Christopher Nolan, despite his somewhat fevered following that can verge on the exasperating, is a filmmaker of great interest to me. His 2001 film, Memento, was the first movie I ever owned on DVD after my father said "you just have to watch this". I've followed his career since with fascination, trepidation (especially in the case of the Batman films), and anticipation. Known for his puzzle-box plotting, "heroic man of destiny" lead characters, and a heavy dash of influence from past masters, Nolan is hailed by a certain type of cinema-goer and receives chastising in equal measure, both earned (his female characters are often just motivating figures for their male counterparts), and not (his films "aren't funny"). Wherever you stand on the filmmaker, its hard to say his career has been one of "going through the motions" and his cinematic reach, with a continued attempt to explore new themes, subtext and concepts, both visually and on the page, is worth the attention.
So, much like we did with David Fincher last month, let's create an arbitrary ranking of the man's work thus far, in honor the release of Interstellar, and see what's held up and what needs to be forgotten Leonard Shelby-style.
Nolan's first film is the only one in his filmography that I would say has to little to redeem it. One has to applaud the effort, as it was made for a pretty paltry sum ($6,000) and filmed in stretches when Nolan had funds to work with, along with friends of his as performers (including his uncle, John). But let's not grade on a curve here, because that does no one any good. Following is boring, poorly acted, shot fairly rotely, and is an hour that only the die-hards will want to spend. It's not completely invaluable as a look into the developing tool-box of a film-maker, but after you watch it once, it's difficult to imagine wanting to take the trip again. More impressive is his meteoric rise in craft only a few short years later in his next feature, but we'll get there.
Post-his first big critical break-out, Nolan was looking to make his first real studio picture and thanks to Steven Soderbergh's recommendation, he landed the gig on a remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia. It lacks many of the hallmarks of a Nolan movie, give or take the male protagonist, and for some that may be a positive; but it also is clearly his only "hired gun" film, where he felt the need to prove himself with big names and larger budgets. Insomnia is an effective little thriller and it gets one of the few very good performances from Al Pacino of the last 10 years or so, and a fairly creepy turn from Robin Williams. Despite some strong camera-work with long-time partner Wally Pfister (the sun has rarely ever been so menacing), the whole affair feels like minor-Nolan, but it serves as an effective enough bridge to carry him into big studio tent-pole work.
7. Batman Begins
As a comic book fan, and avowed admirer of most things Batman-related, I've surely seen this movie more times than any other film in Nolan's filmography. It's also the movie that over the years, its holes have become more and more apparent with time. Oh, don't get me wrong, Nolan's Wagnerian, yet grounded, approach to the Batman mythos was revelatory and sparked off an entire wave of film reboots (which is probably the dirtier part of its legacy). Yet, its hard to shake just what a misfire its third act is. He, David Goyer, and Jonah Nolan set up a wonderfully mannered origin story for Gotham City's central superhero, and pulled directly from arguably the best Batman comic to ever be written, Batman: Year One; and it all gets somewhat tossed aside with a third act twist that gives Liam Neeson ground for an ultra-hammy performance and to devolve the proceedings into nonsense and the most glaring points of exposition in his entire film lineup. Even Gary Oldman, perfectly cast as Jim Gordon, is struggling with nailing down some of the broader moments of the script. The need for a city at ransom climax doesn't necessarily devalue just how good everything that came before, because had it suck the landing, Batman Begins would be the best of these Batman films arguably. Certainly its only Batman movie that's centrally about its title character, and Christian Bale is tremendous. This is also the first movie where Nolan's influences are on his sleeve as the production design looks incredibly Blade Runner-esque. It's just a shame about that water vapor machine...and Katie Holmes.
6. The Dark Knight Rises
Truthfully, I hold Rises and Begins at about the same level, they both have their own individual issues dragging down some of the grander strengths of their narratives. Rises has some very interesting things to say regarding the haves and have-nots and how a system can be co-opted by a charismatic figure in the Che Guevara mold, there's also a fascinating bit of counterpoint between the symbol that Bane (memorably performed by Tom Hardy) casts and the iconography of the Batman and how they both act as rallying points for people. I even love the John Blake twist! But, this is also the Batman film that features magic back-punching, and Bruce hobbling around Wayne Manor like a parody of Howard Hughes. This trilogy capper is also hampered by another Macguffin, this time a bomb, to where yet again, the city is held to ransom. That threat fits a little better here, as it plays to the series' themes of escalation; but it still leads to a fairly ridiculous countdown clock moment, that despite a great reveal of the film's central villain, never quite gels. In a fair world, I'd say this and Begins are tied, but Rises has Anne Hathaway as Nolan's best female protagonist in Selina Kyle and no Katie Holmes, so Rises wins by a hair.
5. The Prestige
Nolan's adaptation of Christopher Priest's novel of dueling magicians was a long-simmering passion project that his new-found cache post-Batman Begins allowed him to move forward on. It's also his strangest film, focusing on two murderous, driven protagonists. But it's a delightful period piece that in many ways is the ultimate of his "puzzle box" films, rewarding multiple viewings and also playing well as a metaphor for the art of movie-making, with Cutter's (Michael Caine) explanation about the structure of a magic trick pulling double duty on that end. Nathan Crowley's production design is top notch, as well as the first of a long line of awards worthy work from Wally Pfister (both received Academy Award nods for their efforts here). Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are tremendous, both playing dual roles in a sense, and their ability to elicit your sympathy and disgust in equal measure is a testament to how strong their performances are. Additionally, Rebecca Hall is quite magnetic in her first big screen role. This is also a movie in which David Bowie is playing Nikola Tesla, which while in line with Nolan's penchant for stunt casting, is probably his masterstroke. The Prestige is simply a great film, and while unjustly lost in the noise of his Batman films, its far more essential than most of them.
4. The Dark Knight
I say "most of them" because The Dark Knight is without a doubt the best superhero movie ever made. Sure, you have your team-up hijinx with The Avengers, but it still pales in comparison to the sprawling crime saga on display here. This is the film where Nolan's themes hit a fever pitch and rather than the Batman property somewhat overriding the film-maker (as it did in Begins), here Nolan is able to transform it a bit and create a fascinating epic struggle between two opposing naturalistic forces (chaos and order) that cannot co-exist but also cannot disentangle themselves from one another. A million things have been said and written about The Dark Knight, much of it centering on the late Heath Ledger's Academy Award winning performance as The Joker. But there's so much more there, the Heat-like influence, the fallen friendship between Batman, Jim Gordon (played in a much more assured fashion by Oldman), and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart in the Robert Redford mold), Maggie Gyllenhaal as an instant elevation of the Rachel Dawes character, an intricate plot involving Gotham's crime families, and some incredible James Bond-like near espionage with a scenic detour of Hong Kong. Sure, the Gordon "faking his death" plot doesn't really make any sense, and for a movie with a lot of death in it, it's surprisingly bloodless (other than poor Harvey's face) but this is the point where Nolan entered the stratosphere and rightly so.
I'll surely need a second viewing and some time to really cement how I feel about this space epic, but for now, I feel comfortable lodging it right in the #3 spot. Nolan's latest is his most ambitious and is quite a departure for him. Sure, it still contains a bit of a mystery, but its wrapped up in a heart-warming veneer that many have said is missing in his films to this date. Imagine if you will, a film-maker took the best bits of Kubrick circa 2001, Spielberg in his Close Encounters days, Tarkovsky's Solaris, and a dash or two of Zemeckis' Contact, Scott's Alien, and Cameron's The Abyss and you'd have a pretty decent idea of what Interstellar has on offer. Matthew McConaughey's Cooper is by far Nolan's most fleshed out and sympathetic protagonist and the visual vistas on display are stunning (credit goes to Nolan's new cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema) and the fact that so little CGI was used to produce these effects left my mouth agape. This is an example of a writer/director aiming to stretch his boundaries and in my eyes succeeding wildly. Interstellar is even funnier than you expect, with a pretty amazing rapport between Cooper and the mission's robot assistant TARS. Interstellar is a look at humanity's pioneering spirit and how much has been lost in recent years. Its hopefulness is a strong rebuke of the pervasiveness of cynicism in cinema today (something that he himself helped spawn with The Dark Knight) and it displays perhaps the Nolans' (both Chris and Jonah co-wrote) strongest script to date with a third act that is my favorite from a film this year. It's not without its fair share of criticisms, Jessica Chastain's Murph deserved a bit more screen-time for my tastes, and Casey Affleck's Tom is totally under-developed. As Hannah said in her review, the film has a bit of a white guy problem, but the ambition on display more than makes up for it. I'm not sure how this one will age for me by the time his next movie rolls around, but it's hard for me to imagine it won't grow in esteem as I get a chance to unravel all of its intricacies.
I will forever have a soft spot for this one for the reason dictated above, but one of the elements I admire most about Nolan's first breakthrough is how well it approximates the protagonist's experience and thrusts that into the heads of the viewer. In a sense, we are virtually Leonard Shelby, particularly on first viewing, but it's impossible to appreciate that effort until you sit down with the film again. A powerful sense of sorrow permeates every drop of Memento, and Guy Pearce's central performance is the key driver that effectively pulls such a radical concept together. Some pretty great supporting work from Matrix alums Carrie Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano provide an excellent push and pull as well Memento is also one of the most gloriously-lit neo-noirs I've seen, with a Sunny California backdrop playing host to the tragic machinations of a man who just can't seem to remember anything but his dead wife. This is an exercise that has a disregard for the rules of the genre, and it was what marked Nolan as a filmmaker to watch (and netted him an Academy Award nod for his adapted screenplay).
My favorite work of his though, by far, is this ingenious thriller that Nolan spent over a decade writing. While The Prestige was the passion project that Batman Begins allowed to happen, the meteoric success of The Dark Knight gave him infinite leeway with Warner Bros to develop this tale of corporate thieves that implant ideas into someone's dreams. Taking the template provided by the Hong Kong sections of The Dark Knight, Nolan developed Inception as a full-scale James Bond homage, while also dovetailing a bit with artier ambitions. It perfectly pitches itself between the auteur realm and big budget entertainment without overly crossing the line either way, and the concepts presented: the source of ideas, time dilation in dreams, dealing with grief, all could make for a movie themselves, but here they're expertly blended into a $800 million dollar grossing caper film. It's a hell of an achievement and one I could watch endlessly with little qualm or regret. Also, it's got a heck of a young cast, with Tom Hardy as a particular stand-out. It was the Zeitgeist film of 2010, where The Dark Knight held that status in 2008. Not many filmmakers get two of those in a career, which is something well worth appreciating.
Check out our previous rankings of the work of Wes Anderson and David Fincher.