With hype mounting over director Christopher Nolan’s newest film Interstellar I would like to take a little time to rank his filmography up to this point. If you haven’t seen the newest trailer for Interstellar, repent of your ways.
Now I must issue two disclaimers.
- I have not seen Nolan’s movie Insomnia so I will not be including that in my list.
- I do not think that any of Nolan’s films are bad. I just think that some are weaker than others.
I think that I have participated in more debates about this film than any other that I have seen. And it is not because of the stupid argument over whether the top fell or not at the end. Rather, I think that Inception is a comparatively weak film that values spectacle over substance and shows some of Christopher Nolan’s worst traits as a film maker. I must acknowledge first off that this movie looks awesome. Nolan has always been good with creating larger-than-life visceral images in his movies and Inception represents the pinnacle of his talent. So many of the shots are breathtaking in their grandeur, especially when seen in large format. However, Inception uses those big visuals to divert the audience from the simplicity of the story. Really, Inception is just a twist on the heist genre. Yes the dream levels add a bit of sophistication, but they do not make this movie “intellectual” or “mind-twisting” in the slightest. If you had a problem following the dream levels, I am sorry, but you need to go watch more movies. What Nolan does instead is overload the audience with trippy images and pseudo-philosophy to make them feel like they are actually watching a mind-twisting film. You are not. You are watching a simple film disguised as a smart one. As Nolan has gone forward in his film career this has been one of his biggest weakness. Often times he values the spectacle of scenes over the substance of the writing. And can we talk about the ending of this movie? It is hard for me to articulate how much I hate it. Not because I hate open endings (my favorite movies include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Drive and Children of Men) but because it adds nothing to the story. The top spinning was tacked on at the end of the movie so that people could go tell their friends about how “confusing” Inception was while trying to analyze the scene. Whether the top spins or falls adds absolutely nothing to story. Nothing changes in the plot. The meaning of the movie does not change. The character development does not change. The only thing that changed is your perception that you watched an “intellectual” film instead of just a twist on the heist film genre.
The Dark Knight Rises
This is another film where Nolan valued spectacle over substance. Like Inception, the huge special effects shots are used to mask the confusing plot holes that riddle the film. However,The Dark Knight Rises is not as grating as Inception. There are some really cool things in this movie. I really liked seeing Gotham under military occupation. I actually felt that in this movie the citizens of Gotham were under dire threat. I also really liked Bane. Somehow the internet hates him. I have honestly hurt my brain trying to figure out why. Probably because of Honest Trailers. Man.. screw Honest Trailers. Bane is such an interesting bad guy because he was very different from the Joker. While the Joker was a crazed anarchist, Bane seemed to have a plan. He reminded me of the revolutionaries of the mid-20th century, working undercover to undermine what they saw as an unfair government. His constantly mocked voice was also one of my favorite parts of this movie. It was mixed in the front of ever scene, in an almost unreal way. This made Bane seem commanding and powerful, and inhumanly powerful. But why am I ranking this movie so low? Basically for the same reason as Inception. The script of this movie is filled with inconsistencies and nonsensical elements that really take me out of the movie, but are covered up by huge special effect shots. Also, the pacing for the first half of the movie is just terrible, worse than any of Nolan’s other films. So The Dark Knight Rises is good, just not great.
Out of all of Christopher Nolan’s movies, this is the one that changed movies more than any of his other films. When Batman Begins became a smashing success, it showed the movie-going audience that superheroes could be serious and deep characters. They were no longer confined to campy comic book movies, but could become heroes for everybody, beyond just the comic-nerd subculture. Batman Begins gave us a realistic and frightening world, that served as the blueprint for many future superhero movies. Superheroes became serious again. While filming Batman Begins Christopher Nolan was at a phase in his career where he was just starting to figure out how to film big spectacle movies. He was evolving out of the mind-twisting low-budget films of his early career and started having enough money to actually make his vision for his movies come true. But, Nolan still seemed to be well aware that a focused script was the key to the success of his films, so Batman Begins forms an interesting bridge between the two halves of his career. Granted, this film is not perfect. The fight scene camera work is pretty rough and some of the plot devices seem a little ham-fisted, but Batman Begins is still a thoroughly entertaining film.
The Prestige is easily Christopher Nolan’s most underrated film (I would say that this title belongs to The Following but it is such an obscure release that really nobody has seen it). With the success of the Batman movies and Inception, most people tend to forget about The Prestige, which is too bad, because this movie takes all the frustrating cool aspects of Inception and Memento and synthesizes them into a stylish and perplexing film. Unlike Inception, the central mystery of The Prestige does not feel forceful or ham-fisted, but rather sits just under the surface of the film, forcing the audience to go back and re-watch to catch all of the clues. The Prestige also works well as a faux period piece, documenting the fascinating scientific achievements of turn-of-the-century England. It is unfortunate that The Prestige will go down in history as a lesser known footnote of Christopher Nolan’s filmography.
Right before Christopher Nolan became famous, he made Memento, one of the best puzzle films ever made. It is interesting to compare Memento to Inception which was released ten years later. Both seem to be intellectual, mind-bending films, but unlike Inception, Memento actually delivers on its promise of intellectual thrills. The most recognizable feature of this film is the unique way the plot is told. One timeline moves backwards from the end of the story in five-minute intervals. The other timeline moves from the beginning of the story in smaller intervals. Gradually, the unusual condition of our main character is revealed as each timeline converges on the middle of the story. If that does not make much sense, just go watch the movie. However, this creative way of story telling often overshadows the fact that on its own Memento is a perplexing story. Everybody in this story is unreliable, and even after the credits roll, it is anybody’s guess what actually happened. Memento is open to different interpretations, with no real answers. The only reason that I did not put this movie higher on my list is that it is shot in a simple and unoriginal technique and does not pack the same emotional resonance as Christopher Nolan’s other films. Memento is a puzzle, but not an emotionally satisfying one.
I really wish that more people would see this movie. Following was Christopher Nolan’s first movie, back when he was a struggling independent film maker without a real budget. That Nolan was able to pull off so much with so little money is a feat. Following is the story of a writer who acquires the odd habit of following people around. One day he follows the wrong man, Cobb, who is involved with the criminal underworld. Cobb brings the writer (who goes unnamed throughout the film) on a robbery job which sucks the writer into the criminal life. Eventually he gets caught by police and ends up narrating the story. But, the writer is a pathological liar, so can we trust his account of the events that lead to his arrest? Like most of Nolan’s other films, Following is a puzzle. With every narrator unreliable, the audience never knows what is real and what is not. Beyond the fascinating script, Following also makes use of a classy neo-noir style filmed in black and white. Watching the start of Nolan’s career, it is easy to see the immense skill that he possesses as a writer and director. Following is not only one of his best films, but a glimpse into the early career of one of Hollywood’s best directors.
The Dark Knight
This will go down as Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. There is no way that anybody will ever make a better superhero movie than The Dark Knight. With this movie, Nolan took the groundwork that he set in Batman Begins and created a thrilling, nasty, gritty and frightening action movie replete with enough psychological and moral dilemmas to keep even the headiest audience member entertained. The Dark Knight is a story of dichotomies. As Batman and the Joker battle, the audience is faced with two opposite sides of life. Order and chaos. Revenge and redemption. Fear and bravery. Justice and mercy. These themes are all found in The Dark Knight as well the moral grayness that can be expected in such a gothic story. The grayness is really what makes this movie work. Even Batman must fall to less-than-ethical means to fight the Joker, bringing forth an interesting debate about whether ethics apply when fighting danger. The glue that holds the movie together though is Heath Ledger’s The Joker, the best villain to ever appear in a comic book movie. The Dark Knight is the only superhero movie I have ever seen that actually made me fear the villain. The Joker is a joy to watch on-screen even though he is such a twisted and sadistic character. I will be very surprised if Christopher Nolan ever tops The Dark Knight.