A couple of years ago when we first ran our retrospective of Christopher Nolan‘s films, timed to coincide with the release of “The Dark Knight Rises,” we mentioned how, with the release of his final Batman movie, it felt that Nolan was closing off the first act of his career. “Interstellar,” which opens wide this week, therefore represents the beginning of the next phase, a shot across the bows of Nolan’s franchise-free second act.
Of course, with “Inception” we already had a taste of what an “original” movie (as opposed to one based on a comic book) would look like from the director, even after he was flushed with Batman-related success, cachet and, well, cash. “Inception” was a big, expensive movie, and a risk for Warner Bros. in that it wasn’t based on any pre-existing property and it indicated the level of faith the studio had in Nolan that he got that kind of budget to make a movie about dreams. But it was a risk that paid off financially and creatively, and also marked out the route that Nolan might take once he finished with Bruce Wayne and co.
And indeed “Interstellar” is exactly the kind of big-budget, big-brain type blockbuster that we would have hoped to see him tackle post-Dark Knight trilogy —whether or not he has wholly succeeded in delivering it is up for debate (and of course our own review has caused its own minor storm of controversy, as anything less than positive about Nolan always does). However, different writers have different takes on the film, as you will see in this piece, which features a kinder assessment, if by no means a rave.
Still, it’s instructive to look at “Interstellar” in the context of his other films. Some might find Nolan’s movies humorless (though we’d disagree), or chilly (though we’d disagree), or overly rigid (we’d… mostly disagree), but no one else is making films like his. The filmmaker is taking nine figures of Warner Bros.’ money, pairing it with big ideas and concepts, and making resoundingly entertaining and thought-provoking movies. From back before he was the all-conquering byword for quality blockbuster right up to “Interstellar,” then, here’s our look at Christopher Nolan’s filmography, ranked from worst to best.
9. “Following” (1998)
A writer (Jeremy Theobald) falls under the spell of a stranger, Cobb (Alex Haw, playing a character whose name would return for the protagonist of “Inception“), who breaks into strangers’ houses. The young man follows in his new mentor’s footsteps, only to fall for The Blonde (Lucy Russell), one of his victims, and ends up way over his head. A simple enough premise, but as we’d all come to learn about Christopher Nolan, that simplicity is deceptive. Shot on weekends on a tiny budget (about $6,000) over three or four months, not long after Nolan graduated from University College London (he was only 27 when the film was made), “Following,” a nifty but rough-edged neo-noir, is certainly a victim of its limitations. Nolan served as his own DP and some of the handheld compositions are striking, but it occasionally feels a little amateurish, never coming close to the work Nolan would later do with Wally Pfister. The acting —mostly by non-professionals (lead Jeremy Theobald is now a psychologist, Alex Haw is an architect, with only femme fatale Lucy Russell continuing to act, later leading Eric Rohmer‘s “The Lady And The Duke“)— isn’t the strongest, although partly because Nolan only shot one or two takes to conserve film stock. But the script also showcases much of what would bring Nolan to fame; a fiendishly intricate structure and a taut pace that rattles along all kinds of twists and turns (though, there is arguably one too many) in a leaner-than-lean 70 minutes. It’s a sketch for what would follow, but one that shows the immense promise he held even at such a young age.
8. “Batman Begins” (2005)
“Insomnia” was enough for Warner to feel confident in giving Nolan the keys to their big franchise revival, and the helmer moved swiftly into developing a bold new take on Batman with co-writer David S. Goyer. The film made him the A-lister he is now, and spawned two massive sequels, but it can’t just be us that finds “Batman Begins” in retrospect one of the director’s weakest films. The approach is absolutely something to be lauded; only Nolan could take the premise of man dressed as a bat fighting crime and make it as plausible as possible. And for the first time we had a Batman movie that was actually about Batman, with Christian Bale giving three distinct and excellent performances: Bruce Wayne in private, wounded and still grieving and furious; Bruce Wayne in public, the drunken, irresponsible playboy; and the Batman, a terrifying force of nature. These little choices unquestionably make Bale’s the definitive portrayal of the character, and in Gary Oldman and Michael Caine, he has wonderful support. But Nolan’s still adjusting to his bigger playset, with the action mostly choppy and confusing and the tone is slightly uneven. And while the first two acts are pretty good, Nolan loses the thread in the third, the realistic tone giving way to a hammy Liam Neeson performance (“Excuse me, I have a city to destroy!”— although it should be said that Tom Wilkinson gives him some competition in the scenery chewing), some creaky lines, uneven, misjudged humor (including Gary Oldman acting like Jake Lloyd in “The Phantom Menace“) and some slightly cheap and ill-conceived hallucination scenes (Batman the monster and the Scarecrow’s fire-breathing horse are nice ideas but let down in the execution). The film slows to a crawl every time Katie Holmes is on screen — the actress was reportedly forced on Nolan by the studio, and his disinterest shows. It’s a laudable first effort in mega-budget filmmaking and can be credited with basically launching a whole new way to look at superhero movies, but far, far better things were to come.
7. “Insomnia” (2002)
Praised hugely on release, Nolan’s studio debut has slipped in critical standing over the last decade. Looking back, that’s somewhat unfair —it’s a very strong little thriller with some of the best acting in any of Nolan’s films. But it’s a hard film to truly love, perhaps because for arguably the only time in his career, it feels like a gun-for-hire job, a chance to prove himself with big names and more scope. Nolan had been picked out by Steven Soderbergh —who had raved about “Memento,” helping the film to get a U.S. release— who hired him to direct a remake of the Norwegian thriller of the same name for his Section 8 production company and Warner Bros. Stellan Skarsgård took the role in the original, but here it’s Al Pacino as an LAPD cop sent to Alaska with his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) to help with the enquiry into the death of a 17-year-old girl. Chasing a suspect, Pacino accidentally shoots his partner, who’s just told him that he’s going to testify against him to Internal Affairs, an incident witnessed by the killer (Robin Williams), who blackmails him into helping frame the victim’s boyfriend for his own murder. Nolan handles everything handsomely in an old-fashioned way, but the film sometimes feels a little disengaged, and the screenplay by Hillary Seitz occasionally inches into cop movie cliches. But at the same time, Nolan gives the story a wonderfully creepy atmosphere (again, as with “Memento,” the film takes place entirely in daylight; few filmmakers can make the sun as menacing and bleak as nighttime) and coaxes very strong performances out of his cast. Robin Williams was near-revelatory (this and “One Hour Photo,” released the previous year, remain his best dramatic turns), and it was, until very recently anyway, the last true Pacino turn of greatness, the actor perma-tired and letting a lifetime of sins catch up to him with quiet dignity. It’s a world away from the Shouty Al persona that would largely take over thereafter. So in retrospect, yes, it’s minor Nolan, but it’s still markedly better than 99% of Hollywood procedurals these days.
6. “Interstellar” (2014)
Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” might be the filmmaker’s most frustrating movie. It is at once his most ambitious, his most beautiful and perhaps his most silly. It’s a breathtaking achievement, an immersive tactile experience and yet it possibly reaches beyond its grasp; sometimes leaving you with the simultaneous sensation that you’ve witnessed something emotionally profound, but also maybe a little bit ridiculous. Not quite shrouded in mystery anymore (though we won’t discuss the picture past the first act), “Interstellar” takes place in the near future where a blight has caused a cataclysmic food shortage. The culture of earth has radically changed towards farming and harvesting and all other aspirations have been set aside. When a former astronaut turned farmer (Matthew McConaughey) is recruited by Earth’s most formidable scientists, he has to choose between his family and an interstellar voyage towards a wormhole near Saturn, which could be the planet’s last hope. So “Interstellar” is guts, glory and adventure like “The Right Stuff” mixed with a cerebral mystique, scale and scope that is more like Kubrick‘s grand space odyssey. But while it can aspire to spellblinding awe and wonder in moments, “2001: A Space Odyssey” it is not. “Interstellar” suffers from a pretty clunky screenplay which often spells out its themes awkwardly; some of its on-the-nose lines of dialogue are particularly ungraceful. And while its starry-eyed feeling isn’t as over-pitched as some have suggested, the film’s vague notion that love may be the part of the equation we haven’t accounted for is a little hokey. At some point “Interstellar” takes a quantum leap into the black hole of your suspension of disbelief. Whether you ultimately reject or embrace where the film boldly goes will be up to your subjective experience. “Interstellar” can be experienced like a battle between your optimistic and cynical selves. One hopes you can give yourself over to its grand aims and often rapturous, majestic visuals —and Hans Zimmer’s score might be the MVP of emotional authenticity— but some may find themselves pulled back to the cold reality of logic and skepticism due to the film’s uneven execution. “Interstellar” can be incredibly gorgeous and can engage the mind, the heart and even the soul, but we’d be lying if we didn’t admit the movie buckles under the idealistic weight of its heady and yet sentimental aspirations.
5. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
While the expectations for “Interstellar” have been grand, Nolan had the previous experience of unmatchable hype and fan anticipation with the concluding part of his “Dark Knight” trilogy. But short of delivering a film that could actively cure cancer and feed the starving, he was never really going to be able to meet those expectations, and so “The Dark Knight Rises” is merely a very good film. It feels now like a slight wheeling back on the bleak existentialism of the peerless “The Dark Knight,” delivering more in the way of outright entertainment (Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, for example) but maybe a little less in terms of braininess and coherent philosophy. Still, it’s a fine send-off for a series that redefined the look and feel and ambition of the super-hero genre, the summer blockbuster and the big-budget studio tentpole all in one go. Tom Hardy’s villainous Bane in retrospect seems like a solid adversary/red herring and if his turn didn’t reach the heights of Heath Ledger’s Joker, perhaps that was necessary so that the focus of this final instalment could go back onto Christian Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wayne. In fact, as so often occurs with trilogies, this final film feels perhaps slightly hampered by having to end on a definitively redemptive note, where the second in the series can afford to be that much more ambivalent. But there is still tremendous texture here, from the very topical-feeling 99%-isms (actually the film was more inspired by Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” than contemporary geopolitical events, but that just goes to show you how timeless the theme of class struggle is) to the idea, overtly put forward, that anyone can be a hero, anyone could be Batman. Most fittingly of all, Bale puts in his best-ever Batman/Bruce Wayne, infusing the character with a kind of melancholic aloneness that makes that final moment with Alfred and the Fernet Branca feel even more touching, and surprisingly well-earned. It’s not without its flaws by any means, the plotting often does get in the way of what should be clean, bold throughlines, but as a grace note love letter to a character who made Nolan’s career, and to a vision for a comic book film which simply redefined what the genre could do, it’s a fitting farewell.
4. “The Prestige” (2006)
Nolan’s strangest film by a country mile and probably his most divisive, “The Prestige” was the little passion project that he knocked off as soon as his post- ‘Batman Begins’ profile allowed it and in remarkably short time (filming began in February 2006, and it was in theaters only eight months later). Based on the novel by sci-fi author Christopher Priest, it follows the story of two magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), who become embroiled in a years-long feud after Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) drowns in an accident that Angier holds Borden responsible for. They move on, only crossing paths every so often, and each become famous for a trick which sees them vanish into thin air, but each also holds a terrible secret that will have dreadful consequences. Many found the film (which is glorious-looking, thanks to Pfister’s photography and Nathan Crowley‘s astounding production design) hard to follow, thanks to Nolan’s puzzle-box-like structure, and hard to like, due to two murderous, bitter protagonists. But if you’re concentrating, the director’s storytelling instincts never get you lost (the secret to the mystery is detailed in the opening shot), and to our mind Bale and Jackman each give enough charm and sympathy to their performances that you can feel for both, although Nolan delicately lets your sympathies come down on one side of the fence by the end. And while it’s certainly a film for the brain first and foremost —Nolan uses the world of magic as a metaphor for moviemaking and storytelling in general— it packs an emotional punch, thanks in part to a tremendous performance by Rebecca Hall in her first major film role. A film quite unlike any in recent memory, and one that you suspect only Nolan could have directed, it may nestle in around the halfway point in this ranking, but it should be noted there was a vocal minority who were all for putting “The Prestige,” outlier though it is, in the top spot.
3. “Memento” (2000)
“Following” might have been scrappy, but it was impressive, and long before the film started doing the festival rounds, Nolan had his follow-up ready to go. His producer and then-girlfriend-now-wife Emma Thomas had sold Nolan’s script for “Memento” (based on a short story by his younger brother) to Newmarket Films, and it quickly became a hot property around Hollywood. According to James Mottram‘s “The Sundance Kids,” Brad Pitt was interested in the lead role, with Aaron Eckhart and Thomas Jane also in the running. But it was Guy Pearce, hot off “L.A. Confidential,” who took the part of Leonard Shelby, a man unable to sustain long-term memories on the hunt for the man who caused his injury and killed his wife. It’s in many ways a true successor to “Following,” in the same neo-noir milieu (though this time a gloriously lit California, courtesy of Wally Pfister, in their first collaboration), and with an even more intricate structure; Shelby’s story is told backwards, from his execution of pal Teddy to a beginning/ending that reveals that much of what little he knows about his existence is a lie. It’s an infinitely more confident film than Nolan’s debut, controlled and playful, and the structure (perhaps bar the black-and-white segment, which feels a little too much) is far from a gimmick. It’s a sad and ingenious series of snapshots that drip-feeds the tortuous plot while putting the viewer in Leonard’s disoriented shoes. Pearce is terrific, and “The Matrix” graduates Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano get to show they are far more than sci-fi sidekicks. It might not be as rewatchable as some of his films (and watching it “forwards” as it were, is educational, but rather robs the film of its point), but it’s a pretty astonishing leap up the ladder, and it could be argued that it’s the director’s most complete film to date.
2. “Inception” (2010)
Honestly, until we sat down in the theater, we expected “Inception” to be Nolan’s “Heaven’s Gate” —an expensive indulgent folly, the kind directors all too often fall victim to after being given carte blanche to make whatever they like. But we’d forgotten that Nolan had been working on the screenplay for a decade, and had honed his skills to a greater level than ever before, because “Inception” is an absolute triumph, and the culmination of everything the director’s career until then had been building towards. A deeply personal art film disguised and also working brilliantly as a giant summer blockbuster, it sees Nolan focus in on a bold science-fiction idea: implanting an idea in someone’s mind by entering their dreams. But while many would use that pitch as an excuse for Lynchian imagery up the wazoo, Nolan applies his meticulous attention to detail and rules-setting, creating a clear and satisfying universe that nevertheless has enough texture that it doesn’t become airless. He engages deeply with big concepts; about where ideas come from, about the function of dreams and consciousness, about love, grief and closure. And yet the film is consistently entertaining, a pacy caper film with cracking action sequences (the director finally nailing that side of filmmaking), that also doubles as a brilliantly thought out metaphor for the movie-making process itself. We can see how some can grate against the exposition, although as far as we’re concerned, it’s about as painless as it could be (although it’s a shame that Ellen Page can never just ask the question, “Why don’t you get Michael Caine to bring your kids to you in France?”). And we can see that some might find it hard to identify with Nolan’s rule-bound, organized, sexless dream world, but as we’ve said before, it’s a hugely personal film, and we suspect that this is the way that Nolan’s dreams look. It’s as weird and difficult a film as has ever made $800 million at the box office and remains the most hope-giving example of a big studio investing big bucks in a personal vision in recent memory.
1. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
A sprawling crime saga running two and a half hours and until recently the highest-grossing comic-book movie of all time (since surpassed by “The Avengers“), Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is still arguably the greatest superhero movie ever made. But it’s also not without its flaws. Heath Ledger as the unhinged and unforgettable Joker and the cast elevate the entire thing, removing most traces of suspension of disbelief issues, but even Aaron Eckhart can’t make that Two-Face make-up really work in Nolan’s ultra-realistic world (we spend most of his time on screen worrying what kind of infections he’s going to catch). And if anyone can tell us the narrative reasoning for the faked death of Jim Gordon, we’d be most grateful, because that particular plot thread seems unnecessary, extraneous and poorly executed. All of which just goes to show how much “The Dark Knight” absolutely works when it works —enough for us to even put it above other more narratively satisfying entries in Nolan’s filmography. Thematically “The Dark Knight” is rich, textured stuff, almost a tragic love story between two opposing forces that cannot exist in the same universe without one another, but which seek only each others’ destruction. Moral questions about whether the means justify the ends are posed (still possibly the thorniest real issue that the vigilantism of the Batman character raises), and the political and social implications brought up in its grand finale are just stupendous. And yet this also remains the Joker and Ledger’s show, the late actor playing the nihilistic villain as anarchist on the outside and deviously nefarious on the inside, and as essentially enamoured by Batman. He doesn’t want to kill him, he wants to convince him; the Joker wants to prove to this fellow freak that their methods are essentially one and the same and that the people he protects aren’t worth fighting for. “You’ll see…when the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other,” he cackles. And it’s only by the very slimmest of margins that a rattled Batman and a beleaguered city manage to prove him wrong. Every triumph is tarnished, every defeat of evil by good is rendered in moral shades of gray, every dilemma has real stakes and every decision costs. It’s a brutally beautiful, complex film that even with a rocky third act remains a towering pinnacle if for no other reason than it unlocked hitherto unknown bonus levels in the capacity of a comic book movie to make you think.
–Oli Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez