The besties review
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With Tenet (hopefully) on the way, I think now is the perfect time to look back at the career of acclaimed British filmmaker, Christopher Nolan.
Whether you’re a film geek or a casual moviegoer, chances are you’ve seen a Nolan film. His career spans two decades and he is responsible for some of modern cinema’s most successful high-concept originals, as well as one of the most critically acclaimed superhero franchises of all time. His films are best known for their long runtimes, labyrinthine plots, and brooding white male intellectual protagonists (let’s hope Tenet changes that up a bit), but perhaps the most Nolan-y thing about Nolan is his ongoing obsession with time. Nearly all of his films play with time in one way or another, but even the ones that don’t explicitly mess with their own timeline still employ some sort of temporal misdirection intended to trick, and sometimes even confuse, the viewer. Nolan’s obsession with time has, in some ways, become his calling card, and Tenet sure looks like it will continue that legacy.
But before we get into the ranking of Nolan’s ten feature films, I want to give a quick shoutout to two of his readily available short films, Doodlebug and Quay. Doodlebug is a fun little psychological thriller that Nolan made on 16mm while he was in college, and Quay is a short documentary from 2015 about Stephen and Timothy Quay, twin brothers and stop-motion animators who are known for their gothic imagery and use of found objects. Doodlebug is streaming now on The Criterion Channel and you can find Quay on YouTube.
Now, in traditional Nolan fashion, I will start out of order, beginning somewhere towards the end of my list, with Nolan’s first feature film.
Following is easily Christopher Nolan’s smallest movie. It features no stars, no sweeping Hans Zimmer score, and definitely no money. Nolan’s first feature stars Jeremy Theobald as an unemployed writer who begins following strangers on the street in search of inspiration for his novel. The young writer is quickly confronted by one of his “subjects,” a burglar and petty thief named Cobb (no, not Leo from Inception), who takes him under his wing and teaches him the “proper way” to stalk and steal. As you may have guessed, this film plays with time.
Narrated by the writer’s eventual police confession, the film is told non-sequentially through two different timelines, the differences between which are sometimes imperceptible. The whole thing is just over an hour long, but it still requires multiple viewings to fully grasp its narrative arc. The cinematography and shot selection are really great and the amateurish performances add to its homemade, noir aesthetic. The only reason it’s not higher on my list is because, more than anything, Following feels like a jumping-off point for a director who would go on to do so much more.
Coming in just above Following is Nolan’s third feature film and only true “remake”— Insomnia.
Based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, Insomnia is, by all accounts, Nolan’s least-Nolan-y movie. For one thing, it’s the only one of his features he didn’t have a hand in writing. This adaptation of the Norwegian script follows Los Angeles detective Will Dormer (played by Al Pacino) as he travels to Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the murder of a 17-year-old girl. Though the plot isn’t altered much from the original, this version of Insomnia still features some classic Nolan aesthetics— such as the cat-and-mouse struggle between protagonist and antagonist, and the uncomfortably cold and barren landscapes. He even plays with time in this one… kind of. Because the film takes place in Alaska during the summer, there is hardly any darkness at all. This “midnight sun” phenomenon causes Al Pacino’s detective to lie awake all night, contemplating his past mistakes and next moves. Though it’s technically a wonderful film, Insomnia doesn’t truly embody who Nolan is as a filmmaker, which is why it’s only at number seven on my list.
From a remake soaked in sunlight to a reboot rife with darkness, I want to jump down to number ten, the lowest film on my list— Batman Begins.
Batman Begins (2005)
Though not commonly cited as Nolan’s greatest film, or even his greatest Batman film, it’s hard to deny the overwhelming success of Batman Begins from a cultural standpoint. Looking at this movie nearly fifteen years after its release, it’s easy to criticize the film’s clunky plot execution, one-dimensional characters, and familiar origin story roots, but Nolan’s first foray into the superhero landscape is still a strong introduction to a whole new version of Bruce Wayne— and one that changed how superhero movies were perceived by audiences, critics, and filmmakers. The serious tone and more “realistic” execution of Batman Begins was a departure from other superhero movies of the time and its success with comic book fans and movie buffs alike proved to many that superhero films could be both mainstream and artistic. Surely other superhero movies had crossed over into mainstream critical success before this, but franchises like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy still felt more comic book-y than Nolan’s films. The X-Men movies are another prime example of a critically and commercially successful franchise that sometimes took on a more serious tone, though James Mangold’s Logan is the only film in the franchise that really comes close to matching Nolan’s blend of weight and realism.
All that said, the comic book-y backdrop of Batman Begins still feels a bit out of Nolan’s comfort zone, with his next two Batman entries taking on an even more realistic feel. But even though Nolan’s first Batman movie falls at the bottom of my list, its influence is still wildly impressive. Whether pulling from its story structure, style, or themes, filmmakers continue to circle back to Batman Begins, with many flat-out calling it one of the most crucial entries in the superhero genre.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The third and final film in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy also falls towards the bottom of my list, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an engaging movie. The Dark Knight Rises opened in a tough spot, with the benefit and curse of following one of the greatest superhero films ever made. Working to its advantage was the fact that the middle entry in Nolan’s trilogy, the much-admired Dark Knight, was a vast improvement on Batman Begins, developing Bruce’s character and the crime-ridden metropolitan setting past their relatively banal introductions. The Dark Knight Rises coasts off that energy for a while, showing us the ramifications of Harvey’s death, Batman’s banishment, and the introduction of our new menace-in-chief, Bane. Tom Hardy puts in a great performance as the masked maniac, and new characters played by Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt inject some much needed life into Gotham City, but without that Big Heath Energy, the nearly three-hour runtime starts to drag. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a proper closer to a historically successful franchise. It’s got a cool twist, a creepy villain, and a killer third act chase, despite the fact that it felt more like the denouement of the Dark Knight, rather than his rise.
The Dark Knight (2008)
This was his rise.
The Dark Knight was both the Batman movie we needed, and the one we deserved. In some ways, it feels entirely separate from the first and third movies in the trilogy, standing in a class by itself in terms of quality, influence, and cultural appreciation. It could be argued that Batman Begins was the more influential film of the two, but even if that movie did it first, The Dark Knight did it better. But you don’t need this ranking to explain why The Dark Knight is a masterpiece of blockbuster cinema, because you either already knew that, or you’ve had enough ex-boyfriends recite their film bro dissertation on why it’s really The Joker’s movie. I won’t bore you with twice-told arguments about why The Dark Knight is special, but I’ll just reaffirm that it is. In addition to fundamentally changing the Oscars’ Best Picture category following its infamous snub, it also gave us the best supporting actor performance of the decade, from the late Heath Ledger. In some ways, The Dark Knight already feels like an “old movie,” but that’s probably just because its mood and style have already been plagiarized to death— for better and worse.
While Nolan’s Batman movies are among his most beloved works, his high-concept original epics are really where he sets himself apart as a director. So let’s back track a bit and take a look at the rest of the films that make up my top five.
Memento is, in my opinion, Nolan’s first true masterpiece, and the fact that it’s only his second film makes it all the more impressive. Adapted from a short story written by his own brother, Memento takes the non-linear narrative style that Nolan began playing with in Following, and perfects it. The film is told from the perspective of Leonard Shelby, a man with anterograde amnesia who experiences short term memory loss about every ten minutes. The only things guiding Shelby day-to-day are the notes he writes down, the Polaroids he takes, and the tattoos on his body. Nolan takes what could be a generic revenge thriller and tells it through two different timelines— one told in chronological order and shot in black and white, and the other told in reverse chronological order and shot in color. From a storytelling perspective, it’s one of Nolan’s most intricate and exciting time warps. Each time the scene changes, you are thrust back further and further, struggling to ground yourself within the story. It’s really an ingenious way to get the audience into the mind of Shelby and it redefines the idea of the “reveal”— rather than building toward one final explanation, the beginning of every scene acts as its own mystery, as neither you nor the protagonist has any idea what came directly before.
The only difference is that we, as the audience, are able to piece it together slowly. The end of every scene in the reverse timeline gives the set-up for the scene you watched several minutes earlier. It’s a movie that requires your attention and your memory to figure out how it all fits together, and even though you start at the end, you never truly know what’s going to happen.
The number four spot on my list belongs to a film that, to me, represents a kind of return to form for Nolan— 2017’s Dunkirk
From the trailers, it seemed like Dunkirk was destined to be Nolan’s most straightforward film yet— a war epic about the evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Northern France during World War II. But what many did not expect is that Dunkirk is actually yet another Nolan time warp experiment. Told across three different timelines (one hour, one day, and one week), this film distorts the typical war movie formula to show us three different versions of the same event. Though the soldiers on the ground struggle for one week and the fighter pilots in the air only swoop in for one hour, each story is stitched together in a way that never lets you rest. Dunkirk is one of Nolan’s best slow burns, and even though the three perspectives are not happening simultaneously, Nolan cuts between them in a way that always keeps the tension rising. But there is so much more to love about Dunkirk than its obvious structural uniqueness. The practical effects are fantastic, Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is top-notch, and the cast (which features everyone from Tom Hardy to Kenneth Branagh to Harry Styles) is one of Nolan’s best ensembles. Hans Zimmer’s score also contributes a lot to the film’s rising tension to its anxiety-inducing “ticking” motif and use of Shepard tones.
To some, it still may seem like Dunkirk belongs in the lower half of Nolan’s filmography since it doesn’t offer the same mind-blowing theatrics of his other blockbusters, but don’t sleep on this one. Nolan finally got his much deserved Best Director nomination thanks to this film, and there’s a pretty compelling argument that he should’ve won for it too.
The Prestige (2006)
Have you ever watched a movie and felt like it was made only for you? Well, to this day I wonder if Christopher Nolan somehow combed through the recesses of my brain to create The Prestige. And yes, I know that it was based on a novel that was released two years prior to my birth, but the sentiment is still the same. Magicians, doppelgängers, David Bowie— The Prestige has it all. Plus, it’s kind of fitting that Nolan would eventually make a film about magicians, since he’s something of a cinema-gician himself.
The Prestige is a movie about obsession, jealousy, and professional rivalry, as two 19th Century magicians battle to one-up each other in an attempt to create the greatest stage illusion. Hugh Jackman’s performance as the pompous and ostentatious illusionist, Robert Angier, is one of the best of his career, and Christian Bale is expectedly brilliant as his rival, Alfred Borden, a talented lower-class magician with very little stage presence. Michael Caine, David Bowie, Andy Serkis, and Rebecca Hall are all great as members of the supporting cast (though even I can admit that Scarlett Johansson’s turn as Angier’s double-crossing assistant feels a bit off). Still, I find it crazy that The Prestige is not often discussed when it comes to Nolan’s best works. Even after you know the Shyamalan-style twist, The Prestige is addictingly rewatchable, as you work to piece together all of Nolan’s complex plot machinations. Though it doesn’t explicitly play with time in the same way that Memento and Dunkirk do, the film is told through several distinct timelines (some flashback and some present day), making it even harder to piece together all the relevant clues.
My final note on The Prestige is that I think it is one of Nolan’s most emotionally developed and raw films. Though Nolan’s work is often criticized for being cold and emotionless, I find The Prestige to be an incredibly intimate and engaging journey that really gets into the psyche of its two main characters, rather than just focusing on the twisty plot. The core of this film isn’t the plot or structure, it’s the characters and their deep-seated resentment towards each other. I think The Prestige still includes enough of the director’s signature suspense and intrigue to keep the average Nolan fan engaged, but if there’s something unique about this film, it’s the attention Nolan pays to his complex cast of characters.
But if there’s one movie I think best encapsulates how good Christopher Nolan can be, it’s his blockbuster sci-fi masterpiece, Interstellar
Not only is Interstellar my favorite Christopher Nolan movie, I would consider it my favorite movie of the past decade. There is just something about this literal space odyssey that keeps me coming back over and over. Nolan has always excelled at getting great performances from his actors, but everyone in Interstellar is truly at the top of their game. Despite the fact that I am not really a diehard Matthew McConaughey or Anne Hathaway fan, I have to admit that they really carry this movie on their shoulders. Mackenzie Foy is also phenomenal as McConaughey’s daughter Murph, despite her limited screen time. All that said, I don’t think I’m the first one to say that Interstellar is not about its actors. The actors and their performances are the primary vehicle for telling this story, but there is so much other excellence that surrounds them, it’s sort of hard to fathom it all. Firstly, the cinematography and visual effects are magnificent. Nolan’s reluctance to use a lot of CGI led to some of the best practical effects ever to grace the big screen. Through the use of screens, miniatures, and fully-realized sets, Nolan created a wholly tangible experience that is more immersive than any space movie I have ever seen.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Interstellar is its script, which was a collaboration between Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan. The first draft of the script, which was based on an original treatment from producer Lynn Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, took Jonathan Nolan four years to write. He even went so far as to study relativity at Caltech in preparation. Thorne also returned to consult on the film, making sure the space scenes (particularly regarding the black hole) were scientifically accurate, both visually and in the way they were written. But while the scientific accuracy is undoubtedly impressive, it’s not the reason why I think Interstellar is so memorable. For me, it’s all about the emotion.
Though many have criticized the film for its “love is a dimension” line, I consider Interstellar to be Nolan’s most romantic and emotionally competent film. At the heart of the film is the father-daughter relationship between Cooper and Murph, and it’s one of the few on-screen relationships that Nolan has really injected with feeling. More than that, I believe it is one of the few times that Nolan has successfully depicted love on screen. As I mentioned earlier, Nolan is not a filmmaker who is known for being overly sentimental. His films often feel cold and calculated, and even when he tries to add a romantic plotline, it is often regarded as the least compelling aspect of his films. But to me, Interstellar is the film where Nolan proved he does have the capacity to create richly emotional stories. It’s all fine and good to create a jaw-dropping spectacle with big epic action sequences, but a movie that makes you feel can be so much more memorable. Coincidentally, Interstellar really does both. It fits in perfectly with Nolan’s other work, while still offering something different. It even plays with time in a smart and unique way. Using real science, Nolan puts McConaughey and his space crew through their own personal time warp, going so far as to send McConaughey’s character to a place where time can be viewed three-dimensionally. It’s just some more mind-boggling plot maneuvers from the master, but it’s one of those rare films that makes me cry— every. freaking. time.
Hmm, I seem to have forgotten something. Let’s refer to our Nolan checklist
Released between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Inception is likely the most acclaimed of Nolan’s high-concept epics. But for me, it falls right in the middle of my list. Don’t get me wrong, Inception is great, but just because it’s the most Nolan movie, doesn’t mean it’s the best Nolan movie. In fact, I don’t even feel like I have a lot to say about Inception. The reason I waited until now to talk about it is actually because I wrote this part last. This is the movie I was least excited to talk about! It’s got some great action sequences and visual effects, a sturdy ensemble cast, and yet another classic Hans Zimmer score, but I feel that despite its obvious greatness, there is something cold about Inception. It’s one of the few instances where I can actually see where the Nolan-haters are coming from. The plot is often too convoluted for its own good, and the relationship between Cobb and his wife is one of the weakest elements in any Nolan film. Still, I often picture Inception side-by-side with Interstellar, as I think they are the two films that best embody who Nolan is as a filmmaker, and where he is likely to go in the future. He has the capacity to inject some warmth and feeling into these cold and complicated epics, but it’s not always going to be successful. I know there are some Nolan fans who probably wish he would just stick to the action, but I don’t. Nolan already has more than a few masterpieces, but I think his most recent films prove that the best may still be yet to come.