One of the major traits I look for in a director is a consistent, singular, marked style that runs across his/her entire filmography. The best directors, in my mind, could put out a new movie under a pseudonym and I could walk out of said movie thinking, “I’m pretty sure that was a (insert name of director here) film.” (I don’t know what weird world this sort of thing would happen in but I like to believe it’s possible.) Across all genres, I always know when I’m watching a Spielberg film, for example. The same can be said for Tarantino, Wright, Bigelow, Anderson, Scorsese, and a handful of other filmmakers, the cream of the crop, and it can certainly be said for Christopher Nolan.
If ever a director is to unseat Spielberg as MY director, my go-to unquestioned favorite, I think Nolan has the best shot. I remember seeing a Nolan film for the first time (Memento, in my freshman dorm room) and having my mind blown, not just by the construction of the movie but by the sheer force of style this guy brought to the screen. Everything meticulously planned out, every detail accounted for, every shot designed to attract the eye in the right way. Since then, I’ve been an easy mark for Nolan’s work and while his track record hasn’t been perfect, even his “lesser” films check off almost every box for me and I await each new film with baited breath. With his tenth feature film, Dunkirk, headed our way this weekend, I thought it time to officially sort through Nolan’s filmography and play favorites.
9. Insomnia (2002)
In truth, Insomnia is probably better than Following and perhaps even another Nolan film or two. It was well-received critically and enjoys a strong reputation 15 years after its release. For me, though, it stands out as the sore thumb amongst the rest because it lacks the feel of a Nolan movie. His only film that he did not write, at least in part, Insomnia is a remake of a Swedish film and to me it feels like a remake. It lacks the definitive Nolan-esque touches and while cold and aloof characters are big players across the director’s works, this one has always felt disconnected from its engineer.
8. Following (1999)
Following is hardly a cinematic masterpiece but you’re unlikely to find many films this good made for $6,000, especially not in 1999. If Following had been my introduction to Nolan (I saw it for the first time maybe five years ago), I’m not so arrogant as to believe I could’ve told you it was the harbinger of the illustrious career that has come to pass but I think I could’ve identified the supreme talent on display. It may be a bit film school-ish but it has a great hook and features far more substance than you might guess from its pretentious façade.
7. Memento (2000)
Had I made this list before my most recent viewing, I believe Memento would’ve creept up a spot or two. It is, as I said before, a singular moment in my personal film watching history and (ironically) I’ll never forget what it was like to struggle along with Guy Pearce to piece together his story. The downside of Memento is its rewatchability or lack thereof. One viewing is sublime, a true experience in quality filmmaking and inspired storytelling. A second viewing gives you a new appreciation for the first and fills in the gaps. Any other returns to Memento likely need to occur after many years when you’ve half-forgotten the details or with someone who’s never seen the film before. That said, Memento is still a great film and given that it was Nolan’s first “budgeted” film (at a whopping $10 million), it’s an incredible achievement. Also, it’s fun to see Joe Pantoliano doing work. We need more Joey Pants.
6. The Prestige (2006)
I didn’t completely “get” The Prestige the first time I saw it. A little dense, maybe a tad overdone in places, and a confusing ending. Somewhere along the line I got lost and couldn’t quite bring it all together for myself, though I recognized the quality of the filmmaking. Years later, a friend who knew of both my love for Nolan and indifference to The Prestige recommended I revisit the film and when I did, it clicked. Perhaps you need two viewings to understand the movie or perhaps I’m just dumb (I’m very willing to accept this) but whatever the case may be, once The Prestige worked in my head it worked brilliantly on screen, too. Jackman and Bale are both fantastic in their roles, too, and I’ve always been impressed with the way Nolan explores the darkest material of his filmography to date without reveling in it.
5. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
I will carry the banner for the virtues of The Dark Knight Rises to my dying day, I suppose. Would I like more of Bane’s dialogue to be understandable? Yes, I would. Would I like a tighter timeline regarding the healing of one’s spine? Totally. Would I like to see the second act reined in a bit or spun out even further to create a two-part finale to this series? One hundred percent. But none of these issues have kept me from appreciating The Dark Knight Rises for what it is: a solid ending for a beloved franchise featuring some incredible highs that fully offset the flaws for me. Moreover, and this is a somewhat controversial opinion, I love that Nolan decided to give us some closure for Bruce/Batman. I think the character both needed and deserved a happy ending, even if that happy ending had to involve Anne Hathaway.
4. Interstellar (2014)
When we walked out of an incredible 35mm screening of Interstellar on its opening weekend, I was in love and assumed everyone else was, too. Then my good friend and co-host Kent, who attended the screening with me, offered his dissent and I was taken aback. We fought in the parking lot, each of us gathering a team of battle-hardened movie nerds to our respective sides, just like Gangs of New York. Fortunately, we’re both scared of fighting so the battle didn’t go very far but still, it could’ve gotten ugly. Interstellar is a much more divisive film than I ever would’ve imagined while I was taking it in for the first time. I was just in complete awe of the visuals and the spiritual journey Nolan took me on. Upon reflection, I understand the “love or hate it” nature of the movie. It’s ambitious, perhaps overly so, but moreover, it forces you to either go along for the ride or get off early in the process and your choice in this matter will likely dictate how you feel about the ending. It is Nolan’s most Spielbergian film and thus, I love it for all of its heart and emotional resonance but I can’t fault anyone for passing on its whimsy.
3. Batman Begins (2005)
Our resident DC Comics expert, Batman Shane, believes Batman Begins is the best made film of Nolan’s vaunted trilogy. I thought this was insane at first given how perfect The Dark Knight truly is (see below). Upon further reflection, however, I get what he’s saying. Nolan went to WORK on this movie, completely overhauling everything we (the movie going public, not necessarily the comic-reading public) knew about the Caped Crusader. In 2017, it’s easy to overlook the importance of Batman Begins and write it off as a sure thing. At the time, however, this was a MASSIVE undertaking and required a brilliant mind like Nolan to revamp the Batman universe and reignite the interest in a character that had become an absolute laughing stock. There’s an understanding here of both Batman and Bruce Wayne that had not been matched previously and has not been matched since.
2. Inception (2010)
I withhold the word “masterpiece” in my film critique as much as possible. It’s the one term I want to make sure I only bust out at the most appropriate times. Inception is a science fiction masterpiece. Every aspect of this movie is perfect, from concept to final scene. The cast is superb across the board and Nolan mixes in just the right amount of B-story to keep the plot from becoming a drag. Most impressively to me is Nolan’s script which gives you all the information you need to stick with the potentially confusing narrative without overloading you with science. In other words, he neglects neither the science nor the fiction in the science fiction equation. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Inception becomes too convoluted to follow or overloaded with boring exposition. Nolan keeps the film moving and turns in one of the very best films of the decade.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
I guess the only way to top a masterpiece is to create a masterpiece with greater cultural significance. You could argue (and I might agree with you) that the degree of difficulty on The Dark Knight is lesser than that of Inception, Batman Begins, or even Interstellar. But it matters not when you put together a movie that transcends genre and reaches the apex of the cultural zeitgeist like The Dark Knight does while still managing to fly past every reasonable expectation for a comic book movie. It is THE film of the decade, in my opinion; a great, GREAT movie that virtually every human with a pulse and a theater within 50 miles saw. I’ve seen The Dark Knight a couple dozen times at this point and after each viewing I come away appreciating something different. One time it’s Heath Ledger’s performance, the next it’s the sound mix, the next the attention to detail on the Tumbler. The Dark Knight is, for me, unquestionably the greatest comic book movie of all-time and is, by all standards, perfect.