With only ten feature-length films under his belt, Christopher Nolan is in that rare category of director who only works on a project that has special interest to him. In that sense, he’s a lot like Paul Thomas Anderson, who has only directed eight movies, Steven McQueen (four movies), or Edgar Wright (six movies). Less is more with Nolan, whose movies have become true “event films.” He’s in the same company of guys like Spielberg and Cameron (another director with very few–eight—credits) whose name alone is enough to market a movie. Sure there are a lot of “name” directors who have devout fans that will see whatever they make because their name is attached, but there are precious few who have that sort of clout and can generate blockbuster box office returns too.
Nolan has become just such a director. His latest film, Tenet, is scheduled for release in July and though very little is known about the film, not much needs to be known. It’s a Chris Nolan movie; that’s enough for people to get excited. In the meantime, let’s briefly look back on the director’s varied filmography, and put in order his movies from bottom to top.
10. FOLLOWING (1998)
Summary: A young man who follows strangers around the streets of London is drawn into a criminal underworld when he fails to keep his distance.
How “Christopher Nolan” is it? It’s his first movie but already there’s a dense, three-layered flashback framework being employed. It was basically made with no budget but gets by on mood and plot. Even in later years, when his movies would have hundreds of millions of dollars for a budget, those two elements—mood and plot—remain at the center of his films.
Score: 7/10 – It’s essentially a student film, with Nolan functioning as writer, director, cinematographer, co-editor, and producer. It works to demonstrate his potential but it’s hardly a masterpiece.
09. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
Summary: The final film in the acclaimed trilogy sees Batman come out of retirement to take on Bane, a terrorist that is every bit Bruce’s match, physically and intellectually.
How “Christopher Nolan” is it? His now-trademark screwing around with time and our perception of it is all over the place, though none of it is particularly relevant to the plot, so a lot of it might go unnoticed: There’s a six-month time jump that happens without any indicator other than snow on the ground. There’s a sequence that moves from afternoon to dusk, to night over the course of three minutes. And, of course, there’s dialogue that continues after a scene ends, carrying over into the next one.
Score: 8/10 – The film is flawed, there are no two ways around it. It’s not any one particular thing, more like a dozen little problems that just overwhelm the experience. In the hands of a lesser director, the same script would have completely fallen apart, so it’s a credit to Nolan for managing to turn it into something really good. It should be noted that this movie came out the same year as the first Avengers movie, formally signaling a changing of the guard for comic book blockbusters from which WB/DC has yet to recover.
08. INSOMNIA (2002)
Summary: Homicide detectives investigate a murder in Nightmute, Alaska, where the sun never fully sets, bathing the area in perpetual light.
How “Christopher Nolan” is it? Insomnia is easily the most un-Nolan a movie of his has ever been. Maybe that’s because the movie is a remake of a Norwegian film and Nolan had very little input into the story or screenplay. What you do find, however, are top-shelf performances from Al Pacino and Robin Williams, at a time when the former was mostly coasting and the latter was hardly known for dramatic roles to this degree.
Score: 8/10 – There’s nothing wrong with it, and a few things are really great, but overall this isn’t a movie you’re going to come back to. On the other hand, it wasn’t produced to be a blockbuster. It was a mid-budget thriller and did the job really well.
07. INTERSTELLAR (2014)
Summary: A group of astronauts travel through a wormhole near Saturn in search of a new home for humanity.
How “Christopher Nolan” is it? Very. There’s time-bending plot devices, non-linear concepts, a boat-load of characters talking in hushed voices while ambient noises overwhelm their words. This is easily Nolan’s most polarizing movie, with some insisting it’s the one where he finally jumped the shark, and others holding it up as a masterpiece. I won’t go so far as to call it a masterpiece, but I’m closer to that side of the coin than I am the other.
Score: 9/10 – The movie is not, as some allege, a glorious failure. On the contrary, it is, at times, a brilliant piece of cinema. It might buckle a bit under its own weight in the conclusion, but it only buckles, never breaks.
06. BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
Summary: The origin story of the caped crusader, exploring what it was that drove Bruce Wayne to become The Batman.
How “Christopher Nolan” is it? More than it is maybe given credit for. Nolan brought a totally different approach to his three comic book movies, compared to the ones made by basically anyone else (DC, Marvel, past, or future). Nolan used the medium to explore themes. In Batman Begins, the theme was fear. Fear is explored through Batman’s persona, through the mob’s hold over the city, and through the movie’s central bad guy. That’s why Scarecrow was the villain; not because he’s the rogue they pulled out of a hat at random, but because his villainy fit the theme. Taking a comic book property and telling such an introspective story was unheard of at the time, and it succeeded in launching the most successful comic book trilogy ever.
Score: 10/10 – Deeper and better-made than a “comic book” movie had any right to be in 2005, Batman Begins ought to be credited as the movie that made “smart” and “serious” comic book stories a viable notion in Hollywood.
Summary: The evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk France is told from three different points of view: Land, Sea, and Air.
How “Christopher Nolan” is it? A lot, but only in its construction. If you take any of the three points of view and watch it individually you’d think it was a very well made short film, nothing more. What Nolan does with the film’s editing and story-construction is simply incredible. There is a flight from England to Dunkirk; that takes an hour. There is sailing from England to Dunkirk; that takes a day. There is the waiting on Dunkirk for rescue, that takes a week. Nolan turns film editing on its head by spacing out the flight and the sailing so that both reach a climax at the same point in the story. It’s a movie that is both linear yet non-temporal all at the same time. It’s hard to explain, but understood when experienced.
Score: 10/10 – Dunkirk is a cinematic triumph and should be studied for years to come by those interested in using century-old techniques of filmmaking in brand new ways.
04. MEMENTO (2000)
Summary: A man with short-term memory loss searches for the person who killed his wife, while also contending with those who might seek to take advantage of his condition.
How “Christopher Nolan” is it? I mean…
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It’s a lot.
Score: 10/10 – Memento is a movie that can not be explained (though Nolan himself does a bang-up job in the clip above); it just has to be experienced. It’s a brilliant bit of noir filmmaking, relying on all kinds of cinematic tricks and gimmicks to keep you just enough off-balance that you don’t see the incredible ending coming.
03. INCEPTION (2010)
Summary: Follows the exploits of “dream extractors” tasked with the seemingly-impossible assignment of placing an idea into the human mind without detection.
How “Christopher Nolan” is it? Arguably, it’s Nolan’s most personal film. There are so many layers to it (no pun intended) that it’s hard to know where to begin to talk about the movie. Is it simply a meditation on dreams? Is it about grief and guilt? Is it, as some allege, a movie about the filmmaking process? The fact that people don’t even know what the movie is and yet it grossed 800mm at the box office—despite not belonging to a franchise, or based off any pre-existing material—is a testament to the power of the “Nolan” brand and his ability to explore complex ideas in a way that the masses can enjoy.
Score: 10/10 – Nolan’s most creatively ambitious movie, at least from a visual standpoint. Interstellar maybe had more impressive visual effects, but Inception had creativity in spades. The story’s “is it or isn’t it” notion at the center remains ambiguous, making it endlessly rewatchable.
02. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Summary: The Joker—an anarchist extraordinaire—turns Gotham upside, making enemies of both mob and cop alike. It’s up to Batman to stop him before he rips the city apart.
How “Christopher Nolan” is it? There are no crazy time jumps or vague editing tricks. Unlike most other Nolan movies, there’s no heightened/dreamlike feel, but instead is a cold, stark, gritty atmosphere. As others have said, this movie is Heat as told with comic book characters. It’s raw, it’s real, and most of all, it’s cinematic perfection.
Score: 10/10 – Even twelve years later the movie holds up as one of the genre’s very best. At the time, however, there was nothing like it. There’s a sense of grandeur, of seriousness to it, not just with the story or acting (both of which are great) but the whole production. Not to insult the medium, but it’s the kind of movie that was made by people “too good” for “silly little comic book stories.”
01. THE PRESTIGE (2006)
Summary: Rival magicians feud for decades, seeking to one-up each other in the game of illusion and showmanship.
How “Christopher Nolan” is it? There are flashbacks within flashbacks, magic that is played as straight as reality, and an ending that recontextualizes the whole film. It’s a Nolan movie alright, and in my opinion the best of the bunch.
Score: 10/10 – The Prestige is a perfect movie. I can find no technical flaw, no suspect performance, no quibble with the story. It’s exactly the movie it was meant to be and remains, fifteen years later, the director’s shining star.
What are we to make of Tenet, Nolan’s next spectacle film? It’s impossible to know, but just for fun, I’ll make a prediction: The movie starts in the middle of the story and ends just before the start, forming a loop that allows you to watch it, starting at any point, in a never-ending circuit. If only Nolan could find a way to get around having to roll credits, he could make a perfect “closed-loop movie.” I’m sure there are too many guild rules to follow which would prevent that from happening, but maybe we’ll get a special-edition version that does just that.
Of course, knowing Nolan I’m probably way off and he has something far more incredible up his sleeve. And, knowing Nolan, it’s going to be amazing, whatever it is.