compared to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968); people were ready to dub it as his ‘masterpiece’. And while it never materialized into a Kubrick-level epic, it has such an ambition that only Nolan could make infinitely watchable.
It’s also home to some of Nolan’s most human moments. Despite the planetary stakes, INTERSTELLAR is ultimately about one man, Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) bond with his children. So, scenes like Cooper watching footage of his kids aging on Earth, realizing that it’s unlikely that he’ll ever come back from his space expedition, are heartbreaking due to Nolan’s tender direction and McConaughey’s powerful performance.
But INTERSTELLAR’s weakness is its over-reliance on emotion over science. Nolan has been criticized for struggling to balance character development with plot progression. Here, he favors character: the logic of the science can suffer as a result, particularly in its final act, where the film is reduced to a trippy sequence involving fourth dimensional interactions with the past and present.
A flawed film with feeling is the best way to describe it.
6: INSOMNIA (2002)
Nolan fans might tremble at the ranking of INSOMNIA above INTERSTELLAR and BEGINS. Yet, the reason I love INSOMNIA is how far it deviates from Nolan’s usual style, while maintaining his obsessive attention to concepts and details.
A remake of a Norweigan film, Insomnia follows a manhunt led by Al Pacino’s Will Dormer: standard psychological thriller stuff. What makes it stand out are two intense lead performances from Pacino and Robin Williams, playing two sides of the same coin.
This is what Nolan is interested in, and this is what makes INSOMNIA an underrated gem: following a tragic accident in which Will kills his partner, Nolan would rather explore the relationship between two killers and their version of right and wrong, than the detailed processes of hunting a criminal down.
A cold film that cinematographer Wally Pfister emanates meticulously with his camerawork, INSOMNIA shows Nolan as a director that can study what’s beneath the skin, instead of a mere craftsman that can explain big ideas in an exciting way.
5: MEMENTO (2000)
The film student’s favourite besides PULP FICTION (1994), MEMENTO is prime Nolan and a template for everything the director would come to represent. A non-linear narrative? Check. A conflicted lead that’s trapped in this narrative? Check. A demand for the audience’s attention? Absolutely.
MEMENTO follows Leonard (Guy Pearce), an investigator that suffers from anterograde amensia, forgetting everything that happened to him within the previous few hours. He’s out to find the killer of his wife. But, this is where Nolan’s signature stamp is sealed on: we see Leonard kill this man in the opening minutes of the movie, as Nolan then traces the lead up to this by taking us back a couple of hours at a time, to discover what Leonard has forgotten during his case. It’s confusing as hell, but deliberately so. As Leonard pieces together his puzzle, we’re solving Nolan’s puzzle. This makes MEMENTO one of his most interactive movies. But again, it’s grounded in character, as we learn key information through Leonard on his personal quest. MEMENTO is quintessential Nolan: it’s also brilliant Nolan.
4: DUNKIRK (2017)
A departure from Nolan’s world-building, DUNKIRK is a war movie. But, it’s not a departure from Nolan’s style, as it’s told in a non-linear way that would typically appear gimmicky, but actually helps build a great amount of tension in a way that serves the story.
It showcases the evacuation at Dunkirk in World War Two through three timelines – a week for the men on land, a day for the men at sea and an hour for the men in the air. The genius of Nolan is that we never know when these timelines will overlap, so we don’t know whether the characters that we’re introduced to will be the ones to make it out alive. The real soldiers would have little idea for when help was coming, while the men at sea and in the air would have felt the urgency of the situation: Nolan captures this perfectly.
Sure, Dunkirk lacks the character development of a non-linear film like MEMENTO. But the sheer stress that Nolan’s filmmaking induces goes a step further: it makes us one of the characters, we are in the battle with DUNKIRK’s soldiers. DUNKIRK actually lives up to a word that’s thrown around so often – ‘immersive’.
3: INCEPTION (2010)
A ground-breaking sci-fi thriller, INCEPTION bent both reality and audience expectations with a twisty narrative built on a simple idea: what if someone could infiltrate your dreams?
It’s a huge question, right up Nolan’s street. What makes INCEPTION stand out is the visual creativity with which Nolan answers this. He uses practical and special effects to craft dream sequences that twist corridors during a fight and fold an entire city over on itself. When the mind is a playground, Nolan dreams up memorable images to demonstrate how creative the brain can be.
At its core though, INCEPTION still manages to draw us in with some interesting characters. Rather than going for a trippy OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001), Nolan gifts us Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose desire to return to his family fuels the entire adventure. It’s explored in a Nolan-esque way, of course – flashbacks within flashbacks within dreams, you know the drill.
Nevertheless, it’s a good emotional core to draw us in, underlining INCEPTION as something more than a MATRIX (1999) sibling.
2: THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
I’m readying myself for the pitchforks. But don’t worry, I still consider THE DARK KNIGHT to be a masterpiece of dark, dirty storytelling. There’s no bright spandex or colorful stones to collect in this Batman movie. Instead, Nolan tells a tale of humanity at its highest and its lowest, explored through the eyes of our hero and his arch nemesis, the Joker (Heath Ledger).
It goes without saying that Ledger is iconic, the core of Nolan’s vision of a world that can be destroyed with ‘a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets.’ He’s chaotic, evil and captivating, and Nolan uses him wisely, to question the morality of Batman.
That’s what makes THE DARK KNIGHT such a worthwhile classic: it doesn’t just pit good and evil against each other, but compares the two to see where they collide. Batman has his no kill rule, yet he won’t hesitate to beat a man senseless for information, or risk another man’s life to capture the bad guy. Joker doesn’t just kill people for the fun of it: he questions the good in humanity. Nolan doesn’t let up in this back and forth, and it’s what’s so haunting about THE DARK KNIGHT.
Sure, it lacks the grandeur of INCEPTION and its intricate set pieces. But it makes up for this with explosive dialogue and characters that try to understand each other as humans would. It’s this relatability that makes a film about a guy in a bat suit and a dude wearing clown makeup so brilliantly believable.
1: THE PRESTIGE (2006)
I told you this list is personal. However, the reason THE PRESTIGE takes the top spot for me is the way in which Nolan appears at his most subtle and self-aware to serve a smaller story in the best way possible. This is not a film about a superhero or a spy that breaks into dreams. It’s about two men fighting for superiority in their craft: stage magic. More importantly, it’s about Nolan’s own cinematic trickery and illusion: Nolan knows what you’re here for and he knows how to fool your expectations.
THE PRESTIGE can be viewed in both ways and succeeds at both. As a tale of colleagues turned foes, THE PRESTIGE is investing: Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman portray the corrupting nature of competition with horrifying obsessiveness. There’s tragedy, embarrassment and death. Yet, it never becomes far-fetched because of the leads. We believe that Bale’s Borden and Jackman’s Angier would go to whatever lengths to win.
Ultimately though, The Prestige wins because of the other way that you can read it: it’s a film that casts us and Nolan in the movie, as a way of questioning what we expect from a filmmaker like Nolan, a cinema magician if you will.
We play Angier, the man who believes there’s some ridiculously complicated explanation for one of Borden’s tricks: it involves electricity, cloning and constant sacrifice. And, coming from the man who made MEMENTO and BATMAN BEGINS, we go along with it. But, as Borden, Nolan shows us that we can’t expect so much, that sometimes the simpler storytelling can be the most effective: it’s revealed that Borden uses a simple trick of doubling up with a twin to fool people.
Nolan presents a version of the story that we believe Nolan would tell. He then reveals the actual story to our surprise. It’s reflective, it’s smart and it’s the closest we’ll ever to get to a conversation with Nolan himself. Re-set your expectations: THE PRESTIGE wants you to feel like you never know what you’re going to get from the director.
What about you? Did THE DARK KNIGHT get robbed? Has he never topped MEMENTO?