It’s time to turn on the muted lighting and crank up the Hans Zimmer. We’re about to explore the filmography of the greatest living director, Christopher Nolan.
Many readers may be surprised to know that it’s not a popular thing to be a so-called Nolan fanboy. Granted, this mockery comes from those who devour everything with ‘Marvel’ printed on it. Go figure. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a favorite director who also cares about his craft so much that he typically writes each screenplay as well. Multi-layered talent is rare these days.
I am still dreading the day that Nolan becomes the next Shyamalan. Let’s remember Shyamalan’s golden touch in the early 2000s. I’d argue that he pulled off a hat trick with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable (his best) and Signs. He then started to invest too much into his own brand and went off the rails with the end of the still-decent The Village, Lady in the Water and the filth that followed. We are officially nine full-length movies into Nolan’s filmography and he has yet to make a bad movie.
Now, let’s get started on the movies of Christopher Nolan, worst to best. (Not including his short, Doodlebug.)
9 – Following
Nolan wrote, directed and financed this 70 minute neo-noir film that was released in 1998. He personally paid for the 16-mm film that the film was shot on. To keep costs down, the cast had to act out their scenes before each take. When they felt it was correct, they would start shooting, doing three cuts at most. This movie cost $6,000 to make and grossed over $240k.
Following depicts our unnamed lead character as he followed random people through the city as a hobby. This all stopped when he meets “Cobb” (also the name of DiCaprio’s Inception character) and becomes entrenched in a life of thievery. This movie showcased Nolan’s initial venture into, what would be come his staple, a non-linear plot structure. Following is worth watching because it shows the potential of a man who would soon get significant financing for future projects.
8 – Insomnia
I’m watching this 2002 movie as I write this. Many people may not know that Insomnia is a remake of a ’98 Norwegian movie. This is the only of Nolan’s films that he does not receive a writing credit, though he did write the final draft of the script. I would argue, if Nolan came up with this story idea, that it would be a tighter narrative.
Of all of his movies so far, Insomnia is the closest spiritual successor to a Hitchcock film. Al Pacino is great as the aging detective who accidentally shoots his partner while on a search for a serial killer. In turn, this killer knows the truth that Pacino is trying to cover up. This movie, along with One Hour Photo cemented a perfect role change for Robin Williams.
It’s after this point that each movie enters the top tier.
7 – The Dark Knight Rises
In 2012, Nolan wrapped his work on the Dark Knight trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. While no movie could possibly follow that of The Dark Knight, this movie proved that a threequel could actually be great. Even with some resounding plot holes, it still earned an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The entire cast were at the top of their games. Christian Bale and Michael Caine put in their best performances in the franchise. This was also the movie that helped me get over my irrational hatred of Anne Hathaway. Also, even with the distinctive voice and mask, Tom Hardy’s Bane was the perfect choice to provide Batman with an antagonist that was purely physical, rather than psychological or chaos based. This movie brought the trilogy full circle. It will be hard for any future Batman series to match the quality of Nolan’s vision.
6 – Batman Begins
In 1997, the successful Batman franchise was put to rest. Tim Burton managed to catapult comic book movies to the forefront. It was preceded in quality only by Donner’s Superman. Yet, when Joel Schumacher took over with Batman Forever, it was the beginning of the end. The ’90s was already a dark time for comic books in general and it didn’t help that the greatest of all heroes had just been made a joke of on the big screen.
Many directors tried to get their versions of Batman off the ground in the early 2000s, but it was then seen as a cursed franchise. Enter Christopher Nolan, a mostly untested director with an indie movie and a studio thriller under his belt. X2 (2003) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) reached the pinnacle of comic book movie quality and it was Batman’s turn to find success.
Nolan essentially took a Year One story and built the mythology from there. He managed to take unseen villains and make them threatening and real. Cillian Murphy doesn’t receive enough credit for his role. What makes this movie great is that you don’t see Bruce Wayne put on the suit for over an hour, but it still manages to be compelling. This movie was only strengthened by the full-circle ties introduced in The Dark Knight Rises.
5 – Memento
Memento started out as a story idea Jonathan Nolan told his brother on a road trip. These two frequent collaborators wrote their own versions of the story. Jonathan wrote a short story, while Christopher wrote the out-of-sequence screenplay. The final product turned into a low-budget festival favorite. However, no distributors wanted to buy it, thinking that the audience would find it too confusing. All credit to director Steven Soderbergh, who saw it and praised it until it was finally picked up. Once it found a distributor, Memento found incredible success and became one of the most original movies of the decade.
I watch Memento every 3-4 years. I still know what is ultimately coming for the characters, but the way the story is told still holds something new. I’d like to see Nolan collaborate with Guy Pearce again. This is also the first time that Nolan worked with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has become a Nolan mainstay. If you’re reading this, and you still haven’t seen Memento, you owe it to yourself to experience this one-of-a-kind film.
4 – The Prestige
Even though Nolan was under contract for the new Batman franchise, he still pursued movies in between. This 2006 movie is sadly, Nolan’s most under-seen and underappreciated films. It earned only $103 million globally and is often confused with the similar-themed The Illusionist. The only similarity between the Illusionist and The Prestige is the use of magic. Those who have only seen this movie one time may think that it was too dark and relied too heavily on a twist, but they owe it to themselves to watch it again.
The Prestige plays out exactly as the three parts of a magic trick as described in the beginning of the film. To paraphrase, it starts with The Pledge. You have a simple story about two magicians learning their craft. It seems very normal so far. The second part of the trick is The Turn, where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. These two magicians continue their rivalry through methods of revenge and unexplainable science. Yet, as Michael Caine so brilliantly explains, there is The Prestige, the third part of the trick. The crowd wants to know how the trick was done, even if that means they might not like the trick after all. This movie reveals its secrets in the end and the outcome is not a happy one.
The Prestige gets better with each viewing. I have a feeling I’ll watch this one more than any of his other films.
3 – Interstellar
Nolan’s latest movie is certainly his most ambitious. He has never shied away from attributing his style to his directorial influences and in Interstellar he shows his love for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. While this movie goes bigger than any of his previous works, it also becomes his most emotional and personal offering. The center theme of the story is love. As Cooper sacrifices everything he holds dear in order to find a possible salvation for the human race, there is a high element of predestination built on his love for his daughter.
With the exception of Following, Interstellar is Nolan’s lowest scoring movie with an RT rating of 72%. The minority of critics were both angered by the apparent simple science and plot complication. I have a feeling these same critics praised Lucy because it was apparently fun.
Somehow, Nolan made a movie (with the help of astrophysicist Kip Thorne) about black holes and the theory of relativity and made it a compelling watch. Popcorn viewers need not apply, as Interstellar really is the total package. This movie nearly made me cry and definitely made me sit in awe at the spectacular visuals. I love when a movie challenges me and treats its audience as adults.
I’ve only seen Interstellar twice in the theaters. With frequent Blu-Ray viewings, it has potential to beat the next film on the list.
2 – The Dark Knight
50 years from now, there will be a comprehensive list of the best comic book movies of all time. Granted, at that point there will be 300 movies to choose from. The #1 movie will still be The Dark Knight. It transcended all expectations of what a comic book movie could do and became a legitimate crime drama. It even feels wrong comparing this to any Spider-Man or Captain America flick.
The Dark Knight is the kind of sequel that stands on its own. You don’t need to see Batman Begins to know the characters. Also, each character fits into the production like clockwork. Heath Ledger gets the praise for making this movie what it is. He’s certainly a scene-stealer, but no one can overlook Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman or Christian Bale.
I’d call this the perfect movie, even though there are obvious flaws. The recasting of Maggie Gyllenhaal is a problem. Also, the ending with the 5 deaths feels a bit undercooked. Otherwise, the cinematography combined with the practical effects makes this immediately rewatchable. It’s hard to imagine how they got this so right.
How do you beat The Dark Knight? By following your dreams…
1 – Inception
Inception is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. He actually wrote a story about ‘dream stealers’ right after he finished Insomnia. Yet, he was still a new director and was far from getting the funding or studio confidence that could make it possible. That all changed when The Dark Knight became one of the biggest movies ever. At that point, Warner Brothers wrote Nolan a blank check to make his movie about dream heists.
You may hate me for saying this, but Inception is perfect. The cast, even with Ellen Page, played their parts wonderfully. The addition of Marion Cotillard showed that Nolan was finally learning to cast women well. I hope Leonardo DiCaprio gets a chance to work with Nolan again. Also, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt cemented their status as the brightest new stars of Hollywood.
Every time Nolan announces an original film, I feel scared for him. Yes, clearly I shouldn’t devote this much stress to something I have no control of, but I can’t quite help it. As Inception approached, I felt that delving into dreams would only turn out like campy ’80s fare like Dreamscape. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. I ended up seeing this at least three times in its first month of release. As with every Nolan film, it gets better each time.
Normally, I hate movies that leave the conclusion so open-ended. That top still haunts me and I love the movie for it.
Christopher Nolan has yet to make a bad movie. That is almost unprecedented in Hollywood. I can’t wait to see what vision he’ll bring to film audiences next. He clearly can’t go bigger than the scope of Interstellar, so I’m hoping that he brings it down a notch by focusing on a basic human story. The next few years will be very interesting.