Director Retrospective: Christopher Nolan
With last weekend’s theatrical releases, a new director on my “Top 200(ish) Director List” became eligible under my current (and, mostly, arbitrary) ten-film minimum threshold for these retrospectives. As such, there’s no better time to talk about one of the most influential filmmakers of the 2000s: Christopher Nolan.
The Big List
So far, I’ve seen all 10 of Christopher Nolan’s feature-length films.
Here’s the list: Following (1998); Memento (2000); Insomnia (2002); Batman Begins (2005); The Prestige (2006); The Dark Knight (2008); Inception (2010); The Dark Knight Rises (2012); Interstellar (2014); Dunkirk (2017).
The Top Five
Here are my picks for the top-five Nolan films (ranked from #1-5 with some brief thoughts on each)…
Memento (2000) – To my mind, there are two contenders for the Nolan top spot. I’m going with the “safe” choice here and proclaiming Memento as Nolan’s best film to date. Borrowing much of the premise from a short-story that his brother (i.e. Jonathan Nolan, who’s probably best known for his TV development work on both HBO’s Westworld and CBS’s Person of Interest) was writing at the time, Christopher Nolan’s second film provides audiences with the most “unreliable narrator” this side of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. Moreover, the film is perhaps best known for its narrative structure — flashing back-and-forth between the past and the present, with one thread progressing in chronological order (A B C D, etc.) and the other progressing in reverse-chronological order (Z Y X W, etc.) until the two timelines meet in the middle of the story but the end of the film. (It makes more sense when you watch it.) This experimental, not-quite-straightforward, structuring is something Nolan utilizes in several of his films; however, it’s most thematically effective here, helping to put viewers (to some degree) in the perspective of the main character: a man who’s unable to remember the near-past due to his anterograde amnesia. Memento features a really captivating performance from Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby — the man attempting to discover his wife’s killer despite not being able to remember any evidence, a complication that changes our relationship to the character as the film progresses. The film also has great supporting turns from Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Ann Moss, Harriet Sansom Harris, and (one of my favorite character-actors) Stephen Tobolowsky. One of the truly fantastic and most memorable films of the 21st century and an absolute must-watch for anyone interested in cinema. And whatever you do, be sure to “remember Sammy Jankis.”
Dunkirk (2017) – Perhaps a surprise pick for some this early in the list, since it’s Nolan’s most recent film, Dunkirk is so good that I strongly considered putting it in the top spot. In the end, I went with Memento because I’ve seen it a dozen times and have had sufficient time to think about that film, whereas I’ve only seen Dunkirk once; but, boy, did it ever leave an impression! In terms of structuring, the film — switching back-and-forth between three overlapping stories that take place in three different lengths (i.e. one week, one day, one hour) — relies on some of the acrobatic editing techniques that occur in Following, Memento, and Inception (2010). [Seriously…Lee Smith, the film editor, does a remarkable job here in putting together a film that moves around a lot but never loses tension.] Furthermore, in terms of the visuals, Dunkirk is also reminiscent of Nolan’s other “blockbuster” films in that this is a really, really BIG movie — one that I would strongly suggest watching at an IMAX theater if you can. For those that don’t know the historical occasion, Dunkirk tells the story of 400,000(ish) British troops — and that count is higher considering the French, Belgian, and Canadian troops as well — who are cornered by the fast-moving German blitzkrieg in the early days of World War II. Pinned between the incoming German troops and the cold ocean, and with the British government / military unable to send adequate support, the only hope for the soldiers on the beach is from a few RAF fighters above and, more importantly, a large number of British civilians who sail their small (definitely NON-military) craft to the shore in an attempt to save as many soldiers as possible. To say that Dunkirk is an intense film would be something of an understatement — it’s a 106-minute film that never lets up (really…this is perhaps the most continuously suspenseful film that I’ve ever watched) and provides the viewer with a harrowing experience from the opening scene to the final scene. This isn’t really a film about the characters — though we do get good performances from the likes of Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, etc.; it’s a film about a situation, one that is the literal definition of FUBAR. Of special note here is Hans Zimmer — longtime Christopher Nolan collaborator — who creates arguably his greatest score to date. This is not only my favorite film of the Summer 2017 (a summer that had several good-to-great films) but also the best film that I’ve seen so far in 2017. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Dark Knight (2008) – For casual filmgoers, the movies that they’re most likely to associate with Christopher Nolan are undoubtedly his Batman trilogy: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). While Batman Begins is an effective origin-story introduction, it’s the second film — The Dark Knight — that remains, for most critics, the best film of the trilogy and, for many critics, Nolan’s best film overall. Personally, I fall somewhere in-between these estimations. There are several solid performances here (notably from Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllanhaal, Aaron Eckhart, and Gary Oldman), in addition to an all-time great job from Heath Ledger as the Joker. (As much as I adore Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman and Cesar Romero’s mustachioed / not-mustachioed Joker in the 1960s TV series, Ledger’s Joker is the definitive Joker in my estimation.) Moreover, The Dark Knight contains the spectacle and action that one expects from a superhero movie, as well as another excellent score from Hans Zimmer. That said, the film falls apart a bit for me in the last 30 minutes — i.e. basically, the scenes involving Two-Face post-hospital — enough that I can’t quite place it on the same level as Memento and Dunkirk. All that said, it is still a very good film and almost certainly still, despite its flaws, my favorite superhero film ever — one that probably forced the Academy to expand its Best Picture pool to more seriously consider “popular” movies. And now that “the superhero film” is likely its own genre, I suppose being the “best of” that genre is a worthwhile honor.
Inception (2014) – Depending on who you ask, Nolan’s Inception is either a brilliantly imaginative effort (and a welcome breath of fresh air in a Hollywood increasingly dominated by and reliant upon remakes, reboots, sequels, and/or franchises) or it’s a pretentious hot-mess that, at its core, is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. And, truth be told, of all Nolan’s films, this is the one in which I have most ping-ponged in terms of my own response. On initial viewing, I found it to be quite enjoyable; however, my second viewing (several months later) left me feeling a bit “cold” — which is certainly consistent with the most common critique of Nolan’s films, that there’s a certain type of objective distancing that happens. (For the record, I think that’s a worthy thing to think about with Nolan’s work, and I wonder if that interpretation is primarily based on subject-matter, tone, genre, or technical aspects. Or some combination of all the above.) In the end, I’ve come back around on Inception and, actually, as I’ve gotten older, it strikes me as an increasingly emotional work — and probably Nolan’s most emotional film (or, I guess I should say, his most interestingly emotional work, as it feels more emotionally complex than 2014’s Interstellar, which I find to be a bit emotionally clumsy and overly sentimental). This is probably the most talented cast in all of Nolan’s oeuvre — e.g. Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Pete Postlethwaite, Tom Berenger, (the vastly under-appreciated) Ken Watanabe, etc. Of particular note, here, is that this is the film that introduced most casual (American) viewers to Tom Hardy, who’s gone on to become a big star. The art / set design is impressive, and yep…Hans Zimmer deserves yet another mention for his score. Furthermore, the effects folks do a stunning job here, as most of the film’s effects were, believe it or not, practical rather than CGI — including that memorable rotating hotel-hallway fight. (Props to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the stuntmen for their work in that scene.) Overall, Inception is a technically impressive film that, at least for me, has a surprising amount of heart as well.
The Prestige (2006) – Even though it was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, The Prestige has been somewhat forgotten in the decade since its release. In some ways, it’s a weird little film in Nolan’s oeuvre — his first and only foray into a “period piece” (at least prior to this weekend’s Dunkirk) and part of the bizarre mini-zeitgeist in 2006 of movies involving, of all things, magicians. (The other notable magician film from around this time was Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, another pretty good movie in its own right.) Despite its peculiarities, however, one can again find Nolan’s interest in mystery / thriller here — only this time it’s not someone solving a crime (e.g. Memento and/or Insomnia) but, rather, two magicians trying to discover the mystery of each other’s stage-acts. This film features a number of strong performances from the likes of Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, etc. Most notably, this is probably the best non-Logan performance in Hugh Jackman’s career as the obsessed magician, Angier. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful films in Nolan’s filmography, as he and cinematographer Wally Pfister (a frequent collaborator with Nolan) create some truly memorable shots. In addition to the beautiful photographic elements, this also happens to be — by the end of the film — arguably Nolan’s darkest film (thematically), as things get REAL by the end. For a film about Late-Victorian magicians, the film has a lot to say about the temptations of fame and celebrity, and the high price that one might pay for unhealthy obsession and excessive competition. Oh, and it’s got David Bowie as Nikola Tesla because…sure.
The Underrated One
I’ve already talked about The Prestige above, which I think is a film that’s unfortunately often overlooked when folks are talking about “great” Christopher Nolan films. And I think a similar thing could be said about Batman Begins — while it’s not quite on par with the films mentioned above, it’s a good film in its own right that suffers somewhat from its more highly regarded sequel. But my choice here is Nolan’s Insomnia (2002). For those unfamiliar with this film, Insomnia is a mystery-thriller (i.e. a genre that Nolan is obviously very interested in based on his filmography) in which two LAPD detectives are sent to small-town Alaska to aid in a murder case. The nature of the murder — in combination with the partners’ strained relationship due to a internal-affairs investigation and a really bad case of insomnia amplified by the perpetual daylight during this time of year in Alaska — brings one of the detectives to the brink and creates an interesting dynamic between said detective and the murderer. Some good support from Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, and Martin Donovan (in a very limited role), this film also features arguably Al Pacino’s last great performance in a feature-length film, as well as a phenomenal (and haunting) job from Robin Williams in one of his “serious” roles that demonstrates the late-actor’s range from comedy to drama to thriller. Though the mystery aspects are in keeping with Nolan’s oeuvre, the final product feels a little anomalous compared to his experimental work (like Memento) or his big-budget spectacles (like Inception or Interstellar). Insomnia, rather, feels like a very “small” and claustrophobic film, resulting in a solid addition to the mystery-thriller genre.
The One to Avoid
There are three films that I considered here for the “one to avoid” among Nolan’s filmography. The first contender was Nolan’s first feature-length film, Following. It’s an interesting premise for a thriller and, as mentioned above, features some fun narrative structuring; moreover, the fact that a passable film was made on a $6,000 budget (!!!!!) is nothing short of miraculous. But the acting is really hit-or-miss, and it’s clearly got some amateurish qualities — which is to be expected for a first film but also isn’t something you can entirely ignore either. The second contender was one that’s a popular target of fanboys’ ire, Nolan’s third-part of his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. It’s certainly the weakest of the three Batman films, featuring some really bizarre character motivations, absurd plans on behalf of the villains, an unnecessary “twist” that undermines one of the principal characters, and just general pacing issues. That said, I don’t think it’s a “bad” film in itself — just an average / mediocre one. Lastly, the third contender and the one that I’m “awarding” this designation is Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). Similarly to the aforementioned film, I don’t think Interstellar is a “bad” film (per se) — it’s just pretty forgettable aside from a solid performance out of Matthew McConaughey, a moderately fun cameo from Matt Damon, and some nice visuals. My understanding is that — with the exception of the black hole and its theoretical effects on a person — the science of Interstellar is not totally without basis, which, again, I think one can appreciate even in a not-great movie. Overall, I don’t really think Nolan has made a truly, truly bad movie thus far in his career (at least, not in the context of some of his peers’ less-than-successful films). At worst, these three films that I’ve mentioned here are all just pretty average in comparison to his other efforts.
The Place to Start
Where to start with Christopher Nolan? By and large, his films are readily available and easily “accessible” (in terms of audience engagement) for casual viewers. I don’t necessarily like to try and boil down a director’s work into some kind of “essential” element or something; that said, for me, Nolan’s oeuvre seems to (generally) be interested in two concepts: mystery and spectacle. The first quality can be seen in films like Following, Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige, while the second quality can be seen in films like Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk. Therefore, because of these two qualities (mystery and spectacle), I think that I would suggest starting with Batman Begins (2005), which is, in some ways, a nice coalescence of these thematic interests from Nolan. Obviously, the Batman trilogy is full of action, special-effects, etc. (i.e. “spectacle”); but it’s also important to remember that Batman isn’t just any ‘ol superhero — he’s the “world’s greatest detective” within the DC comics universe (i.e. “mystery”). So, again, the first film in his Batman trilogy is a convenient way of exploring those concepts in one single movie; and then, based on your preferences (if any) regarding these qualities, that can help you decide which subsequent films within Nolan’s career to seek out.
The Final Word
Christopher Nolan is an interesting director to think about, as he’s been both critically revered and commercially successful. Tonally, there’s a bit of Kubrickian “cool-ness” to his films, which is unsurprising considering Nolan’s repeated mentions of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Spacy Odyssey as a favorite of his (i.e. a film that he saw upon a special theatrical re-release as a child and one that influenced his understanding of how movies worked). But in contrast to that, there’s also a Spielbergian impulse toward the “blockbuster” and a “bigger-is-better” mantra, as witnessed in Nolan’s frequent use of large film-formats and his preference for the grandiosity of the theater’s big screen. (In a way, you really get a sense that the apparatus is hugely important to him as a director and as a film lover, though I can’t say that with any certainty.) Still, despite these disparate influences and sensibilities, Nolan has found a way to walk a fine line between creating movies as “art” and producing movies as “entertainment” (or, perhaps, he’s learned how to attract various audiences who hold different expectations regarding film). That’s not necessarily an easy thing to accomplish — especially with the overall consistency displayed within this director’s impressive filmography.