Friday, August 11, 2023

Top Ten Things: Christopher Nolan Films

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

It's another bonus edition of TTT, as we have not ten but twelve entries to discuss - time to rank Christopher Nolan's filmography!  I've been a Nolan fan since Memento's 2001 theatrical release, and over the past two-plus decades this cerebral English director has already compiled an extraordinary body of work, creating a singular brand of intelligent, crowd-pleasing blockbuster films.  Nolan's affinity for challenging, puzzle-like movies was apparent from the beginning, but he also reinvented the Batman franchise by grounding it in reality and making its protagonist a deeply flawed, real-world hero trying to redeem his broken city.  Nolan's films generally demand repeat viewings, keeping the viewer on their toes and often letting the editing drive the narrative so there's no cinematic fat on the bone.  Every new Christopher Nolan film is event viewing for me, guaranteed to present a story in a genre-defying way audiences have never seen before.

Here now are Christopher Nolan's films, ranked....

12. Following

Nolan's feature debut was this neo-noir with a non-linear narrative, about an aspiring writer who looks for inspiration by shadowing people he sees on the street.  He falls in with an experienced burglar and begins to make a habit of breaking into strangers' homes, stealing various items, and selling what he can.  Soon though he becomes romantically involved with one of his "victims," whom he learns is mixed up with a local mobster.  Meanwhile nothing he comes to believe about her or his mentor is what it seems.  Following was made for a paltry $6,000 and is thus quite rough around the edges, but already Christopher Nolan showed his gift for labyrinthine storylines and devilish plot twists, two things he'd execute much more assuredly in his second film, Memento.

11. Tenet

Perhaps Nolan's most Nolan-est film was this 2020 puzzle box loaded to the brim with so much exposition he himself seemed to have trouble conveying it all.  John David Washington stars as The Protagonist, a CIA agent tasked with stopping a time-inverting terrorist plot that will create backward-traveling entropy and unmake the world as we know it.  Got all that?  Nolan as usual stacks the film with talented, capable actors and creates some truly unique set pieces, such as staging a fistfight while one participant is traveling forward through time and the other is traveling backward.  And while Tenet provides an entertaining, James Bond-on-conceptual-steroids cinematic experience, sadly some of the plot details get lost in the translation (not helped by the audio mix, which buries crucial dialogue under thundering sound effects).  Still Tenet is yet another innovative spy thriller from a director who loves his puzzles.

10. Insomnia

Nolan's remake of the 1997 Swedish thriller of the same title, Insomnia stars Al Pacino as an aging LAPD detective assigned to a murder investigation in Alaska during the "midnight sun" season.  The Pacino character accidentally kills his partner during a shootout, after said partner has revealed he intends to testify against Pacino in an Internal Affairs case.  Complicating the matter is the at-large murderer (a superbly creepy Robin Williams), who witnessed the shooting and attempts to blackmail Pacino into pinning the murder on the victim's abusive boyfriend.  What follows is a fascinating moral dilemma, where the flawed protagonist must choose between saving himself or bringing a killer to justice.  Insomnia takes the suspense thriller genre and turns it upside down, throwing curve balls at the audience every step of the way.  Pacino and Williams have splendid chemistry together, and Nolan's direction lends this noirish thriller a modern edge.

9. Dunkirk

Nolan's streamlined, visceral account of this World War II rescue tells the story from three different points of view: the air, the sea, and the land.  The film intercuts between the three locales, expanding time in some instances and showing us some of the same events from multiple points of view.  There's little historical context presented, so the material depicted must speak for itself and create an immersive viewing experience.  For the most part this element works, though I would've liked to see more about who these characters were and what the battle itself meant in the grand scheme of WWII.  You'll need to do a little homework to fully appreciate what's happening.  Still Nolan and co. deftly handle the genre, presenting a gritty, palpably harrowing war film and adding yet another impressive entry to his resume.

8. Memento

Nolan's breakthrough film was 2001's Memento, starring Guy Pearce as a former insurance assessor afflicted with short-term memory loss, the result of a head injury he suffered during a home invasion.  The attackers killed his wife, and now Leonard devotes all his time to avenging her death, tattooing all the important information on his body so he won't forget.  The film's structure is ingenious - it's told in reverse so that at the start of each scene the audience is just as disoriented as Leonard, and as the story plays out we discover that Leonard is not the reliable narrator we initially took him for.  With Memento, Nolan took some of the neo-noir tropes he'd used in Following and expanded on them, delivering a brain teaser of a film that keeps the viewer guessing until the final scene.

7. The Dark Knight Rises

The final chapter of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy is an exceedingly worthy, if flawed, conclusion to one of the best film trilogies of all time.  Nolan set the third film eight years after the second, with both Batman and Bruce Wayne in reclusion in a Gotham City that seemingly no longer needs them.  A new terrorist, the freakishly strong, prodigiously malevolent Bane (a masked but surprisingly expressive Tom Hardy), emerges to wreak havoc and death on the entire city, and Batman is forced out of retirement.  Added to the mix is a morally ambiguous cat burglar named Selina Kyle (a sleek, playfully sexy Anne Hathaway) who is both a foil and romantic interest for Bruce/Batman.  Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne is fantastic as usual, this time exploring some new territory as the scarred, broken protagonist who doesn't think he deserves to move on and resume a normal existence.  Trilogy mainstays Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox once again bring verisimilitude and gravitas to the film.  While The Dark Knight Rises isn't perfect, it's an eminently fitting conclusion to one of the great series of superhero films.

6. Oppenheimer

Nolan's latest opus (and his longest film to date) is this almost surrealistic biopic about the inventor of the atomic bomb.  Portrayed as a deeply conflicted, somewhat tortured genius by the always excellent Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer is an endlessly curious physicist and Communist sympathizer tapped by the US military to develop an atomic weapon before the Nazis do.  Oppenheimer wrestled with the moral implications of a super weapon but also understood that such a devastating technology needed to be in Allied hands rather than those of our enemies, and swiftly assembled his team in a race to the finish line.  The film cuts back and forth between different time periods, presenting Oppenheimer's quest for the bomb simultaneously with a post-war inquest regarding his security status renewal, and also a thread concerning a Senate cabinet hearing for Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss (a splendid Robert Downey Jr.), who became one of Oppenheimer's post-war political rivals.  Like Oliver Stone's epic JFK, Oppenheimer is very stream-of-consciousness, calling back and forward to past and future events as they become relevant to the present.  Somehow Nolan makes all of these threads clear and presents this complex story in a very personal way, with a focus on the people and especially their faces.  The result is a riveting, oddly suspenseful account of the most destructive invention in human history, its architect overwhelmed with regret and fearful of what was yet to come.

5. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan once again delivers an epic, thoughtful variation on a genre picture with the sci-fi drama Interstellar.  In the not-too-distant future the Earth's soil has turned against humanity, making crops all but impossible to grow and moisture scarce.  The former NASA has secretly sent several astronauts around the galaxy to find a suitable replacement planet before Earth becomes uninhabitable, and has now designed a giant spacecraft to transport a select cross-section of humanity to our eventual new home.  Matthew McConaughey joins the team to evaluate each of the selected planets and hopefully solve the issue of shipping humanity off the Earth.  This complex adventure provides a realistic portrayal of the callousness and isolation of space, combined with compelling characters and a beautiful, organ-heavy score by Hans Zimmer.  One of the most fascinating sci-fi films of the century thus far.

4. The Prestige

Christopher Nolan's thriller about rival 19th century magicians is a dark, smartly-devised, and tremendously well-acted film.  Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play former colleagues in the prestidigitation racket, who develop a deep personal feud wherein each tries to ruin the other's career, and eventually as the stakes escalate, his life.  Their mutual hatred is ignited when Bale appears to have inadvertently caused the death of Jackman's wife, and Jackman becomes obsessed with destroying him, at the expense of his own sanity.  The film jumps around chronologically and contains diaries within diaries, keeping the viewer guessing throughout the film.  Also intriguing and marvelously executed is the gradual sympathetic shift - early in the film Jackman's character seems to be the protagonist, but slowly we begin to identify more with Bale, as Jackman's fixation drives him beyond the pale.  The rivalry echoes the real-life professional competition between inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla (who actually appears in the film, played as a reclusive eccentric by David Bowie); these two men abandon all sense of decency and fairness to annihilate the other.  I particularly enjoyed the examination of the science of illusionism - how many of the classic tricks were performed and what commitment was required to maintain the illusion.  The Prestige, like many of Nolan's films, takes a seemingly familiar subject and presents it in an unpredictable and thought-provoking way.  Plus it has Wolverine vs. Batman!

3. Batman Begins

One of the greatest film trilogies of all time (in my opinion) started off with this 2005 reboot of the Batman franchise.  After the previous Caped Crusader film series veered into garish camp with 1997's Batman & Robin, it was clear a new approach to the material was called for.  Enter Christopher Nolan and his creative team, who grounded the Batman mythos in reality and put a new focus on the characters, particularly the damaged billionaire Bruce Wayne, driven to become a masked vigilante twenty years after witnessing his parents' murder.  Christian Bale was tailor-made for the role of Wayne, and under the cowl brought a very physical sense of unfulfilled rage, making this incarnation of Batman the most fearsome up to that point.  A supporting cast of accomplished actors rounded out the cast, including Liam Neeson as the murderous idealist Ra's Al-Ghul, Gary Oldman as Gotham City's one upright cop Jim Gordon, and Michael Caine as Bruce's steadfast butler Alfred.  Batman Begins reinvented the superhero film as a complex, character-driven drama and along with its two sequels, left a deep, lasting impact on the genre.

2. Inception

Christopher Nolan's sci-fi espionage film is one of the few genuinely original summer action movies so far this century.  Combining elements of James Bond and The Matrix, Inception deals with the concept of either stealing or planting ideas in someone's brain while they sleep.  Leo DiCaprio stars as Dom, an "extractor" whose team of experts is hired by a powerful Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) to plant in the subconscious of his chief competitor the notion of dissolving his business empire.  What follows is a breathtaking mindbender of a story, involving multiple dream layers and plot reveals which are far too complex to go into here.  The cast is made up of accomplished actors, notably Tom Hardy as Dom's "forger" - someone who can impersonate others in a dream, Joseph Gordon Leavitt as Dom's right-hand man Arthur, and Marion Cotillard as the dream manifestation of Dom's deceased wife Mal.  Many have complained about the complexity of the film but I found it clear, if intricate and challenging.  The show-stealing sequence for me is the zero gravity fistfight involving JGL's character, which is one of the most exhilarating and inventive action scenes I've ever witnessed.  Released in July 2010, Inception was an anomaly - a brain-teasing, conceptual thrill-ride, at a time when most summer films had checked out mentally and simply regurgitated the same stories and formulas that made money before.

1. The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight is a masterpiece, not only of the comic book genre, but of cinema itself.  Christopher Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins is unbound by the limits of the superhero genus.  It is a sophisticated crime drama about a man who dresses up as a bat, mired in a Faustian good vs. evil duel with a terrorist who dresses like a clown.  At stake is the soul of Gotham City's entire population, in particular the heroic new District Attorney Harvey Dent.  Christian Bale reprises his tailor-made role as Bruce Wayne/Batman.  Aaron Eckhart portrays the tragic hero Harvey Dent, whose character arc is central to the story.  Gary Oldman is superb as Commissioner Jim Gordon, whose realist approach often puts him at odds with the idealist Harvey.  But the iconic performance of this film belongs, of course, to the late Heath Ledger as the living, breathing personification of evil, The Joker.  Ledger's facepainted villain is without remorse or decency, acting purely on deranged whim.  The Joker is unchecked, murderous hostility; his only desire is to create anarchy and laugh at the results.  Ledger's performance is one of the all-time great cinematic portrayals, and will forever be a yardstick for future film villains.  The Dark Knight's dramatic triumph is its setting up most of the climactic scenes as dialogue-driven exchanges of ideas, rather than relying on special effects and explosions.  The second part of Nolan's Bat Trilogy is easily the greatest comic book film of all time, but also much more.  By populating the film with authentic characters and action, Nolan has created a film that stretches far beyond the superhero genre into simply being a great film.  All comic book films going forward will be measured against this one.  The Dark Knight is Nolan's apex.

That's the list - comment below with your thoughts/rankings, and thanks for reading!  Join us on Facebook, MeWe and Twitter!

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