by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Christopher Nolan is one of, if not the best director to emerge this century. His films exude a confidence that few other directors posses with a manner that he can make huge blockbuster movies with $100 million dollar plus budgets that are based on original ideas with the same confidence and ease that he guided one of the most famous superheroes through a gritty trilogy of films that redefined Hollywood blockbusters for the twenty-first century.
His newest picture Dunkirk is the number one film at the box office. It is a thrilling war movie and has garnered some of the best reviews of Mr. Nolan’s distinguished career thus far. That is saying a lot considering his body of work. Dunkirk is also the tenth theatrically released film directed by Christopher Nolan. What better time than now to reflect and rank his ten feature films from worst to first.
Here are Pan and Slams Top 10 Christopher Nolan Movies:
10. Interstellar (2014)
Interstellar is an overly sentimental melodrama trying hard to duplicate Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey and coming up short in practically every way. In fact, unlike other films directed by Mr. Nolan which usually feel breathtakingly fresh and original, this felt like a tired retread of other (better) science fiction pictures, like a greatest hits compilation of science fiction clichés. A rare hiccup from one of the best directors working today.
9. Following (1998)
A young writer follows strangers in a crowd for inspiration and meets a thief who teaches him about the art of stealing. Following sounds like recipe for a great Hitchcockian thriller and it could have been with its novel black and white cinematography. However, the budget is so small for Mr. Nolan’s debut feature film that it hinders the movie from sweeping the audience up with a compelling narrative. In the end Following just feels like a glorified student film, which in some ways it is.
8. Insomnia (2002)
Christopher Nolan’s first foray in the world of big budget studio filmmaking was Insomnia, the forgotten Nolan film. It came right after his independent breakout film Memento the prior year. From this point on all of the films listed are varying degrees of good to great. Insomnia was a remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller with a big studio budget and a talented cast of Academy Award winners Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. Williams was cleverly cast against type as the devious villain. At the time of its release Insomnia seemed like a great genre film with superb performances. Looking back it seems that Insomnia was just Christopher Nolan getting his feet wet and proving to the world that he was ready to make the jump from independent auteur to being able to direct a big budget film with Hollywood A-listers.
7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
A satisfying conclusion to Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy. The Dark Knight Rises is the film in the series that required the biggest leaps of logic and after the brilliance of his previous entry, it is highly unlikely any film regardless of how great it was, would be doomed to the shadows of the success of The Dark Knight. Still this movie has some inspired moments on its own. Christian Bale finally plays Bruce Wayne as a three dimensional character, the scene where Bane holds stock brokers hostage is a savvy social commentary on the Occupy Wall Street movement and it brings all of the main character arcs full circle in one of the best comic book sagas of all time.
6. The Prestige (2006)
Christian Bale squares off against Hugh Jackman as dueling magicians trying to one up each other in a feud that ends with deadly results. Christian Bale and Michael Caine establish themselves as Christopher Nolan regulars and give stellar performances along with David Bowie as Nicola Tesla and Scarlett Johansson as the one true femme fatale in all of Nolan’s film noir-esque pictures. All his other leading ladies (Carrie Ann Moss, Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway) are striking dark haired brunettes. The Prestige was meant to be just a fun picture between the ultra serious Batman films but it turned out to be one of the best films of 2006 and one of the finest films in the careers of everyone involved. This is what a Christopher Nolan movie looks like when he is just trying to have fun. The audience benefits from his vacation.
5. Batman Begins (2005)
This is why studios are obsessed with prequels and origin stories. It all really started here when Christopher Nolan completely reinvented Batman in a way that was so groundbreaking, entertaining and packed serious dramatic and emotional punches. Batman Begins not only influenced comic book movies to continuously go back to origin stories, other movie franchises jumped on the bandwagon and started to reboot their series’ like James Bond and many of the popular horror franchises. It changed comic book cinema and summer blockbuster movies for the next decade. The only reason it is not as well respected is because it’s sequel The Dark Knight completely blew audiences, critics and box office receipts away. Like The Dark Knight Rises, Batman Begins’ legacy is lost in the cultural phenomenon that The Dark Knight created.
4. Dunkirk (2017)
The jury could still be out on this film since it is less than a week old. But in it’s short life Dunkirk has earned the highest critical praise on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic of any Christopher Nolan movie. It feels like a war film from a previous era the way it is told regarding pacing, violence, and cinematography while simultaneously feeling very much like a movie of 2017 using CGI to enhance the story and not dominate the action. Dunkirk is really about the good in our hearts to do the right thing and help our fellow man when it looks as if all hope is lost. When these soldiers face seemingly impossible and insurmountable odds, civilians with no military training risk their lives to save their fellow man. This is a movie Winston Churchill would be very proud of. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk joins Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Hurt Locker (2009) as one of the best war films this century.
3. Inception (2010)
In some ways this is Christopher Nolan’s masterwork, a psychological thriller on the grandest scale with outstanding special effects. No it is not as riveting as Memento (2001) nor is it as entertaining as The Dark Knight (2008), but Inception is the most pure Nolan movie of his filmography so far. Through all the high tech special effects some great performances emerge especially Leonardo DiCaprio as a man struggling with his own reality and the dreams he inserts himself into. Interstellar, Dunkirk and Inception being the best of them, are the rare mega blockbusters that are not parts of a franchise. They stand on their own and each establish Nolan as one of the best filmmakers of his generation.
2. Memento (2001)
Christopher Nolan has made a career for himself as this centuries Spielberg, but he started from humble independent film roots and Memento was his breakout indie hit. One of the best movies of the new century from the best director to emerge this millenium is a film noir tale with its structure deliberately manipulated backwards and with black and white and color photography, but not as a gimmick. It is used to enhance the character and have the audience feel the way Guy Pearce’s Lenny feels as someone who suffered a traumatic experience and now has no short term memory. Even now, almost twenty years later people can go back and revisit Memento for the 2nd, 3rd, 10th or 20th time and notice something new. If Insomnia flopped and Warner Bros. never gave Nolan the keys to Gotham City, instead of being this eras Spielberg, he could have been another arthouse visionary like Hal Hartley, Richard Linklater or David Lynch. Nine years later Christopher Nolan would take the ideas and themes he used in his independent film Memento to the next level with the big budget Inception successfully transferring his vision for the digital age with some of the best special effects of its time. Both are terrific works of art but Memento and its stark minimalist style triumphs as a film of its time that will last as a modern noir classic for all time.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
One of the very best films of the 21st century, on par with the greatest works of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and William Friedkin. The Dark Knight showed that a film based on a comic book could be every bit as powerful as an Oscar winning epic. The fact this movie did not earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture still conjures up feelings of outrage and injustice. So much so that the following year the Academy changed their rules from the usual 5 Best Picture nominees to 10 for the first time in six decades. The Dark Knight feels more like an action-packed crime drama than it does a superhero movie, even with larger than life characters. It’s influence can be felt on every serious comic book movie that tries to emulate what Nolan was able to capture on film, but none have been able to duplicate. The Dark Knight was a cultural phenomenon that comes once a decade and remains to date Christopher Nolan’s cinematic masterpiece. One of the best films of the 21st century and because of that, it’s influence has been felt already and will continue to inspire filmmakers and audiences for decades to come.