Christopher Nolan’s 11 great films — plus one fur ball
Clockwise from top left: Soldiers await rescue in “Dunkirk,” | Christopher Nolan with “Dunkirk” star Kenneth Branagh | Christian Bale in “The Dark Knight” | Leonard DiCaprio in “Inception” | Matthew McConaughey in “Interstellar” | Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer.”
Christopher Nolan has that rare distinction of being a filmmaker who makes brainy blockbusters that dazzle the mind as much as the eye.
“I think I make films that I would really want to go see. That’s always my jumping-off point,” he once told me. “Really, I think you have to trust those instincts and try to be sincere. Because I believe that audiences are very smart and they smell insincerity a mile away.”
Anyone who has followed Nolan’s career to date will note a fascination with dualities: the lucid vs. forgetful protagonist of “Memento,” the noble vs. ruthless combatants of the “Batman” movies, the dreaming vs. awake mind travellers of “Inception” and the principled bomb maker vs. unscrupulous politicians of “Oppenheimer.”
Nolan hasn’t made a bad movie yet (although I didn’t care much for “Interstellar”). This makes ranking his career output to date — 12 features, including the box-office hit “Oppenheimer” — a difficult task. Here goes anyway, with the caveat that I might someday change my mind about some of these placements:
12. Interstellar (2014)
Even a cool cat like Christopher Nolan can cough up a fur ball — and with this misbegotten sci-fi drama, it’s blockbuster-sized. His cautionary tale about global warming fails to achieve liftoff, unlike the spacecraft that Matthew McConaughey pilots into the cosmos on a desperate quest to find a new home for the inhabitants of a dying Earth. McConaughey’s Cooper, a Midwest farmer and test pilot, is caught not only in the time/space/gravity/love vortex of the film’s multiple dimensions, but also the dizzy inanity of a screenplay that whipsaws between John Steinbeck and Stanley Kubrick.
Fascinating fact: Needing 500 acres of corn for a farm scene, Nolan opted to grow it himself, something he’d learned from producing the Superman movie “Man of Steel.” He later sold it for a tidy profit.
11. Insomnia (2002)
This is the only movie Nolan didn’t primarily write — it’s adapted from a Norwegian psycho thriller of the same name — and there’s a hint of disconnection that’s not found in his other films. Al Pacino plays a sleep-deprived and ethically shaky L.A. police detective sent to a remote Alaskan town to catch the killer of a teenage girl. He’s forced to match wits with a suspect (Robin Williams) who thinks it’s all just a game. Moody in good ways (Wally Pfister’s cinematography excels), distracted in bad ways, “Insomnia” challenges perceptions of guilt and innocence and asks whether a noble end can justify evil means.
Fascinating fact: This is the first of only two films made by Christopher Nolan to get an “R” rating stateside, the other being “Oppenheimer,” released 21 years later.
10. Tenet (2020)
There’s nothing wrong with complicated or even obtuse plots, as long as the filmmaker makes us feel invested enough to want to figure them out. Titled for a code word given to John David Washington’s world-saving spy, “Tenet” certainly succeeds on that score; this is by far Nolan’s most challenging film. I wanted to watch it again as soon as it faded to black, to better understand what I’d just seen and to better ponder the threat of Kenneth Branagh’s clock-bending villain. The film distorts time, space and grey matter in ways reminiscent of Nolan’s earlier mind screws “Inception,” and “Interstellar.” But the Byzantine plots of those films seem like dress rehearsals for this one.
Fascinating fact: To achieve the time flips of the story, cast members had to learn not only how to do stunts backwards but also how to speak in reverse.
9. Inception (2010)
With “Inception,” Nolan boldly reinvents the heist picture, once again rattling the cranium in the process. Leonardo DiCaprio cuts a rakish figure as Dom Cobb, a corporate spy who functions like the Freddy Krueger of the boardroom: he enters the dreams of industry captains and steals their most valuable secrets. It’s a process called “extraction” and, for a price, Cobb can also teach businessmen how to block midnight assaults on their most hidden thoughts. He arrogantly thinks his scam is foolproof. Recalling other reality benders — among them “The Matrix,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Last Year in Marienbad” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” — the demanding “Inception” puzzles and infuriates as many people as it enraptures and enchants.
Fascinating fact: Nolan said one of the film’s dream sequences,
set in a wintry landscape, was inspired by his favourite 007 movie:
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”
8. Following (1998)
Divine in its simplicity, Nolan’s first feature is a mystery thriller he shot on 16 mm B&W film on weekends with friends for the equivalent of $6,000. It concerns the antics of an aspiring young writer, credited as “The Young Man” (Jeremy Theobald), who prowls the streets of London following strangers at random. Seeking inspiration, he gets more than he bargained for when he teams up with a burglar named Cobb (Alex Haw) and starts pursuing “The Blonde” (Lucy Russell), girlfriend of a local gangster. Quite the accomplished feature debut for Nolan; it’s clear his next film, “Memento,” didn’t come out of the blue.
Fascinating fact: “Following” premiered at the 1999 edition of the then-fledgling Slamdance Film Festival, an upstart rival to the bigger Sundance in Park City, Utah.
7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Set eight years after the harrowing events of “The Dark Knight,” fear grips both hero and villain in this concluding chapter of Nolan’s outstanding Batman origin trilogy, which makes for spectacular entertainment and harrowing drama. Anne
Hathaway intrigues and wows as cat burglar Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, as does Joseph Gordon-Levitt, another series
newcomer. But neither imprint themselves on the screen with a force that equals Tom Hardy’s Bane, who ruthlessly seeks to break a depleted and grieving Batman and to rule a comatose Gotham City. Bane is possibly the most vile foe Batman — or any other hero, for that matter — has faced.
Fascinating fact: Tom Hardy took on the role of villainous Bane without reading the script. All he wanted was a lot of stunt training and equipment.
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
Almost Shakespearean in its fascination with good and evil, “The Dark Knight” is that most uncommon of movie sequels: It doesn't just expand a previous storyline, it immeasurably enriches it by adding shadings of character and moral complexity only hinted at before. This is a summer blockbuster that delivers all the essentials — great action scenes, incredible gadgets, and genuinely special effects. Christian Bale deserves applause for skilfully demonstrating the interior guilt of a principled vigilante, as does Heath Ledger, whose incandescent Joker would have garnered awards discussion even without the actor's untimely passing.
Fascinating fact: The failure of this film to get a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars is commonly held to be the reason why the Academy expanded the category’s contenders from five to 10 the following year.
5. Batman Begins (2005)
Many people thought Nolan was crazy for taking on a superhero saga that already had far too many iterations, especially Joel Schumacher's camp travesty “Batman & Robin.” But this first film in what would become “The Dark Knight Trilogy” is as much a salvage job as a celebration of the comic-book legend. Nolan returns to the story's exceedingly dark roots by way of this crackling good prequel, which springs from childhood fears and adult recriminations. With Christian Bale smartly in place as a brooding angel of payback, playing a billionaire playboy who turns costumed vigilante at night, Nolan restores the humanity of the piece. He dwells on motivation and character rather than piling up the action scenes.
Fascinating fact: Irish actor Cillian Murphy auditioned for the dual role of Batman/Bruce Wayne. Nolan didn’t think he was right for it — Murphy played the villainous Scarecrow instead — but a tight connection was forged; Murphy has the title role in Nolan’s new film, “Oppenheimer.”
4. The Prestige (2006)
In this pleasing puzzle of feuding conjurors played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, we are instructed to watch closely, as any good magician would exhort us to do. You might even require a second viewing to take in all the confusing peregrinations and prestidigitations, which must begin with an explanation of the title. As told by Michael Caine's magical mentor Cutter, it refers to the payoff in the third act of a successful magic trick. The movie pulls it off, and there’s a bonus: David Bowie affects an exotic mien and accent as the inventor Nikola Tesla, who schemes inside a Colorado lair. It’s one of the late rocker’s better film roles.
Fascinating fact: There are 146 jump cuts in the film, averaging almost one timeline jump per minute of movie.
3. Memento (2000)
This neo-noir thriller unspools on two parallel tracks: one in chronological black-and-white, the other in disjointed colour.
Revelations rise through the murky subconscious the way images do in the Polaroid pictures shot by Guy Pearce's memorychallenged protagonist. He's out to find out who killed his wife, using a combination of photos, personal tattoos and notes to jog his unsteady mind and keep him on track. He's an untrustworthy narrator assisted by two people (Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss) who may be more than just shifty. A masterpiece of structure, “Memento” turns non-linear narrative into a bold new form that has yet to be matched. The film also succeeds as pure drama, catching us up in the quest by its damaged hunter for personal closure that he may never fully understand.
Fascinating fact: A limited-edition DVD allows the film to be watched in chronological order like a conventional movie. But to access it, you need to answer several skill-testing questions and solve a puzzle.
2. Dunkirk (2017)
“Dunkirk,” Nolan’s Imax-sized telling of a signal drama of the Second World War, is an intense experience of pure cinema. It far exceeds the standard “miracle at Dunkirk” narrative about the 1940 rescue of 340,000 endangered Allied soldiers from the Naziencircled beaches of the French port city. Approaching the immersive qualities of virtual reality, the film at times disorients with its lack of ready screen markers. The sights and sounds of air, sea and land skirmishes, as well as the desperate struggle for survival, achieve maximum impact.
Fascinating fact: Nolan, his wife and a friend made their own crossing of the English Channel on a small boat, thinking it
would be an easy journey. The harrowing trip took 19 hours due to rough waters.
1. Oppenheimer (2023)
Nolan’s newest film is his career magnum opus, at least for the moment. His epic biopic of the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” is a movie like no other, dragging viewers into the collective guilt of history. Cillian Murphy plays Oppenheimer with almost supernatural precision. He embodies the conflicts of a man lionized for violently bringing the Second World War to a close, even while doubting the morality of what he’s doing and fearing a catastrophic future nuclear war. A fabulous supporting cast includes Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, the fire to his ice, and Gary Oldman as U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who speaks the truth about who really has “blood on his hands.”
Fascinating fact: Nolan could have used CGI to recreate the historic Trinity bomb blast, but he chose not do so. His special effects team instead used such old-school materials as gasoline, magnesium and even ping-pong balls to fill cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s IMAX lens. 🌓
(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)