One of the most accomplished contemporary directors, British-American filmmaker Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the biggest names in the world of cinema with critical as well as commercial successes like Inception, The Dark Knight and more. With a total of 34 Academy Award nominations and 10 wins, Nolan has received both institutional and mainstream recognition for his works.
Inspired by filmmakers like the great Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan grew up wanting to make films. He first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of seven with his dad in London. “I think what I’ve carried about that experience as far as my own films is really just a sense that films can be anything,” Nolan said. “What Kubrick did in 1968, he simply refused to acknowledge that there were any rules you had to play by in terms of narrative.”
Although he was primarily interested in filmmaking, he studied English Literature which, he claims, helped him improve his stylistic and narrative techniques, “In studying English literature, storytellers grasp evocative symbols. They do have… subconscious layers of resonation. That is something I needed to learn and get on board with.”
On his 50th birthday, we reflect on the ten best films of Christopher Nolan’s celebrated career. It will be interesting to see where Tenet, his new film which was initially scheduled to come out this year, will fit on this list.
The 10 best Christopher Nolan films:
10. Insomnia (2002)
Following the critically acclaimed film Memento, Nolan’s 2002 effort features Al Pacino as an insomniac LAPD detective who enters the dynamic dance that is typical of murder mysteries with Walter Finch (played by Robin Williams), a local crime writer who comes across as a suspicious figure. The film is more about the internal psychological conflicts that Detective Will experiences throughout the film than the murder itself.
Set in Alaska, Insomnia is an engaging crime drama but it does not get anywhere close to the mastery of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 original, strictly speaking of the cinematic skill. Nolan’s version adds more depth to the characters, thanks to the outstanding performances of Robin Williams as well as Al Pacino. However, it does not manage to recreate the haunting atmosphere of the 1997 film.
According to Nolan, “Right from the beginning when you see Pacino you probably think that things aren’t going to end up well for this guy. You should feel that you know where it’s going but hopefully not how it’s going to get there.
“I think throwing those two characters together the way that the script does lets you go around what you think is the most obvious route to get to that end, so you take a lot of peculiar turns in the second half of the film.”
9. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Although it still manages to rise well above the inherent mediocrity of the over-saturated superhero genre, The Dark Knight Rises is not at par with most of Nolan’s other brilliant works. The apocalyptic final chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy is dense and does not really perform the functions of a concluding piece, with a significant amount of loose ends in the narrative. Given the monumental expectations that the first two parts generated, Nolan’s 2012 film does not quite live up to those expectations. Having said that, it is still one of the more memorable superhero films of the last decade.
“We’ve gone to some very extreme places with the content of the film and how much we’ve been allowed to explore, ideas of society, of corruption and decay,” Nolan insisted. “People often interpret the films as political; they’re not. They are examining social issues, and we’re really pleased to have been able to follow the threads.”
Tom Hardy’s measured performance as Bane, an anarchist hoping for a violent revolution, is a good addition to the pantheon of Batman antagonists but the viewer comes away with the feeling that there is something missing. The Dark Knight Rises is visually stunning, with a lot of scattered symbolism but Nolan fails to hold on to the narrative.
8. Following (1998)
With only a budget of $6000, Nolan’s first feature film is an arthouse neo-noir murder mystery that has an unemployed writer as its protagonist, one who likes to follow strangers. Shot on 16mm stock, Following is a brilliant start to Nolan’s accomplished filmography. If anything, it proves that Nolan is a versatile filmmaker who is capable of making interesting concepts flourish.
The inspiration for the 1998 film came to Nolan when someone broke into his apartment in a crowded London neighbourhood. It made him reflect on the societal protocols we follow and this is exactly what we observe in the film, an existentialist revision of what it means to co-exist in a society.
“It was truly a no-budget effort, and I’d written the script to accommodate that. The non-linear chronology helped us keep continuity in an organic way,” Nolan explained. “When you have absolutely no money and absolutely no resources, [trying] to achieve colour cinematography is extremely difficult. [With black and white,] it’s much more possible to get some kind of level of style to the thing—quickly and easily throwing in some lights and shadow and going with that.”
7. Batman Begins (2005)
The first instalment to one of the most spectacular superhero sagas, Batman Begins stands out from the indistinguishable, amorphous mass of conventional superhero narratives. True to his inclinations, Christopher Nolan delves deep into the innermost recesses of Batman’s psyche instead of focusing on the superficial glamour of the external world. He manages to create a truly remarkable antihero and a compelling origin story for, arguably, the most popular superhero character in the world.
Nolan managed to sustain an interesting interaction between the duality of Gotham City (the million dollar mansions and the filthy back streets) and the duality of Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale). With brilliant casting and an environment that constantly threatens violence, Batman Begins is one of the finest superhero films to date.
“The immediate response to Batman’s standing up for what’s good is a proportional escalation of evil, and that’s not philosophical—it’s not that it will always be that way—it’s about how bad things have to get before things become good,” Nolan elaborated.
6. Interstellar (2014)
Interstellar’s greatest virtue is that Nolan imparts his transcendental vision to the 2014 sci-fi drama. It is his attempt to imagine and capture the impenetrable cosmic mysteries, to look for a ray of light in the face of an inevitable apocalypse. The stunning visuals are primarily designed to captivate a mainstream audience and in doing that, it loses a significant amount of lustre. Interstellar miserably tries to match the creative genius of Kubrick’s or Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpieces but never really manages to create the glorious multiplicities of its predecessors.
The film is well researched and scientifically accurate, thanks to all the careful planning and meticulous background reading on Nolan’s part. What it lacks is the poetic totality of an artistic apogee. It falls just short of being profound.
“I think really space exploration, to me, has always represented the most hopeful and optimistic endeavour that mankind has ever really engaged with,” Nolan said while talking about the meaning of hope in Interstellar. “I feel very strongly that we’re at a point now where we need to start looking out again and exploring our place in the universe more.”
5. Inception (2010)
Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi action thriller revolves around a group of dream terrorists who invade their target’s subconscious and rummage around for the secrets they are looking for. Christopher Nolan intricately constructs layers after layers of dreams, consciousness and weaves important symbols into these layers. Inception is his most direct exploration of his obsession with human psychology.
It is an ambitious project whose concept is very appealing but it fails to translate well to the cinematic medium. Inception aims for complexity but ends up being complicated, with no respite for the viewer except the philosophical examinations of dream architecture.
Nolan also commented on the recurring symbolism of mazes in the film, “Yeah, I wanted to have that to help explain the importance of the labyrinth to the audience. I don’t know how many people pick up on that association when they’re watching the film.” More self-indulgent than revelatory, Inception is an interesting but convoluted masterpiece or rather, it is the idea of a masterpiece.
4. The Prestige (2006)
Set in 1878, The Prestige presents a multi-layered conflict, superficially about magic but extending to the intellectual and psychological levels, between two magicians. The casting is fantastic, featuring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Michael Caine among others. Nolan’s 2006 effort earned him two Academy Award nominations, including a nomination for Best Achievement in Art Direction. The Prestige is one of Nolan’s most gripping thrillers with fantastic acting performances all around and a compelling narrative structure, fashioned after the mechanisms of a magic trick.
On top of all the artistic merits of the film, it is a pleasure to watch David Bowie as Tesla. Nolan explained his casting choice, saying, “For me, David Bowie has this extraordinary charisma and presence that an audience can invest in right away.”
Nolan also spoke about his expectations for the film, “I hope it will resonate…For me, there’s a real fascination with the idea that we create stories and enjoy stories to build complexity into a world that we fear may be too simple.” The Prestige did exactly that and will remain one of the more interesting works in Nolan’s remarkable filmography.
3. Dunkirk (2017)
Nolan is famous for the narrative complexities he employs in his films but in Dunkirk, it finally comes together. It is Christopher Nolan’s attempt to strip away the unnecessary extravagances that are associated with the notion of warfare and to depict only the terrifying skeleton of war that evokes none of those glorious emotions that propagandists shout about but only exposes the omnipresent anxieties.
Dunkirk is nothing short of a modern war classic with an unconventional narrative structure and impeccable sound design, thanks to Hans Zimmerman, that contributes to the overwhelming tension, something that refuses to be resolved. Nolan worked with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema on IMAX and 70mm film to capture breathtaking imagery, painting a captivating picture.
“At a time when there’s all kinds of storytelling around, movies that gravitate toward things that only movies can do carve out a place for themselves,” Nolan said while talking about the concept of filmmaking in the contemporary world. “As a director, I try to show people things they’ve never seen before.”
2. Memento (2000)
Nolan’s second feature, Memento was his statement of purpose that demanded undivided attention and absolute recognition from the viewer. It has one of the most brilliant narrative structures and undoubtedly the best in Nolan’s filmography. An intense investigation of memory and the human psyche, Memento leaves a lasting impression on anyone who lays eyes on it.
Guy Pearce does a fantastic job as the protagonist who is on a strange journey to find his wife’s killer but is constantly hindered by his condition that causes memory loss. Memento is right up there among the influential works of its genre and is often called the “meta-noir” film.
“To tell the truth, the structure with Memento is weirdly less self-conscious than it was with Following,” Nolan reflected. “Memento is very clear to most people, even if they hate it. It’s like we try to put you in his head and that’s why the story is told backwards, because it denies the information that he’s denying. So in a way, it was much more straightforward and organic.”
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
The best comic book film of all time (fight me), Nolan conducts a radical revision of all the clichés that come with the genre in The Dark Knight. Even though more than a decade has passed since its release, no other superhero film has come close to fulfilling the standards that Nolan’s masterpiece has set. Nolan cleverly used the extensive legacy of Batman to explore pertinent issues like terrorist threats, government surveillance and the myth of the hero.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is a crucial part of the film who operates as a brilliant critic of modern society, violently attacking our inherent hypocrisies and the obvious flaws in the system. The Dark Knight is a much welcomed deviation from the traditional depictions of superheroes and villains with their one-dimensional binaries of good and bad. Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece asks all the right questions and in all the right ways.
“Well, Heath and I talked a lot about the abstractions of the character, of the underlying philosophy of the character and what he represents in the story, and what that tone would need to be,” Nolan commented on the complexities of Heath Ledger’s character. “He has to be human as well as iconic. Heath put a lot of time and energy into figuring out a very complex way of achieving this.”
Heath Ledger did just that, putting up the greatest performance of his career and leaving behind a memorable and chaotic on-screen creation.