” You have to be very aware that the audience is extremely ruthless in its demand for newness, novelty and freshness. “
In 2008, Christopher Nolan changed the face of mainstream cinema. His second Batman film, although derivative by nature, was a spectacular phenomenon, not just for Heath Ledger’s astonishing performance. Now comic book movies rule the screens with films planned for the next decade. Almost every successful action movie since has had The Dark Knight’s reckless pacing and dark streak underneath. But it could be said that Nolan would have found similar success without the Batman series as his monumental science-fiction blockbusters explore the unknown and existential in challenging but accessible ways. If he continues the quality of his best work, he’ll deserve to be among the best directors of all-time.
01. Memento (2000)
Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Oscar Nominations: Original Screenplay, Editing
The film that unleashed Nolan out of the gate remains his crowning achievement. Memento breaks storytelling convention by revealing its events in reverse order, one scene at a time, rewarding in repeat viewings to piece the puzzle together. Memento isn’t just about the way the story is put together, it’s a compelling story on its own, but it also holds a unique atmosphere. It’s a noir in broad daylight. Even with such a small budget and scale, Nolan builds an intriguing and authentic world with unusual wit and emotion. It proves that independent cinema can be the best cinema.
02. The Dark Knight (2008)
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Legder, Aaron Eckhart
Oscar Nominations: Supporting Actor (winner), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Makeup, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing (winner), Visual Effects
This is the reason the Academy now has 9 or 10 nominees. Why there wasn’t room among their 5 chosen nominees I don’t know. This is the last piece of event cinema that I fondly remember being beyond excited for. I never watch trailers and I watched this trailer again and again. It was, partially, in mourning for Heath Ledger. I wasn’t particularly a fan, but it’s tragic that a man destined to become the biggest star on the planet was taken before his time. At least he left a legacy. The film itself is one of the most thrilling action movies in contemporary cinema with explosive stunts and whiplash editing. It’s full to the brim with iconic ideas and defies limitation.
03. Inception (2010)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Oscar Nominations: Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography (winner), Art Direction, Sound Mixing (winner), Sound Editing (winner), Visual Effects (winner), Original Score
The Dark Knight made Nolan a household name and Inception proved its value earning over $800 million in the box office. Along with Avatar, Inception paved the way for original science-fiction in mainstream cinema. It’s an incredibly dense film where every second counts to the point of being stretched out as long as possible. Although that’s a blessing and a curse along with with its clunky but necessary exposition, it’s difficult to unclench fists until the credits have finished rolling.
04. The Prestige (2006)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine
Oscar Nominations: Cinematography, Art Direction
Batman Begins opened up what Nolan could do and his first film off the back of the franchise is the magician film The Prestige. He approaches magic with a compelling and mysterious rawness that it deserves, weaving a story of rivals in an unconventional way that matches Memento. What elevates the film besides its immaculate production and intelligent editing is the conviction of the performances. What truly sells the magic is Jackman, Bale and Caine.
05. Batman Begins (2005)
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson
Oscar Nominations: Cinematography
Kicking off the series with a modest start stripping the franchise of its whimsical roots courtesy of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. It’s a very brooding beginning, not necessarily having the energy of other Nolan films but certainly having the atmosphere. Nevertheless, it got audiences hungry for origin stories and this remains unmatched.
06. Following (1998)
Starring: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell
Oscar Nominations: none
Nolan’s feature film debut shows that his roots have never faded. It’s a remarkable film for its budget, but on its own it’s years behind Memento. Still, its plot is engaging if convoluted and it’s by no means amateur. If you’re a fan of Nolan, it’s thoroughly worth watching at only 69 minutes.
07. Insomnia (2002)
Starring: Robin Williams, Al Pacino, Hilary Swank
Oscar Nominations: none
A serviceable crime thriller with a good cast. Doesn’t quite have the spark other Nolan films have but perhaps that was due to a necessary compromise with the studio. It’s a shame it’s not more memorable given the names attached.
08. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway
Oscar Nominations: none
A regrettable disappointment. It’s packed full of misfires and plot holes, never being able to reach the stunning iconography that its predecessor conquered. It feels lifeless, aimless and void of any meaningful tension. Where has the attention to detail gone? Where’s the slick gloss that made The Dark Knight shine? Some enjoy the gritty world of The Dark Knight Rises but it’s not entertaining enough to get passed its flaws. Here’s hoping Interstellar can redeem Nolan, I have confidence that he will.
Doodlebug (1997) – An unforgettable 3 minute short Nolan directed before Following was released. It shows his knack for getting under the skin of a character and showing that through editing and special effects. Essential for fans.
Man Of Steel (2013) – Actually, don’t see Man Of Steel. Zack Snyder is reliably abysmal and help from Nolan as producer did not help. It tries to have the weight of a Nolan film but falls on its chiseled face. Disheartening.