Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, is currently tracking at 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (something we wholeheartedly agree with based upon our own review). By every indication, it seems that the director has crafted an epic that will challenge to be one his greatest works to date.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that certain Christopher Nolan films don’t outshine the others.
Here’s how we have them ranked.
The Dark Knight
I often find myself contemplating what the state of the Batman franchise would be like had Christopher Nolan not intervened between the campy days when Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher were at the helm and the poor performing reimagining by Zack Snyder that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Although the trilogy itself is one of the finest examples of how superhero adaptions can be both fun and challenging, The Dark Knight stands out as not only a masterclass for filmmaking in the genre, but Christopher Nolan at his absolute best.
One of the wisest decisions Nolan made was not presenting The Joker as Batman’s foe in the first film in the trilogy. He needed the time and real estate to build a Gotham unlike any iteration we had seen before.
With the tone firmly cemented by the time The Dark Knight was in pre-production, the mention of The Joker’s involvement indicated that the merry prankster we had seen portrayed by the likes of Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero were but a distant memory.
Often times filmmakers like to be coy with the monsters in their movies; showing them in the shadows and with visceral imagery of the carnage they left behind. Nolan abandoned any notion of those principals by sticking the camera in Heath Ledger’s face and letting him explore the depths of a man who only wanted to watch the world burn. The result was a Batman villain who felt particularly dangerous because the idea of winning and losing wasn’t important to him.
It would be easy to say that Ledger’s performance outshines Nolan’s direction. However, Nolan was the one who took a chance on the actor — even amidst outrage and crude humor that implied The Joker wanted something more with Batman based on Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain.
If a director’s job is to conduct the filmmaking symphony, Nolan hit all the right notes with The Dark Knight.
Inception is by far Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious film and showcases his ability to rely on premises that are wholly original and don’t rely on the preconceived lineage of best-selling novels or other pieces of intellectual property.
Brilliantly using points of entry which are relatable to any and every audience — the notion of dreams and how we conceive ideas in our head — he single-handedly rewrote the heist genre by replacing money and riches with more esoteric desires.
Whereas some filmmakers like Michael Bay use special effects to create spectacle just for the sake of satiating the public’s desire to see things explode, Nolan is deft at using his landscapes to enhance the narrative. For example, as the world begins to shift and dazzle through CGI — and situations become more dangerous through gunfire — it serves the premise in which those that are asleep are beginning to become aware that their defenses have been compromised.
The Prestige uses the world of magic to make a strong critique on how sacrifice feeds obsession. The very nature of how a trick is established — the setup, the turn, and the prestige — mirrors our own expectations of a three-act film structure.
Telling the blood feud between two rival magicians, each “turn” ratchets up the tension as Nolan builds towards a climax that is both unexpected and satisfying.
The film asks and answers many of the overarching questions that people have about magic; namely, what happens when a trick goes wrong, can misdirection still be used when the theater lights go down, and what if magic is actually real?
As a sort of film wizard himself, Nolan addresses these questions with Victorian flare, a nonlinear timeline, and Wally Pfister-aided visuals which creates unmistakable ambiance which transports you back to 19th century London and the snow-riddled mountains in Colorado.
Despite having just been unveiled to the general public this past week, Christopher Nolan’s latest already proves that not only is his impeccable filmmaking suited for the battlefield, but he’s also got an instant classic on his hands.
Telling an expansive tale of a half-a-million British soldiers awaiting transport, the film is particularly ambitious as it brings the viewer inside the point-of-view of units on land, air and sea.
In each locale, you can’t help but question your own sense of self amidst the ever worsening conditions as explosions rock your nerves — aided by sound design by Richard King — which feels so layered and authentic you’re still able to hear the crunch of sand underneath soldier’s boots amidst the chaos.
In other hands, Memento could have been another paint-by-numbers detective story asking “who done it?” Instead, Christopher Nolan gave audiences one of the most unique movie going experiences of the new millennium thanks to a screenplay which starved our “detective” of his short term memory so that sequences had to be replayed, Polaroids had to be snapped and vital pieces of evidence literally had to be tattooed on his body. The result was a physical embodiment of the torture someone endures in the quest for the truth.
As Guy Pierce’s Leonard Shelby so eloquently puts it, “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?”
This is the crux of the thematic premise. If time does indeed heal all, how does a person grieve when the passage of time is stripped from their psyche?
Nolan is deft at making the audience feel. Sure, the story is a slow-burn detective story in a film noir packaging, but he constantly asks the audience to put themselves in Leonard’s shoes. Once he’s able to do that, he can take you anywhere he wants.
“The whole dynamic of the script is aimed at taking a really very simple story and putting the audience through the perceptual distortion that Leonard suffers, thereby making this simple story seem incredibly complex and challenging, the way it would be for someone with this condition,” Nolan said. “Which isn’t to say that there aren’t all kinds of complexities at the end of the story, but the basic plotting is actually very simple.”
One of the most enduring images of the Caped Crusader is a nipple suit-clad George Clooney gallivanting around Gotham City with Robin and Bat Girl in 1997’s Batman and Robin. Needless to say, the fearsome crime fighter had been reduced to a comical, 1960’s version of the character that even made Adam West’s portrayal seem brooding.
Thankfully, Christopher Nolan decided to board the reboot and resurrect the franchise — aided by a presentation to Warner Bros. that was so convincing and fully-formed that he only needed 15-minutes to land the gig.
Former president Jeff Robinov recalled of the experience, “Chris came in and said, ‘Look, this is what I want to do in the movie. This is what I want to do with it visually. This is where I think the character needs to go. I think it’s going to be different than any superhero movie anybody’s seen before. And what I really want to do is take that genre and embrace it as a real film genre.”
Nolan took cues from Dick Donner’s 1978 Superman film and opted to take what we had always assumed about Batman and give him an origin story beyond that fateful experience in the alley when he was orphaned and his mother’s pearls were spilled alongside their blood. In turn, we lived with Bruce Wayne for an hour of screen time before he ever dons the iconic suit.
This is particularly effective because Batman is the rare superhero who has no superpowers. Rather, it’s the drive for vengeance which fuels him, and failing to recognize that is what made each subsequent sequel throughout the 1990s feel so hollow and directionless.
Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors at delivering vital pieces of exposition to the audience through action as opposed to conversations which feel as emotionless as scrolling down the Wikipedia page on a particular subject.
While Interstellar is certainly an ambitious and a visually stunning film — peppered with stark-kissed blackness — it’s a rare case where Nolan gets too hung up on trying to clarify why the world as we know it is eroding and how astronauts are setting a plan into motion to seek out alternate refuge.
Perhaps the greatest flaw that Nolan faced was that the exploration of subject matter which fueled particularly overdone at the time. With each previous film, he had also managed to add his own personal spin. But Interstellar only felt like a more polished version of post-apocalyptic situations like After Earth, The Book of Eli, Edge of Tomorrow, Pacific Rim and World War Z.
The Dark Knight Rises
Prior to The Dark Knight Rises, superheroes had always been viewed as demigods — who despite the tolls of fighting off people and creatures with the power to end the world — managed to keep their bodies as pristine as the day they first put on their disguises.
Christopher Nolan bucked that trend; allowing for a portrayal of Bruce Wayne as an aging, even more eccentric and disillusioned billionaire, who had left crime fighting behind to wither away in the shadows of Wayne Manor.
Thus, when he was forced to dust off his cape, it seemed even more of a mismatch as his new enemy, Bane, was the physical embodiment of how a hard live hardens a man into a diabolical monstrosity.
When The Dark Knight excels, it soars. Christian Bale nails it as the aging Caped Crusader and Tom Hardy’s Bane was like watching a Hannibal Lecter on steroids.
But from a story standpoint, things felt muddy.
After Bane succeeded at banishing Batman from Gotham City, Nolan spent much of the third act treading water — as if trying to write himself out of the physical hole that he had left Batman in. There are repeated shots of tumblers patrolling the streets, chaos overcoming the city, and wealthy citizens put on trials. The passage of time as Batman recovers in the catacombs adds to the malaise.
Although it was a bumpy conclusion, Nolan did manage to reinforce the idea of Batman as a symbol of hope and allowed us to contemplate a life for Bruce Wayne outside of Gotham City.
Insomnia could have been quite the followup to the film that put him on theatergoers radars, Memento, thanks to a cast of past Academy Award Winners like Al Pacino and Robin Williams and a future winner in Hilary Swank.
The tense thriller utilizes a beautiful Alaskan backdrop as the battleground for morality. Whereas the cop/killer genre is always seen in black and white terms — no matter how many demons are lurking in the detective’s closet — Insomnia manages a film almost entirely in the grey area thanks to putting Pacino and Williams’s characters on equal footing.
The dramatic irony runneth over in the film — creating a nice sense of dread. But the “why” of it all seems like a question that was never fully answered. What fueled William’s character in the first place? Why was Pacino’s character so easily able to become a monster? Why did Swank ultimately side with falsehoods? It’s almost as if the film finally slipped into deep sleep just when we’d gotten comfortable with the nightmares.
Although it finishes at the bottom, Following gave every indication that Christopher Nolan was a writer/director with a sharp point of view who could weave a complex narrative into a cohesive story — laying the groundwork for a noir film like Memento.
It also signaled how Nolan often draws from his own life experiences to explore deeper principals. In the case of Following, he had been a victim of a burglary himself and used it as a basis to explore the various motivations for kicking in a stranger’s door and rifling through their personal items.
Whereas in another director’s hands, Following would become a case of a priceless item going missing, Nolan instead focuses more on the thrill of doing something wrong than the actual reward.
Now check out how the combination of Scorsese & DiCaprio fared, as we rank the films they’ve worked on together from best to worst.
- Main/Featured Image: Warner Bros.