As Dunkirk hits theaters, I thought I’d give my thoughts on the previous movies of my greatest filmic influence, writer-director Christopher Nolan, starting at the bottom.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Out of Nolan’s entire oeuvre, Rises is the only film that doesn’t quite work. Trying to top The Dark Knight is an amibious choice, and it shows in the scope of the story and the scale of the production. Unfortunately, some of the plot elements don’t quite fit (why give the bomb trigger to anyone at all?) and the drama is undermined by flat storytelling and a predictable twist. Fortunately, these bumps appear to be part of a transition toward a different filmmaking style, which we would benefit from shortly…
The appearance of Nolan’s first feature this early in the list is a testament to the strength of his other films. Right away, Nolan shows himself to be a master of nonlinear storytelling and of playing tricks on the audience without resorting to gimmicks. Before Nolan became synonymous with masculine, large-scale action movies, he knew how to thrill with a great genre story; who needs a budget?
Like Following, Insomnia isn’t as memorable as much of Nolan’s other films, but his character work is in top form here. He gets his camera tight on the faces of Al Pacino and Robin Williams and gets unusually restrained performances from both of them, taking what could be a fairly run-of-the-mill cop story and giving it an uneasy weight. Though it features the least amount of writing by Nolan himself on any of his films (his draft goes uncredited), it just allows his other strengths to take center stage.
Picking up where his brother and Speilberg left off with this script, Nolan tells perhaps his most emotional story while in full Kubrick mode, a notable departure from his usual fast-paced, multilayered narrative style. But Nolan’s sensibilities provide a cohesiveness to the story and use the heady science to its greatest advantage. Even so, perhaps this film’s most notable feature is the use of prerendered effects and back projection so that the backgrounds are actually in the camera, making this one of the most tangible sci-fi films in recent memory.
Perhaps Nolan’s greatest cultural contribution outside of his Batman films, Inception strikes the perfect balance of complexity, entertainment and accessibility. The same creativity found in the plot shows in the action scenes as well; nearly every moment is a technical achievement that advances the story at the same time.
Batman Begins (2005)
While usually overshadowed by its sequel, Nolan’s first Batman film became the template for countless origin stories in the following years. It wisely concentrates on Bruce, keeping him out of the suit for most of the movie and building a world around his character. The outlandish nature of the concept never overtakes the drama, allowing the larger-than-life villains to feel like credible threats both practically and emotionally.
The film that put Nolan on the map is a structural marvel, revealing details about the characters at all the right times in a highly defined, nonlinear plot built around a brain damaged character. It’s the perfect blend of emotion and practicality, just like its protagonist, and it has yet to see its equal in the neo-noir genre.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Little can be said about The Dark Knight that hasn’t already been said. Eschewing his trademark nonlinear style, Nolan and his cowriters instead craft an epic that defines Batman’s mission in a way no one thought possible or has been able to emulate. Together with Heath Ledger’s Joker, IMAX cameras, an exploding building, and a flipping semi truck in downtown Chicago, it’s an experience like no other.
The Prestige (2006)
The crown jewel of Nolan’s filmography is also one of his least discussed films. His films often feature protagonists that are highly intellectual and highly emotional, like Chris himself, but here, they’re split into two personalities doing battle with each other. The lessons learned from Memento mean that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s time-jumping script is dramatically perfect and fascinating to watch, made by the top-notch filmmaking team of Batman Begins.
What’s your favorite Nolan film? Why?