You’ve read the rest; now read the best. With the release of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s 10th feature film, this is the perfect time for a look back through, and indeed a ranking of his work up until now. He is the most popular director of his generation amongst cinema-goers, with his signature style and frequently flexible timescales applied now to several genres. So fire up the Bat, look over your tats and take a trip through the oeuvre of a true master of movies. Best viewed in IMAX, of course.
10. Following (1998)
It is perhaps unfair to call a director’s first film, with the limited resources and co-talents available to them, their worst. But for Nolan it is both a sign of how far he has taken his abilities, and the earliest evidence of an obsession with tricks and the instability of interpretation. Following is a 70-minute neo-noir snoop through London streets, as an unemployed writer is seduced by the petty crime of Cobb (a name Nolan recycled for his Inception protagonist). Made on weekends with a budget from his own savings – scenes were heavily rehearsed to ensure no more than two takes on any shot – Following is an engaging example to no-budget filmmakers, and exhibits several Nolan traits; a fondness for sharp suits & haircuts, a Hitchcockian directorial style, and a bottom line that nothing you see is to be trusted.
Best moment: Cobb and his naive accomplice break into a flat & open a bottle of wine, but the stakes suddenly skyrocket when the owners return home.
9. Insomnia (2002)
So much of the action in Nolan’s films is going on between the ears of the characters, and conveyed to us by his attention to their changing expressions. Nowhere is this more true than in psychological thriller Insomnia, where a pair of extraordinary performances from Al Pacino and Robin Williams show the director’s ability to make the most of very talented people. Pacino is LAPD detective Will Dormer, an old hand whose deteriorating mind is ill-suited to the long hours and constant light of the Alaskan summer. Like creating a heist where no-one can die or a comic book film with dark colours, having a neo-noir in perpetual daylight is typical of the challenges Nolan conquers to earn the audience’s awe. Williams is his chillingly dry antagonist, a local crime writer with a flair for falsification. An early woodland incident lets the audience in on a secret withheld from all but one character, again showing Nolan’s debt to Hitchcock and his respect for the intelligence of those watching his films. This was his second collaboration with DP Wally Pfister, but the first where the cinematography really begins to contribute to the mood of the picture. The Alaskan evergreens never seemed so forbidding.
Best moment: Dormer’s pursuit of Finch across the wooden logs of the port is a sublime piece of directing; the teasing target seems almost within reach, but never close enough to grasp.
8. The Prestige (2006)
The only Nolan film to feature both David Bowie & a someone also in Cheaper By The Dozen, fifth venture The Prestige is a mystery composed of mysteries; a show of tricks about a show of tricks. A stellar cast is headed by Hugh Jackman & Christian Bale; rival magicians whose mutual attempts at sabotage are also what propel them to greater achievements – and greater danger. The way in which several distractingly snazzy set pieces – the water-tank trick, the ‘Transported Man’, Bowie’s Nikola Tesla lighting up a field – are used to simultaneously hide and propel the central emotional narrative is one that Nolan re-used in the Dark Knight trilogy & Inception. Because for all the deception, there is a depth to these two performers. One is a man of means while the other is poor; one is naturally charming while the other’s smile is literally for show. And both are competing for the same professional and personal territory, in an industry that needs co-operation but also demands stars. It’s set in the fin de siècle theatre world, but could just as easily be about modern Hollywood.
Best moment: The first time we see below the stage is like being let into a secret; Nolan is saying ‘look carefully, because I’m only showing this to you’.
7. Interstellar (2014)
‘We are still pioneers. Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us…our destiny lies above us’. These words, softly intoned by Matthew McConaughey in the first Interstellar trailer, are written through the film like a stick of rock. Ambitious in scale, script, sound & just about everything else, if Interstellar doesn’t quite achieve the stars it shoots for, it most certainly deserves its place in the galaxy of epic cinema. McConaughey’s salt-of-the-Earth everyman is faced with a terrible choice; try to save the planet, or stay with the ones he loves. Nolan has clearly read his existentialists; but while this genre in literature and film is often the territory of small battles in personal circumstances, in Interstellar and then Dunkirk he takes it to the grandest of stages. Hence his remarkable popularity; Interstellar is not dry philosophy, but a sci-fi adventure where the bond between father and daughter is bigger and braver than any planet. Nolan knows this better than anyone; when it comes to blockbusters, it is not spectacle or sentiment that succeed, but both working to augment the other.
Best moment: For all the skyscraper-high waves & black holes, it is the early scenes between McConaughey & the excellent Mackenzie Foy as his daughter that make us care what goes on amongst the stars.
6. Batman Begins (2005)
After the weekend when Comic-Con attracted tens of thousands to San Diego, it is easy to forget that caped crusaders were not always in such good shape. Indeed, when a British director with one low-budget hit was hired to direct the biggest name in the superhero stable, one could’ve been forgiven for expecting Batman to suffer injuries from which even he could not recover. Instead, via his faith in non-linear storytelling and a style that prioritised realism over the camp of previous incarnations, Nolan reinvented the whole genre and laid the foundations for what became one of the most profitable sections of the whole entertainment industry. It all starts with the story; of an orphaned young boy whose anger at injustice fuels his attempt to return home from afar and save his city from a shadowy presence. By foregrounding a reflexive but strong narrative and properly written, brilliantly acted characters, Nolan drew in fans of comics, of movies and of stories alike, and cemented his place in at cinema’s top table. Batman Begins is arthouse as blockbuster, and while subsequent superhero offerings have tended back towards camp and varied in quality, all since owe a debt to this dark beginning.
Best moment: An obvious choice perhaps, but when Liam Neeson’s supercilious Ducard tests Bruce Wayne’s temperament in the temple of the League of Shadows, Nolan established that comic book films could feel exciting and very real at the same time.
5. The Dark Knight (2008)
If you go outside (the horror!) and ask one hundred people their favourite film, I’d vouch you’d get as many responses for this pop-culture monolith as any other single title. It has so much going for it; a constant adrenaline rush that replaces the release of one tension with the increase of another even greater (a structure very potently employed in Dunkirk); a visual style that encapsulates both the immense towers & dingy drains of Gotham; and Hans Zimmer at his very best, tightening the screw from the very first violin note. All this without mentioning the shining light of insanity; Heath Ledger’s nihilistic Joker, who is so confident and compelling a character that you forget he is the creation of a comic book artist. He is not based on a real person. It is unjust that Ledger is the sole recipient of an acting Oscar for a Nolan film; but it certainly right that he received the award. He didn’t just reinvent the character; every moment he has on screen is a unique spark of behavioural study in itself. If Nolan had never made another film, this would’ve been enough for legendary status. As it is, it sits alongside Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Thriller & The Shawshank Redemption as one of the most popular achievements by an art form in the last 100 years.
Best moment: Tough to choose in a film that is a succession of memorable occasions, but the Joker’s introduction to the mob in a dingy kitchen is acting at its very finest. How sad that we have so little of Ledger; how thrilling that what we have is THIS good.
4. Dunkirk (2017)
(SPOILERS!) As the people who remember the two conflicts that dominate the first half of the twentieth century leave us, our understanding of war and its position in culture will change. Remarkably, Dunkirk creates new space in of one of the oldest film genres; war on screen has never been this immediate, nor this desperately existential. Nolan adds a new twist to his reliable manipulation of narrative time; his three plots take place across a week, a day and an hour, and yet in our experience they are simultaneous. The film begins with the isolation of one soldier, his demise looking far more likely than his survival. In the ensuing 106 minutes, Nolan uses his full range of skills to test our faith in humanity, and then to re-affirm it. The tension between the individual and the collective has always been present in his work; Batman sacrifices himself for the good of Gotham, while Cobb chooses to stay in limbo to search for Saito and complete the mission for the others. On the unforgiving, open beaches of northern France, each desperate soldier has survival in mind. By illuminating the diverse acts of heroism that contributed to this remarkable rescue, Nolan turns a historical event into an existential triumph, while never losing sight of the psychological devastation caused by war. As his first historical film it holds a unique place in this list; but its willingness to innovate and faith in the emotional narrative are vintage Nolan.
Best moment: Again spoilers – I’ll go for Fionn Whitehead’s weary soldier covering his head as the bombs move closer. I’d stopped breathing and genuinely expected the world to explode around him. This is mere minutes into the film.
3. Memento (2000)
From Welles to Kurosawa to Coppola and many in-between, filmmakers have played with the conventional linear narrative throughout cinema history. None, though, have so convincingly made their temporal convolutions not just part of the journey but the journey itself, as Nolan does in this wonderfully complex timewarp. No wonder the amnesia-afflicted Leonard Shelby looks confused; as an audience we are constantly under pressure to look in all directions, to take notes and to draw conclusions, just to keep pace with the narrative. Time becomes the whole film; the plot, the dialogue, even the jokes. A family affair that Christopher and his brother (and frequent collaborator) Jonathan worked on for several years, you can try to discern how they came up with the crossed-narrative structure but I warn you, it will make your head hurt. Memento lends itself to post-viewing debates about what exactly is going on; is this a plot hole or a deliberate obstacle? This highlights my favourite element of Nolan’s work, and the one that points to his popularity more than anything. For all the style and playing with time (of which Memento is as representative of as any other film), his films demand that you access them from the off. Make a story simple and sure, people can watch it with half their minds. Make it this intricate, and they HAVE to watch to keep up.
Best moment: When we realise Teddy is not in fact who we have thought, the possibilities of who might be responsible for the death of Leonard’s wife both expand and contract at the same time.
2. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Not all would place the trilogy-closer this high in their lists; like Batman and Commissioner Gordon, I will bear the burden of truth where others cannot. The Dark Knight Rises is the best superhero film I have seen, and one of the best films. I saw it three times in its first week, including an initial IMAX viewing that still causes tremors of excitement when I remember the camera pulsing through the long grass towards a plane, and Bane. From that rush, it draws us back into the world of Gotham, where a Tom Hardy’s ruthless wrecker is all the more dangerous because he can weaponise the fear he creates within the citizens. As in Dunkirk, they are faced with a choice; do what is right for them alone, or do what is right for them together. But they need inspiration; and from his lowest ebb, Christian Bale’s gruff, weary Batman finds reserves of emotion we’ve not seen before to be that hero. Three is very much the magic number here; Nolan’s Batman trilogy is perfectly measured, every moment worthy of its place, right to the very last reveal that the hero we deserve gets the ending he merits. Whenever I have a run of bad film screenings, I think back to how I felt after seeing TDKR for the first time, and my passion is renewed.
Best moment: Not the exploding football field. Not the hit on the stock market. Not even the astonishing, real-footage hijack of a plane IN MID AIR that opens the film (which less stands on the shoulders of The Spy Who Loved Me as tramples on them). The bit in TDKR that always gets me is Bruce Wayne’s sudden return in a snowy underpass, where Hans Zimmer’s score and Catwoman’s disbelieving relief contrive to bring a lump to my throat. Batman is back, just when we needed him.
1. Inception (2010)
Films are the best, right? For anywhere between 90 minutes to three hours, you get to go to a different world, live a different life, touch the experience of someone else and see how much it feels like yours. Nowhere have I seen this process so vividly, compellingly exhibited as in my favourite film, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi heist Inception. It represents how we live our lives; composites of what is inside our heads and what is outside in the world around us. It is a thrilling action film stuffed with Bond-esque chases, stunning set pieces that will go down (or up?) in cinema history and a score so famous it has its own app button. But it is also an emotional tour-de-force; a heart-breaking story of one man’s mission to reconcile his past, to settle a debt he seems not to have caused, and to spend one minute more with his late wife. From the moment the first wave hits the beach, it draws you in and focuses your mind further and further to literally the last second. In one of several times I saw it on the big screen, the audience was held in reverent, rapturous silence as the top continued to spin and the screen cut to black. After a second or two I looked to my right, breaking my gaze for the first time in 148 minutes, to find my gran had fallen asleep.
Best moment: I’m cheating and picking two. My justification? Inception is all about making rules then breaking them. Firstly, Ellen Page’s horror melting into wonder as Paris fruit stalls explode around her. Secondly – well it has to be that ending. There’s a part of me that believes the top is still spinning…maybe it is just in my head…
Christopher Nolan, I love you. Keep making films.
Everyone else, enjoy Dunkirk.