In celebration of the recent release of The Dark Knight Rises on DVD and Blu-ray, I decided to go back and explore Christopher Nolan’s filmography, rewatching bits or all of the films, as I usually couldn’t stop myself from watching the things all the way through once I started. Nolan has directed and written or adapted eight films (not including his short films) in the past 14 years, making him not only one of the best (or arguably the best) of directors of the 21st century, but also one of the most prolific.
Starting from the bottom and working up to the best, this is my personal list of favorite Christopher Nolan films.
Christopher Nolan’s first film represents the chrysalis of ideas Nolan would explore in later films. A lonely writer who follows people on the streets of London for research has the tables turned when one of his subjects asks why he is following him. The writer discovers the suave man he has followed is a burglar and invites the writer to come with him on a job. The ensuing movie, which weaves elements of classic film noir (Diabolique comes to mind), is notable for its new wave feel — black-and-white, naturalistic acting — as well as its non-linear plot structure. It also introduces subjects over which Nolan would seem to obsess throughout his career, such as that of duality and unreliable narrators. Some elements feel contrived — the writer’s willingness to engage in burglary and violence isn’t entirely convincing — and it suffers a bit from having had the superior and similarly minded The Usual Suspects released near it. But it would have been an ambitious, exciting first film for any director, and it features some of his best dialogue, something similarly strong in Memento but that I felt was a weak point in the otherwise masterful Inception, for instance. And for Nolan fans, it’s essential viewing to see how his ideas would be shaped better once he had more money, for starters — Nolan also photographed and produced the film himself, taking the money out for the expensive film stock from his own salary. Side note: look for the bat symbol in the movie, a funny bit of foreshadowing that, given the layering in Nolan’s films, you have to wonder about.
Nolan’s first foray into the Bat Cave was the weakest of the trilogy, but it still ranks among the finest superhero films — in fact, it’s the most superhero-y and least Nolan-ish of the lot. Batman’s origin is mined to explore concepts of loneliness, loss, revenge and justice, ideas that play into several Nolan films. It’s the first time Nolan would work with two regulars, Christian Bale and Michael Caine, would appear in half of Nolan’s films — the other two Batmans, plus The Prestige. His chemistry with them, and theirs with each other, gives the films in which they appear an underlying humanity necessary in tackling the dark issues Nolan does. If only Bale’s chemistry with Katie Holmes were nearly as strong, the film could have set up a better love story for the second Batman film, though Holmes’ dry performance is usurped by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s awkward one in The Dark Knight as a classic example of miscasting.
6. Insomnia (Blu-ray)
A bit of an odd bird in Nolan’s filmography, Insomnia is an excellent remake of a Norwegian film of the same name. What could have been a mess or a cash-in, starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and then-recent Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank, instead is a taut examination of guilt, hazy morality and hazier truths. Its sense of place, a fog-ridden Alaska town, is perfect for its tale of a police officer riddled with insomnia who shoots his partner accidentally while investigating a murder. His partner was going to essentially be forced to testify against him, thus placing them in the awkward situation in which the accidental shooting could have been seen as premeditated. But was it? Insomnia is a feast for actors known for explosive performances to turn in nuanced ones, particularly Williams in a creepy performance that, combined with One Hour Photo and Death to Smoochy the same year, would give him a second life as a dramatic actor in dark roles.
5. The Prestige (Blu-ray)
Taking a break from Batman, Nolan made this period piece in 2006 about rival illusionists at the end of the 19th century whose struggle to become the best magician has dire consequences for all around. Magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) begin a rivalry when Borden’s knot over Angier’s wife’s wrists cause her to drown while performing in a magic act. From there, the two undercut one another as a new assistant (played by Scarlett Johansson) and the magicians’ engineer (Michael Caine) become involved in a series of betrayals, illusions set up to disrupt other illusions, and deaths both tragic and meaningless. It’s a film that can’t be conveyed in mere description, one that taps into mysticism and anachronistic technology (David Bowie as Tesla!) in order to tell a greater story about the notion of self. Though a bit fussy in terms of how it gets to where it gets, the film leaves your head spinning and demands rewatching.
Like The Dark Knight before it, The Dark Knight Rises exceeded at being subversively topical while being timeless. New villain Bane leads a horde against the Gotham establishment, taking the city hostage with a nuclear bomb, emptying its jails and ultimately hoping to destroy it, in fulfilling the wishes of Batman Begins villain Ra’s al Ghul to create equilibrium through destruction. In completing The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan created a fitting ending to the story begun in the first two films, inspired by the graphic novels of Frank Miller, among others. It’s too numbskulled to call Bane a symbol of the Occupy movement. While some on the Left appreciated the film but chastised its pro-capitalist sentiments, idiot of the Right Rush Limbaugh said the film criticized Republican nominee Mitt Romney — get it? Bane and Bain? Even though the character of Bane was first written in 1993? Still, it’s not hard for a lefty like me not to get a bit riled up at some of the Ayn Rand-ian undertones of the film — the way Selina Kyle suddenly sees the error of her ways was a bit much for me — even if Nolan denies the film is political. Nolan says the film tries to show “the cracks of society.” In that sense, The Dark Knight Rises in incendiary. And as pure filmmaking, it’s exhilarating.
One of Nolan’s three masterpieces, Inception’s genius is in its ideas. The technology exists to visit others within their dreams, allowing for a metaphysical heist film. A dream thief and his crew undergo the impossible, even within this farfetched premise — implant an idea in another person’s brain by visiting his deepest psyche, a dream within a dream within a dream. Mind-bending doesn’t begin to describe Inception. Following the film required viewers to sit at the edge of their seats and stay planted there, lest they get as lost in the plot as its characters are within the mind of business heir Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), whose mind they must implant with the idea to dissolve his father’s empire in exchange for lead thief Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) being able to return to his old life, with interruption by the memory of Dom’s dead wife, cunningly played by Marion Cotillard. Nolan explores his thematic obsessions — the malleable notion of self, the power of memory, the femme fatale and justice/redemption — in a big, blowout action thriller. It’s not a flawless film. Its action sequences drag to the point of incomprehensibility, it lacks the subtle humor that peppered films like Memento and Following, and its dream sequences don’t actually feel like dreams. But conceptually, Inception is stunningly original, and its actors carry the weight of convincing an audience to go along on this journey to the center of the mind. And despite its WTF ending, I find it to be the most hopeful of Nolan’s films.
2. Memento (Blu-ray)
How would you deal with never being able to make new memories? Would you cling to the past? Could you ever move beyond it? Memento works because it makes the puts the audience feel its character’s plight — you are Leonard, as you try to follow the inverted film noir’s backward-moving sequences without knowing what has preceded them. It’s pure filmmaking genius.
No film captured the 2000s, a dark decade in retrospect, quite like The Dark Knight. It’s impossible to see it outside of history, coming out in 2008, at the tail end of eight years that saw a disastrous presidency, the beginning of two of the three longest wars in U.S. history, as well as the 9/11 attacks, causing the highest single-day death toll on American soil since the Civil War. The Dark Knight’s unrelenting bleakness, in which madman, mythical hero and authority are given equal consideration, leaves few of its protagonists and their motives unexamined, even as it offers no easy answers. This is besides the fact that The Dark Knight pulls of being a superhero film — it’s the definitive superhero film — and a first-rate, pulse-pounding summer blockbuster, in addition to weaving in elements of film noir, which all of Nolan’s films do to some degree. Heath Ledger’s Joker, a terrifying vision of brilliant yet purposeless insanity, is already considered one of film’s greatest villains. First-rate acting from Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman puts the supporting posts in place for Christian Bale’s nuanced performance as Batman, consistently overlooked by Oscar even as it grounds Nolan’s sometimes unforgiving pace and wide cast of characters. Seeing The Dark Knight is a full-body experience. It’s altering in the way only a few films of the decade were — I’d personally count Mulholland Dr., Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Wall-E and Adaptation as my other favorites of the 2000s, in case you were curious — and its inherent harshness is mirrored in most of the other classic films of the era, including City of God, A History of Violence, Pan’s Labyrinth, Dancer in the Dark, Brokeback Mountain, American Psycho, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Gangs of New York, Kill Bill and Children of Men. (Wow, what great films were uplifting during the past decade? Up and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, kind of?) All of these movies demand rewatching, so I suggest you do that!