Dunkirk is only a few days away, and judging from early reactions it is going to be an event that must be seen on the largest screen possible. That’s primarily because it is a Christopher Nolan film.
Nolan has become, at least in my mind, the new populist filmmaker. He is the new Spielberg because he has an ability to deliver scope, and tell stories which cut across cultural lines. Christopher Nolan delivers epics, but his epics still carry the thoughtfulness and complexity he displayed in his early work.
Here is your arbitrary ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films up to this week. Let me know if I’m on point or insanely stupid, whatever you’re feelin’…
The Dark Knight Rises
The unique thing about ranking Christopher Nolan films is none of them on their own are bad. Even this, his finale of the Dark Knight Trilogy, as unkempt and illogical as it is at times, still works in a number of areas. It’s just that the ambition and scope spin out of control at times. Tom Hardy’s Bane, as terrific as he is, turns out to be nothing more than a pawn in the end, which was perhaps the most disappointing reveal in the film’s overlong third act.
There are massive logical issues here (so Batman walked across the desert and came back to save Gotham from a ticking time bomb, but he took the time to douse a bridge facing in kerosene?), but Nolan still manages to capture the dread of totalitarianism and the threat of an all-encompassing evil. I have blown hot and cold on The Dark Knight Rises over the years, but time has dissipated its impact for me.
Again, Insomnia is not a bad film. It is an excellent thriller, as a matter of fact. But Nolan’s film has the disadvantage of its source material, the superior Erik Skjoldbjærg version from 1997. That Swedish version starred Stellan Skarsgård in the role, and is a nearly spotless suspense film. Now, the Skarsgård role is occupied by a game Al Pacino, and the killer he is hunting across a day stricken small town Alaska is Robin Williams.
These two men keep Nolan’s film tight and tense, and it quietly builds on suspicion and deception, and intensifies thanks to a bad case of sleep deprivation. This was Nolan’s follow up after his breakout hit Memento, and it follows a predictable path from that film, as Insomnia twists and turns and the screws on Pacino’s dirty cop tighten. Had he never directed another movie again this would have been a solid send off; but he did, and his later films simply outweigh his third effort.
Christopher Nolan’s debut was a small twisting little narrative, shot using crude black and white photography, is like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi: it is a flawed debut but the indications that the director behind the camera could be a force. It tells the story of a young man, Bill (Jeremy Theobald), and his hobby of following people. One day, one of his subjects, Cobb (Alex Haw), exposes his game and kick starts what becomes a rabbit hole of poor decisions and voyeurism.
Following is Nolan’s ability to play still. It still exists in his most ambitious films, but here the stillness creates unease and the black and white cinematography paints a stylish, noir mood. It is raw, and perhaps some would celebrate it more because of its specific rawness; nevertheless, it is our first glimpse of Nolan as a masterful suspense filmmaker. It’s his origin story.
There are moments where Interstellar is my favorite Christopher Nolan film. There are frustrating moments, too, and a slight hint of the ambition getting away as his black hole adventure film tries to touch too many bases at once.
But those favorite moments, they sing. They have power and sometimes unbearable tension. The scene where Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper sits down to see video messages from the last 23 years of his life – 23 hours he lost in only an hour while exploring a planet far across the cosmos – packs an emotional punch that is often absent from Nolan’s stories. The docking scene is absolutely incredible. And the final sequence, while convoluted, is more inventive that the ambitions of most Hollywood blockbusters.
So many things work in Interstellar, but the whole doesn’t quite come together with the same amount of strength as the parts.
It’s strange to think as recent as 2005 we didn’t have a true Batman origin story on screen. Sure, the murdered parents moments has been done and re-done and continues to be done, but the real origin of Batman existed only on the pages of the comics. Nolan’s film takes care of this, and rescues a superhero in the process.
The Dark Knight had been dead for years, after Joel Schumacher shot the franchise headfirst into parody and camp trash with 1997’s Batman & Robin. 2005 was the course correction, as Nolan’s strips the character of gotcha landscapes and neon lights to get back to the basics. Batman Begins is thrilling more now because of what it is setting up in the second film, and Bale’s Bat-voice is a bit much at first. But the building blocks are impressive.
Following was Christopher Nolan’s debut, but Memento was the one that put him on the map for good. His murder mystery built steam based on its gimmick – the story runs backward – but it succeeded by transcending the gimmick and creating a masterful jigsaw puzzle thriller that pays off the high concept in spades.
The cast is also like a relic of the late 90s and early 2000s. Carie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano box in Guy Pearce’s memory-plagued protagonist, and the grounded locations and set design beautifully counteract the concept at play. It may still be Nolan’s greatest film, and it is certainly many fan’s favorite.
This is where the real separation begins to creep into Christopher Nolan’s filmography. The rest of these films are, for my money, Nolan’s masterpieces. And depending on the day, Inception might be number one. It is the most ambitious Nolan film, leaning heavily into mind-expanding plot and heavy atmosphere. These are dreams we’re dealing with, and even though these dreams might not be the most accurate, they are here to serve an incredible adventure story.
This is Nolan’s most impressive collection of talent, from Leo DiCaprio on down. As the layers pile on top of each other, Inception transitions, not to a film with set pieces, but a film that is all one magnificent set piece. The action has become iconic, namely the hotel hallway scene, a true indication of a film’s power. Inception taps into adventure, science fiction, noir, and real human drama.
The Dark Knight
Seeing The Dark Knight on the big screen remains one of the more incredible theater experiences I have ever had, and I feel that sentiment is commonplace among a few peers. For all the goodwill Christopher Nolan built up with Batman Begins, none of us were prepared for the performance of Heath Ledger. His Joker is one of a kind, and the morose gravity of this oppressive new Gotham is heavy as the clown prince wreaks havoc.
Bale is also more comfortable in the role. Everything works here, thematically and in the incredible action sequences – even if the final act is a mishmash of false endings and anticlimactic spy games. It’s took bad Nolan and Ledger weren’t able to team up for the third film. Just imagine this film with the closure it deserved.
This is a personal choice, of course. The Prestige is a beautiful, haunting film, steeped in the turn-of-the-century mythos of competing magicians. Bale and Hugh Jackman are terrific in opposition of one another, and as the film unfolds Nolan stays committed to a distinct, alienating mood. Some criticize the coldness of The Prestige, and the coldness of Christopher Nolan films in general, but the relationship between Bale’s character and his young daughter sticks the landing more often than not.
The end is a shocker, and it works for me no matter what you say. It is a victory for one of our obsessive protagonists, and it encapsulates the very notion of obsessive competition in a few breathtaking moments. The Prestige is sharp and unique, and it is the perfect balance of Nolan’s smaller, intimate works, and his grand-scale storytelling.