6. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Every IMDb user’s favorite movie of all time, “The Dark Knight” is an absolute freight train of pop gravitas. It doesn’t really matter that the script is a lumpy mishmash of isolated character beats, or that Nolan’s symphonic style — his preference for narrative movements rather than acts — results in a superhero epic that has a couple of memorable set pieces but very few actual scenes. It doesn’t really matter that the film’s IMAX-sized action is often incoherently pieced together, or that Nolan’s preference for generic empty spaces zaps the life straight out of Gotham City (no disrespect to Chicago, but this movie has no idea how to shoot it). It doesn’t matter that the Bat surveillance stuff in the last 20 minutes is a total chore, or that Harvey Dent is so inert, his character’s purpose far too transparent for him to ever feel like it actually matters.
But that’s okay — you don’t need to believe in Harvey Dent because “The Dark Knight” so believes in itself. Nolan’s sequel is so much more than the sum of its parts because it’s powered by a nearly peerless degree of conviction. From its gripping first scene to the semi-cliffhanger of its final line, the film blows through Batman’s story as though the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script is convinced that its epic story of symbols has the power to crack the 21st century right open. And, when the film balances the the power of chaos against the perils of compassion, it almost does.
But while “The Dark Knight” is the movie that made Christopher Nolan a household name, a huge chunk of the credit belongs to Heath Ledger. His monumental performance as the Joker doesn’t transcend the superhero genre, but leverages it. Much like how Nolan used superhero tropes to find a home for his natural tendencies, Ledger took full advantage of the wild pathos, unchecked volume, and outsized grandiosity that have always been baked into the genre and leaned into them with Shakespearian relish. Does any modern Hollywood image define today’s world better than the sight of Ledger sticking his head out of a car, his painted cheeks flapping in the wind? Before we all started living in a grim comic book reality with cartoon villains, “The Dark Knight” showed us what it would feel like.
5. “Interstellar” (2014)
“Interstellar” is what happens when one of cinema’s most hardwired rationalists makes a movie about something as undefinable as love. An awed, exploratory sci-fi epic in the vein of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Nolan’s follow-up to his Batman trilogy is an emotionally unchecked deep-dive into the mysteries of the universe. By design, it’s the most openly sentimental thing that Nolan has ever made. Born from the tension between logic and emotion, fact and feeling, “Interstellar” nakedly attempts to reposition love as a Darwinian force, as a survival mechanism, as our species’ best hope for the future. Love is not all you need, the film seems to be saying (the premise underscores the perils of global warming and reminds that any species is only as viable as the planet that sustains them), but we’re pretty fucked without it.
Nolan’s best films each reduce the human brain to a Rubik’s Cube, to a puzzle that can always be solved so long as someone is able to fit everything into its right place, and it was only a matter of time before he tried the same trick with the human heart.
Alternately graceful and clumsy, Nolan’s most ambitious film to date is also his most uneven. “Interstellar” is more than a gamble, more than a moonshot, and so it’s only natural that it represents both the best and the worst of its auteur’s signature approach. He’s never been more arrogant, and he’s never been more vulnerable.
Nolan’s fetish for playing with relative time is on full display, here weaponized for character-driven feeling rather than sheer cinematic force (he may never shoot another scene as openhearted as the one where Coop talks to his adult daughter for the first time). His compulsive need to fit everything together is also more apparent than ever, and more out of place. Love isn’t as clean as this film’s notoriously daft finale makes it seem, it isn’t as much of a closed circuit as Nolan’s cosmic bookcase might have you believe. Paternal failings aren’t as easily forgiven as romantic ones, a fact that’s as true in the movies as it is in real life. But if Nolan’s reach exceeds his grasp and “Interstellar” fumbles its finer points, the sheer scope of its vision and the crystalline majesty of Hans Zimmer’s finest score are enough to forgive that ending. They might even be enough to forgive Matthew McConaughey and Matt Damon’s ridiculously dumb gravity boot fight to the death. Maybe. Probably not.
4. “Inception” (2010)
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture
Sometimes, it seems like Christopher Nolan understands the beauty of magic tricks better than any filmmaker since Orson Welles. He’s a master of misdirection, a genius at gracefully folding any plot into an origami crane of intricate pieces, an expert craftsman of presentation and payoff. His good movies invite you to lean forward and question every inch of their premise, and his great ones eventually go sublime by replacing that curiosity with awe. They make you obsess over how they work until the precise moment that you realize it doesn’t really matter.
On the other hand, sometimes, it seems like Christopher Nolan has absolutely no idea how magic tricks are supposed to work. A magician never reveals his secrets, but in “Inception,” Nolan can’t stop himself from constantly telling you what he’s doing. The ultimate example of the filmmaker’s penchant for take exposition and weaponizing it into drama, this is a movie that spends the vast majority of its running time simply explaining itself to the audience. Even deep in the third act Nolan is still unpacking the finer points of his premise, Ellen Page’s Ariadne riding shotgun the entire time just so she can stand next to Leonardo DiCaprio and make sense of the movie’s collective subconscious. She’s like a human version of Clippy, constantly popping up to tell us things that a better movie should have made self-evident. Remember the post-screening conversations that you had with your friends after this movie? They sounded more like NFL referees trying to make sense of a fumbled play than people comparing their notes about a piece of art.
So what? At his best, Nolan is both a showman and a storyteller, but he’s had some trouble balancing those two things out. More often than not, he’s a filmmaker first and foremost, and all of his narrative gamesmanship — all of his dead wives and steady push-in shots and bombastic Hans Zimmer motifs — are in service of an irreducibly cinematic pleasure. Yes, “Inception” is a forceful drama about guilt and redemption and the power of ideas, but more than anything it’s an elaborate excuse for a hog-wild celebration of what the movies can do, of the special properties that make the medium unique (not incidentally, the film has been interpreted as an elaborate metaphor for the filmmaking process).
Frustrating in pieces but absolutely thrilling on the whole, “Inception” isn’t about anything so much as the pure joy of playing with relative time, of cross-cutting between four different planes of existence, of packing several different genres (heist movies, Bond epics, etc.) into a veritable playground of raw imagination. It’s about the visceral momentum of doing things that can’t be done on the page, on stage, or even on television with its stops and starts — it’s about using the fundamental elements of film grammar to create a coherent whole that sustains itself like a spinning top. More than just the most idiosyncratic blockbuster of the 21st Century, “Inception” is a testament to the incredible power of dreaming with our eyes open.
3. “Memento” (2000)
A non-linear story about a middle-aged white man who desperately needs to crack a code in order to forgive himself for failing a dead woman, “Memento” isn’t a Christopher Nolan movie so much as it’s the Christopher Nolan movie. A wholly brilliant marriage between form and function, the director’s 2000 breakthrough has become the template for the rest of his career. I mean, you could read 1,000 interviews with Nolan and not find a single instance in which he describes his process and obsessions more eloquently than Leonard Shelby self-diagnosed his own delusions:
“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?… Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are.”
“Memento” works so well because its cleverness never interferes with its genius, its structure never gets in the way of its soul. On the contrary, how this movie unfolds is utterly inextricable from what it’s about. For so many contemporary directors, film is just an information delivery service, but for Nolan the medium is indivisible from the message (that might explain why he’s such a celluloid purist, why he’ll probably never switch to TV). The story of Leonard Shelby runs in two directions at once, each scene simultaneously stretching forwards and backwards in time so that what’s already happened is just as exciting as what might happen next.
A simple noir that requires a cipher to unlock, the movie becomes a thrilling meditation on time, memory, and the power of self-deception because it recognizes how every good movie requires us to reckon with all three of those things. It’s a story about the stories we tell ourselves, and Nolan delivers it in a way that requires our participation.
2. “The Prestige” (2006)
“Are you watching closely?”
How badly do you think Christopher Nolan wishes he could begin all of his films by asking audiences that question? He wants you to lean forward, he wants you to engage, he wants you to investigate this shit as thoroughly as he has — there’s no fun in fooling someone who isn’t paying attention. On the other hand, of course, the trick only works if you want to be fooled. And therein lies the magic of “The Prestige,” a movie that requires your participation as much as it does your willingness to take your eye off the bouncing red ball. It’s a masterpiece of misdirection.
A knotted period drama about the blood feud that forms between two dueling magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, both of whom deliver career-best performances by threading the needle between raw pathos and remarkable showmanship), this beautifully mounted film is like a coded look into Nolan’s mind. Characteristically unraveling its story by starting at its deepest layer and then winding its way back to the surface from there, “The Prestige” is a confessional epic about the perils of ambition and the pleasures of fooling ourselves into forgetting what we know to be true.
In other words, it’s essentially the same trick that Nolan pulled in “Memento,” and that he would go on to pull again in “Inception.” “The Prestige” isn’t just the best Christopher Nolan movie, it’s also the most Christopher Nolan movie. What elevates “The Prestige” above the rest, what makes this version of “The Transported Man” superior to the other ones that Nolan has mounted, is that it investigates the illusion more thoroughly than any of his other films, and does so in a way that transmutes its sleight-of-hand shenanigans into the stuff of a genuinely compelling story.
Angier and Borden are rich character hatched from a simple conflict, and their obsessive rivalry — and the milieu in which its set — allows Nolan to broach his favorite subjects more directly than ever. He doesn’t have to spin a zillion plates in the air, he doesn’t have to invert the entire noir genre or spent 150 minutes explaining how dreams work; the world of magic gives him the perfect shortcut to explore the power of illusion. It also gives him the opportunity to cast David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and somehow that’s only like the 10th best thing about this film.
It’s so satisfying because of how it comes together to serve its characters, because of how deeply it internalizes Michael Caine’s greatest pearl of showbiz wisdom: “The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.” A lot of Nolan’s movies feel like the work of a magician; “The Prestige” is the only one that feels like the work of a wizard.
1. “Dunkirk” (2017)
War is banal. War is madness. War offers no reason behind who lives and who dies. Of course Christopher Nolan needed to try and figure out how it works (in hindsight, it’s kind of shocking that he waited this long). With “Dunkirk,” the über-popular director has crafted yet another blunt force exercise that uses ALL-CAPS film language to confuse the borders between time and space, deconstructing the physical world in order to explore the immaterial forces that make it tick. A historical blockbuster may seem like a bold change of pace for him, but it’s still the work of someone who’s part watchmaker and part showman, someone who disassembles each of his stories for the thrill of putting them back together. A virtually bloodless but profoundly unnerving assault on the senses that cleaves closer to Sartre than Spielberg, “Dunkirk” is a stunning work of raw spectacle that searches for order in the midst of chaos. It’s the most contradictory film that Christopher Nolan has ever made, and — not incidentally — also the best.