So last week, I gave my rundown of my favorite writer/director filmmakers, and Christopher Nolan always comes out at #1 as far as that goes. The guy is just a natural born storyteller – a combination of Stephen Spielberg’s sense of pacing and development with Stanley Kubrick’s worldview and sense of imagery, if you will.
I’ve recently revisited his entire filmography (minus two shorts that aren’t available to the public), and there’s barely a dud in the bunch, including some of my favorite films of all time. It’s kind of a shame to rank them, because inevitably one has to hit the bottom. But, rank them I shall.
10. Insomnia (93% RT)
The only film on the list that Nolan didn’t have a hand in writing, Insomnia is also often the “forgotten” film on his list. It’s a quiet psychological thriller, held down by its top-tier performers in Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. It’s not as splashy as some of his other entries and, coming between his breakout Memento and the big budget Batman Begins.
RT Synopsis: A sleep-deprived detective is sent to a small Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. Forced into a psychological game of cat-and-mouse by the primary suspect, events escalate and the detective finds his own stability dangerously threatened.
9. Following (78% RT)
Nolan made his first-ever feature for a total of $6,000 in a day and age where film stock could cost a lot more than that for even a low-budget film. His cast all had day jobs, so it took them a year to shoot it while working around everyone’s schedules. But for all of that, the film is highly compelling, and the mystery of the characters keeps you guessing all the way until the end.
RT Synopsis: Following is a wickedly clever story of how a young man’s obsession with following people leads him into a dark underworld. Bill, the unlikely hero, is a marginalized but intriguing Everyman who follows strangers at random on the street. When Cobb, a man Bill has been following, catches him in the act, Bill is drawn into Cobb’s world of breaking into flats and prying into the personal lives of their victims. In Cobb, Bill finds a strange companion, part mentor, part confessor and part evil twin. With an ingenious structure that involves flashforwards and doubling back, the film tests our knowledge and understanding just as the protagonist is being duped into an elaborate triple-cross. This first feature heralds in Christopher Nolan a promising new talent to the indie film scene.
8. The Dark Knight Rises (87% RT)
Made just 14 years after Following, it cost just slightly more – around a quarter of a billion dollars more, to be specific. I do love the film, but it has some significant problems, both with its structure and its transition into the third act. However, the time-jump and the idea of the aging Bruce Wayne trying to pick up his cape was well-executed, and helped gloss over some of the film’s problems. Reportedly, Heath Ledger’s Joker was supposed to be significantly involved in the story, and it took Nolan four years to write a new sequel. I wonder what the film would have been.
RT Synopsis: It has been eight years since Batman vanished into the night, turning, in that instant, from hero to fugitive. Assuming the blame for the death of D.A. Harvey Dent, the Dark Knight sacrificed everything for what he and Commissioner Gordon both hoped was the greater good. For a time the lie worked, as criminal activity in Gotham City was crushed under the weight of the anti-crime Dent Act. But everything will change with the arrival of a cunning cat burglar with a mysterious agenda. Far more dangerous, however, is the emergence of Bane, a masked terrorist whose ruthless plans for Gotham drive Bruce out of his self-imposed exile. But even if he dons the cape and cowl again, Batman may be no match for Bane.
7. Memento (92% RT)
Whereas Following was Nolan’s feature debut, Memento is the film that launched Nolan into Hollywood after it dropped at Sundance in 2001 and just exploded upon the scene. Everything about it is original – from the premise (which is actually relatively simple), to the execution (telling the story backwards, while still keeping you guessing). It doesn’t hold up quite as well on repeat viewings, but it’s still a well-crafted story.
RT Synopsis: A man is determined to find justice after the loss of a loved one, even though he is incapable of fully remembering the crime, in this offbeat thriller. Leonard (Guy Pearce) is a man who is struggling to put his life back together after the brutal rape and murder of his wife. But Leonard’s problems are different from those of most people in his situation; he was beaten severely by the same man who killed his wife. The most significant manifestation of Leonard’s injuries is that his short-term memory has been destroyed; he is incapable of retaining any new information, and must resort to copious note-taking and Polaroid photographs in order to keep track of what happens to him over the course of a day (he’s even tattooed himself with a few crucial bits of information he can’t get along without). Leonard retains awareness that his wife was brutally murdered, however, and he’s convinced that the culprit still walks the streets. Leonard is obsessed with the notion of taking revenge against the man who has ruined his life, and he sets out to find him, getting help from Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who appears to be a sympathetic barmaid, and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who claims to be Leonard’s friend, even though Leonard senses that he cannot be trusted.
6. Dunkirk (93% RT)
Nolan’s most recent film is being discussed by fans and critics alike as a masterpiece, and possibly Nolan’s best ever. It’s also perhaps the most unique of his filmography. It does have the trademark Nolan manipulation of time and terrific imagery. However, most of his stories are long, well-thought out and detailed scripts with plenty of twists and turns. In this one, Nolan admitted that he almost started shooting without a script, and his final draft barely topped 70 pages. He wanted to push specific images and situations, all of which came off so well and created a war-epic like never before. Where it falls a little flat is Nolan’s decision to keep the characters relatively genetic, both in writing and in casting similar-looking actors. It makes it a little difficult to have someone to root for at times, which is key in war films.
RT Synopsis: Acclaimed auteur Christopher Nolan directs this World War II thriller about the evacuation of Allied troops from the French city of Dunkirk before Nazi forces can take hold. Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance co-star, with longtime Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer providing the score.
5. The Prestige (76% RT)
Whereas Dunkirk is Nolan’s simplest and most straight-forward film, The Prestige is probably his most complicated. The film has multiple narrators, both of whom are unreliable, it plays in multiple timelines and it’s dealing with magic, so most of the story is slight of hand and distraction. I really think it takes 3 viewings before one can understand the brilliance of the film, and see everything Nolan wants you to see.
RT Synopsis: In 1898, two young stage magicians clash in a darkened salon during the course of a fraudulent seance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and exposure, secrets and revelations, as they feud to outwit and destroy one another. Their rivalry takes them both to the peak of their careers, but with terrible consequences.
4. Batman Begins (84% RT)
It was a reasonable sized hit at the time, but has since become the gold standard of reboots. THIS was the Batman everyone was waiting for – bringing The Dark Knight as close to the real world as he can be. Everything from the Asian philosophy to the divide between rich and poor and decaying society in Gotham is so right on and does what great, gritty comic books do best – reflect the world we’re living in back at is. Though the film is a little clunky at times, it’s hard to imagine a better restart to a classic character than this one.
RT Synopsis: The origins of the Caped Crusader of Gotham City are finally brought to the big screen in this new adaptation of the perennially popular comic-book series. The young Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) leads a privileged life as the son of wealthy, philanthropist parents, both of whom stress their commitment to improving the lives of the citizens of crime-ridden Gotham City. After his mother and father are murdered by a mugger, however, Wayne grows into an impudent young man (Christian Bale), full of rage and bent on retribution until encouraged by his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), to search for answers beyond his own personal vendettas. Wayne eventually finds discipline in the Far East under the tutelage of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a member of the mysterious League of Shadows who guides him in the study of martial arts — and the ways in which an ordinary man can hone his senses to an almost superhuman acuity. After seven years away from Gotham, Wayne returns, determined to bring peace and safety back to the city. With the help of his faithful manservant, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a scientist at his late father’s corporation, Wayne develops a secret identity as Batman, a masked fighter for justice. But when a shady psychiatrist (Cillian Murphy) joins forces with the criminal underworld, Wayne realizes that putting an end to their nefarious plans will be very difficult indeed.
3. The Dark Knight (94% RT)
I’m not going to lie – this is probably Nolan’s best film and though I love every minute of it, it’s not quite my favorite (as you’ll see shortly). It takes the baton from Batman Begins and ups the ante into the stratosphere. It brings some incredible themes into the Dark Knight universe – how agents of chaos seek to affect the world that we live in, how the most uncorruptable people can be driven past their breaking point to corruption. And it dares ask the key question in 21st century America: Can we win the war on terror without becoming terrorists ourselves? Freaking phenomenal.
RT Synopsis: Christopher Nolan steps back into the director’s chair for this sequel to Batman Begins, which finds the titular superhero coming face to face with his greatest nemesis — the dreaded Joker. Christian Bale returns to the role of Batman, Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role of Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins), and Brokeback Mountain star Heath Ledger dons the ghoulishly gleeful Joker makeup previously worn by Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero. Just as it begins to appear as if Batman, Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are making headway in their tireless battle against the criminal element, a maniacal, wisecracking fiend plunges the streets of Gotham City into complete chaos.
1T. Interstellar (71% RT)
It seems like complete bullshit to have two films tied at the top of the list, but it’s my blog, so I get to do what I want. Interstellar is Nolan’s love letter to his daughter – about all the times he leaves to go and create new worlds, but how he’s always thinking about her and wishing he could be with her. On the surface, a meditation on what the world might look like when it passes the ability to feed itself could not be more relevant to the world today. With fantastic performances from its incredible cast and a deep, touching story, it makes its near three hour run time feel like mere seconds.
RT Synopsis: With our time on Earth coming to an end, a team of explorers undertakes the most important mission in human history; traveling beyond this galaxy to discover whether mankind has a future among the stars.
Whereas Interstellar was an ode to his family, Inception is Nolan’s love letter to his craft: filmmaking, which is something that resonates a lot with yours truly. Dom’s all or nothing gamble on himself is highly representative of Nolan’s own tight-rope walk when developing these high-profile, high-budget projects. The depth and ambition of the story is almost unparalleled in modern day, non-franchise filmmaking, but it’s the images, performances and even music that bring this film way over the finish line.
RT Synopsis: Visionary filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) writes and directs this psychological sci-fi action film about a thief who possesses the power to enter into the dreams of others. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) doesn’t steal things, he steals ideas. By projecting himself deep into the subconscious of his targets, he can glean information that even the best computer hackers can’t get to. In the world of corporate espionage, Cobb is the ultimate weapon. But even weapons have their weakness, and when Cobb loses everything, he’s forced to embark on one final mission in a desperate quest for redemption. This time, Cobb won’t be harvesting an idea, but sowing one. Should he and his team of specialists succeed, they will have discovered a new frontier in the art of psychic espionage. They’ve planned everything to perfection, and they have all the tools to get the job done. Their mission is complicated, however, by the sudden appearance of a malevolent foe that seems to know exactly what they’re up to, and precisely how to stop them.
Have you seen Doodlebug, Nolan’s 3 minute short film he made while working on Following? Not a single word of dialogue, and yet it feel like it’s all of his filmography in 178 seconds. Watch it.